Thursday, September 29, 2005

Acquainted With Grief

Isaiah 53:3 (New Living Translation)

3 “He was despised and rejected--a man of sorrows, acquainted with bitterest grief. We turned our backs on him and looked the other way when he went by. He was despised, and we did not care.”

I just finished my morning pilgrimage. It began about an hour and a half ago when I turned left and headed toward the “conservative” part of town. About three minutes into the walk I passed by Walnut School. Kids, kindergartners I think, were streaming into the building. Most of them had jackets on (it was about thirty-nine degrees) and were loaded down with backpacks that seemed bigger than the kids themselves. One boy was being escorted, hand and hand, by his mother, which didn’t please him at all. He was complaining bitterly about not being able to walk freely like most of the other kids. I’m not sure exactly how he did it, but he managed to break loose from her grip and ran toward some of the boys entering the school. He waved his arms in the air, triumphantly, and began to sing a song of joy. I couldn’t understand the lyrics, but sensed that in all likelihood they had something to do with freedom.

I turned north from there and passed the hospital and then made my way east again on Twelfth Street. Outside the Medicine Shop a man was loading an electric cart on to his van. I assumed it was headed for some senior citizen’s house to provide day to day inside transportation for its recipient. The thing that struck me as I passed by was that it was painted candy-apple red; sort of like the hot rods I remember when I was a kid. “Even flower children grow old,” I mused to myself as I made my way north toward Fifteenth Street.

I made a circle around Emporia’s “surgical hospital,” and picked up my pace. I think, subliminally, I was trying to stay ahead of the surgeon’s knife and the candy-apple red “get around.” I’m sixty-two now and I’ve come to appreciate the gift of mortality, but I still have plans that don’t include being hacked on by some surgeon or tooling around our local Wal-Mart in a souped up electric cart.

From there I walked toward C of E (College of Emporia) Park and made my way past several pear trees that had been planted years ago in memory of some loved on. Just beyond the trees I stopped in front of a bed of Irises which had been planted in three rows of about forty each. Each Iris had a nameplate in front of it. There was “Prairie Sunset” and “Pink Flirt.” There were some named for loved ones, including exotic names like Stella, which I’m sure Tennessee Williams himself would have been proud of. Toward the end of the bed there was one flower that struck a contemporary chord. “Mardi Gras Parade,” the template in front of it read. As I had when I passed the Medicine Shop I again mused. “Won’t be much of a “Fat Tuesday” this year.”

By the time I walked back south toward our main hospital I was aware of a deeper undercurrent. This morning’s little journey was less about me than it was about America’s young these days. The image that captivated me was the children wearing back packs and the little boy trying to shake free from his mother’s grasp. For some reason this morning the sight of kids going to school wasn’t as pleasant as it normally is for me. There was something that seemed less light to me in their gaits. I wondered if the back packs might be harbinger of days to come for these little innocents and that they were intuitively seeing the heaviness of the future already being laid upon their tiny shoulders.

I’m back home now. It’s getting close to noon, some two hours since my walk. But I can’t shake the feeling that came upon me as I made my way along the streets.

During our vacation we spent one night in Asheveille, North Carolina. We didn’t do a lot while we were there. In the late afternoon we walked around Biltmore Village. There we stopped in briefly and browsed around a few trendy shops, eventually buying a couple of bars of overpriced lavender smelling soap. In the evening we had dinner at a Red Lobster. It was there, while I was wolfing down my clams and scallops, that Nancy brought to my attention a young man who was sitting across from us. “Do you see that tattoo?” she whispered. “It looks like a spider web coming up his neck.” I glanced over, hoping that the young man hadn’t heard Nancy and that he wouldn’t notice me. I then turned back to Nancy, trying to be as nonchalant as I could. “Just another customer eating seafood,” I said.
“Did you see the tattoo?”
“I did indeed.”
“Do you ever wonder why so many kids are doing stuff like this?”
“I have.”
“Any answers?”
“Not really. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, but it must to them.”

I guess that somewhere in the recesses of my mind I was mulling Nancy’s questions over. While I was finishing the clams left on my plate, telling her how sweet they tasted, I also asked her to write down a title for me to explore more fully when I got home. “Acquainted With Grief,” I suggested. “I think a lot of these kids are becoming acquainted with grief.” Nancy wrote the words down and, until today, that was that.

For some reason, the sight of children weighed down with back packs this morning has brought back the memory of that young man in Asheville. What compelled him to do what he’d done to himself? And, what is it that makes so many of his peers feel the need to pierce every imaginable orifice in their young bodies? I mean, they’re piercing eyebrows, noses, lips, belly buttons, and nipples. It used to only be ears. And, they’re tattooing their necks, backs, stomachs, legs. Some are even tattooing the tops of their heads.

What’s going on? It seems that we may be witnessing the birth of a generation of flagellants whose heroes are svelte super-models who double as dope fiends, sluggers juiced on steroids, and rock stars who entertain their adoring flocks by “cutting themselves with broken glass.” How has it come to this?

When we lived in Memphis Nancy and I attended a small Vinyeard church about a block east of the University of Memphis. It was a small storefront church situated strategically in a “bad part of town.” Directly to the north of the church was Rocky’s Tattoo Parlor. To the south was a “Psychic Advisor.” While most respectable churches had long since abandoned the “Strip,” as the neighborhood was known, the Vineyeard was nestled in between the tattoo parlor and the psychic advisor, sort of like a rose among the thorns. It was, as I’ve later come to see, Divine placement.

I recall a conversation I had one Saturday afternoon with the psychic advisor. A group of us were cooking burgers and offering them to Gen X’ers as they passed by. The advisor must have smelled the food and came over for a visit. He was, surprisingly, a middle-aged man who in another setting could easily have been mistaken for a stock broker. He was that “ordinary.” I offered him a hamburger and he accepted. “Thanks,” he said. “I’m a bit hungry.” He took a bite or two and then tried to make some small talk. “It looks you and I are in the same business.” “What business is that?” I asked, knowing what his answer would be. “Souls,” he said. I thought for a moment and replied. “Actually, we’re direct competitors.”
The psychic flinched a bit when I answered. “That seems ominous. What’s your intent?”
“Well,” I said. “Business to business, our intent is to put you of business.”

In the months after that brief encounter the Vineyard had a great deal of success reclaiming souls that were once captives of the advisor. A lot young people who had once been desperate to peer into the future came through the doors of that little church on the “Strip” and learned to plant their feet firmly on the ground of today.

Along with the successes, though, came the failures. The psychic advisor did go out of business, but Rocky’s continued to flourish. We weren’t able to reach everyone who passed our way. Some came, expressed a bit of curiosity, and then moved on. Some felt that Rocky better expressed their worldview than did we.

And so it is that the faces flash by me now, young people with tattooed necks, pierced lips, and dark faces. I also see the faces of little boys and girls making their way to a schoolhouse door, wondering what the future holds for them. And I wonder how it’s all come to where it is now.

