Monday, September 26, 2005

Color Blind

We live in an age of ignorance or bad faith. I can't decide which. George Bush and his disciples say they dream of a color blind society. I accept that, if you drop the word color.

New Orleans showed us the face of poverty. It is a face we are ordinarily blind to. At long last a society that seems to know no shame was shamed, not by the suffering of a third world country but by our own. The proper way to describe such places in America is third world county. Afterward, polls were taken. (Polls must always be taken!) Something like 60% of white Americans said race had nothing to do with the slow response to Katrina. Something like 80% of black Americans said, The hell you say! Can two groups holding such diametrically opposed views possibly be citizens of the same country? In a sense, no. My own view is that if there had been 100,000 white folks stranded in New Orleans, the government would have built the world's largest hurricane-proof gated community in the same time it took them to get bottled water and buses to the Superdome and Convention Center. At the same time, the real crime of Katrina's victims wasn't being black but being poor.

Is our mutual misundertanding a result of ignorance or bad faith? Maybe both. We are ignorant because the poor eke out an existence far below our country's high-flying cultural radar. We are in bad faith because we don't really want to know about it. Understanding would mean coming to terms with the grinding poverty that is a fact of life for too many Americans and accepting the unpleasant truth that economic policies that benefit us hurt them.

I have a simple fix. Repeal the Bush tax cuts in their entirety and replace them with a kind of Earned Income Tax Credit Plus for the working poor. Most poor Americans work. I hate that, and I hate the phrase coined to describe them. The category "working poor" should not exist in a country as rich as ours, but it does and we have to eliminate it, because a family of four earning $14,000 a year isn't living in poverty. It's living in hell. The credit would work like this: every family that works but earns less than the poverty level will receive a credit from the IRS equal to the difference between their salary and the median salary, which was $30,000 the last time I checked. For example, a family of four that earned $14,000 would receive a $16,000 check from the federal government - about a fifth of the average cut millionaires received under the Bush plan - instantly rendering them middle-class. Call it the Poverty Penalty, or if you prefer, the Jesus Credit (see "The last shall be first"). The difference is that this tax penalty is imposed on the society that would leave its working families indigent, rather than on the workers themselves. A bold reversal of historical trends! It may mean fewer yachts for billionaires, but that is a price we can pay! The beauty part is, this tax credit will encourage the unemployed to take any job no matter how low the pay (hell, it encourages workers to invade the service industries, housekeeping, Wal-Mart, etc.) and it will sunset the second the last American worker is lifted out of poverty, either via the credit itself, or more likely through American companies choosing to pre-empt the Penalty by paying their workers a living wage.

One last suggestion. Every year we get a little closer to Brazil, as the distance between rich and poor grows, and as those who govern from on high - at a safe remove from the floodwaters - have less and less in common with the governed, who are in them up to their neck. If we want policy that does the most good for the most people, our public servants should live as most citizens do. In short, we must eliminate that distance that separates those who govern from the governed. The easiest way to do so is to peg the salary of Senators and House members to the minimum wage. When our leaders have to live on the same pay as the majority of our citizens, a miracle may occur. A new Golden Age of enlightened policy will sweep like floodwaters through the corridors of power, and this flood, unlike the one caused by Katrina, can only benefit the citizens of New Orleans (and other third world counties) as they struggle to keep their heads above water.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Bring the Sword, Bring the Pain

Two interesting articles about religion - or more precisely, religious figures - appeared recently in two well-known secular humanist rags:

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.'s essay, "Forgetting Reinhold Niebuhr", in the September 18 New York Times Book Review and Malcolm Gladwell's article "The Cellular Church" in the September 12, 2005 issue of The New Yorker (not available online) about Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback church and author of the bestselling The Purpose-Driven Life.

The articles are by men who, to paraphrase Niebuhr, take religion seriously if not literally. They are respectful and thought-provoking, and I urge you to read them.

One quote from Gladwell's article sticks in my mind. In The Purpose-Driven Life Warren claims that when Jesus was on the cross, his arms stretched to the breaking point by iron spikes driven through his hands, what he was really saying to us was, "I love you this much."

Excuse me while I puke. Noted theologian Sam Kinnison came much closer to the truth when he suggested that what Jesus was really saying was, "AHHHH! AHHHH! AHHHH!"

Warren's sentimentalized view of Christ's suffering borders on the blasphemous. He takes the most powerful symbol of the Christian faith and reduces its meaning to a hug. I don't expect somebody who got his preacher degree via a correspondence course to have the same theological heft as St. Augustine, but Warren's Lord of the Hug metaphor is so offensive and so fucking dumb it beggars the imagination.

But enough about Rick Warren. Let's talk about Jesus. I've been thinking a lot about something he said in Matthew 10:34.

Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword.
For I have come to set a man against his father;
and a daughter against her mother;
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one's foes will be members of one's own household.
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

Jesus obviously never got Warren's memo about "low barriers to entry." I guess they started churches a little differently back in the day. One of the things that confounds and fascinates me about Jesus is that he did everything bassackwards from the point of view of building a popular movement. Take one example: divorce. Jesus tosses the law aside (though he earlier promised not to discard one iota) and says, Screw precedent. Divorce is history. Except for adultery, of course. No man wants a ho for a wife. (I'm paraphrasing.) Jesus makes this pronouncement to the citizens and later directly to the leaders of the ultimate patriarchy. Bobby Brown had his prerogative. One belonging to the men of Jesus' time was to discard a wife pretty much at will. Jesus says NO. Not exactly the best way to make friends and influence Newt Gingrich, as it were.

It also happens to be a strong argument for the importance of women in Jesus' ministry. Combined with Matthew 10:35 (he counts daughters as well as sons among his followers) you can make a solid argument for Jesus as the first feminst. His teaching certainly seems at odds with that of later Church fathers and may even explain the delight so many have taken in the "theology" of Dan Brown's bestselling religious potboiler.

When I read Matthew 10:34 I hear Jesus saying, "My teaching is hard. It's not for everyone. Well, it is for everyone, but everyone won't necessarily like it. Before me there was one way of living. After me, another. Follow me and your own relatives may turn against you, because people will fight tooth and nail not to change their lives." Hence the narrow gate. Today people prefer the supersized gate. Fortunately Jesus didn't conduct a door-to-door focus group before getting started. And while he managed to accumulate just 12 followers at the time of his death (one of whom betrayed him and another who basically said, "Jesus who?") look at the growth in the Jesus industry since! It shows that a durable movement does not, in fact, require low barriers to entry. Movements with the most committed followers tend to the opposite of the Warren model. The popularity of Saddleback does not point to a new Great Awakening. On the contrary, the contemporary churchgoer's preference for Warren's wide gate does not indicate a rebirth of faith but its slow decline.

I want to end on the sword. (No, I'm not suicidal. I mean the one Jesus spoke about.) Schlesinger quotes Niebuhr: "Americans are never safe 'against the temptation of claiming God too simply as the sanctifier of whatever we most fervently desire.'" For me, this is tied to the sword of Christ. I believe the sword is an image Christ used to warn his followers: Accepting me means cleaving yourself in two: there was you before the Word, and there is you after. I am a sword striking at the heart, striking deep inside.

But too many Christians give the verse a different interpretation. In a typically literal - militaristic - reading of scripture, they think the sword can be taken up to smite our enemies. It's the "Team Jesus Sword" sanctifying what we most fervently desire. We are people of the sword; you aren't. We are on Jesus' side; you aren't. What we do is right; what you do is wrong. We will be saved; you will be destroyed.

But can that possibly be the meaning of the man who said, "If anyone strikes you on the right cheek turn the other also." In other words: Whoever lifts a hand to defend himself has already committed murder in his heart. This is a difficult teaching to accept in a time of great insecurity. But hasn't the world always been as insecure as it is today? Hasn't the gate always been as narrow?

Monday, September 19, 2005

Intelligent Design

I know there are more important issues at the moment, but I had a dream about a watch last night. I think it was my subconscious getting mired in the debate over intelligent design.

Intelligent design represents the kind of science once propounded by the Catholic Church (see Galileo). It's science for those afraid of science, afraid that certain facts might force yet another tactical retreat, like the one we all had to make when weather satellites revealed that raindrops were not, in fact, the tears of God.

My scientific training consists of three undergraduate astronomy courses, an anthropology course, and a genetics course. From these I learned there was a good possibility of life existing on other planets and their not contacting us was likely a sign of high intelligence, that our genes have 99% in common with apes but that 1% is the difference between "OOH, OOH, OOH!" and Shakespeare, and that it's highly unlikely my male ancestors had extremely large penises. Apart from that and what I read, I'm a layman. Big time. But as another layman, the late, great Bill Hicks used to say, I've got one word for those who accept the biblical account of creation: DINOSAURS! If all the earth's creatures were created at the same time in their present form, then why doesn't the Bible mention the dinosaurs?

To dinosaurs, I would add another word: carbon dating. OK, that's two words. Polls show nearly half of Americans believe the world was created sometime in the last 6-10,000 years. Most of us have rocks in our yard older than that (especially if you live in the Southwest) and carbon dating proves it. What do the anti-evolutionists believe? That all those finely tuned scientific instruments are part of a wily, reality-based plot? Or that God is using fossils AND rocks to fuck with us? Do they hear the voice of God saying, Who are you gonna believe: Me or your own eyes? Here's a hint: the eyes don't have it. Or else.

