The Human Division and the American Conservative Lens

I’m reading John Scalzi’s The Human Division, the 5th book in his fun modern space opera Old Man’s War series. I enjoy it because it’s thrilling and sweeping like old sci-fi, but racism and sexism are marginalized instead of normalized like in the old 50s and 60s series I cut my teeth on.

In one part, a character (call him A because I hate spoilers of any kind) who is the scion of a powerful and rich family on a planet returns home. His driver (call him B) is a close friend; a member of a family that serves his. The driver relates how A’s rich dad always talks about working hard for what you get, but has given him a sinecure job that allows him the time and resources to focus on his career as a poet. “Your dad has been generous in that way of his. . . Always thumping on about people having to make their own way in the world and the value of an honest day’s labor. He’d rather die than fund a grant. But he gives me a ridiculously easy job and pays me well enough that I can work on my words.”

B goes on to tell how he won a poetry award and A’s dad was so proud that he displays B’s award in his office. He also shares how B’s sister scrubbed toilets in the house for a year but then used the generous compensation to fund graduate studies. A’s dad even went to the doctoral ceremony and also keeps a picture in his office.

I stopped reading right where I was and immediately thought, “this is what American Republicans and conservatives think of themselves.” I immediately recalled a customer I had, a quite wealthy man who reliably voted conservative, who paid for his housekeeper’s health care when she had a serious condition arise and did not have health insurance to cover it. That was truly kind and generous. But why do we live in a society where largesse is the only option that results in a good outcome?

American conservatives think of themselves as A’s dad: standing firmly for values of hard work and self-making, but quietly and generously helping those in need close to them. Generosity of spirit to our neighbor is welcomed, but it must always be coupled with the difficult question, “Who is my neighbor?” What happens to those not close enough to a person of means to obtain patronage? And how many people of means are actually consistently generous?

When we talk about benefit programs that are tax-funded, whether they are food, housing, health, or care for those who cannot work due to age or disability, we are asking this question: To what extent should generous rich people and organizations meet the people’s needs versus the society meeting the people’s needs?

I think the conservative value of local control does matter and is good to ensure local needs are met properly. We don’t need to give everybody umbrellas if they live in a town in the desert. However, care has to be taken to ensure that local bias does not enter into who is cared for. We saw local control used as a weapon of injustice during the Civil Rights Movement, and so a healthy skepticism is warranted.

Rich people are just people, no better, no worse than others. However, their money gives them an ability to impact society in a broader way than the average person. Like anyone, they will help people they are close to, and be less likely to help people they are not close to. Even in charitable giving, they (and we) give to causes they care about, not necessarily where there is the greatest local need. Churches have a better track record of helping local areas, but if everyone with the ability to do so in a community is not contributing to a church, it’s unfair to expect them to bear the burden of the whole community.

Taxes aren’t a panacea; anything run by people involves planning, oversight, and stewardship. However, getting more people to contribute less, and making sure help is not conditional on proximity, relationship, organizational membership, or creed allows us to build a more just society. It would be wonderful if the generosity of churches and the rich eliminated social programs and could be consistently counted on to do so. But we don’t live in that world.

Scalzi’s book is cleverly titled and is about many kinds of human division. To address this one, we will have to stop expecting a feudal framework and an individual moral code to meet modern needs in full.

Halloween, Dia De Los Muertos, and The Veil

There used to be a time in the year the veil between the spirit world and the mortal world was supposed to be thinned. It made sense to land that time at the changing of the seasons, when the natural harvesting, dying, and hibernation cycle of fall was well underway and the first chill of winter was detectable. It was a time to be watchful, yes, as not all spiritual forces are good. But it was also a time to pray for and think about loved ones who had moved on into that realm. This was true in Druidic harvest festivals and Aztec autumnal rituals alike.
The Christians syncretized these traditions (and possibly added their own original content as well) into All Hallow’s Eve and All Hallows Day, where the saints (the “hallowed” ones) are honored and recently departed souls are prayed for. As is usual with many streams of Christianity, what came before was rebranded as “demonic”, and the baby was thrown out with the bathwater. We rightly as Christians did not worship other gods, but we also lost some of the cultural tradition and possibly spiritual understanding that did not require that worship. I’m not advocating that we watch Friday The 13th at church, or that we don Druidic robes and pray to Celtic deities, but I think it’s safe to let your kids wear a mask and trick-or-treat, or to put a pumpkin or skull in your yard.
I have read several observations about how bad we are at dealing with death here. I think Coco resonated with so many Americans who didn’t grow up with Dia De Los Muertos traditions because we’re hungry for a way to stay connected, however tenuously. We are supposed to feel good because our loved ones are “in a better place”. We’re supposed to delight in the notion of their arrival in eternal paradise, which itself is limited by our limited human perception of what is good and enjoyable. But we’re sad. We miss them so much. And we occasionally get signs they’re watching over us, connected, but we don’t have language or tools to process that.
I think it would be good for non-Latino Americans to not appropriate, but adopt some of the Dia De Los Muertos traditions with appreciation, respect, and deference to the originators. I don’t know how that works. We managed to adopt the Gaelic traditions and spread them nationwide in a way that seemed to work, but in our present context, I don’t know what sharing a tradition looks like. I suppose it looks like developing real relationships with the people who own the tradition, being invited to join in, and entering the way a respectful and welcome guest enters a home for a dinner. Perhaps you’ll be given a plate to take with you, and perhaps not, but you can enjoy the gathering either way, even if you can’t cook that delicious dish they served for yourself.
We emphasize the fear part of these holidays but not the part that tells us that death is natural, a part of existence, and doesn’t have to be so scary. Each painted face and mask says that I, too, am mortal, will someday be bones, but I am not afraid. I will celebrate transition through the veil, and I will know that however this works, whether its an energetic echo, the residue they left through my memories, or an actual sentient presence, my loved ones never really leave me.