What’s the message they’re trying to send us? What’s the root answer to Nancy’s question? All I can posit in my mind is that they’ve become acquainted with grief; they’re caught in its grip. But how can that be? This is the richest generation of young people who’ve ever lived. We’ve given them everything we possibly can. We’ve given them sports cars and college scholarships. We’ve given them 20x20 rooms in five thousand square foot houses. We’ve given them Blackberrys and laptops, Gameboys and MP3 players, cell phones with cameras and money that seems to be loading down their wallets and purses. We’ve given them everything they’ve asked for and more and yet they still don’t seem happy. You pass them on the streets when they come of age and try to say hello to them and all you get is either a blank stare or nothing at all.

“What’s wrong” I ask myself. It’s really a foolish question, because I know the answer. Not only have we given them the stuff that dreams are made of, but we’ve also given them “uppers” to keep them awake all day and “downers” to put them to sleep at night. Not only have we given them big rooms in big houses, we’ve also given them designer drugs like Ritalin so that we can avoid interacting with them. We’ve given them unlimited freedom, sent them on their way, and we’re now paying the heavy price for the neglect.

What have they been looking for all this time? Love, I think. And, we’ve betrayed them by giving them anything but. It’s no wonder they’re piercing themselves and subjecting themselves to all the pain. They’re crying out for a conversation or counsel and we’re buying them off with Blackberrys and laptops. We’ve given them everything but what they really need.

Las night in our men’s group we watched a video done by Edwin Louis Cole. It was all about the Cross. One of the things that struck me very powerfully as I watched and listened was what Cole had to say about the core meaning of the Cross. “The Cross,” he said, “is the place we come to stay. It’s not the place we visit from time to time.” “And,” he said, “it’s the place where we die to our own instincts for self preservation.”

I see the painted faces, the pierced lips pass by my mind’s eye now and I wonder whether the toys given are the self preservation mechanisms adults have invented, means developed in the sophistication of the sixties to fend off death to the self indulgence of the age they brought on.

I think there’s only one hope left if we are to recapture this lost generation. We need to plunge into the valley of grief with them and pull them out. Long before He was born, it was said of Jesus that he was going to be a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. He came, lived, and in the end He bore a cross. Now, for a generation that has plunged into that valley, we, as those who have embraced Him, must also plunge, to be acquainted with the grief, the alienation, and the despair they feel. It’s a cross we must bear. There is no other way.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005


James 4:17 (New Living Translation)

17 “Remember, it is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it.”

I get together with a group of guys from church on Tuesday mornings for breakfast at the Commercial Street Diner. It’s a good way for me to get the pulse of Emporia. I like to think of these little excursions as time spent with the “ham and eggers,” the men with barrel chests, ham hock hands, and plain speech.

It’s taken time, but I’ve become a regular of sorts. Almost all of the other guys order biscuits and gravy or eggs and hash browns while I order my usual, a large glass of apple juice, oatmeal, and an English muffin. In fact, I’ve become such a regular that the waitress brings my apple juice even before I sit down. Then, this little cycle of the seasons ends with the rest of the guys having a good laugh at my expense. I’ve come to love and appreciate it.

For most of the guys there is a day of hard work ahead of them, hence the hearty breakfasts. While I sit here thinking and typing Danny Horst is out in some field near here, “thrashing” something or other. Mike Blake is selling cellular phone service and is more than likely on the road to Fort Scott right now. Cliff Allen is either hanging or repairing a door. Steve Quandt is probably pretty close to Kansas City with his wife, Marletta. He’s needing some supplies for the car washes he owns and operates here in town and Marletta is going to be looking for some furniture. That’s hard work if you ask me. Gene Stair is a retiree like me, but I suspect he’s in the middle of some project that’ll keep him busy for the rest of the day. And Mike Stubbs, our pastor, is in all likelihood, preparing a sermon, praying for the flock, or binding wounds. And, as I said, I’m sitting here half thinking, half meditating on the morning, occasionally, in bursts of twenty or thirty words, putting those thoughts down in as concrete a fashion as I can.

One of the things that struck me this morning was on how things so often converge. After breakfast had been ordered this morning Mike Blake shared about some recent experiences he had in Kansas City. He’d been given an exercise to go out into the “marketplace” and find someone to break bread with. It seems that “coincidence” led him to a Jewish woman who worked in a store in the mall Mike had decided would be a good place to break bread. I think if it had been me I’d have chosen a different venue, but “coincidence” is often tailor made. The woman was apparently taking a break from work and that gave Mike the opportunity to strike up a conversation. One thing led to another and the two began to talk about matters of faith, Mike from a Christian world view and the woman from a very nominally religious, albeit Jewish, point of view. It all ended with the woman telling Mike that he seemed to be a very kind, caring man and then offering him a piece of a pretzel she was eating. As I sat listening I was amazed by how closely coincidence and convergence were aligned. It all began with a little exercise and wound up being a profound experience in breaking bread. I’m certain that in the days to come I’ll find out where the coincidence and convergence were leading.

As I ate I listened to the conversation around me. Most of it concerned itself with Israel and the Jewish people. The guys are, to a man, staunch supporters of Israel’s right to exist and are also, to a man, concerned with the pullouts from Gaza and the West Bank. “Where will the concessions end?” was the question of the day.

It’s a really good question. Where will the concessions end? Or will they even end?

The breakfast conversation brought to mind another little “coincidence” Nancy and I had during or recent vacation. We were in Washington D.C.’s Union Station. While Nancy was getting as much information as she could about our final destination, the
National Holocaust Memorial Museum, I was buying day passes for the Metro from the most confusing dispensing machine I’ve ever been around. It took me about three or four minutes to decipher what I was supposed to do and another two or three to mash the right buttons, pay, and get the tickets. When I finally succeeded I started to make my way over to where Nancy was gathering our intelligence for the day. About three steps into my journey I heard a woman’s voice. “Can you please help me? This machine is so confusing.” Another three or four minutes deciphering, another two or three mashing buttons and the rescue mission seemed complete. By this time Nancy had made her way over to me, wondering out loud, “Are you okay?” “I’m fine,” I responded. “Just helping this woman buy a metro ticket. The damned machine is so confusing it takes a genius like me to figure it out.” The woman, understanding the degree of difficulty of the task we’d been through, laughed. “I’m Rachela Dotan. Thanks for helping me.” With that she handed me a business card that read “Rachela Dotan, Licensed Tourist Guide. I scanned down and saw an address – 11 Harel St. Haifa 34555. I put the card in my wallet and asked her, “Where are you going today?” “To the Holocaust Museum,” she replied.
“What a coincidence. My wife and I are going there too. Why don’t you come with us?”

Rachela, probably thinking that the trip might be just as complex as the ticket dispensing machine, agreed.

