Monthly Archives: January 2011

Exporting Democracy

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The site of revolt in Tunisia and Egypt brings to mind the nation-building romantic dreams of the so-called NeoCons. The collapse of the Soviet Union brought giddy celebration: America was the definitive winner in the decades long battle between oppression and freedom. People dreamed of exporting our form of democracy to the rest of the world. In this romantic view, people around the world were poised to embrace democracy and free-market enterprise. This was the new enlightenment.

In typical super power style, our leaders tried to export democracy through military engagement. We destabilized dictatorships in order to open a window of opportunity for the indigenous masses to rise up and throw off their oppressors. Of course, there was a less noble aspect to these missions. We wanted to shape this new society to be friendly to and grateful for the U.S.

As we have learned during the past two decades, such romantic dreams have not ended with everyone living happily ever after. Somehow, we found we could not light the spark of a grassroots revolution through our outside intervention.

Now we see an echo of the sort of uprisings of which we have dreamed. They aren’t happening in the places we would hope. We would rejoice at the people of Iran revolting, but it’s happening instead in Egypt. Egypt has long been our ally. Hosni Mubarak has been an ally and a leader for many good things in the region. He was an important player in our efforts at Mideast peace. We can delight in the potential of Egyptians risings up against those who have oppressed them. We can hope for a happy democratic ending, but it seems just as likely that Egypt may end up in the grips of a fundamentalist Islamic regime.

True revolution is not as easy to engineer as we would sometimes like to think.  Our position of power in the world is not as great as we would sometimes like to imagine. Economic interests have always driven our foreign policy.  We tell ourselves that our interests in foreign affairs are more noble than mere economics. We spend much time wrestling for control of what’s going on in the world. Perhaps it is time for us to acknowledge the limits of our power and begin to think about how we should be encouraging freedom in the rest of the world as a not-so super power.

A Chat with Lindsey Graham

Lindsey Graham

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Here in South Carolina, Lindsey Graham and Jim DeMint are our senators.  One can understand, therefore, why many consider Graham to be a moderate.  Last night I received a Tele-Town Hall call from Graham.  This nifty process allows callers to join a conference call where they can ask questions of their representatives.

I suspect that my number was selected not randomly but rather based on the fact that my father (with whom I share a phone) votes reliably republican.  My suspicion was based on the unanimous adulation for all things conservative from the others on the call.

I wanted to share my situation of not being able to receive health insurance because of a pre-existing condition and to challenge his support of repealing health care reform.  So I pressed zero to queue up to ask a question.  As I waited, another caller asked about “Obamacare.”  She said that although she is not prone to believe in conspiracies she had heard that her husband’s small business would lose its ability to receive a tax deduction for its cost of buying health insurance for its employees.

I was hoping that he would reassure this woman and challenge that rumor.  Graham has a reputation for not always towing the party line.  Earlier in the call I liked that he had not been baited by some residual “Drill Here, Drill Now” folks; instead he emphasized Boone Pickens‘ natural gas program to gain energy independence for America.

Boy, was I disappointed.  He basically said that she was right and that she should believe everything bad she’s ever heard about this bill.  He went on to throw another conspiracy theory on her bonfire: he claimed that the low price of the penalty against companies who don’t offer health care is designed to force everyone onto a public option.

He added that the bill was so long and complicated that it’s hard for anyone to know what’s in it.  I suppose this was his cover for giving misleading information to his constituents.  (I’m one of those who happen to think it is a senator’s job to understand what’s in a bill that s/he is voting on.) I don’t claim to be an expert on this bill, but all of my research suggests that in fact small businesses would receive a tax credit to help them afford health insurance.

Now, even if he wanted to maintain his support for total repeal of health care reform, he could have used the opportunity to tell this woman the truth but explain that there are other problems with this bill that makes him want to start all over.  It would have been an opportunity to press his talking points about what’s wrong with this bill.

This interchange made me so angry, that I decided I was in no frame of mind to speak politely or even rationally, so I disconnected from the call.  Instead, I sent him an email with my thoughts.

