Thursday, September 21, 2017

Echo Chamber

I enjoyed watching parts of the Emmys on Sunday. TV actors tend to make for better speech-makers, because they're a little less self-important and there's a lot of awards set aside for comedians. There are also a lot of awards - and writers sometimes get to receive them, which makes for better-written speeches. I like comedy, so this is a good awards show at which to laugh.

Stephen Colbert hosted the Emmys and one of his early gags was to joke about the size of the audience and then have Sean Spicer (one-time Trump spokesman) come out on a rolling podium (reminiscent of the Melissa McCarthy parody of Spicer on SNL) to joke about the size of the audience,
the way he once, very seriously, lectured the White House Press Corps about the size of the Presidential inauguration crowd.

I found this funny. I suspect lots and lots of the home audience found it funny. The attendees of the event and the pop culture press found it tasteless and inappropriate. All I've heard, in interviews with actors and writers, and in commentaries on the event, are critiques of this moment "in an otherwise great awards show."

I want to call BS.

This is the kind of hypocritical self-importance that plays directly into the hands of people the left tends to criticize for hypocritical self-importance. Is it totally absurd that Trump, and his administration, spent the better part of his first few days in office persisting with the obvious falsehood that his inauguration crows was the largest in history? Of course. That's hypocritical self-importance. Is it equally absurd to demonize a professional PR guy (a profession that basically gets paid to lie for a living - excuse me "massage the truth" or "accentuate the positive") because he worked (and got fired by) a guy you don't like?

I know, I know, "Trump is the antithesis of morality and decency, a dangerously incompetent President and the worst person alive" blah, blah,
blah. He's portrayed a Satan by a certain class of left-wing elitists and thus contaminates anyone in his orbit. By not taking a joke, Hollywood is sort of proving a point.

The left characterizes the right as a greedy, heartless mob of rich businessmen willing to sacrifice the lives of the poor for personal gain.
The right characterizes the left as sheltered intellectuals with no real grasp on how most people live. Each side calls those characterizations baseless. This is the message of the echo chamber - "am too," "are not."

The reality is both of those bogeymen do really and truly exist, but those aren't really characteristic of the majority of the opposition. I imagine most people, both democrats and republicans, can laugh at Sean Spicer making fun of himself. Stephen Colbert knows this, which is why he's a pretty popular guy (much to the bemusement of the head-scratching pop culture media). The guy understands regular people and they like watching him.

Ricky Gervais was the best Golden Globes host of all time, because he made fun of celebrities honestly. He played to the TV audience and not the one in the room. The actors hated him for it, but the ratings were fantastic.

Now what I'm not sure of - what has yet to be proven - is if this overemphasis on the echo chamber can really change reality. If all we're given is the propaganda of the extremes, will it, in turn, change the vast middle into a polarized confusion. I'm fairly certain Breitbart and DailyKos don't represent the majority of people they claim to represent; what I'm unsure of is whether that will always be true.

I'd like to think there will always be a sane middle, that can recognize the positives and negatives of whatever is presented to them, but I'm not entirely confident that's true. What causes me concern is the seeming inability of the extremes to admit their own absurdity. It's even more troubling if we're refusing to let the opposition laugh at theirs.

If we've really gotten to a place where we can laugh at you, but you can't laugh at yourself, then we may have moved beyond the place where we can even talk to one another. Don't let the caricature become the portrait. The best thing you can do to turn enemies into friends is agree with their critiques when they get them right and be willing to laugh at yourself.

I've watched most of Spicer's recent late night interviews. I still cringe and disagree with most of the things he says and the opinions he expresses. But I'm much happier about the guy who's stepped out of the echo chamber than all those who've double down and settled in (on both sides). At least we can talk to each other - and we should be able to laugh at each other, too.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Lessons and Limits

You may have noticed that the blog schedule has been a bit sporadic since the school year started. There's good reason for that. One, the school year represents a really big change in schedule for our family - we're very school-year centric here - and I'm just not good at change. It takes me a while to get into a new schedule (in fact, I'm not even there yet - notice this Tuesday morning post is coming out on a Wednesday).