An American Conversation on Guns and Violence

Ed. Note: All quotes are from actual shooter manifestos. I did not paraphrase or make up anything said by “Shooters”.

Republicans and Moderates: I don’t know what we’re going to do about these shootings. It’s a shame about these boys’ mental health.

Democrats: But you won’t pay for their health care and your Saint Reagan closed the mental hospitals and. . .

Moderates: *holds finger up* Ah-ah-ah. Remember we weren’t supposed to talk politics today. Too divisive. Both sides are to blame for where we are.

Shooters: “This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas. They are the instigators, not me. I am simply defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion.” (1)

Republicans and Moderates: I just feel sorry for these troubled, obviously mentally ill boys.

Shooters: “I am just a regular White man, from a regular family. Who decided to take a stand to ensure a future for my people.” (2)

Republicans: If we prayed more as a people, this wouldn’t happen.

Shooters: “There has been little done when it comes to defending the European race. As an individual I can only kill so many Jews. . . Although the Jew who is inspired by demons and Satan will attempt to corrupt your soul with the sin and perversion he spews – remember that you are secure in Christ.” (3)

Republicans: Well, I mean, the things he’s saying are clearly not right, but he is talking about Christ, so. Shame about that boy’s mental health.

Republicans & Moderates: But it’s not really about the guns when you think about it, is it? Why do they do this?

Shooters: “To create conflict between the two ideologies within the United States on the ownership of firearms in order to further the social, cultural, political and racial divide within the United states.This conflict over the 2nd amendment and the attempted removal of firearms rights will ultimately result in a civil war that will eventually balkanize the US along political, cultural and, most importantly, racial lines.” (2)

Republicans: There’s nothing to be done I suppose. Guns are essential to our life and identity, and besides, who will protect us from the government without our guns?

Democrats: But you ARE the government! All we’re saying is a little more gun con-

Moderates: Stop playing politics. Both sides are the government, and both sides are to blame for this.

Republicans: You’re being too fair, Moderates. The black identity extremists calling everyone racist, and these women who can’t take a compliment and turn everything into a MeToo lawsuit are the problem. We need to go back to a better time when people weren’t so politically correct. That’s what’s creating this climate of violence.

Shooters: “My orchestration of the Day of Retribution is my attempt to do everything, in my power, to destroy everything I cannot have. All of those beautiful girls I’ve desired so much in my life, but can never have because they despise and loathe me, I will destroy.” (4)

Moderates: I guess we’ll never really know. And I guess things won’t get better until we stop playing politics, stop talking about things that divide us, and move forward.

Republicans: Yes, we have to stop playing politics, give every real American a gun, and back the blue. God bless our troops, our police, and our guns. God bless the real America.

Democrats: *presses face into hands and weeps*

____________________________________

1 – El Paso shooter’s manifesto, 2019

2 – Christchurch shooter’s manifesto, 2019

3 – San Diego Synagogue shooter’s manifesto, 2019

4 – Isla Vista shooter’s manifesto (the “incel”), 2014

“Did God Really Say?” – The Crucible of Evil

White supremacy is a scourge from the pit of Hell and is Satan’s most effective weapon currently in use on this planet.

I tend to only weakly believe in an incarnate Devil and less in a concrete, fire and brimstone Hell. But I do believe that evil exists both on spiritual and physical planes. And evil has one power: “Did God really say?”

Did God really say love your neighbor as yourself?

Did God really say none are worthy, yet all have reconciliation available?

Did God really say we are all equal?