Post State of the Union = Predictable Divide

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Last night’s state of the union address by the U.S. President evoked responses that were less about what the president said and more about the ongoing competition between opposing forces desiring control over the future of America.  Those on the left used the opportunity to either bolster their man in the executive branch or nitpick about how their pet issue didn’t receive its due portion of attention.  Those on the right used the opportunity to bolster their various claims about what is wrong with the man in the oval office.

It was a good speech.  It ran a little long for my taste, but it emphasized positive things and points on which most everyone could agree.  I don’t always listen to state of the union addresses, and I’m pretty sure that most of America tuned out of this one as well.  Most would rather digest it after its been properly chewed by our favorite pundits.  These pundits reinforce our own opinions and prejudices while injecting enough sensationalism to keep us listening, watching, or reading.

Our addiction to easy and processed narratives about our society turns the job of governing into a sport between political forces.  Policy and civics are boring, but a good fight is always entertaining and invigorating.  Nobody watches C-SPAN; everybody’s watching Fox or ESPN.  The biggest problem with the sports metaphor for civics in America is that our energies are focused on tackling our political opponents rather than tackling America’s problems.

There are moments (like the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords) that cause us to pause, but such pauses last only as long as the news cycle that keeps that moment alive. Such pauses don’t  reflect sincere reflection; they are a fleeting reaction to the latest water-cooler topic.  We should do better than this, but I am at a loss as to figure out what might motivate us.

I fear we demand a common enemy in order to unite.  And historically that enemy has always been a political power that threatens us.  In other words, we tend to unite as a reaction to a threat.  We should do better than this.  We should find a way to unite in a proactive way rather than a reactive way.

The Slow Extinction of The “Liberal” Media

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On the heals of the FCC approval of even further consolidation of U.S. media outlets into a few commercial hands, Keith Olbermann abruptly quit or was fired by MSNBC.  Olbermann was the champion (in terms of salary) on the left just like Rush Limbaugh is the champion on the right.

Long ago, Limbaugh turned his sights onto the mainstream news in America.  He promoted claims that our primary news sources have a liberal bias that makes its product unreliable. Studies that support this view make the assumption that if those who work in the industry have views that don’t mirror the larger society, then their reporting will reflect that difference.  Other studies challenge this view.

Clearly we have seen an increase in pundit shows with a bias just as we have seen a decrease in straight unbiased reporting shows.  We have also seen a transition of ownership of TV and radio. Now corporations own most every outlet of news in America.  So corporations now have a great deal of  control over news.

Corporate America also has a vested interested in America voting Republican.  The Republican party is pretty unabashed in its advocacy that rich people should have their taxes reduced while poor people should have their government benefits reduced.  Both the owners and the decision-makers in America’s corporations will get a bigger piece of the economic pie with Republicans in charge.

But in order to succeed, these corporate interests must convince most Americans to vote against their own interests. This is achieved in two ways.  First, corporate America makes a trade-off of social issues for economic ones.  By embracing conservative social issues (anti-abortion, pro guns, pro-school prayer, anti-gay rights, anti-cultural diversity, etc.) they have convinced many who suffer under Republican economic policies to vote for them.  They sold them on the idea that social issues should be litmus tests for candidates.  Litmus tests appeal to the public because they provide an instant answer.  Litmus tests do not serve the Republic because they do not require any discernment about which candidate would make the best public servant.

Second, corporate America undermines the public’s ability to know the truth of what’s going on in their society and government.  Over the past 50 years they have bought up most of our newspapers, TV and radio.  They have slowly turned most of what the public sees and hears into potential propaganda machines by stripping away elements that reveal truth.

Rush Limbaugh and others live in their own alternate reality.  He created his own reality based on his own set of facts.  Others quickly followed suit.  No longer was it important to one’s credibility to tell the truth.  In our post-modern world, it’s perfectly reasonable for every pundit to have his own set of truths.  As a result, we live in a world where our President is a foreign-born Muslim and a Marxist, Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, global warming does not exist, the economic downturn was caused by the government, and the health care industry was recently nationalized by the government.

Let me be clear. Keith Olbermann was not a beacon of truth; he was the liberal answer to Limbaugh,  He played the same game from the other side of the fence.  The result was that at least people had the opportunity to hear the other side of an issue.  He made MSNBC into a viable (if not as popular) alternative to the corporate propaganda machine on the right.

