10 November 2004

The Great Divide: Seeking to Understand Republican Values

The following post-election musings do not quite constitute a coherent essay -- and in them I may stand rightly accused of judging others -- but this the best I can offer in this particular moment. . .

The Great Divide: Seeking to Understand Republican Values (November 2004)

"Never let Moral Values get in the way of doing the right thing."
-- Nathaniel Sheppard, 15 (my step-son)

Many of us who worked (or even just hoped) for a Democratic victory in the presidential election were left wondering how 51% of the electorate could demonstrate such a lack of "common sense." Considering how well our concerns had been publicized prior to the election -- in movies, books, articles and interviews -- it seemed only too obvious that the Bush administration was working against the interests of the majority of Americans. Between his policies favoring the rich, destroying the environment, wasting U.S. as well as Iraqi lives, alienating the international community, charging up a record deficit on our children's credit card, cutting social programs for the neediest and sending their jobs abroad, or his denial of scientific and sociologic facts, one might well have reasoned that only the wealthiest 1% would find cause to re-elect the President.

Whatever we may have felt about John Kerry, his record of achievement far outstripped that of a C-student who obtained all his political and business connections through his family -- whose resume, in the real world, may not have gotten him hired outside of the Service Sector. Surely by Election Day more people would start realizing that a bull-headed U.S. foreign policy was decreasing our security at home? Or that the Administration is bent on replacing our democracy with monarchy? Or that basing crucial decisions on naive gut feelings without being bothered to read even one-page staff-prepared memos is no way to run the most powerful nation on earth? How could the Democrats fail to have it in the bag?

As we have since discovered, arguments that speak to the head could not match the Republican campaign's ability to circumvent the intellect. The success of effective marketing and packaging is measured by how many consumers buy the product without reading the its "Nutritional Facts" label.

I'm left pondering if those who vote Republican hold such different 'values' from my own, or if they just prioritize them differently. Republican voters I know are doers. When your car slides into a snow drift, one of them stops by and hauls you out with his pick-up. They organize soup kitchens, they build community playgrounds, they teach you how to fix something and even loan you the tools. They want to help, they want to serve. They don't want to get bogged down debating pros and cons; they want to get things done -- simply and in short sentences. While we all may value loyalty -- to family line and attitudes, to ball teams, to church and country -- many Republican voters also seem to have taken a "my country (or my President), right or wrong" oath.

Many of us feel strongly the need to belong to something -- perhaps an instinct dating from periods when one's survival depended on membership to a clan or tribe. We long in our hearts for others accept and protect us like family, often seeking the sense of family in institutions or organizations. From time to time, we are all tested as to whether we will abandon what seems right for the sake of belonging to a particular group or institution. As children, we witnessed and were subject to disrespectful behavior that we did not challenge because we wanted someone to like us, to include us in his/her circle. Our obedience may have been rewarded with camaraderie along with promise of protection. "When you're a Jet. . . you got brothers around you're a family man." As we matured, and developed more self-esteem, we could choose better friends. This test continues through adult life every time we are expected to rally around a mutual hatred or fear of something or someone.

The clan mentality is found in the corporate world and in seminaries alike: Either you're with us or against us. Bush plays this card skillfully. When, in the debates, Kerry had just finished thoughtfully answering the question about reconciling his Catholic faith with his pro-choice position, Bush retorted dismissively, "I don't get what he just said, do you?" In other words: If you're cool enough to be in my fraternity, you won't pay any attention to someone who thinks too much and can't answer with a yes or a no. Certain Administration staff have confirmed that Bush routinely addresses his aids by belittling nicknames he has chosen for each. This style of one exerting power over another is so pervasive that -- until we develop a certain degree of self-respect -- most of us are drawn indiscriminately into this familiar dynamic.

All acknowledge that religious faith played a large role in the election -- those who attend church regularly being far more likely to vote Republican. As a Music Minister -- who naturally attends church every Sunday -- I feel understandably misrepresented by this finding. Apparently I get something very different from the Bible and my participation in worship than do the Evangelicals, Fundamentalists or even many fellow Catholics.

