Thursday, November 10, 2016

Healing Voices in the Night

Tuesday night, for the first time since I was a teenager, I went to bed before a presidential race was called and without hearing the expected speeches of concession and victory. By the time I slid beneath the covers, the outcome was all but certain, awaiting only the final stamp of approval from the pollsters, most of whom were already hard at work framing excuses for their monumental failure to accurately project the grizzled anger of the country.

A political junkie for most of my life, I have spent untold hours reading about issues and listening to the candidates and pundits examine them. I have loved the inside stories, the inner workings, the gossip and the strategy of campaigns. Canadian by birth, I saw myself as an outsider looking in (as I chronicled in a recent post), until I became a naturalized citizen in 1965.

I first voted in a presidential election in 1968 and this year marks my thirteenth presidential vote; I cast winning ballots six times and losing ballots seven times. In only one case did I ultimately regret my choice and in no case did I believe that the candidate I opposed would either destroy Western civilization or promote the killing of puppies. Peaceful transitions were made; we licked our wounds and waited for the next cycle.

I approached this election much the same way but quickly began to see that we were in for a slog--an election cycle that began to imitate life itself, interminable debates between insufferable candidates, a 24/7 media frenzy that sopped up anything that would fill airtime, and a new low in civility that should alarm anyone concerned with the political process.

We ended up with two deeply flawed candidates. One was fighting a historically symbolic battle with a sterling resume but with accusations of corruption that cost her the trust of the electorate. The other was the consummate outsider, flaunting traditional values, brutal in his characterization of others, paying his own way from his vast personal resources, and promising change with nothing to offer by way of policy or program except "trust me."

For me, the choice was clear. My abhorrence of one candidate's appeal to the dark underbelly of our country--racism, bigotry, misogyny, and many others--was more than sufficient to nullify my disappointment in the other's mishandling of emails and a questionable interplay between fund-raising and political access.

An ignorance of critical foreign policy issues and a cavalier attitude toward nuclear weapons left me deeply concerned about global stability. I had never experienced an election that featured a candidate so frightening to me and so dangerous for the world. I took solace in believing in my heart and thinking in my head that he could never be elected.

I wrote the previous two paragraphs not to stir emotions or rekindle the political firestorm, but only to explain the depth of feelings that prompt these reflections. I do understand that people of goodwill were deeply committed to the other candidate. I wish it was possible for both sides to engage in a dialogue that might not change minds but would at least help us to understand each other. That seems a bit elusive at the moment, but perhaps it will come another day.

Feeling as I did, one can perhaps imagine how the story that began to crawl across my television screen became a horrifying truth. The impossible was happening, the unelectable was being elected, the so-called carnival barker was to become the leader of the free world.

There was a lot to listen to and learn, but my body was rebelling. I couldn't deflect the fist that kept pounding me in the gut every time the networks announced they had a new projection. And my Parkinson's Disease, which usually behaves when I take my pills, announced it was going to have its way with me this night. It doesn't play well with stress, and it had apparently discerned that I was experiencing a fair measure of that. So here came the tremors and dyskinesia and other annoyances. I wasn't about to let the specter of this frightening moment in history invade my nervous system. I went to bed and slept soundly.

When I awoke, I first reached over to my iPhone to make sure it wasn't just a bad dream. Alas, no. Then I realized I had been processing ideas during the night because new thoughts were swirling within me. The most prevalent one was personal defiance. It went something like this:

"You know what? I'm 69 years old and I don't have to take this. If this is the kind of country you people want, go for it. I've got hundreds of books in my library that I would love to read, while sipping good coffee. I can watch basebalI, which imitates life better than almost anything. I don't know much about music, but I enjoy the haunting beat and unruly experimentation of great jazz. With a few clicks of a key, I can bring the world's finest movies into my living room. I can turn off the news, quit watching Rachel and skip the New York Times daily update. Let the victors reap the spoils and be damned."

As of this moment, that is still sounding like a pretty good plan, But this incessant voice keeps muttering from deep down inside me. It first came in the night and stirred me awake with inelegant phrasings and incomplete sentences. Stuff like this:

-- "pretty cute granddaughters you've got there, Grant"

-- "be gracious, give him a chance to succeed"

-- "coward"

-- "in Missouri, if you don't like today's weather just wait until tomorrow"

-- "all persons are of inestimable worth in the sight of God"

-- "first the Royals, then the Cubs...see, hope can never die"

-- "that peace and justice thing you've talked about all these years--do you really buy into that?"

-- "about those blog posts you put up over the last ten years -- did you believe that stuff?"