Did he leave because of the Comcast acquisition of NBC/Universal?  I don’t know. Was he fired? I don’t know. A quick reality check, however, says that a company does not allow one of its most valuable assets out of a contract unless at some level it is happy to do so.  All I know for sure is that there continues to be a correspondence between the corporate consolidation of media and the disappearance of voices to challenge the Republican propaganda.

Safe & Legal

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One of the rallying cries of the movement to legalize abortion has always been to keep abortion a safe and legal option for pregnant women. The notion is that by legalizing abortion, it can be regulated and kept safe by the government.

Now we learn of an abortion doctor in Philadelphia who has been charged with murder. He not only killed newborn babies, but he also ran his “clinic” like one of those back alley places that needlessly puts lives at risk. There is plenty of evidence to inflame one’s emotions against this man. He stands as a provocative case of betrayal to those who fought to make abortion safe and legal. He also stands as a poster child of how evil abortion is to those who are fighting to make it illegal once again.

What makes this situation worse is that it now appears that those who were supposed to be regulating his clinic were looking the other way even though they knew what was going on. Any form of corruption in government is a betrayal to its citizens. We need to do better than this. When laws are passed; they need to be funded and they need to be enforced.

Insurance: It’s a Business, Stupid

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Today I received a much delayed notification in the mail that Blue Cross Blue Shield is going to deny my request for personal health insurance. This is actually good news in sort of a perverse way. Several professionals had warned me that there was no way I would be accepted for personal health insurance. In order to benefit from our government’s new Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan (PCIP), I must demonstrate that I have been rejected for a pre-existing condition (plus I must endure 6 months without health insurance). Without the PCIP plan, I would not be able to get health insurance.

What was my crime that disqualifies me from receiving health insurance and the resulting guarantee of health care? I had the audacity of being diagnosed with cancer in July, 2007. I was treated for cancer, and my prognosis is excellent. There is a very slim chance that my cancer will return.

I had health insurance when I got cancer, so an insurance company paid for a portion of the cost of my treatment. Based on my calculations, within five years that insurance company would have received enough money in premiums to completely repay every penny I had ever cost them. Similarly, I estimate that the insurance industry has received three times as much money in premiums paid by me than they have had to pay out for my benefit. And yet I am considered to be too much of a risk to deserve ANY coverage.

I learned from my rejection letter that it wasn’t just my cancer that they didn’t like. You see, in order to check that no cancer has returned, my doctors perform regular CT-scans. So far there has been nothing but good news from those scans. But Blue Cross Blue Shield looked at the same images and found much cause for concern. They were terrified by the presence of a schwannoma and hemangiomas in my liver, spleen, and both kidneys. Before you shed a tear for my imminent demise, you might want to look up these fancy terms up. You’ll learn that none of these are of any real concern.

So why are people with ANY anomalies whatsoever in their medical history denied insurance coverage? It’s because insurance is provided in America by for-profit financial institutions.  Keep in mind that regardless of claims to the contrary, the top priority for publicly traded companies is to provide a good return on investment for their stockholders.  The profit margin is much better for a business if it can figure out a way to ensure a continuous bounty of revenue while eliminating as many expenses as possible. Now of course, one expense is executive pay, but I doubt you will be surprised to learn that this is NOT an area that insurance companies aggressively try to reduce.

Instead, they figure they can take money from healthy people until they actually start needing their insurance. At that point, the insurance companies use every trick in the book to deny coverage for the needed treatment, and then they try to get rid of customers who have been defiled by disease altogether.  Keep in mind that they already get a bonus from Medicare: they no longer have to cover the medical expenses for anyone over 65. This is one reason why all that trumped up outrage over a “public option” conveniently ignored the fact that Medicare is a “public option”.

Our nation depends on private companies to provide people younger than 65 the means to afford healthcare.  This means that sometimes the government needs to step in to ensure that the objective of affordable healthcare is possible for all of its citizens.  After decades of trying, the government finally took a step in that direction with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA).