Did God really say the last shall be first, and the sanctimonious, heartless ones will be pushed to the outside while the humble, kind ones will be exalted?

That question echoes in our weak human minds in a thousand forms. We answer, “Maybe not. Not exactly.” And evil, cooked in that crucible, is made manifest.

We have enabled people like these shooters who killed so many in New Zealand when we have denigrated Muslims, insulted their religion, culture, and humanity. We have enabled them when we allow our leaders to ask “what’s so bad about white supremacy?” We have enabled them when we seek the advancement of Christian dominion instead of an irresistible community of love, too broad and beautiful to be satisfied with one narrow cultural expression.

As Rabbi Heschel said, “In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” If you made choices for economic reasons, or because of court picks, those choices have implications. If you ignore cries for collective justice and paper them over with individual kindness that does not require you to actually become uncomfortable, that ignorance has implications.

Some of us are guilty of supporting evil. But all of us are responsible for creating a world in which it has no quarter. There is plenty of research and thought on how to deconstruct this, if you have the will. Don’t get distracted by your preferred corner of evil to point at. Start where the seat of power is.

Start with white supremacy.

“Future-Present” Tension and Gospel Ambassadorship

American Christians, especially those that identify as evangelical, love to “share the Gospel”. In many small group circles and among friends, weekly check-ins may include a delighted, “I shared the Gospel 3 times this week!” or a dejected “I didn’t share the Gospel with anyone. I need to do better.” We keep a scorecard, like golf, or bowling.

I was reflecting with my friend Dan Crain, a pastor and community leader I’ve co-led a Be The Bridge group with and become good friends with, today about what it means to be a peacemaker on behalf of Christ. I had a revelation in that moment. Those of us who profess Christ in this particularly American way think of ourselves as ambassadors of the Kingdom of God, bringing good news to the people of Earth. But this model separates us from the people who we wish to see join us in our understanding of who Christ is. In order to fully understand our purpose, we have to get a bit transcendental. We have to step outside of the present tense and operate with multiple views of time. In this way, we obtain a fraction of the view that a God that lives outside of time has.

Romans 5:6-8 talks about how Christ died for us while we were still weak, while we were still sinners. Christ’s act at one point in time in the past reaches into our present, pulls us out of a present depravity into a future hope of reconciliation of all things. Most of us accept that truth and rejoice. We gleefully report, as Paul did in Galatians 2:20, how “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”

But we don’t follow the next step. As we declare ourselves peacemakers and ambassadors, we proclaim we are already citizens of Heaven, and we’re coming to broker a deal with those unfortunates that haven’t filled out their applications yet. To get a complete understanding of this, we must combine our perceptions into a “future-present” view of reality.

The future tense speaks of things that will be. The present tense speaks of things that are, right now. As Christians, we live in the intersection of the present, our flesh with its infirmities, the brokenness of the world we see around us, and the future, a kingdom and family that we will be a part of for eternity. Christ mediates this transcendent breach in the order of time’s arrow and allows some portion of us to live in that future as if it were the present! We get to experience glimpses of the full acceptance of God and the completion of our future hope in our present.

This is undoubtedly good news. However, the part that we miss is that we are also still beings of the present. We are not God’s diplomats, sitting at the table overseeing the reconciliation between some sinful “other” and God. We are the rebellious, haughty party sitting at the other side of the table from our neighbor. We have been wronged, yes, but we have also done much wrong. And we are in need of an external mediator to complete the reconciliation to our neighbor and to receive the wisdom our neighbors have.

When we approach mission or literal evangelism in this way, we carry a humility and an openness that allows us to experience more of the fullness of God. We gain the capacity to learn how to more rightly see God from our neighbor rather than educating them on our narrow and limited glimpse and attempting to snuff out their light or make it shine on our particular frequency. We can meet needs without thinking we are the Provider of Good Things. We can carry the layers of our intersectional identity in the present while neither giving them primacy over our future identity nor diminishing them to irrelevance when they shape so much of how our present is experienced.

We are each carrying different, infinitesimal sparks of that incomprehensible glory, and only by recognizing our true position, as a member of a warring faction that is only now learning to lay down their arms, as a humble creature that has far more to learn than it has to teach, can we share a true Gospel laden with future hope that speaks to a present reality.

Who Gets The Surplus?

Who gets the surplus?

We use raw materials and labor to create additional value out of thin air. The materials are paid for. The labor is compensated. The goods are sold at a profit. A surplus is created.

Let’s assume a typical situation with a person with resources purchasing the raw materials and fronting the labor cost. The person with the resources took a risk and presumably should get something. The person who contributed the labor created the value. Should they get anything beyond compensation for their time?

Let’s say that 50 units of raw materials and 50 units of labor (fully loaded) went into creation of a widget, for 100 total. The widget is sold for 200 units. What should happen?