-- "you're not so old -- sounds like an excuse"

-- "dream big dreams"

-- "pretty smart granddaughters you've got there, Grant"

I turn in my bed and stare at the ceiling. I am angry and hurt and frightened. Then I hear those soft voices again, over and over, still quiet, but unrelenting.

The sun sneaks through the slats in the blind and begins to draw lines of light across the ceiling. I get up and go get my pills.

It is the dawn of a new day.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

A Canadian Immigrant Ponders the U.S. Election

In the summer of 1959 my mother, sister, grandmother, and I packed all our worldly possessions into a North American Van Lines truck and sent it on its way to Independence, Missouri, USA, where we were moving from our home in a small town near Toronto, Canada.

It took the moving van a month to make it to Missouri, but for our family it was the journey of a lifetime. As we crossed the Windsor/Detroit border, I can still remember pressing my nose against the rear window of the car, watching with complicated feelings as my Canadian homeland disappeared in the distance. We also left behind my father, who had deserted our family because he was unable to control his addiction to alcohol. Gone also was a host of friends and family. I was twelve years old.

It's a lonely job patrolling the
US/Canada border. No walls are planned.
I was an alien, and I had a green card to prove it. I was in a strange land where my classmates thought Canadians lived in igloos, hockey was played on a horse, and a Chesterfield was a cigarette instead of a divan.

But before long I was assimilated. It was easier for our family than some immigrants. This was a time before Canada became a bilingual nation, and it could be reasonably argued that Canadians speak the same language as Americans. Mostly, eh?

Over the years as I adapted to a new country, I learned some things. One might call them takeaways.

I found it a bit disconcerting to discover that few Americans knew anything about Canadian history or culture, whereas I had been schooled about our neighbors to the south. Many Americans couldn't find Canada on a map, and were surprised to discover that it was considerably larger than the U.S., although admittedly a lot of that land is frozen tundra. A takeaway: American exceptionalism sets a nice framework for patriotic speeches, but it might be helpful if we understood more about the rest of the world, especially if one aspires to lead the nation.

Even at that tender age in Canada, I remember being interested in politics. I figured all I had to do was exchange names like Lester Pearson and John Diefenbaker for those of Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. It turned out to be a bit more complicated than that. There are various forms of democracies--a parliamentary system is different than a republic. A takeaway: There are different ways of governing, and we can learn from many of them,

In an eighth-grade social studies class, I recall having to debate another student about a proposal in the 1960 election having to do with farm subsidies. I knew little about the issues of that election, let alone anything to do with farming. But debate it I did. A takeaway: It was perhaps my first inkling that maybe some aspirants to public office don't know what they're talking about.

In those days there was a pretty clear pathway to citizenship. I had to live in the country for five years, take a test to prove that I understood the basic principles of the Constitution, and repeat an oath denouncing any allegiance I might have to my country of origin and swearing my absolute fealty to the United States of America. In 1965 I went with my mother and sister to a courtroom in Kansas City and there we participated with 20 or 30 others in a ceremony that would make us citizens of this land. The judge picked me out of the group to lead the pledge of allegiance. I gulped and hesitatingly started it with "I pledge allegiance to...", hoping that others would cover for me if I couldn't remember the words all the way to the end. They did, and I was an alien no more. A takeaway: Maybe native born Americans should take a test to prove they understand the Constitution too.

The 1968 DNC Convention took place as much in the streets
as in the hall. Politics were changed as a result.
My interest in politics piddled along throughout high school and college until it came to full bloom in the contentious election of 1968, my senior year in college and the first time I was eligible to vote in a presidential election. Despite attending a small, midwestern, church-sponsored college, I  had relatively liberal views, opposing the War in Vietnam, supporting equality for all regardless of race or gender. During the 1968 Democratic National Convention, I favored the long-haired, anti-War demonstrators in the streets over the establishment candidates in the hall trying to thwart the followers of Eugene McCarthy and the inheritors of Robert F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated just a matter of weeks before.

In November that year, partly in a fit of pique over the Democratic Party's handling of the anti-War movement, and partly in a blush of naïveté that convinced me I could trust Richard Nixon when he said he had a secret plan to end the war, I cast my first presidential vote for Nixon. I have been in a state of perpetual penance ever since. But I did get an important takeaway: Don't trust politicians, or at least be wary; trust the process, but keep your eyes open.

Four years later I embraced the quixotic campaign of peace activist George McGovern, only to find it dashed to pieces on the rocks of political reality, winning only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. I was devastated. The takeaway: Follow your dreams, but protect your heart.