The other reason is that I got called to sub on the second day of school. I was a substitute teacher, when I could, for half days last year (while my daughter was in school). With her starting Kindergarten this year, I'm available for full days (when I'm available), but I never expected to get called the first week (teachers tend to want to be there to get the year started well). One of the local schools has a teacher out on maternity leave and they were having trouble finding a long-term replacement and needed some extra help in the classroom.

It was great - same kids every day for a couple weeks - students I had subbed with pretty frequently last year. Smooth sailing. Then the school went through two long-term subs in about four days without much hope on the horizon. I got offered the chance to take over the class for two months, so I thought I'd give it a go.

Listen, I only signed up to sub last year because they were short. I wanted to fill a need and help the public school system, which has become the community space our family is pretty heavily invested in. I've served on district committees. I try to make most school board meetings. It makes sense. I knew the kids; I'm ok with seventh grade math. Shoot, I've lived with a middle school teacher for more than a decade.

Despite having lived with a middle school teacher for more than a decade, I just simply had no idea the skills and abilities one really needs to teach. I don't know many people who have more respect and admiration for public school teachers than me - but I gained a whole lot more over the weekend. Trying to get a handle on everything required to even take over a class for a few weeks was literally overwhelming. I couldn't sleep,
riddled with anxiety (not something to which I'm prone - it took me some time to even realize what was happening).

I also learned the difference between someone who can teach and a teacher. I've done Sunday School classes and tutoring - I've even taught actual classes in the ministry training program on two districts. It's a lot different getting a class of kids through the day and being a consistent,
positive presence there with everything on your shoulders.

I knew this. Of course I knew this - but knowing something intellectual or through observation is a lot different than knowing through experience.

I'm a wimp, for the most part. I don't tend to attempt things I'm not certain I can complete. Risk is not my thing. However, when I'm pretty convinced something has to be done, I buckle down and do it. There aren't a lot of things in my life that I've attempted and failed. Yes, that's because I'm cautious, but it's also because I'm a pretty quick learner and I'm good with systems and organization.

In the end, I probably could've done it. I could've taken my lumps, endured sleepless nights, learned from my many, many inevitable failures and possibly survived. My sanity might not have been intact, but it could've technically been done. I opted out though. There's a sense of shame in that. One, I don't like to admit defeat. I've gotten less obsessed with winning over the years, but I'm still darn competitive. This feels like a loss to me, and that's a big ego hit. I also feel like I'm letting people down who work hard and a tremendously difficult job. My not being there created extra work and more headaches for people who have an impossibly tough assignment to begin with. That stinks.

It was a good lesson in limits, though. Just because I can do something or something needs to be done, doesn't mean I have to do it. I probably should've known this was a bad idea from the beginning. I'm not a teacher; I don't really want to be one. I can fake it through a day or two -
which is really useful and helpful in its own right - but that's about it. So many great people have a passion for it, and skills to be really good - and, despite my close proximity to one of them, I'm not sure I ever truly appreciated that, certainly not as much as I do now.

My life is not where I thought it'd be. I'm not upset at all; I really like my life. It's just that I don't really have a job description.
I find great joy in being "of use," although I never know from one season to the next exactly what or where that will be. I keep trying to jump into new thing where I'm needed, but I learned over the last few weeks that perhaps a little more self-reflection might be important in figuring out where that is.

Even more so, other people might have a different perspective of what I am (or should be) capable of doing. I need to trust myself a little more. It's a difficult balance between challenging one's self (or accepting the challenge of others) and knowing one's self well enough to say 'no.' Hopefully I got a little better at that this week - and maybe it'll mean I can make more of a difference in the right places moving forward.