Deep down I think Intelligent Design is a movement of faithless, frightened Christians. If you need evolution to be a lie for God to be true, then your God is weak, and your faith is a house of cards. The existence of God will not be proved by denying verifiable facts, no matter how inconvenient. Just ask the Catholic Church. They got burned (or did the burning) to keep dogma's flag flying high above the facts, and it worked, for a few centuries. But in the end faith proved less immune to facts than the Church had hoped, and their influence in Europe collapsed. Before you mention Poland, see Ireland. The church as an intellectual and political force in Europe is dead. People still go to church, yes, but it doesn't influence policy. It barely influences policy here, and no one goes to church more than Americans. Case in point: if Jesus wielded any real political influence you might expect American tax policy to favor the poor, but he doesn't, and it doesn't. I digress. Centuries ago, the Catholic Church forced Galileo to recant, but you can't recant the laws of physics. The Catholic Church has come to terms with that and today accepts the theory of evolution as proven fact. When will evangelicals come around? I'm not holding my breath.

Christians and Conservatives (not always the same thing) have railed against moral relativism for years, yet now they race to prove Nietzsche, its avatar, correct. "There are no facts, only interpretations," the German horse-lover famously asserted. "Precisely!" the theocrats respond. Were they not the ones who insisted, You can have your own opinions but you can't have your own facts! That was then, I guess. This is now. Now you can have your own facts. And if there's a mountain of evidence against you? Don't offer an alternate set of facts. Force people to turn away from the facts we've got, on pain of being called a God hater. The world has turned upside down. Belief is proof. Faith is fact. The poets and post-structuralists must be rolling their graves. What have we wrought?

Yet, this is not your parent's relativism. The relativism of the right is brave and new. It turns out people can't believe anything they want. Not if their belief, their faith, is in the power of human reason, empirical evidence, the scientific method, the effulgent reality of the phenomenal world and the necessity of answering questions on its terms, which would mean accepting that rocks are old, creatures evolve, and George Bush is the WORST PRESIDENT EVER. OK, that last one I just threw in for fun. Such a faith does not exclude God (it didn't for Einstein) but don't tell any of that to the Intelligent Design crowd.

America may be brimming with her own modern-day Galileos, sleepwalking through their days, muttering to themselves, "Yet it turns," cowed not by the Church, but by market forces and a cowardly desire not to rock a boat in which one group seems to control all the ideological ballast.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Good for Business?

Just listening to the Roberts hearings on Fox, and heard what's her name, the dark-haired one with the hawkish face, blurb an upcoming segment as follows: "Would John Roberts on the Supreme Court be good for business?"

Now I know that the networks have to fill the day with audiovisual spooge, and I know that the business of America is business (insofar as it lines the pockets of sundry Bush family friends and retainers) but isn't this the crux of the problem we're facing as a nation?

I don't care if it's Fox News, CNBC, Republican fat cats or inner-city Democrats with an entrepreneurial streak, the question to ask about Roberts isn't whether he'll be good for business, but whether he'll be good for America. Those won't always be the same thing, and we need leaders who understand the difference. There's no question Roberts is extremely intelligent. Watching the hearings for five minutes makes that clear. But world history is full of geniuses who were DEAD WRONG.

Maybe it's a desire for simplicity bordering on the simplistic, but shouldn't the test for our leaders as for our policies be this: What will do the most good for the most people? How hard is that to understand? How hard can it be to implement? For example: does it do more good for more people to repeal the Estate Tax, or to reduce payroll taxes for the middle class? Try it with an issue close to your heart. The answers you come up with may surprise you. Wait, scratch that. They won't surprise you. They'll only suprise your fearless leaders.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Sounding the Alarm

New York is an alarm that works in reverse. You know something is very wrong when the city gets quiet. Today on the subway, although the car I was riding in was chock full of people, it was eerily quiet. No one was talking, or shouting or laughing. No one was threatening to kick somebody's teeth in for looking at them the wrong way. You know, those everyday sounds that let a New Yorker know all is right with the world. Today there was near silence.

Across from me a woman was reading The New York Times. On its cover was a picture of the dead body of a woman floating face down in the floodwaters. You don't see that kind of cover very often. In fact, American papers have shown a shameful discretion in the face of the tragic death and destruction in Iraq. We rarely hear, and never see, the worst of it, but Iraq is far away. Most of the suffering afflicts Iraqis, not Americans. New Orleans is different. It's not them; it's us. Something terrible has happened to us, and maybe because one great city recognizes another, the people of New York had the same hush fall over them as in the days after 9/11.

The scariest day of my life wasn't 9/11 but two days later. I was on 23rd Street between Park and Broadway headed for the N train. It's a busy block. There are usually thousands of people about, taxis, buses. The noise level rises to a low roar. New Yorkers are oblivious to it, though tourists tend to find it unsettling. I come from one of the quietest towns in the world, but even I eventually acclimated and now, unless someone is screaming bloody murder, the decibel level doesn't bother me. That day was different. It was the first that many New Yorkers went back to work, and something about it made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Something was wrong. About halfway down the block it hit me - nobody was talking. Nobody was saying a word. It wasn't quiet; it was SILENT. Even the taxis and buses were hushed. That was when the magnitude of what had happened really hit me. Something so terrible it literally shut New York up.

That's what it sounded like today.