In the years that followed, I learned how to be an American. It was kind of like being a Canadian with some nuances of difference. Canadians often sing an appeal that God would save their Queen, whereas Americans sang the hope that their flag would continue to wave.

The U.S. military is a far more powerful presence in the world than Canada's, and is often called upon to protect allied nations from hostile invasions. Canadian forces were less likely to do so, although my father had served in the Canadian army during World War II. However, Canada played a formidable role in the creation of NATO, arguably the most significant treaty of the 20th Century; it is still providing a security safety net for widely disparate nations of the Western world. The takeaway: Embrace our differences, respect those who look, speak, and pray in diverse ways, for we have much to learn from one another.

In the past 40 years the American political landscape has experienced a staggering litany of notable, sometimes earthshaking, events such as these, to name only a few:

  • Nixon's resignation amidst a scandal defined by corruption and cover-up
  • An American election handcuffed by hostages in Iran
  • The rise of an aging but charismatic movie star to become one of the most beloved American presidents
  • A young and effective politician overcoming an impeachment scandal arising from his personal life
  • A pivotal election turning on "hanging chads" from a recount of Florida ballots, ultimately decided by a deeply divided Supreme Court
  • Terrorists killing thousands on 9/11 and defining a presidency, first by widely supported retaliation and then by profound questions about flawed intelligence that led to an unpopular war in Iraq
  • The hope-filled election of the first African American president, unexpectedly stirring racial and cultural wars and Congressional gridlock
  • A 2016 presidential primary that featured the nomination of potentially the first woman to serve as president, a populist revolt from the left, and a 17 candidate GOP field from the right that resulted in the nomination of the most divisive candidate in over a century
The takeaway: The incredible vitality and pluralism of American society is its blessing and its curse, giving rise to our highest aspirations even while stirring the basest forces of hate and ignorance.

All of that and more is on my mind as this Canadian-born, U.S. naturalized, citizen reflects on the American election of 2016. I have voted for 12 presidents, six times with the winning side and six times with the losing side. Some of those elections brought me deep feelings of despair and others literally brought tears of joy to my eyes. I have no doubt that one of those emotions--despair or joy--will burrow into my soul when the ballots are counted and the network projections fill my television screen on November 8, 2016.

I think the takeaways from my modest immigrant journey will continue to inform me, even in this campaign the pundits declare is like no other. There are principles suggested by those takeaways that use words like respect, diversity, humility, constitution, strength, aspiration, vitality, global, process, governance, and trust. They are the words that this Canadian immigrant seized on as he grew from a twelve-year-old boy to a 69-year-old senior, still making his way as an American from Canada. Here are a few musings unpacked from the story of this election, filtered through my life as an immigrant, and contrasted with the American narrative.

When I heard the word "immigrant" I never thought of it as applying to me, until now. Something has happened in this election cycle that has recast a word previously attached to the Statue of Liberty and the admirable notion of "melting pot," and has turned it into something vile and threatening. We have lost sight of the fact that "country of origin" is an accident of birth, not an earned privilege. That is the reason why America has been so generous in welcoming those who have come in search of a better life. I am not suffering any indignities for having migrated here as a young lad, but I am more conscious these days of not being a natural born citizen, as if that somehow makes me a lesser being. Silly, I know. But still.

Trust is the primary currency we can use to make the American political system work; both parties have squandered much of their collateral in this election.
 I don't appreciate Secretary Clinton parsing her words around accusations of improper use of an email server. Neither do I accept the Democratic National Committee rigging the system to minimize Bernie Sanders' chances of winning the nomination. These missteps are matched by Trump's fury of lies over his business practices and ethical shortcomings. It has left us with two of the most unpopular candidates in history heading the two national tickets. This disillusionment means that many votes will be squandered rather than treasured, an ominous failing that risks the very stability of the country.

The glass ceiling is already shattered; we're just cleaning up the shards. I don't mean to minimize Hillary Clinton's historic campaign to become the first female president. I also want that barrier down so that my granddaughters won't ever have to think about it. But the truth is that the United States is a bit late to the game. Margaret Thatcher was prime minister of the UK during the Reagan era. A recent study conducted by the World Economic Forum shows that 63 of 142 nations surveyed have had a female head of state--not great, but notable. When I listen to Hillary Clinton I don't even think about her becoming the first woman to serve as president; I think about what she is saying. That's a good thing. Let's quit crowing so much and just get it done.