As a child I needed a simplified version of what I now know to be psychologically and spiritually intricate. My understandings of "good" and "evil" resulted mostly from what I saw on TV or at the movies -- the U.S. always being portrayed as "good." It was not until well into adulthood -- after significant gains in my ongoing emotional and spiritual development -- that I began to consider myself a follower of Christ and could properly be dubbed a Christian. My childhood notions of "sin" or "evil" have been updated through deeper understanding of human and divine nature. This development of my faith depended on my taking the Bible less literally rather than more. (While it is clear to me that God created Heaven and Earth, it also appears that He likely needed to create Evolution to accomplish His ends).

In his swing-state concert tour, Bruce Springsteen defined the following "American Values":
The human principles of economic justice, healing the sick, health care, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, a living wage so folks don't have to break their backs and then come home and not be able to make ends meet, an open American government that's unburdened by unnecessary secrecy, protection of our environment, a sane and responsible foreign policy where we take our place amongst a community of nations, civil rights and the safeguarding of our precious Democracy here at home.
Working for these values requires a certain amount of altruism. I believe that it is the inherent nature of all human beings, once their spiritual and emotional needs are met, to be altruistic. The problem lies in the fact that the majority of Americans, regardless of income level, are struggling through life to get these needs met. We are hindered by addictions (substantive and behavioral), a materialistic and isolating culture, and all the other forms our unhealed hurts take -- such as obsession with what goes on in other people's bedrooms.

As psychologists have noted, the only emotional need greater than that of receiving (unconditional) love is the opportunity to give (unconditional) love. When hurts remain unhealed, however, Love takes a backseat to Fear. The New Testament tells us that Love and Fear cannot coexist. When people are fearful, they are much more likely to be persuaded by appeals to their gut rather than to their reason. When you're a Republican strategist it is in your best interests for people to remain fearful, as they will more likely be compelled by what you say rather than scrutinize what you actually do. You therefore talk primarily about below-the-belt issues like sexuality, taxes, and terrorism. Once you've grabbed the fearful voter in this manner, concerns for the environment or honest government -- or other issues mentioned above -- become secondary. Many of those who take positive action on a local level, such as mentioned earlier, may be too overwhelmed to put themselves in the place of someone in another culture, or to empathize with the painful choices facing certain women with an unintended pregnancy.

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.
-- 1 Corinthians 13:1

How the Republicans get away with being Defenders of The Family, when their actual policies accelerate its decline, is a triumph of public relations. The Religious Right has kept its constituents' attention on a narrow set of issues to obscure the more essential ones. It must be cheaper to clamor for prayer in the schools than to maintain an adequate teaching force. Much of their talk of Moral Values has been to simply get votes. How is it that the man who presided over a record number of state executions in Texas is given the "pro-life" mantle to wear?

Most of us, particularly parents, are indeed upset by the "moral decline" in our society (the reason Mother Theresa refused to send her orphans to the U.S.). I don't see many politicians challenging the entertainment monopolies that promote violence, inappropriate sexuality and instant gratification; there's too much money at stake. The lack of a living wage and spiraling costs for most Americans means parents are working longer hours and having to leave their children at the mercy of these monopolies for hours a day. Extended families and neighborhoods that used to provide mutual support in raising children have been lost to a hollow striving for the individualistic American Dream. It is no wonder that many turn to the most organized option that appears to counter this trend: institutions of religious faith. And who offers the most dynamic, influential and widely available youth programs? Evangelicals and Fundamentalists, if I'm not mistaken.