Anyway, we should be back to a better posting schedule now - at least until basketball games start November 15th.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Love Like Family

I was listening to Scott Daniels' recent sermon from Romans 12. The version of scripture he used translated one line as "love like family." That really struck a chord with me. It seems like we have a wholesome image of family in our minds, even though most people don't have the most functional or idealistic relationship to their own family.

When we think about the "love like family" line (as a way Christians should treat each other, by the way), we tend to go towards one idealistic extreme - a sort of utopia, where stress and anger and dissent are absent, replaced with nothing but warm fuzzies and lots of affection. That's not how real families function, though, is it - people who have actual family relationships understand that things aren't always easy or rosy or particularly fun. We commit to them precisely because there's something about family that means something to us. Even when you don't have any real relationship with your relatives, we tend to form families anyway - people we treat the same way, people we're committed to despite whatever roadblocks or disagreements might arise. While those are powerful and meaningful, they're not perfect either.

As I was thinking about this analogy of "loving like family," I'm wondering if the idealistic extreme that comes to mind oughtn't (that's a real word, I promise) be more like Game of Thrones. I'll admit some bias here - my wife decided to start watching the show very recently, so I've seen something like 40 episodes is three weeks - it's on my mind a bit." The show is full of regal families, reminiscent of the nobility of European past - people whose family name means something - something valuable that they're trying to protect.

Now, I'm not suggesting that we should be callously marrying off children to fulfill social or economic purposes, and, obviously, secretly plotting to kill each other whilst publicly displaying loyalty and honor seems a far cry from anything remotely Christian, I wonder if the concept of family that underlies the dysfunction isn't a more apt analogy for what Paul's trying to convey.

There is a duty present that overwrites any personal emotion; a communal consideration that outweighs individual preference. This is important. I don't want you to hate your fellow Christians - far from it - but I think Paul's calling us to respond to them with the same kind of Christ-like selfless love, even if you do.

We're certainly not going to feel ecstatic love for one another all the time - real relationships exist within the entire gamut of emotions - and we obviously disagree about all sorts of things. Love like family should trump all of that, though. In Game of Thrones, everything is a means to an end (the characters for whom it's not almost always find themselves unceremoniously dead) and if you've read just about anything I've written, you know I don't look kindly on that way of viewing the world. This is why it's an extreme - it's one thing to sublimate your own happiness for the greater good; it's quite another to force those whom you purport to love to do the same (often against their will).

Our preferred extreme isn't any better, though. Envisioning a world in which everyone loves each other so much there's never any conflict denies people their humanity in the same way. It respects no individuality or choice - it's also only imaginable in a world where our preferences are everyone else's. We've essentially composed our ideal in our image and just image everyone else in total agreement. That's as arrogant and selfish as anything done on TV.

As with most things we'd prefer to be black and white, we have to find our way in the murky middle. Obviously either extreme is problematic, neither one is "right" or desirable or something to aim for - one of them, however, is others focused. If we see family as the move towards kumbaya serenity, any disruption is going to feel personal - we're all supposed to be happy; why am I not happy? If we see it as duty, as an obligation we have to others above and beyond our own happiness, disruptions become externally focused - why is she not happy; how can I make his life better?

I suppose the gospel answer to all of this is that we find whatever "fulfillment" we need by not seeking it. We are satisfied by forgetting satisfaction. The real ideal is, in fact, an oxymoron. There's no guarantee we will be rewarded for loving others above ourselves, but there's some beauty in the logic of everyone doing it; it just seems like that would create the kind of family that both reflects reality AND our desires.

We all fall short of that, of course, but in doing so, let's remember that "loving like family" is most certainly not about our happiness -
and let's try real hard not to chop off anybody's head.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Living the Dream

None of us earned the right to live where we do. We just didn't. Yes, there are laws that govern who can go where and we've created this thing called "citizenship" that gives some people more privileges than others, but nobody earned anything. I get that there are legitimate debates about how a country should be organized and although I am not a believer in borders or nations,
I can set that discussion aside for today.