We only got lost once on our way to the museum, but Rachela didn’t seem to mind. About a couple of blocks from the museum I moved from directions and small talk to the politics and philosophy of the Middle East. “How do people in Israel feel about the pullouts from Gaza and the West Bank?” “Our feelings are mixed,” she replied. “We’ve had to spend billions protecting so very few of our citizens that most of us feel that we can make things safer by pulling out.”
“What about security in the future?”
“No Israeli harbors any illusions there. We want peace and secure borders, but we also know that our Arab brothers who surround us really want to destroy us. There’s talk of peace and we make concessions, but we know that we must rely on ourselves alone for our defense. We will never again allow ourselves to have our security placed solely in the hands of others.”

Rachela’s words became more animated as we entered the museum. “This building tells something of our story. It tells a story we don’t want others to forget.” With that, she gave us two of the tickets she had and said her goodbyes and final thanks to us, then made her way to the one exhibit she wanted to see, I assumed in privacy.

The museum tour actually begins on the third floor. I think there’s some symbolism to it, part of the terrible lesson the Jewish people took from the Holocaust. Madness descends; it never elevates. There were other lessons in the ambience as well. The third floor was relatively comfortable and warm, but as we made our way to the lower levels the air became increasingly cold. The message, again, was clear. Evil casts a chill upon the human soul; it never brings warmth or comfort.

I think of our breakfast conversation, though, and sense that there are other lessons as well. Just like the convergence and coincidence overtook Mike Blake at the mall the other day and in the same way that convergence and coincidence overtook Nancy and me in the Washington, D.C. metro a few weeks ago, history and coincidence often converge on all of humanity.

On the second floor of the Holocaust Museum there is a small exhibit tucked quietly in with the more renowned ones. In the mid to late thirties it was becoming increasingly clear to Europe’s Jews, in general, and Germany’s Jews, in particular, that the “final solution,” the Holocaust, had grown from its infancy and was picking up the force of a deadly storm. In September of 1935 the
Nuremberg Laws were passed. In October of 1938 it was Kristallnacht. Evil events were converging on the Jewish people. Some Jews, seeing the oncoming evil, tried to emigrate. A few were successful, but most were rebuffed. For those trying to escape to America their need for safety from der Fuhrer was converging with our national need to recover from the depression. Some lawmakers pleaded for increased Jewish immigration, but most, seeing their constituents in need of jobs and security themselves, felt that European Jews were a threat to American labor. In the end, American economic need won the day. The Jewish people had few allies. The rest, as we all should know now, is history.

Convergence. Coincidence. They come in the lives of individuals. They come in the history of nations. They come in our malls. They come while we’re having breakfast at an Emporia, Kansas diner. They come while we’re in the subways. And, they come when evil collides with all that is good in the world. In some cases they only require that we nod, knowing that we’ve learned a lesson. Most often, though, they call upon us to act.

The failure to act at these historic points of convergence brings tragic consequences. As I think of these historic failures I’m reminded of
George McClellan, one of the greatest military logisticians in history. At a point in history where events were converging upon the American Union, calling upon the great nation to eradicate slavery, McClellan was given command Abraham Lincoln’s Army of the Potomac and further told to quickly prosecute the war that had begun which would answer the great moral question that had precipitated the conflict. Lincoln ordered McClellan to act, but McClellan pursued a course of “caution.” Robert E. Lee and his brain trust saw this and took full advantage of it. McClellan would hatch grand schemes and gather great armies, only to be either outflanked or outfoxed by his Confederate counterparts. In one colossal failure, the Peninsular Campaign, he had a huge numerical advantage, with twice as many troops as his adversaries. He had a supply chain that stretched for miles and miles, a testament to his skill as a logistician. But he had no will to fight. John Magruder, his Confederate counterpart, knew this well and took advantage of this fatal flaw in character. Magruder, who was an amateur actor, had small units of his army march back and forth along the field that stood between him and McClellan. As the Confederate troops marched back and forth along the fields and roads a cloud of dust rose. McClellan, seeing this, feared the worst. Rather than attack he stopped his army in its tracks and wired Lincoln, requesting reinforcements. Lincoln wired back, exasperated, noting that if McClellan had no real use for the army at his disposal he would certainly love to borrow it to do what it was formed to do, to fight.

The Peninsular Campaign, and McClellan’s failure to act, only prolonged the war. All we have today is the history of those times as they really were. But I wonder, as events converged during those dark days, how much shorter, how much less bloody the conflict might have been if only McClellan had acted.

In 1864, McClellan ran against Lincoln, as a “peace Democrat” in the presidential election. He lost a significant electoral battle which belied the closeness of the popular vote, which he only lost by about four hundred thousand votes.

Years after the Civil War he was elected governor of New Jersey.

I also wonder how different things might have been had the “peace Democrats” won the election of 1864. Would a “peace president” have concluded that the freedom of America’s African-American slaves wasn’t worth the price in blood that the nation was paying? Would a “peace president,” heeding the cries of a war weary nation, have sued for peace? Would a “peace president” have rescinded the
Emancipation Proclamation of 1862?

Thank God we don’t have to answer those questions. Events converged on the nation and the nation responded. In the end, history vindicated the cause and the man who, when events converged upon him, refused to bend his knee to expediency. On March 4, 1865, he expressed, in vivid language, the nation’s need to pursue a course that was, while paved in blood, later to be
vindicated by history:

“The Almighty has his own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses! for it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through his appointed time, he now wills to remove, and that he gives to both North and South this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to him? Fondly do we hope--fervently do we pray--that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn by the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Events seem to converge in so many ways. They converge in diners and in subway stations. They converged a century and a half ago along the lines of battle and principle drawn before a nation. They converged a few generations ago before a world turning its back on Abraham’s seed. They converge before us now in the Gulf of Mexico. And they converge before us in this new millenium, day by day, in the
Cradle of Civilization.

Each point of convergence along the way demands an answer, a response. One generation’s leaders responded and paid a heavy price in blood and treasure for the just victory. Another generation’s leaders responded by pitting its need for full employment against the need of brothers and sisters half a world away to escape evil and tyranny. Today, in diners and subway stations, in banks and suburban homes, in brownstones and the halls of power, events are also converging. In the face of all that’s converging there are cries to retreat and there are cries to advance.

Beyond the diners and the brownstones, good and evil are also colliding in a great test of cosmic wills, converging with all of humanity. In the light of all that’s converging Divine Providence has positioned America in a place of great responsibility. History will either vindicate us for acting or condemn us for retreating. We are being tested and we must not fail. We must not retreat. We must advance!

Monday, September 26, 2005

The Political Divide - Comments on Comments

Psalm 119:129-130 (New Living Translation)

129 “Your decrees are wonderful. No wonder I obey them!”
130 “As your words are taught, they give light; even the simple can understand them.”