These denominations also offer easy answers to Divine mysteries, a black-and-white picture that comforts the overwhelmed, over-stimulated soul. But just as for "patriots" of the right, there is a parallel oath: "My church, right or wrong." I must ask myself if those who seek to have their literal interpretation of Scripture rendered as civil law are abandoning Christ's mission for one based in their own fear. I, for example, have come to the conclusion that in order to be fully present in every waking moment, as Jesus instructs, I cannot drink alcohol or consume anything addictive. However much I believe that anyone who lives this "value" will in the long run be better off than someone who does not, I wouldn't expect others to reach the same conclusion without undergoing the steps that brought me to it. Would there be any point in me legislating that you never have another drink?

"He used to take acid and now he's found God; but he's still got that look in his eye!"
-- Utah Phillips

Addictions peel away one at a time. When alcoholics attain sobriety, they may remain addicted to nicotine or caffeine for some time to come. Likewise, I wonder if many "born-again" Christians aren't using their church and its doctrine as a more benign substitute for a previous addiction.

The next Administration will be even more united than the first, which should cause a fright both at home and abroad. Though most of us will not be directly affected -- on the short term, at least -- by the election's outcome, many of those in other nations, who of course did not get a vote, will be significantly so. Any CIA official who is not a willing co-writer of the Cheney screenplay is now getting replaced. And because gut-level tactics are as effective on Arabs as they are on Americans, our war-making is a losing tactic from most vantage points. On the international chessboard, Osama has lured Bush's queen into Iraq -- our soldiers and the Iraqi people the pawns.

Does the answer lie in reshaping the Democratic message so that it speaks more to the gut of the 51%? I, personally, have no need for my President to talk about Faith. The President I would choose for my country needs to be rational, compassionate and diplomatic. I certainly don't mind if he reads the Bible for two hours every morning -- as Bush is purported to -- but I need him to base important decisions on all the expert advice he can gather. I need to know that he is seeing reality. One reality the Democratic campaign did not acknowledge, however, is that many people do need to hear about Faith from their President. Their faith and their institutions of faith have brought many of them new hope. Apparently John Kerry could not deliver a message of hope that enough people could believe in; but it's more than one man can do. How are we offering hope to those around us? . . hope that someone could overcome an eating disorder, actualize themselves artistically, leave an abusive marriage or recommit to a floundering one, quit a job or find a job? Can we offer our assistance, one American at a time?

I recall the story told by a black teen who was being cornered by taunting whites when one of the whites said quietly to another, "You know, I don't think this is such a good idea." The whites withdrew and the teen was saved from physical harm. In the process, the boy who spoke up was saving himself and even perhaps his friends. It did not require great physical effort. Such opportunities present themselves to all of us at various times. It's going to take time and courage to change America.

10 July 2004

Vietnam and Supporting Kerry

The Importance of voting for Kerry [July 2004]
(Printed as letter to the editor in the Gloucester Daily Times)

Either through stories or direct experience, most of us know something about the problems of living with an addict. Let us consider, as an example, the father of a household addicted to alcohol or gambling. Perhaps the greatest pain and confusion for his wife and children comes in not knowing when to believe him. After all, he's the dad who deserves our loyalty and respect, who loves us, who has shown us good times, and whose integrity we aspire to. When he heads out the door one more time with the grocery money, promising that everything will be OK, we so want to believe him. But though a good man who means well, alone he cannot overcome the power of his illness -- and is therefore unable to be honest with himself or anyone else. Finally his family comes to realize that they must separate the man from his addiction and stand firm against the latter, refusing -- however painful it may be in the moment -- to accept further lies. Beyond that, they pray and hope that their loved one will accept help and one day be returned to them intact.

Now I ask you to substitute different players into this scenario. For The Addiction: Money; for The Family: the Citizenry of the United States; for The Addict: the current Administration in Washington. The grocery money is our social security, the quality of our environment, the education and wellfare of our children, and an arrogance in foreign policy which will serve as a boon to terrorist recruitment for the next generation. Even if only half the charges leveled against them in "Fahrenheit 911" were true, what these men routinely get away with makes Nixon's Watergate look like petty theft. And if you follow economist Paul Krugman's columns in the New York Times, you'll know there are further instances of 'white-collar' crime by these our leaders that the movie never even touches upon. Why is the 'mainstream media' not leading the charge in exposing the war profiteering, routine deception of the public, the nod given to fraudulent and destructive practices of any corporation that has made a large enough contribution to the Republican Party, the personal wealth accrued by the Bush family from Saudi Oil, or the apparent hijacking of the 2000 presidential election? Look at who owns Fox, for starters.