Thanks to PPACA  I will be able to receive health insurance in six months.  The insurance industry, of course, would like to be able to operate without any interference, so they have always lobbied against health care reform. As a result of their money and efforts, many people misunderstand what this bill does. We have all sorts of people who don’t like it because it is “job-killing” or a “takeover of the healthcare industry.” If the insurance industry’s efforts are successful in repealing this law, then PCIP will disappear, and I will be back to the situation of not being able to get health insurance precisely because I might actually need it.

The Best Defense is a Good Offense

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Rush Limbaugh perfected the standard defensive strategy for Rabid Right pundits: the best defense is a good offense. His premise that the mainstream media is left-leaning and unreliable inoculates him from any form of criticism, so he chooses not to address any challenges from that quarter. Facts can be ignored once you have denied any credibility to all those who might dare to challenge you. Instead, you can re-characterize such challenges as unfair and as further evidence that the rest of the world is out to get you.

A fair amount of soul-searching seems to be going on in the aftermath of the assassination attempt on U.S. Congresswoman Giffords. Many stories have considered whether this event might be tied to the increasing rancor of public debate in our society. There is always, however, a strong disclaimer that there is no evidence that the perpetrator was in fact influenced by the angry rhetoric on the right or left.

The mere suggestion that public words might have dire consequences has inspired much defense in the form of offense from those on the right who have a history of using “fighting words.”  Rush Limbaugh accused the Democratic Party (Giffords is a Democrat) of “attempting to find anybody but [the shooter] to blame.” Sarah Palin, who put cross-hairs on Giffords on a website graphic, has followed Limbaugh’s lead in her reaction to this tragedy.  She expresses sadness about “irresponsible statements from people attempting to apportion blame.”

Their reaction is pretty standard. Never is there a hint of misgivings or remorse. In their culture, such things would be a sign of weakness. Always is there a paranoid sense that the rest of the world is against them, and they are innocent victims of widespread attack. Never is there an engagement of points made by others. Always is there a cult-like foundation of distrust of outsiders.

This time their argument rests on a debatable issue: they consider the only real sin to be personal sin. Collective sin, on the other hand is the notion that things we do may contribute to evils of the world that do not have a personal author. An example of my own might be how by buying a discounted piece of clothing I support a system of exploitation of workers in foreign lands.

Clearly the assassination attempt is not a classic example of collective sin because there was an easily identifiable perpetrator. However, those who ignore collective sins generally deny any responsibility for the way they influence others to do evil. Limbaugh attacks those who suspect his rantings may have influenced Jared Lee Loughner. He accuses them of trying to provide cover for Loughner’s crime. In Palin’s video she quotes the role-model of the Rabid Right: Ronald Reagan. She quotes, “We must reject the idea that every time a law’s broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker.”

My role-model, Jesus of Nazareth said, “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Mat 7:5, ESV). I believe that one should always be cautious about feeling like one is so innocent compared to others. Yes, I believe what the shooter did was a terrible thing. But I think we should not be so quick to assume our own innocence.

Palin seems to interpret Reagan’s words to suggest that society never has any guilt when any law is broken. Merely asking the question about whether crimes of individuals might point to larger problems in society puts her on the attack. Rather than being “irresponsible”, as Palin claims, isn’t such reflection the responsible thing for any society to do?

Furthermore, if Palin and Limbaugh want to apply Reagan’s adage fairly, then why is it okay for the entire society of Afghanistan to be punished for the actions of the lawbreakers on 9/11? I think the answer is that for them it is not really about principles at all; it is really about finding a good offense, any offense to respond to ideas that might put them on the defensive.

Hero? Public Servant?

Gabrielle Giffords, Democratic nominee and gen...

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Daniel Hernandez is the intern who in his first week of working for Rep. Gabrielle (Gabby) Giffords may have saved her life. He used his training as a nurse’s assistant, to care for her soon after she got shot. Like many heroes before him, he is resisting that moniker. Instead he says, “People have been referring to me as a hero. I don’t think that I am. I think the people who are heroes are people like Gabby, who have dedicated their lives to public service.”

Last summer I worked for a man running for public office. Mr. Hernandez’ words resonate with me. I learned to respect and admire this man. I was impressed with how hard it was just to campaign for office, much less to serve. I was inspired by his selfless motivation in becoming a public servant.