I thought I’d take a few minutes to respond to a couple of comments readers have made over the past few weeks. I’ll begin with this one from Jay, who lives somewhere in Kansas (Topeka, I think). He commented on my post titled “The Little Wonders of Fly-Over Country.”

“Isn't it interesting how some folks in our state can embrace the image of John Brown...but somehow lack the conviction he had and, in fact, seem to oppose the liberal ideals he died for?”

I think that what Jay was trying to say was that John Brown was willing to die for a cause he believed in while Kansans like me aren’t. He couldn’t resist getting an uppercut in, even though the essay was about small city life here in Kansas. The comment reminded me a bit of a couple of songs, one from my military days and another from Bob Dylan. I’m told that the barracks ditty goes back to the forties and goes something like this:

“The movies in the army, they say they’re mighty fine,
You ask for Betty Grable, they give you Frankenstein.”

The Dylan number goes back to 1981:

“Try to be pure at heart, they arrest you for robbery,
Mistake your shyness for aloofness, your shyness for snobbery,
Got the message this morning, the one that was sent to me
About the madness of becomin’ what one was never meant to be.”

What can I say? I’ll attempt to set the record straight.

I served in the U.S. military for eight years, almost all of them serving under the leadership of the Democratic Party. I went wherever duty called, and that duty included one tour of duty in Vietnam. From 1965 till 1966 I got acquainted with Vietnam from Saigon to Can Tho to Hue to Danang. I also became very acquainted with how many folks back home felt about folks like me. They got the media splash and attention while those of us who served got to go back home to the contempt and hatred of those whose “principles” kept them out of harm’s way.

In spite of all that I found Vietnam a very formative experience for me. I found the strength to live by principle or give my life in their behalf, if necessary, while I was there. And I also found faith in God, something that I had invested in mortal men before. About a year ago I described how it happened. A short excerpt from that piece follows:

Some of the other troops picked up on my surly attitude and tried to befriend me. The especially vulnerable of them, the Christians I met, got it full bore. They would usually start with the obligatory, “How you doin?”
“Alright, I guess, but I’d really prefer it if you’d leave me alone.”
“Why? I’m just askin’ because I care.”
“People should care about each other. I mean, God cares.”
“Let’s not go there, alright.”
“What’s wrong with you, guy, don’t you believe in God?”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Trust me, it’s true.”
“I don’t understand. I mean, look at all the beauty in this world. Where do you think it came from?”
“About the same place as all these mangled bodies we see every day.”
“I don’t understand how you can’t believe in God.”
“Well I don’t understand how you can, so we’re even. Now leave me alone.”

The conversations with Christians would almost all end that way. There was one exception, Paul Vartenisian. Paul was an NCO assigned to my duty section. He took an interest in me about six months into my tour. He seemed like a nice man to me and it seemed he really cared about me. The casual friendship went well until he came by the barracks one day. The conversation started innocently enough, then it got religious. “Phil,” he said. You’ve got to know God loves you. You really do.”
“Come on Sarge. Leave me alone.”
“He cares, Phil. He cares.”
“You’ve got to know He loves you. He died on the cross for you.”
Those words – “died on the cross” – hit home, although I wouldn’t admit it. They brought me back to my childhood and the man who was being crucified on the fence outside my apartment window. “Just leave me alone. I want nothing to do with this.”
“I can’t, Phil, I can’t. Your life is worth everything to Him.”
“Get the hell outta’ here and leave me alone.”
Fred turned to go. “I’ll go, Phil, but I won’t leave you alone. I’ll be praying for you.”
“You just go right ahead for all the good it’ll do.” I said. “Your prayers mean nothing to me.”

“In the six months or so I’d been in Vietnam I’d gotten used to sleeping with helicopters constantly flying over our barracks or the sound of bombs exploding in the distance. But after the conversation with Sergeant Vartenisian things changed. I began to toss and turn throughout the night, replaying the conversation with him over and over in my head. It really bothered me but I couldn’t make sense of it. I would lay awake at night and wonder, “What are you so worried about. He isn’t praying to anyone or anything. Just go to sleep.” But, I couldn’t. The next time I saw Paul I took him aside and told him that while I respected his rank, I would kill him if he didn’t stop what he was doing. He never flinched. “Don’t you understand, Phil, God is trying to talk to you.” He said no more.”

“A week after that conversation I was assigned to take care of burning our section’s classified trash. It was very unpleasant duty. I took the five or six bags we had, grabbed an M-16, and went out to the incinerator, which was about a couple of hundred feet from our building. It was a very private spot on the top of a hill covered with tropical growth. I unlocked the gate, went in, and started to work. A couple of minutes into my ordeal I heard something rustling down the hill from me. I picked up the weapon and looked into the trees. Near the bottom of the hill I saw what appeared to be an old man. He was squatting down, defecating. “Something” seemed to possess me. A thought struck me. “Why don’t you shoot him? He’s just an old man. His life is probably miserable anyway. You’ll just be putting him out of his misery. Go ahead man. Do it!”
I raised the weapon and aimed down the hill. I was about ready to squeeze on the trigger when I heard these words, “The quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.” I stopped and wiped my face, which by now was sweating profusely. I raised the weapon again. And once more I heard the words, “The quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.” I knew the second time I heard them where they came from. These words that pleaded with me to stay my hand came from William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. They were Portia’s words to Shylock, pleading against exacting a pound of flesh, pleading for mercy”:

“The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice.
Therefore, Jew,Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.”

“I dropped the weapon and fell on my face, sobbing. “I don’t even know if You’re real”, I cried. “But if you are please show me. Please, please, show me.”

“I look back at that day now in wonder. There was nothing else in my frame of reference that would have prevented me from killing that old Vietnamese man that day than the words I heard. I was soon to learn that they did not come by chance, but that they had been spoken to me by the man in my dreams who was being crucified on the fence outside my window years before.”

That was close to forty years ago. Since those eventful days I’ve tried my best to walk by faith and by principle. I’ve stumbled more than a few times. There are times when I’ve lurched along and there have been seasons of doubt. But in spite of the failures I’ve kept moving. In spite of the opposition I’ve remained steadfast. I’ve been cursed and cursed at. I’ve been spit on. Nothing that bitter men like Jay can change me. I am who I am by the grace of God.

A day or so ago there was a comment from Tom Knapp on my post titled “Oprah’s Chump Change” that deserves an answer:

“I cringe every time I see the word “liberal” used to portray the 20th-century trend of the Democratic Party (I'm a “classical” liberal, a/k/a a libertarian).”

His point is well taken. Political and philosophical labels, especially in twenty-first century America, are loaded with years and years of fact, fiction, invention, and sometimes hate.

