Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Not Everything is Partisan

I am not saying the acting Attorney General, Sally Yates, refused to defend the Immigration Ban strictly for reasons of legality; what I am saying is that there is no reason on God's green Earth to assume she did. There is no reason for the media and those opposed to Trump to hold her up as some martyr for the cause and turn the issue partisan.

It seems pretty clear from her statement that Yates was personally opposed to the ban, but so is the vast majority of American - even a large part of Trump's constituency. The Executive Order was so broad and poorly defined that all sorts of legal residents are caught up in the web - if you need a source for that, check out the statements of pretty much every Senator, Governor, and sane person in the country. There's probably a solid legal precedent to do what Trump was trying to do; he just didn't do it well.

The job of an Attorney General or any District Attorney or State's Attorney, is to determine where to place the scare and valuable resources of their office. They decide which cases are worth fighting and which ones aren't. That's their job. Yes, you can say Yates was an Obama appointee, but that was after a career of non-partisan service in the Justice Department for a variety of Presidents. At some point, in gov't positions, you can't get promoted farther without a Presidential appointment.

She made a determination about the legality of the ban based on her expertise in making such decisions - decisions not unlike many Republican members of Congress made for themselves. It's not some protest against Trump; it's called doing her job. Does it align with her personal beliefs? Maybe; we don't know. Odds are that it does, but there's no reason, here, to make it into a partisan fight - that just plays into the hands of people you're trying to thwart.

I've come to believe that no one with power in Washington actually wants to change anything. They don't want peace. Rancor and division is what keeps them employed, on the news, and in business. They're (and this includes activists, media, and whoever else has their life and livelihood wrapped up in political games) just trying to score points for their side to better obtain or secure power.

Should Trump have fired her? That's complicated only because of the Department where she works. Any other Executive employee, I'd say, "Yes," absolutely. They all work to help Trump do his job, so he should be able to replace them at any time. The Department of Justice is a little different in that it's sole purpose is to make legal decisions about how to spend resources in the service of "justice." Presidents appoint people they know and trust presumably because they are in greater alignment on those issues, but it's also a dangerous place to meddle, because it's very easy for a President to, or to appear to, be tipping the scales with alternative motivations.

One of the biggest criticisms of the Eric Holder Justice Department, especially early on in the Obama Administration, was how political his decisions seemed to be. That's always something to avoid. Of course a President wants their Executive Orders, laws, pronouncements, and decisions defended as fervently as possible, but, at some point, they do have to let the department do its job.

Even so, I wouldn't say Trump's move was partisan so much, either, as personal. It's been proven, in the last few days, that the GOP is not entirely on board with this move; it's not an issue that divides along party lines. Jumping to conclusions about back and forth as if one side is the enemy doesn't help anything actually get accomplished. We need to take issues on their own merits to hold down the rancor and heal divisions.

Opposing Trump just because he's a perceived enemy is paying back precisely what the GOP did to Obama for most of his time in office. It's fighting a person, rather than dealing with issues. I think this ban is silly and stupid. I think the Executive Order imposing the ban was overly broad for its stated purpose, poorly conceived, and a waste of time, but I don't see it as an avenue for fighting a left-right war. When we treat it that way, we've done ourselves, and the country, a grave disservice.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Racial History

A couple weeks back, I watched the now Oscar nominated ESPN 30 for 30 Documentary OJ: Made in America. It's a 7.5 hour, five episode exploration of OJ Simpson, not only his murder trial, but his place in American and racial history, particularly as it pertains to LA. It's incredibly done - and episode three is perhaps the greatest piece of documentary film making I have ever seen.

That episode, which I'd recommend to anyone, centers on the history of the relationship between the LAPD and the black community. It's a sad, tragic story. For me, it was eye-opening. I have a history degree. I am well-read. I care to know and understand issues of social and racial justice as well as I can for a privileged white guy. I was floored by just how much well-documented history I was simply unaware of.

I don't mean the countless thousands and thousands of beatings, rapes, and lynchings that went virtually unnoticed in our nation's history; I mean the dozens and dozens of serious abusive incidents, intensely publicized and covered by media that are just lost to even the sympathetic white racial narrative.

I know, intellectually, that Emmett Till was not the only black teenager who's life brutally ended for being black, and I know, intellectually, that Bull Connor was not the only law enforcement to use dogs and fire hoses to quiet peaceful protesters. However, it's real easy to believe those were isolated incidents when they are the only ones you know. Episode three opened my eyes to this huge middle-ground of racial injustice - events that were covered, named, exposed, and then all but forgotten. Not forgotten by the black community, for sure, but lost to white history altogether.