America’s voters are cynical about politicians. I reflect back on my own many posts that attack politicians. Yes, it’s easy to complain about politicians. We don’t often pause to remember how noble public service is.

I have always maintained that the problem with our system is us. The public is more at fault for the ugliness in politics than the public servants are. Their behavior is shaped by ours. We are the one’s who can’t take the time to research issues, so we are quick to jump on a bandwagon after hearing some spin that taps into our anger. We are the ones who can’t take time to research candidates and issues on the ballot, so candidates must spend more and more money trying to grab enough media to get noticed.

I hope and pray that the tragedy of the assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords might have a silver lining. Maybe people will pause to contemplate the tension between the two notions that those who serve the public are heroes rather than villains.

Giving The Government Back to the “People” & Making “Tough Decisions”

John Boehner

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John Boehner is the new speaker of the House. He has promised to “give government back to the people” and make “tough decisions” to cut spending.

Based on what we saw from Mr. Boehner in the final few weeks of the lame duck session, he must mean the “people” with whom he hobnobs at fundraisers, because the only “people” to whom he has fought to give the government spoils are wealthy “people.”

He didn’t wrestle with making “tough decisions” about how to pay for his $80 billion gift to his rich friends. When he pushed to extend the Bush-era tax cuts to the wealthiest “people” in America, he just rang up more debt for the rest of us.

Now he is flip-flopping about the Republican promise to cut spending by $100 billion in 2011. Suddenly he’s not so certain he can manage to save $100 billion for the American “people” after he gave $80 to his “people”.  But no matter. His base doesn’t really pay attention to the facts; they are happy to keep drinking the Kool-Aid from the rabid right moguls that they adore.

The Republicans are probably thanking their lucky stars that they only have a majority in the House. Otherwise all their bluster about repealing the “people’s” health care program might actually pass and cost the “people” an additional $130 Billion in the first ten years and more than a trillion dollars in the next.

Of course their sense of irony and shame has not prevented the Republicans in Congress from breaking two campaign promises with their efforts to repeal the health care law. First, they are exempting this repeal from their pledge to make the “tough decisions” necessary to fully pay for everything they do.  Second, they are ignoring their promise of openness by imposing a closed rule: no pesky amendments will be allowed.  It’s all great theater, and it will be roundly applauded by their adoring fans.

Isaiah 49:1-7: Called in the Womb

Light of the World

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[Reflections on the Old Testament Lectionary Reading for Jan 16, 2011]

The servant song of Isaiah includes the inspiring promise, “I will give you as a light to the nations” (Isa 49:6). God called God’s people to be a light to the nations. What does it mean to enlighten nations?  Many people who try to faithfully fulfill that responsibility disagree with each other.

For some servants of God, enlightening the world means mining Scripture for answers to all sorts of questions. As a Methodist, I look to Scripture for all sorts of answers, but I also recognize the limits of Scripture.  Scripture, for example, was not written as a scientific text.

Some Christians have dissected Isaiah’s servant song and found confirmation for their opinion that life begins at conception. This scientific “fact” is supposedly attested by Isaiah’s claim, “The LORD called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.” It’s quite a stretch, but supposedly the fact that God ordained and named Isaiah before his birth indicates somehow that Isaiah’s life began before his birth. Next the argument leaps to the assertion that life begins at conception.

Life may, in fact, begin at conception.  I don’t know.  But I know this: Isaiah’s servant song is not making any claim about when life begins.  I am also pretty certain that God’s inspiration of this passage wasn’t intended to be a Hebrew or Christian text concerning science.

My reading of the text suggests something quite different from what Pro-lifers try to make of it.  Isaiah is marveling at how God had a plan for his life before he even existed. Nothing here suggests God’s plan for Isaiah began at his conception; God’s plan existed long before that moment.

The message of Isaiah’s servant song is not about abortion or the beginning of life. The message concerns how God’s faithful are to be a blessing to the world. We are to be a light. What sort of light would God have us be?  Are we to be a harsh spotlight of interrogation and judgment, or are we to be a warm light of hospitality and love?  I do not believe we enlighten the world by misusing Scripture in a way it was never intended. When we do that, we diminish and discredit God’s Word. God meant for God’s servants to bring light not darkness to the world.