I cut my philosophical and political teeth in Boston, Massachusetts and my view of the political left is colored by those times. My experience upon leaving Boston in 1961 led me to follow a course more to the right than I’d learned in my early years. Some folks, particularly detractors on the right and the left, say I’m a “neoconservative.” Some say that I’m a “lunatic.” I know the facts about myself. I’ll leave it to others to add the fiction and hate.

Now let me make it clear. Tom Knapp has never said an unkind word to me. In fact, any time he’s commented the discourse has been civil and well reasoned. Tom, it seems to me, is a good man.

If I am a neoconservative I’m sure that there are shades of meaning that others draw from what I say and write. It just comes with the label. James Q. Wilson saw this phenomenon and described it this way:

“The left considers neoconservatism with a curiosity that veers into animosity. Something about neoconservatism often drives otherwise level-headed liberals into a frenzy. The left perceives the neoconservatives as an undeniably intelligent and influential group of thinkers who speak their language, cite their sources – in short, understand them perfectly but almost always come down on the wrong side.”

There’s a reason for all this. Many neoconservatives were born into the liberal movement of the sixties and beyond and “matured” to the point that they embraced a different set of principles they had been told to live by. Among those who “matured” the movement can lay claim to men like Irving Kristol, Norman Podohertz, and Daniel Patrick Moyihan and women like Jeanne Kirkpatrick and Gertrude Himmelfarb.

Why were they, and others who embraced neoconservatism labeled? I suspect there may be a hint of jealousy in it:

“Much of the success of the neoconservatives has been, perhaps paradoxically, due to the early attachment many of them had with the left. Writing of his own experience and that of many of his friends as socialist college students, Irving Kristol explained in 1977, “Joining a radical movement when one is young is very much like falling in love when one is young. The girl may turn out to be rotten, but the experience of love so valuable that it can never be entirely undone by the ultimate disenchantment.” The young neoconservatives were highly trained in Marx, which meant that they were imbued with a sociologically sophisticated way of looking at the way the world works.”

In Flint Hills language it means that the neoconservatives who abandoned the left didn’t take leave of their senses, the embraced them. They thought about the world and came to the conclusion that there was a moral vacuum in the teaching and dogma of their mentors. They saw things very differently. They embraced, to use a weathered phrase, “a new paradigm.” For example, there was:

“Irving Kristol stressing in 1971 that real prosperity has little to do with economics and a lot to do with virtue; James Q Wilson and George Kelling writing in 1986 that the key to crime prevention is clean neighborhoods; or Daniel Patrick Moynihan attributing in 1993 many modern social problems to confusion over the ideas of normalcy and deviancy.”

I suspect that Tom Knapp will continue to be misunderstood, as will I. The difference between the dialogue I continue to have with him and the “diaglogue” I have with Jay is that Tom is a man another man can talk to. There will be, as we lurch and stumble along, dialogue, setbacks, and, ultimately, progress. That’s healthy.

Jay? That’s a good question. I hope, pray, and watch.

Friday, September 23, 2005

The Little Wonders of Fly-Over Country

Romans 12:15-18 (New Living Translation)

15 “When others are happy, be happy with them. If they are sad, share their sorrow. 16Live in harmony with each other. Don't try to act important, but enjoy the company of ordinary people. And don't think you know it all!
17Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. 18Do your part to live in peace with everyone, as much as possible.”

Our longest day on the road during our recent vacation was the last one. We drove from Indianapolis to Emporia, over six hundred miles. As we drove the last fifty of those miles I began to feel more and more at home. At mile marker one fifty-five there was the truck stop at Beto Junction on the east side of the highway. At mile marker one forty-eight it was Lebo. At mile marker one twenty-seven, there was the familiar sight of the Taliban vintage tank that guards Emporia from unwanted outside influences. As we exited, off to my south I could see the faint outline of those wonderful Flint Hills that have become one of the treasures of our life here in fly-over country. And, finally, there to indignantly greet us when we pulled in to our driveway were Brudder and Maizey, two our cats. Their body language and their curt “meows” said it all. We’d been gone for two weeks and they weren’t at all pleased with having been left behind.

By late last week my homecoming was complete, made so by a visit to the Commercial Street Diner for breakfast on Tuesday and lunch at the Three Fool’s Café on Thursday. The sight of cowboys eating eggs covered with hot sauce, farmers in bib overalls wolfing down biscuits and gravy, and the taste of a roast beef sandwich packed down with horseradish were more than enough comfort for me after what seemed to be endless hours on the road.

While it was wonderful to visit with family and friends, it was especially good for us to be back home in Kansas.

This morning I took one of my daily walks, this one to the “liberal” side of town, which actually requires me to move to the right when I leave the safety of my front porch. The first few times I made this little morning journey it was a bit disorienting, but I’ve gotten used to it over time. I just keep reminding myself that in the philosophy of the left, up is down or that bad is good. Knowing that has made the walks quite pleasant indeed.

As I sit here today another national crisis is churning toward northeast Texas. The sight of millions fleeing to safety before Rita is compelling. Millions are leaving homes, now probably wondering if they’ll ever see them again. Breathless reporters are reminding us almost constantly that there will be fuel shortages and national ramifications to Rita. They’re following every move political leaders and public servants make with as much gusto as they’re tracking Rita’s projected path. Just a while ago one of the media’s pretty faces noted that some of the levies in New Orleans had once again been breached, flooding areas of the city that had just had Katrina’s flood waters pumped from them. “If only the wind were blowing in the opposite direction,” she intoned. “Then the waters wouldn’t be blowing over and through the levies.” As I listened I made a mental note. In a week or so it will be someone’s fault. The recriminations will surely follow. Either Ray Nagin, Kathleen Blanco, or George Bush will probably be found culpable for not being able to control the wind or blow thunderbolts out their ‘arses.

All of this makes me very glad to live here in Emporia, out of the media glare, with the really important people flying over us as they scurry from story to story. Here in Emporia even the media, while tilting about 140 degrees to port, are willing to be a bit magnanimous. This past Monday, Patrick Kelley down at the Gazette, with just a few mild jabs, conceded that George Bush actually had a compassionate heart:

“It would have been nice if Bush had made the speech a few weeks earlier, but an earlier speech probably wouldn’t have been the same speech. As the country has been going through great changes in the weeks since the storm, so has the president.”

“Somewhere along the way, he seems to have lost much of the defensiveness that, in the past, has tied him to incompetent advisers and locked him into flawed policies. He seems to have found the compassion that has for so long been lacking from compassionate conservatism.”

I suppose the boys at the Gazette are able, from their hobby horses, to do the things mere mortals can’t. The presses absolutely reek of nobility and emanate the thunderbolts presidents, governors, and mayors can’t. But, with its tones muted to suit local customs, the media sound and fury here in the Flint Hills is still more manageable than it is when it comes from the really important venues located in the really important cities off to our east.