The Constitution is neither a list of suggestions nor a cultural straitjacket, but a living document ingeniously written to define foundational principles in a changing world. Sometimes it feels like immigrants understand that idea more clearly than many native born Americans who don't ever have to take an oath to uphold the Constitution. The most memorable moment of either convention was when Khizr Khan, the Muslim father of an American soldier who died in Iraq, reached into his pocket and pulled out his own copy of the Constitution, offering it to Donald Trump. The cavalier attitude of Trump toward the equal protection clause and the religious freedom clause is chilling. It's been over 50 years, but I'm pretty sure I had to understand both of those principles when I took the quiz before I lifted my hand to recite the oath of allegiance.

Political correctness is not the opposite of civility, nor does its rejection mean that one can say anything about anyone with impunity. The idea of political correctness came into the vernacular when advocates of social change began to demand a precision of language around those changes. Words are important, but sometimes it got silly. Now it has swung too far the other direction and common courtesies and normal respect are being labeled as political correctness. It is not a question of freedom of speech; the right to do something does not require one to do it. This is particularly true of those who would lead us, and whose words become a model for discourse in our society. Shame on those who mock and deride others and use rejection of political correctness as their cover.

Declaring we're the greatest nation in the world requires that we understand and respect the world with which we compare ourselves. As I mentioned previously, I was troubled by how little Americans knew about their neighbor to the north, in contrast to what I knew about my neighbor to the south. But there is a difference between childhood innocence and adult ignorance. This election is being characterized as featuring the "most qualified candidate to ever run for president" (perhaps some hyperbole there, but refers to Clinton) and "the least prepared candidate to be commander in chief" (refers to Trump, largely on his claim that his own brain is his primary consultant on foreign policy). Ignorance is becoming increasingly dangerous in a world where subtle differences between cultural or religious groups have life or death consequences. And here's the biggest danger of all: When citizens start letting demagogues do their thinking they relinquish the power of "We the people," the very cornerstone of American democracy.

An adopted child is often reminded that he or she was chosen to be a part of this family, unlike those who were born into it. As an adopted citizen, I have had to learn how to be an American while still valuing my Canadian heritage. I have taken this seriously, studying American history and culture, raising our two sons to respect their country and the blessings it provides.

This election leaves me swirling in discontent and apprehension, different from any previous balloting I have experienced, even those in which I was deeply invested. I think of it as not so much an election of ideas as an election of soul. I don't mean that in a specifically religious sense, but in a human sense. If we allow unprincipled politicians to gain power through divisiveness, ignorance, and hate, our country will be diminished and our place in the world will decline in measurable ways.

It may seem strange coming from a Canadian immigrant, but it is really about patriotism--love of country, respect for each other, generosity of spirit, and a vision of hope.

America, wherever our birthplace, whatever our faith, let's do it together, eh?

Friday, June 10, 2016

On Minutes, Stories, and Grandchildren

Readers of this blog will know that I previously served for 33 years as a denominational officer of the Community of Christ, eight years as its president. In retirement, I have written this blog with only occasional reference to the church and its issues, preferring to reflect on other things. This post is an exception.

The church's World Conference is underway in Independence, Missouri. My friend and colleague, Richard Howard, Church Historian Emeritus, posted on Facebook a comment on a seemingly minor matter of procedure. Dick found it to be significant, as do I. After reflecting on it, I decided to post some reflections on it here and invite anyone on Facebook interested in the issue to pop over here and make a comment.

What follows is Dick's original post and my reflections on it.
Richard Howard: Not able to attend legislative sessions of the 2016 World Conference of Community of Christ, I am reading with interest the daily Bulletins. My largest interest is in reading the minutes of each previous day's deliberations (just as I had done for every World Conference since my first in 1954). Surprise--no minutes! Just a paragraph or two summarizing a few highlights.
I learn now that compiling the minutes each day for the next is too daunting a task, given the available time. Things (but not the number of hours) have really changed since pre-computer days. I had no idea that computers, electronic files transmission, and the technology enabling oral language-to-text "translation" eventually would slow the minutes production process so much! There's nothing quite like technological miracles--in reverse! "-)

Out of respect for church leadership, and particularly in view of my previous responsibilities with the church, I rarely make any public comment about issues of controversy at World Conference or any other time. Those who carry the burden of leading have enough on their plate without having to hear from me about what I might have done differently. My effort is to support church leadership in their onerous task, and I do.

Forgive me if I make a brief exception and weigh in on behalf of Dick’s post about the handling of World Conference minutes. I do so not so much as a former member of the First Presidency, but as a former staff executive in the History Department for ten years and then as World Church Secretary for a decade, in which role I had the responsibility of preparing the minutes each day of World Conference.