This who DACA thing makes me sick. If you're unaware, this is the program that allows residents of the US who were brought here or sent here when they were children to get enough legal recognition to live, work, and go to school in the US. Again, I get that there's a series of laws that govern this sort of thing and some people would like to see them followed more closely than others - but I want to come at it from a different angle.

How are these people any different than you or I? They live in the same place, attend the same schools, work in and contribute to the community.
They pay taxes, take their kids to dance class, and volunteer in the same places we do. What makes them different? They were born somewhere else. They might have a different cultural heritage and history - maybe, but that's not even true in all cases. What makes them different?

I get that some people are rooted in one place for generations. I'm a wanderer. I lived in ten different states by the time I turned 30; my family has always moved around. I'm not "rooted" anywhere. I share a different history and cultural understanding from the people with whom I live right now.

Maybe I can only speak for me, but I'm not any different than the people affected by this DACA policy. Well, I'm white, I guess - but, you know what, so are some of the immigrants covered by this policy. Not every undocumented resident is Hispanic - some grew up speaking English. That's the difference, though, right - it's people who look and sound different from us that we want to target. Maybe not even that - it's probably strangers who look and sound different from us; if we know one of these people, live or work or go to school with them, we're much less likely to support their deportation, to send them back into the shadows.

It's the different and the unknown. Those should never be things to fear.

At one point, the English-speaking white folks were the immigrants to this country. They claimed divine right to be here - something higher than whatever law or custom the native people's might have valued. The documents they brought to justify their presence were signed by a foreign monarch who never set foot within the borders of their new land. When the natives objected, we killed them.

Maybe that's what we're afraid of? That the sins of our past will come back to haunt us. That's the message, right? That these immigrants will replace us, remove us, overtake us - that we'll be left unemployed and impoverished and morally defeated, struggling to survive and maintain a once glorious way of life?

I can't help by think about all those laws and regulations, borders and nations - this whole system we've set up to regulate who can be where,
when, and why - I can't help but think about how that process if viewed on the native american reservations scattered across this land.

Even if every bit of racist, fear-mongering propaganda concerning immigrants were true (and none of it is) - we've still got no moral right to object to any of it.

Either the dream is for those who take it or it's not - we can't have it both ways.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

The North Korean Cop-Out

With all the troubling threats coming from the 'hermit kingdom' these days, it's easy to get worried. I mean a third-generation madman has nuclear weapons and seemingly no incentive not to use them. I don't appear too concerned about any of this - something that came as a surprise, even to me. Maybe part of it is living on the East Coast, where Kim Jong Un's missiles are unlikely to fall - I know, how selfless and caring of me, right? I think mostly, though, it's the knowledge that the US government, which has spent close to 50% of its annual budget on military preparedness for decades now, will likely just blast it's way out of this problem, regardless of the consequences.

Now, I don't think that's a wise solution for any number of reasons - the most being my general opposition to violence and war. However, I've been trouble by how easily I'm willing to let someone else do my dirty work in this instance. The number one critique of non-violence is that it's easy to do when someone else will do it - it's a typical retort from police officers or soldiers - and one I am generally challenged by. I work hard not to use that excuse, to be prepared to put my life in danger for peace, if need be, specifically because it's a valid critique. It's not really non-violence, if you're counting on the violence of someone else.

Yet I still find some measure of comfort if the notion that the US army could utterly reduce most of North Korea to rubble, if need be? It's a contradiction one doesn't have to ponder much when it's just a far-off possibility - however, as in recent weeks, when it looks like a more and more likely solution, it's an obstacle that must be faced.

I don't think it's likely that any world government will choose an alternative to violence, especially if other options have been tried extensively, so as much as I've been thinking and researching non-violent ways to potentially deal with the North Korean crisis, that's not really what this is all about.