Now that I’m back home I’ve picked up a few books that I left behind. One of them is Thomas Frank’s “One Market Under God.” This morning’s gem, coming on the heels of the news filling the airwaves these days, follows:

“Jack Welch, the CEO who has transformed General Electric from a manufacturer into a service conglomerate, probably represents the clearest-cut case of a manager who has done the bidding of Wall Street at the expense of what used to be called his ‘stakeholders.’ Through an endless program of layoffs, downsizing, outsourcing, and move-em south deindustrialization, Welch managed to deliver miraculous reward to his shareholder and poverty and unemployment to many of the towns and people who used to work for him.”

Interesting! Frank has carved out an image of himself as a man of the people, due in part for his “uncanny knack” for defending the “common man.” He’s been called a “Voice in the Neon Wilderness,” and is known as a latter day Moses to his adorning fans. Around here his most famous work is “What’s the Matter With Kansas,” in which he railed against the intellectual deficiencies of its citizens for having fallen prey to greedy capitalists:

“What we are observing, then, is a populist movement that has done irreversible harm to the material interests of the common people it professes to love so tenderly-a form of class animosity that rages against a shadowy “elite” while enthroning a new aristocracy of bankers, brokers, and corporate thieves.”

“In the burned-over districts of conservatism the right-wing class war grown so powerful that it has taken over the environmental niche once held by the left. It is the dissenting movement out there, the voice of the hard-done-by, and in places like Kansas it draws headlines with its high-profile campaigns against evolution and abortion.”

“This is what's the matter with Kansas, and with America. From the air-conditioned heights of a suburban office complex this may look like a new age of reason, with the Websites singing each to each, with a mall down the way that every week has miraculously anticipated our subtly shifting tastes, with a global economy whose rich rewards just keep flowing, with a promotion and a bonus every year, and with a long parade of rust-free Infinitis purring down the streets of beautifully manicured planned communities. But on closer inspection the country we have inhabited for the last three decades seems more like a panorama of madness and delusion worthy of Hieronymous Bosch: of sturdy patriots reciting the Pledge while they resolutely strangle their own life chances; of small farmers proudly voting themselves off the land; of devoted family men carefully seeing to it that their children will never be able to afford college or proper health care; of hardened blue-collar workers in midwestern burgs cheering as they deliver up a landslide for a candidate whose policies will end their way of life, will transform their region into a "rust belt," will strike people like them blows from which they will never recover.”

He came to Emporia a few years ago, stayed for about twenty minutes, and declared us a wasteland. It’s taken us a while, but I think we’ve overcome the blow.

He’s not without his detractors, as witnessed to by this from Rob Walker:

“Because Frank is more of a critic than a reporter, some of his offhand observations are maddeningly vague. For instance, he makes a short and unconvincing argument that in general American corporate managers have been rewarded “in proportion to the amount of power and security that workers lost,” and elsewhere he matter-of-factly attributes the whole of Jack Welch's success at General Electric to layoffs.”

“Finally, there is something about Frank's idea of a kind of revolution from above that I find unconvincing, partly because I think it lets Main Street off the hook a little too easily. He trumpets the multiple by which Welch's income exceeds that of a typical worker, and the latest statistics about increasing wealth inequality, as if these were covered-up facts that will surely galvanize the reader. But will they? They haven't up to now.”

Having lived in this world that seems to be so far from Frank’s ideal state (some sort of benign socialism, I take it) for over six years now I’m hard pressed to understand why he doesn’t understand what motivates us out here. Nancy and I spent years in the corporate world, reaping its rewards. We’ve both got modest pensions. They’re not even close to the rewards Jack Welch got from General Electric when they dumped him. But that’s alright, I’m not jealous. Nor am I jealous of the royalties Thomas Frank gets from peddling his jaded populism. To be honest, I’m quite content to be where I am. I’ve never felt the need to ascend to the pinnacle of the corporate world like Welch, nor have I felt the need to build my life on class envy like Frank. Our modest pensions and my social security check, Tuesday mornings at the Commercial Street Diner, an occasional bowl of tomato soup at the Three Fools Café, quiet walks along Commercial Street at dawn, sitting on my front porch, listening to Nancy play the piano in the mornings, or watching hummingbirds and monarch butterflies dance as they feed in our back yard, are rewards enough for me.

A while ago I read a short essay by Lee Harris of TCS. At one time in his life, Harris noted, he was hard pressed to understand “Middle-American values.” But after having a conversation with a waitress in a Woolworth’s store he saw the light:

“Perhaps one day the critics of Middle America will begin to recognize the humanity they share with people they so quickly label as culturally backwards. Perhaps one day they might even begin to listen to them, and to learn from them, the way I did so many years ago, while eavesdropping on the waitresses at Woolworth's.”

You see, folks like Nancy and I are quite content where we are and no amount of cajoling from our “betters” will change us. In the scheme of things we’ve got more than Jack Welch, with his millions, or Thomas Frank, with his litrary savvy, could ever dream of having. We’ve got something worth more than the millions Welch has accumulated and Frank decries, all the while collecting royalty checks for his critiques.

Nancy wrote a short poem about our life here in Kansas some time ago. I think she’s expressed, in lyric terms, the true value we’ve found beyond the affluent glare. It expresses, in Nancy’s gentle way, the value of life here in the shadow of these wonderful Flint Hills, value worth much more than money could ever buy:

A Quiet Night in Kansas

“It’s a quiet night in Kansas, as most of them are
The air conditioners hum their steady defense
Against the early June heat,
But not so loud as to overwhelm the coo of the dove
Or the twitter of the martins searching out their twilight feast
Even the basset hound two doors down
Has toned down his incessant barking.
There are no sounds that alarm.”

“Across the wide expanse of sky, Kansas winds
Blow a few golden sunset clouds to their destination
Then swoop down closer to the earth
To whisper through the cottonwood trees.”

“In the distance you can hear the lonesome whistle of a freight train
But there are no car alarms, no sirens, no airplanes roaring overhead.
It’s a quiet night in Kansas, as most of them are.”

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Pray, Prepare, Act

Psalm 61:1-4 (New Living Translation)

1 “O God, listen to my cry! Hear my prayer!
2 From the ends of the earth, I will cry to you for help, for my heart is overwhelmed. Lead me to the towering rock of safety,
3 for you are my safe refuge, a fortress where my enemies cannot reach me.
4 Let me live forever in your sanctuary, safe beneath the shelter of your wings!”

The terrible season is becoming more terrible as time passes. Hurricane Rita, following in the path of Katrina, her devastating sister, is taking aim on the Gulf Coast. Forecasters aren’t entirely certain, but it appears that she will make landfall near Galveston, Texas early Saturday morning.

The recovery from one catastrophe had barely begun and another is now looming, its fury fueled by the warm waters of the Gulf. It all seems so overwhelming, as though the heavens themselves are making war against this great nation.

But those of us who seem to be out of harm’s way at the moment cannot use the day or so left till Rita makes landfall idly. We must redeem the time. We must pray! We must give! And we must prepare to do our part to aid our brothers and sisters in the days to come.