There are only a few of us around who understand the daunting task of working deep into the night so as to publish a comprehensive and accurate record of conference business by 6am the next morning. Then, of course, we awaited the verdict of the handful of eagle-eyed delegates who read every word and jumped to their feet to correct the spelling of a name or point out a dangling participle. But it was worth it, because the conference bulletins had a detailed record of what was done each day and, more importantly, that record is available in the conference materials for all time.

I understand that budget reductions mean staff reductions and that priority decisions have to be made. I would point out that for many conferences the Church Secretary had the assistance of skilled stenographers and court reporters who volunteered their time in recognition of the importance of this function.

I have enjoyed reading the summaries that have been prepared this week and I realize they are more entertaining than minutes. I have chuckled at several of the observations made by their author. They are a wonderful addition, but not an adequate replacement.

I fear that we are losing the voices that continually remind us of the importance of having a record of our journey as a people. The church history offices are shuttered, for the first time since 1831 we are without a Church Historian, and I understand the Library-Archives which we proudly opened to all scholars and students is now available only upon request and official approval.

We robustly sing, “I love to tell the story,” and proudly declare “We’ve a story to tell to the nations.” I agree. On Sunday, I sat in the Conference Chamber and watched my granddaughter receive her first communion. Tears welled up in my eyes as I thought about how urgently I wanted her to know the story of this beloved people so important to me and my family for six generations.

But stories can only be told if they are remembered. And they can only be remembered if they are recorded. My granddaughter’s name is Ashley. Please help me make sure that she and her sister know “the old, old story of Jesus and his love."

If you think that doesn’t have anything to do with conference minutes, please think more deeply. It does.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Justice and the Unjust

Is there any chance that the presidential candidates who are lauding the judicial legacy of Justice Antonin Scalia might also learn from his style and temperament?

Now I need to be clear and state unequivocally that I am no fan of Scalia's legal philosophy, and I believe that many of his decisions have been damaging to the country.

But as I watched the Republican debate last night, coming just a few hours after the announcement of Scalia's death, I was struck by the horrible contrast between the whining, backbiting, inelegant, and completely shameful performances of those who would be president, and he whose death was being measured as much by the person he was as the views he held. To be honest, I didn't really know that side of Scalia and have to confess that my immediate reaction upon hearing of his death was one of satisfaction that this ultra-conservative voice would no longer be a block to issues I cared about.

But the more I reflected upon it, the more I thought that sometimes style can be just as important as substance, and may even be a pathway to achieving one's goals and fulfilling one's hopes. There is a long-standing American principle, and perhaps a larger human principle, suggesting that one does not have to make enemies of those who hold differing philosophical, religious, or political views. It appears that Justice Scalia was one who shared that perspective.

Justice Ruth Ginsburg, arguably the most liberal justice on the Supreme Court, is one of Scalia's closest friends. While he was the most intellectually rigorous conservative voice on the Court, he is also known for constantly seeking new insights, This can be illustrated by his role in transforming the importance of oral arguments.

Prior to Scalia coming on the Court, justices rarely asked more than a few questions and were mostly silent during Court hearings. Scalia changed all that, peppering the lawyers appearing before him with many questions in an effort to explore the legal boundaries and learn something. And most importantly, the warmth of his personality, his sense of humor, and his love of life injected a human element into his decisions and his relationships. Reading and watching television tributes about him has changed my view of the man, although not my view of his jurisprudence.

But like everything, there is a context, and it was the setting of last night's debacle in South Carolina that stirred these thoughts. Like a masochist, I feel that I'm tethered to these debates, unable to shake the notion that I must keep watching, no matter how painful it is. Last night was horrible on many levels, not just for the unseemly jousting over Scalia's replacement before many people had even heard of his death.

This country is in need of political debates worthy of the name, not the train wrecks we see in the Republican debates, and increasingly in the Democratic ones as well. The arguments are often demeaning, replete with name-calling, and accusations that opponents are liars. But rarely are these tactics constructive or informative. These politicians seem unable to prevent themselves from uttering outbursts that are immediately destined to become soundbites for hundreds, if not thousands, of replays on the 24/7 media. To the casual observer and to the international community, this is what our country is all about. Perhaps they are right.

How grand it would have been if one message emanating from the death of a doctrinaire but widely respected Supreme Court justice, sometimes acerbic but often playful, willing to befriend those he opposed, would have been to see those values embraced in that debate. Within sixty seconds it was obvious that such was not to be. Instead, we got children playing in the sandbox and arguing over a pale of water and a plastic shovel.

At the beginning of the debate, the moderators asked everyone to pause for a moment of silence in honor of Justice Scalia. The best thing that could have happened for the late justice and his family, for the candidates on the stage, and indeed for the entire country, would have been for that moment of silence to have extended the entire two hours.