You sort of know there's a lot you don't know - if there's one thing education teaches it's just how ignorant we really are - but this has really rattled me the last few weeks. Probably more so because my white sense of justice tells me there should be some way for me to remedy this oversight, when there really isn't. Part of understanding injustice is the reality that we, who come from the class of perpetrators, can never even understand it in ways that we'd like to.

Healing comes not in understanding or explaining - not even in apology or reconciliation - but in mourning. We have to be comfortable with the grave discomfort of injustice, because no matter what we do now, or moving forward, it cannot be undone.

Racial tension is not something new and its not immediate. Whatever problems we have now are firmly rooted in the past. If we don't understand that, we cannot act in appropriate ways in our own lives. This OJ documentary really helps put that in perspective for me. It's worth seeing. I hope you do.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Rights and Freedom

So there are some basic human rights - things I believe philosophically and theologically and existentially are owed to every human being by virtue of being alive. I've stated them here before, but simply, people deserve: nutritious food, a safe place to lay their head, education, basic health care, a meaningful day's work, and a loving community.

I believe a society (however one defines such a thing) is obligated to provide these things to everyone within the society or sacrifice mightily in the effort. That doesn't necessarily mean a government is obligated to provide such rights, especially if society has other means of doing so. However, governments, in a modern sense, are all-encompassing; they claim sovereignty over borders and all (human or otherwise) that lies within. To me, and I understand where some might disagree, this obligates them to be rights-provider of last resort.

Hear me: I don't think a government has to be all-encompassing. In fact, on the political spectrum, I'm much closer to a true anarchist than anything else. However, where a government makes such a claim without any major resistance (such as in the US), certain responsibilities come with such claims.

That's sort of the round about way to get to where I'm trying to go today - how I've come to, shorthand, claim that people living within the US deserve certain things - not because citizenship or residency automatically earns such things, but because their humanity demands them and their government, in a roundabout way, inherits the responsibility for ensuring they're provided.

I'd be all for society structuring itself in ways that provide for basic human rights without the need for heavy-handed top-down intervention. But until we have those systems working consistently and near-universally, responsibility remains. If you want the power, it comes with (Spiderman-like) responsibility.

Problems come when we focus our society around freedom. Yes, we like the wind-in-our-hair vitality of choosing our own destiny; and we love to have that coupled with the security of a nanny state. Make all your free-spirited decisions and trust that the social safety net will be there to catch you. It's the glory of celebrated self-sufficiency. Freedom is only real if we're capable of being self-sustaining individuals of true independence. I'm just not sure how anyone can believe that's the real state of humanity. It's wonderful wishful thinking and it might make for top-notch idealism, but a great ideal is not something you can eat for dinner.

I like the classic philosophical argument for the existence of God that says God is that of which nothing greater can be conceived. It's beautiful in its simplicity - the point being that while we can imagine the most gracious, benevolent, loving cosmic being, a real one is infinitely greater than the one in our head. That assumes, of course, limitless possibilities. It fails to take into account the very real world in which we live.

I have always considered myself an idealist. Those who (appropriately) nicknamed me Debbie Downer might disagree. However, I like to say I work my idealism within the parameters of reality. I believe the world contains greater things, profounder possibilities, and more infinite beauty than our senses can currently conceive - but that doesn't make the world completely open, because it still contains us and all our feeble human frailties.

We have and need rights precisely because we cannot achieve our aims, wants, and desires by ourselves. Self determination most certainly exists, but freedom does not. Our self-determination always comes with a cost and is contingent on our willingness to pay. That's precisely why we must secure, confirm, and provide these basic human rights to one another: because we can't supply them for ourselves.

We want to conflate rights and freedom, but really they're at the opposite end of the same spectrum. One is all about individualism, while the other is communal. As much as it would be nice (speaking as an introvert) to be able to wall ourselves off and survive, reality is as reality does, which means we're stuck with each other - for better or worse.

I choose better.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Post Election Political Philosophy

I'm disappointed, but it doesn't change my mind. I had a lot of people subtly and no-so-much ask, "Are you happy now - your privileged non-involvement got us Trump?" I mean, yeah, it's almost impossible not to have a preference when presented with the choice between two things - and the candidate I would've preferred to win, lost - but as Brian Zahnd is fond of saying, "Does anyone know the name of the 45th Roman Emperor?" (It was Probus, by the way, but the point remains.)