The people of the Gulf will once more be tested. We must do all in our power to help them meet this test. As I said before, we must redeem the time with prayer, money, and action.

I came across a short piece this morning from Christianity Today on-line that best outlines the way we must continue to move forward:

“Does the wellspring of hope ever draw down, or is it always there for you?”
“Today has been the most stressful day I've had in the last four weeks, and it's with the emergence of Rita on top of it. There was a day last week where I mentally was hitting a wall. I was physically fine, but mentally I found myself just saying stupid things. And I said, I just need to go home and get some extra sleep tonight. After a nine-hour sleep night, I was fine the next morning.”

“We've been going seven days a week for 15 or 16 hours a day, nonstop. On Sunday morning two weeks ago I was in California doing media stuff out there, and went to the Salvation Army worship service in Orange County. I was fully revived. And Sunday this week I was in my own worship center here in Arlington, Virginia, and was fully revived.”

“It's that wellspring of assurance that we're in this for ministry. It's not about proclaiming the Salvation Army; it's about proclaiming the glory of God. We do that through a practical ministry. That's what keeps us going. It's what sustains every Salvation Army officer. We don't do this for fame or fortune. We do this as an extension of our ministry to serve suffering humanity. There's a fascinating way that just constantly renews our vigor, energy, and spiritual bodies, because we know we're in the will of God and fulfilling his mission.”

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Oprah's Chump Change

Luke 21:1-4 (New Living Translation)

The Widows Offering
1“While Jesus was in the Temple, he watched the rich people putting their gifts into the collection box. 2Then a poor widow came by and dropped in two pennies. 3 “I assure you,” he said, “this poor widow has given more than all the rest of them. 4For they have given a tiny part of their surplus, but she, poor as she is, has given everything she has.”

We’d just left Massachusetts on our way to Niagara Falls on September 12th when we tuned the radio to NPR. The news was filled with accounts of the on-going rescue and recovery efforts all over the Gulf region. Between the news accounts there were occasional stories of what “celebrities” and large corporations were doing. Wal-Mart was giving millions. John Travolta flew his plane, filled with supplies, to the devastated area. And, Oprah Winfrey was digging down deep herself. She gave a million dollars and brought her crews from Harpo Productions to give us all more glimpses of what we “needed to see.” The rest of us, of course, were every bit as concerned and every bit as busy trying to do our part to contribute to the massive relief effort. The important thing escaping the media’s keen eye, though, was that we were only giving fifty, a hundred, a thousand dollars at a time, or packing up our chain saws and tools and heading south. We didn’t have inflated bank accounts or portfolios and we didn’t have camera crews at our disposal to make our case to the public. All we could do was give as best we could, a dollar here, a dollar there, a few bottles of water, or all the sweat equity we could muster to rebuild.

Oprah, apparently moved by what she and her crews were seeing on the ground, chided the nation:

“This makes me so mad. This should not have happened,” said Oprah Winfrey of the delayed relief efforts. “I think we all -- this country owes these people an apology.”

The diatribe was followed by scenes of celebrities handing out food and a “moving” rendition of “Amazing Grace” sung by Faith Hill.

By the time we passed Rochester some discordant strains were breaking through. I was becoming skeptical of the noble intentions all the pretty people were displaying before the cameras. It just wasn’t ringing true for me.

Did Oprah really mean to include herself, her media entourage, or her celebrity guests when she said the country owed the victims of Katrina an apology? I don’t think so. I think that what she was really saying was that she and other celebrities like her were the only noble souls in this nasty equation. The proof offered, of course, was the million bucks and the rolling cameras she’d given to the relief effort.

I suppose I should have been impressed. A million dollars is a lot of money. I haven’t given that much, nor have millions of my countrymen. As I said before, we’ve only given a dollar here or a dollar there. The media, which would never miss the real story, portrayed at the efforts the rest of us have made, and will continue to do so, with an eye on Oprah and her entourage, that sends the message that the “important” people are doing the yeoman’s work in the Gulf and the rest of us are close to being beneath contempt.

Well, folks, forgive me if I only say “Thanks.” Forgive me if I don’t bow or genuflect at the altar of Harpo Productions. Forgive me if I’m not as impressed as I should be.

There’s a kind of cruel mix in all of this. It’s a concoction of false compassion, political venom, and marketing. Ms.Winfrey appears to be digging deep, but in the end she may profit handsomely. Her ratings will probably soar. Advertising revenues will more than likely skyrocket. Oprah’s net worth, which is estimated to be over a billion dollars, will continue to climb into the stratosphere. Not bad for an initial investment of a million bucks, which, incidentally, is about one tenth of one percent of her net worth.

It’s amazing how much a little “chump change” will buy in terms of power and influence. For one one thousandth of her net worth Oprah has purchased a national platform from which she could lecture an “uncaring” nation. That million dollars was, in marketing terms, money well spent. I’m sure her agents and handlers are quite proud of what they’ve accomplished.

I’m not the only “prole” who is seeing things this way. Here, for example, is a comment from a BBC reader who found the efforts of celebrities in the wake of Katrina less than laudable:

“It all depends on how they help. Leading by example making donations or providing practical help is laudable. On the other hand, the celebrities who appeared in the finger-snapping “Make Poverty History” ad campaign, looking down at us with their patronisingly accusatorial facial expressions before going back to enjoying their super-rich lifestyles seriously annoyed rather than inspired me.”- Nina, London, UK

I suppose I should be a bit more trusting, but my journey in life has taught me more than a few valuable lessons. The one that comes to mind in the wake of Katrina is that the liberalism I’ve seen in my sixty-two years of life has little to do with either compassion, the re-distribution of wealth, or equality of opportunity. Bitter experience has taught me that it has as much more to do with benign forms of racism, elitism, and contempt for those “less fortunate” than it does with caring from the heart.

By now some of you who are reading this post are angry. Good! Stick around for a while and I’ll have you grinding your teeth on all those burdens you’ve hung around the necks of the “recipients of your goodness.” As Holy Writ declares, you love the recognition and the spotlight, but your hearts are full of corruption:

Luke 11:42-44 (New Living Translation)

42“But how terrible it will be for you Pharisees! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest part of your income, but you completely forget about justice and the love of God. You should tithe, yes, but you should not leave undone the more important things.
43 “How terrible it will be for you Pharisees! For how you love the seats of honor in the synagogues and the respectful greetings from everyone as you walk through the markets! 44Yes, how terrible it will be for you. For you are like hidden graves in a field. People walk over them without knowing the corruption they are stepping on.”