How do I look at a situation in which people are almost guaranteed to die in large numbers with just about any outcome and not choose utility?
It's that means to an end thing, again - something I decry over and over again here - something I am absolutely opposed to on philosophical and theological grounds. The ends aren't ever ends. History is linked - stopping the madman today has influence on what happens tomorrow. Abandoning principles for a momentary victory might feel good to me and the people who are alive today (rather than dead) because of it, but is that reallt a better solution than choosing death now in the hope of a greater peace down the road?

I don't honestly know the answer to that question, because there's no evidence by which to make a decision. Violence has always been met with violence - at least on a national and international scale. The large-scale non-violence that characterized the Church in the first few centuries after Christ were not in the realm of global politics - it was not nation vs nation. The closest you might find is when Russia burned Moscow and withdrew from Napoleon's invasion, knowing he could never maintain supply lines through a harsh Russian winter - but that was really more tactical than noble; it was being willing to live with a problem, so long as the problem was far away.

Here, I think, it's important to point out the problems inherent with associating ourselves with a nation. The underlying Christian doctrine has always seen the people of God as an alternative nation, a separate construction, a different people. We get into trouble when we begin to associate ourselves with more than Christ. Being an American Christian (or a German Christian or a Korean Christian or a Christian from Lesotho, for that matter) is automatically a conflict. It might not always show up in our day to day lives, but we can't just let the passive be passive,
for passivity is a lie.

That's the real issue - we want to know how the US or China or Nigeria or Europe of whatever nation we associate ourselves with should address the problem in North Korea. For Christians, the prior issue is that we really shouldn't be associating ourselves with those nations in the first place. 1 Peter 2:9 call's Christians "a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation." We've too often taken that metaphorically, rather than quite literally, which is the alternative way of life proclaimed by Jesus and reinforced in the practice and teachings of Paul. It is not that we should become a nation to rival other nations,
but that we should avoid falling into the trap of nationalism.

The US may very well enter into war as a means of keeping North Korea from using nuclear weapons. Christians must mourn this - and any other violence - for war and violence are not part of the Kingdom of God. The very rational response from the US might be, "what else would you have me do?" Christians reply, "Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you. If your enemy is thirsty, give them something to drink; if they are hungry, feed them."

I don't know if that's a rational or even feasible option, especially given the history between the US and North Korea, but it's the only answer I know how to give - and it's the national call of God's people.

I'm not sure what that means for my initial problem? Does it mean being willing to die rather than kill? Yeah. But it can't mean being willing for other people to die so I don't have to. On the other hand, I don't think, say, moving to the west coast so as to be more in the path of any rogue North Korean rocket really makes much sense either - it's not going to guarantee my sacrifice any more than staying here - no should looking to die really be the way to deal with such a situation.

In the end, I believe the answer is not looking to avoid suffering. That's really at the root of this reliance on someone else's violence to spare me my own. So what if millions of impoverished, suffering North Koreans suffer even more - I'll get to keep my way of life. That's the mindset we need to fight. The reality is, I am safer and better off than most people in North Korea could ever dream to be. Even living simply,
being sacrificially generous, and avoiding the trappings of the typical US way of life will not change the disparity between us and them.

Maybe my call is to go - sneak into North Korea and simply suffer with the suffering. It's a holy, noble, and worthy act, perfectly in line with scripture and the witness of the Church. I suspect the world would be better off if we were all able to do it. We're not. What we can do,
though, is live in peace - active peace - here and now. Love people. Give to those in need. Suffer with those who suffer in our backyards and around the block. Be the people God has called us to be with the sincere hope that this war will be the last one.

What we can't do is avoid the problem. We can't continue to live in our isolated peace and quiet, just expecting things to change on our own.
The comfort we have was not one by righteous means, no matter what the national myths around us say. Christians are called to live into a different story - it's one of love and grace and peace for sure, but one achieved through sacrifice and suffering. If we're not committed to those things, we can't really enjoy the benefits.