I don't think its necessarily wise to elect a sick person President of the United States, but Lord knows he's not the only narcissist to ever hold the most powerful office in the world (you can go back to that Roman Emperor list and throw darts). I certainly don't agree with his overarching philosophy or "me (or 'us') first," but that political philosophy is hardly new, it's just been stated more plainly.

This isn't an apology for Trump, either - I think those "respect the office, if not the man" arguments are way misguided. Our tradition has been "respect the office, if not the politics." Personal moral failure has been cause for resignation or impeachment in modern Presidencies.* I do think, though, people have too thoroughly conflated politics and personal morality, using Trump's abhorrentness to justify a vilification of everything he says. This is typical practice in political debates (regardless of whether the person in question has questionable morality or not) and thus holds little weight with the other side.

What I've been saying, and continue to believe is that there is no such thing as good and evil when it comes to gov'ts and elections. The pure pursuit and wielding of power is harmful to the world, unless its rejected and given away. Pope Francis is confounding everyone simply because he's refusing to use his power for anything other than loving people. Neither the conservatives nor the liberals can quite understand why he's not using the power he's been given to do more - of anything. I suspect he's just trying to wield power in a way that might be consistent with the theology that is supposed to run the Church.

We get seduced by celebrity and by power. It's no different if its Obama or Trump, just because we happen to like the ways in which one or the other uses that power. As I've said all along, the emperor has no clothes - the position is so revered and powerful because WE, THE PEOPLE, have made it that way. When we play into the power games, we support them. It can't just be something we pick or choose depending on our perspective.

In that sense, I have no problem separating Trump the man from a Trump administration. Power is generally nameless and faceless anyway, despite our desire to personalize it. I feel it will be pretty easy to critique both without having to mix them. It's different for my generation certainly because we've had Presidents our entire lives who were generally kind and decent people. Yeah, nobody's perfect - and one of them was, at best, super creepy, and at worse a serial sexual predator - but we've not generally had real moral issues with the personal lives of Presidents. It's new, and it's hard to deal with. I don't know that I'll ever be able to say the phrase "President Trump," out loud - it just doesn't compute with my life experience - but that's an entirely different thing than critiquing power or how its used.

I see it as the same kind of debate as abortion - the popular practice is to argue over its legality, but people rarely pause to consider its place within a larger moral framework of life and death - we're too individualized. When it comes to Presidents, we're much too consumed with arguing the minutia of bills, and executive orders, and judicial precedent, than we are about how these fit within the large framework of humanity and our responsibility to each other.

This power, and participation in it, is seductive. It makes us forget that the Affordable Care Act is, and always was, a giant travesty of legislation, argued by committee and amended piecemeal to get passage, and never really tackling the core issues of healthcare costs in the first place. It was, however, a grand step forward for the philosophical ideal that all people should be taken care of. Read the stories; people were well aware of that difference at the time; few are today. It's become a political football, not representative of the issue itself, but the struggle for power. That doesn't make it unimportant, but it does, perhaps, I'd argue, illustrate that the halls of power are not the means by which we should work to achieve whatever large ideals we hope to see embodied in the world.

The very magic of power is that it leads people to forget that other options exist. It is the Turkish Delight that blinds us to reality. That doesn't change just because it starts going badly. In fact, it's much easier to have an emperor who's an enemy than one who seems like a friend. Just look what Constantine did to the Church the first time around? Or Henry VIII? Or King Cyrus?

It's far too easy for us to imagine that power and empire are the way to get things done.

I am certainly a pragmatist at heart - in many ways, too much so - but I've learned, through this faith journey, that idealism matters. Not even that one should take precedence, but that one should never be sacrificed for the other. You have to do that in power politics, which is why I like to steer clear - and why I'd recommend others do also.

We are not called to do big things - maybe the creation of the nation state is our modern Babel - we are called to love those around us, and whatever we do in the realm of elective politics, those personal, everyday relationships can never take a back seat.

I've been thinking all along I'd just avoid the Inauguration coverage - and I'm not going to go out of my way to see it - but it is interesting and it feels almost like ignoring something both historcially significant and personally fascinating out of, I don't know, spite or personal offense, is playing directly into the hands of power I just spent all this time denouncing.