Capitalism as implemented says that the 100 should go entirely to the provider of capital. Labor has already been paid at a market rate (regardless of whether that constitutes a living wage) and is not owed anything else.

Cooperative socialism says that the inputs and surpluses should be shared by the collective of laborers without regard to what the government dictates. Cooperatives can collectively function as capitalists of a sort in a larger capitalist society. Unions are a prototype of this form.

Democratic socialism says the surplus should go to the society at large, with the people of the society deciding where it will be spent, be that social programs, defense, or whatever. Elements of this already exist in how America has historically been run.

Authoritarian socialism (what most people think of when they hear the term) says the state will take direct ownership of the means of production and apply the surpluses as it sees fit per the direction of unelected leadership.

This question of who should get the surplus is at the heart of our economic debate. If you look at our history and our present, we have no problem redistributing the surplus if we think the recipients are “worthy”. Currently, farmers, the military, and the rich are what our country has decided must be subsidized and funded at any cost.

We could make different choices. We could say that medical providers, teachers, and environmentally sound businesses are worthy. We could say a shorter workweek and more workers at the same price is a more worthwhile goal than reaching theoretical maximum profit. But we don’t, for various reasons.

My fellow small business owners will pipe up and say how they can’t afford to pay more or hire more. That might be true in our current context. But we have to look at the quality of our inputs as well. How much does productivity suffer from the anxiety of living in our current construct? And how much more could you get out of people that would be meaningfully impacted by improved corporate financial results?

I’ve frequently been rebutted with stories of how people got out of difficult situations with hard work. That’s great, and I genuinely applaud you. But if you know better than most how hard it was to claw your way out of poverty, why would you think that crucible is the best way to produce winners? Why is superlativity a requirement just to survive?

Inequality is not inherently problematic. But rising inequality where people working 60+ hours are still poor while others are basically living beyond the event horizon of a cash singularity will not stand indefinitely. History is clear that desperation leads to revolution. We will need to consider changes that will reduce the suffering and desperation in our society if we want something that resembles what we know to continue. And yes, those changes will have to mean benefits for non-white people too, unlike most of the historical benefits and subsidies that created mass affluence in America as practically implemented.

s/o to Professor Richard Wolff for helping clarify my thinking about surpluses.

On Bernie Sanders’ Candidacy – An “Un-Endorsement”

I have not done a point-by-point breakdown of where I stand politically relative to the average American Democratic Socialist. I’m pretty open to a lot of their ideas. I am in favor of the Democratic Socialists’ voices being part of the conversation, and them having a place at the table in the Democratic Party.  I voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary precisely for that reason, though I was fine with voting for Clinton in the general.
But I’m honestly not in favor of Sanders’ candidacy at this time. I know my Sanders-supporting friends will be annoyed, but I have questions for you.
  • Why does he have to be President for you to get what you want changed in this country?
  • How much more powerful could Sanders be as sitting senior senator operating as head of a Socialist party with national reach, or as the head of a movement within the existing Democrats rather than as a drop-in/drop-out candidate that uses the Democrats to advance his brand?
  • What have you done with your local democratic socialist organization to advance your agenda at a city or state level?

There’s a lot more I could say, but after two years serving as a post holder in the Democratic Party, alongside centrists, progressives, and proud democratic socialists, I have significant respect for the workers. Not “the workers of the world unite!” workers (though I’m good with them), but the people who quietly work for the principles they believe in, building constituencies, knocking on doors one at a time, arguing passionately about what direction we want to go at a city, county, and state level.

I think about the black women from South DeKalb who ran our party in the years when no one bothered to show up to meetings (including me). The firebrands who backed their talk with action and ran for office or party leadership or supported those that did. The regular people who had just had enough and committed to knock 20, or 50, or 100 doors, just to make a difference.

Bernie’s Democratic affiliation of convenience spits on that progressive legacy, spits on that work. And it pushes forth the myth that Trump ran on: “I alone can fix it.”

As much as I wish there were, there are no heroes. No one will snap their fingers, or give the perfect speech, or wrestle Congress to the ground bare-chested to get through a dictatorship of the proletariat or a golden age of unity and social equity. What I’ve come to realize, even as I have trouble living it out, is something that my socialist friends should understand better than anyone:

Our heroism and our extraordinary capability lie in our collective effort.

So stop waiting on Bernie Sanders or some other media darling to pick up your rose and flag of solidarity. Get out there and fight for equity where you live. And for your President in 2020, vote for a person who has been a Democrat continuously, one who will advance environmentally responsible and socially equitable policies, one who will move the needle in the direction you want to go. And then do what Sanders did before becoming a Senator; set the example in your city for what your movement can become when done right.