In the aforementioned movie, we see GW addressing a dinner gathering: "Here I am with the Haves and the Have-Mores," he quips. "There are those who call you The Elite, but I call you My Base." [Applause]. Regardless as to whether you are Republican or Democrat, if you don't have a seat at one of those opulent tables, President Bush has little interest in you. Whatever he may say to the contrary, you can't believe it anymore than you can believe reassurances from the father described above.

One of the comparisons made between Democratic candidate John Kerry and President Bush is that the former changes his mind while the latter holds steady. While it is true that Kerry has waffled -- probably even, at times, for the sake of political expediency -- I feel much safer with a flexible President than with one who sticks stubbornly to an uninformed course. It will take a long time to mend the damage we have wrought overseas, but I can't visualize that process even beginning until a Kerry Administration is in place.

Remembering Vietnam / A Parent's View of Violence & Old Boys [May 2004]

My current project with choreographer Carl Thomsen is in collaboration with North Shore veterans of the Vietnam War, initiated by writer and former army medic Marc Levy. Using poetry, dance and music (live as well as pre-recorded) we will interpret the experiences had by a variety of men both in and as a result of the war -- ranging from near-impossible heroics to ironic hilarity. The project moves me in variety of ways: seeing these men articulate in movement and word what was once too terrifying to speak of; imagining stories of the thousands who did not return; and realizing that I have more in common with these vets than I had previously thought. [While I drew a low number in the draft lottery of 1972, our pending withdrawal from Vietnam spared me from serving]. The performance, previously scheduled for the first weekend in August, has been postponed until we have more of it in place. Stay tuned to this site.

To familiarize my ears with the distinctive "chop" of the Huey helicopter, I've been taking another look at the Oliver Stone movie "Platoon" -- parts of which still reduce me to sobs. I think that most of us, just to get from one day to the next, unconsciously desensitize ourselves to violence. Now and then, when this protective shell is penetrated -- by imagery or whatever -- it is my hope that people reach for the tissues first. As parents [speaking for my wife, Monica, and I] we are particularly concerned when our children show lack of sensitivity towards violence, evidenced in physical aggression, mean talk and minimal remorse. Certainly some young people can separate between real-world and the virtual violence that has been found to turn a quick profit for the TV, cinema and computer gaming industries. But many, either because of emotional stresses or brain disorders (both on the rise), cannot. We do what we can to model rational behavior and pray that our children grow past the instant gratification of unhealthy foods and activities into more sustaining pursuits and altruistic lives -- as Boston's new archbishop puts it, "The difference between being happy and having fun."

Sadly, there are many adults who never complete this transition in the maturing process -- adapting to their vocations the same empty and selfish pursuits we are trying to wean our children of. It's too late for "Sesame Street" themes about sharing, honesty and goodwill to affect their present values. Though not spiritually fulfilled in their endeavors, some of these "grown-ups" have become materially rewarded on a scale unknown in history -- with everyone else (not to mention the Earth as well as those not yet born into it) paying for it. It is not uncommon that such people rise to the highest levels of government, assuming major leadership positions while equipped with the emotional maturity of a young child. To read a startling account of the end result, I recommend economist Paul Krugman's new book, The Great Unraveling: Losing our way in the New Century. [His recent articles may be viewed at http://www.nytimes.com/top/opinion/editorialsandoped/oped/columnists/paulkrugman/ ].

It is therefore incumbent upon us to raise a forward-thinking generation, willing to shatter the denial that maintains the status quo. Just looking at my own step-sons, the task is huge.