I have to get a haircut today. If I miss a speech or two, oh well, and I'm headed out this afternoon to the giant, public, welcome home party for Joe Biden - someone I respect a lot for keeping his sanity in the midst of insanity (even as I regret his choice of where to place a lifetime of energy and effort). I'm going to treat it like a regular day, because that's what it is.

During this week of MLK celebration, I agree with his famous quote, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." I just feel its far too limiting for politicians to invoke it as support for policy. Justice and peace and goodness and love are much bigger than that - we have to remember.

*And the revelations of Kennedy's bedroom antics took him off the list of "great Presidents" and put him on the list of "interesting historical celebrities."

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Blog is Back... Maybe

It's been a long vacation. I'd like to blame a lot of things. I was genuinely depressed after the election. I wrote a few things I'd been working on before Nov 8th and put them up, maybe a few reflections (garbled and incoherent as they may be) and then largely left it alone. I'm not so much upset by the ideas or the party than won - there are always things that go poorly, even if the best candidate comes out on top. Too much has been written about such things and I find no real reason to pile upon them - but let's say the best metaphor I've found to describe me feelings is that it's as if our country elected Bill Cosby President. Whatever his public words or opinions happen to be are entirely besides the point. That's what's so depressing.

I can't blame the lack of writing on the election, though - not entirely. I was certainly uninspired to write for a while (although you'll see there's an Advent reflection and a book review posted in the interim) and I'm not sure that inspiration is back yet. It's hard to tell, you see, because I have, in fact, been doing quite a bit of writing. During the basketball season, for those unaware, I am the Lead Columnist for d3hoops.com and you can find several thousands of words I've written in the last few weeks there.

I know I shouldn't be depressed about the prolonged absence. I missed one post over Thanksgiving and then two before Christmas, but you've not heard from me since December 22, which is the longest absence I've had here in years. I don't think I should be upset with myself or apologetic for being busier. But the truth is, even if I couldn't have made all my normally scheduled (self-imposed) deadlines, I could have made some of them. I've gotten a bit lazy.

So, there is it. The election - a happy reminder that I was a bit too tied up in things I've worked really hard not to be tied up in; the basketball season - a really awesome (paying) outlet for my writing bug; and plain old laziness - a monkey I can't ever seem to get off my back.

Will I return in this new year? Perhaps. I'd sure like to. There are a lot of "drafts" sitting in the blog hopper. I'd like to keep up and maybe even back fill the space to mask my laziness for future generations (although this post may certainly reveal the truth).

I've got a few things to say - some reviews to make. I might even get around to the Grammy Best Album nominees as has been my tradition (although the thought of that is dreadful right now). We'll see.

I'm writing, at least - and that is a start.


Thursday, January 12, 2017

La La Land

The opening moments of La La Land are rapturous. The vivid colors and lively music, set beside the modern, Los Angeles off-ramp exploding into choreographed song and dance just fill the heart with joy. It's an impressive set piece, the magnitude of which is not lost on the audience. The film does an admirable job keeping that notion alive, although the rest of the movie does not quite maintain those soaring heights. The acting performances from Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are exquisite, reassembling their chemistry from Crazy, Stupid, Love, where they were the most redeeming part of an otherwise average movie.

The problems in La La Land are not really something they can control. Writer/Director Damian Chazelle (Whiplash) does such a perfect job showing us pure, unadulterated beauty through the first part of the film that inevitable conflict seems like defeat. I know no serious critic or film buff would praise a movie that's just a hand-off love story set to music, but darn it if that isn't what I wanted. The story we get, while formulaic in its bones, is paid off in its own kind of beauty. It's fulfilling if not fantastical and a real credit to the quality of the writing.

In the end, La La Land was just OK. It may very well be one of the ten best movies of the year - I'm not doubting its quality - I just think perhaps it was built up a little too much in my mind going in. There was a span, in the middle, when the drama was picking up, that they went so long without a musical number, when the next one struck, it took me five seconds to figure out why a character was uncharacteristically bursting into song. The songs are great, though, catchy and rewatchable - I couldn't help but think, in the might-have-been flashback towards the end, that the movie depicted there wouldn't have been a more interesting story to tell.

It was worth the trip to the theater, if only for the color palate splayed across the big screen, and I'd certainly recommend it to anyone, but I suspect if this movie wins Best Picture at the Oscars, it will be a really down year overall.