Here are a couple of the lessons living under the thumb of liberalism for the first twenty years of my life taught me. First, it became clear to me early on that the real intention of the “charity” given was so that liberal society could maintain a status quo in which there were “noble givers” and “parasites” who needed to be held back for the good of society. Oh, it was never phrased that way. Liberalism was (and is still) too clever a political philosophy for that. It came packaged with euphemisms – compassion, generosity, kindness, and brotherhood. But, beneath the thin veneer of words, the deeds belied them. They willingly spent billions to build “government housing project” to make sure we wouldn’t find permanent places close to Harvard Square or the other seats of power and worldly success. I know this is true, because I spent a good part of my youth being victimized by their “nobility.” When it came time for me to work my way out of my situation in life they became terrified. I wanted to exercise my right to social mobility and they told me that, because of cruel circumstance, they had to take care of me, that I was their dependent and would be so for the rest of my life. It was, they said, their lot in life to be noble and mine to be their grateful dependent. To seal the bargain they took me to the ballot box and reminded me that my key in this life of dependency was to keep voting for them. My vote, cast for my benefactors, was to be my salvation in life.

There are probably some reading right now who understand what I’m saying. The same liberalism that victimized me for years is victimizing you today. One century has turned to another and some things have changed. But, along with the turning of an age, some things didn’t. Liberalism has always needed victims and perpetual servitude. Those are its cornerstones.

Even the most insidious doctrines of liberalism are packaged in “compassion.” The right to life has been reformulated. With each election cycle, with each new nominee to the Supreme Court, the liberal mantra goes out. “The right to choose,” they cry. “The right to choose.” Like liberal politics, liberal social policy is cleverly packaged, but thinly so. Just beneath the surface lies the racism and evil that are its hallmarks. In the days of Thomas Malthus it was a social instrument too blunt for the rest of society to accept:

“All children born, beyond what would be required to keep up the population to a desired level, must necessarily perish, unless room is made for them by the deaths of grown persons. We should facilitate, instead of foolishly and vainly endeavoring to impede, the operations of nature in producing this mortality.”

Even the “seminal” work of its founding fathers the language and social doctrines of liberalism were too bitter a pill for the public at large to swallow:

“Organized charity itself is the symptom of a malignant social disease. Those vast, complex, interrelated organizations aiming to control and to diminish the spread of misery and destitution and all the menacing evils that spring out of this sinisterly fertile soil, are the surest sign that our civilization has bred, is breeding and perpetuating constantly increasing numbers of defectives, delinquents and dependents.”

And this is what the founder of Planned Parenthood had to say in the mid twenties:

“In it she argued that birth control clinics, or bureaus, should be established “in which men and women will be taught the science of parenthood and the science of breeding.” For this was the way “to breed out of the race the scourges of transmissible disease, mental defect, poverty, lawlessness, crime … since these classes would be decreasing in number instead of breeding like weeds.”

In time their champion tempered her language and made it more inviting to its victims:

“In 1929, 10 years before Sanger created the Negro Project, the ABCL laid the groundwork for a clinic in Harlem, a largely black section of New York City. It was the dawn of the Great Depression, and for blacks that meant double the misery. Blacks faced harsher conditions of desperation and privation because of widespread racial prejudice and discrimination. From the ABCL’s perspective, Harlem was the ideal place for this “experimental clinic,” which officially opened on November 21, 1930. Many blacks looked to escape their adverse circumstances and therefore did not recognize the eugenic undercurrent of the clinic. The clinic relied on the generosity of private foundations to remain in business. In addition to being thought of as “inferior” and disproportionately represented in the underclass, according to the clinic’s own files used to justify its “work,” blacks in Harlem.”

It took several generations to refine the language, but liberalism succeeded. “Eugenics” was replaced by the “right to choose.” The fear of “negroes breeding like weeds” became “family planning.” The core intent was every bit as malicious and evil in the eighties and nineties as it was in the twenties or even earlier, but it was cleverly disguised in language pleasing to the modern palate. They appear to have succeeded. In the end the evil has been codified, making it appear to be both acceptable and noble.

A few days ago a commenter wrote to me and said that he was almost certain that Jesus was a liberal. I tried to remind him that He was neither liberal nor conservative. I also tried to remind him that Jesus was neither a politician nor a social theorist. I doubt that I got through.

Jesus didn’t build His life or His sacrifice on something as flimsy as political or social doctrine, yet the things He said and the manner of life He lived speak eloquently to people on all sides of the political and social spectrum.

As I’ve read the Gospels over the years one thing has always been very clear to me about Jesus. He was never so shallow that he would call good evil or evil good. Nor would He ever have stooped so low as to call racism, murder, and the lust for power acts of compassion.

I’ve aimed my words at liberals and liberalism, not because I’m a proponent of modern conservatism. Those who know me best also know that there’s much of the political thinking of the right that I disagree with. But, to their credit, they listen to me and answer the questions I raise. That’s more than I can so for most, if not all, liberals I’ve had social interaction with. I raise questions or cite my experience and all I ever get in return from the left is that “you must be a right-wing fundamentalist.” There’s never a hint of a response to the questions.

This brings me, in conclusion, to Oprah, celebrities, Katrina, and marketed “compassion.” The celebrated may impress folks when they, like the Pharisees of old, flout their goodness before the cameras, but they haven’t bought my adoration. I’m more impressed with the “widow’s mites” that have combined, in the secret places, to contribute more to the welfare of Katrina’s victims Oprah and her marketing gurus could ever imagine. I’m more impressed with the men and women who’ve packed up chain saws, axes, bottled water, clothing, a dollar or two, and real compassion in beat up old pick-ups and found their way to the Gulf than I am with celebrities who rail for the cameras, like publicans before the widows.

You see, there will come a time when the designer clothes and clever words won’t be able to hide the evil that has been lurking in their hearts.

I’ve gone on for a bit over two thousand words now, and I could go on for at least two thousand more. But I’ll just leave with the words of a poem I wrote three years ago to express, in closing, how I feel about the cult of celebrity intertwined with modern liberalism.

Dinner at Noam Chomsky’s
By Phil Dillon
© 2002 Phil Dillon

It’s dinnertime at Noam Chomsky’s
Home of…..enlightened conversation
Home of…..the best and the brightest
Home of…..good food

It’s dinnertime at Noam Chomsky’s
Elite Street, where the pretty people gather, where the ragged pass by
Close to Skid Row…..but not too close
The pretty faces gaze, sympathetically, out the window…..untouched

The pretty people drift in, slowly, purposefully
Insatiable appetites
Straight teeth…..polished teeth… teeth
Crooked smiles

They sit, gracefully
Feet adorned with Gold Toes and Ballys
Versace hiding, yet revealing, their nakedness
Lapels by Bill Blass

At a corner table they muse, thoughtfully
“Oh, the nuances of rogue states.” They nod at each other approvingly
“By the way, is Zinfandel appropriate with filet of fundamentalist?”
Do you suppose Heinekin would be alright with boiled orphan a la Swift?”

A secluded corner table
Lies and metaphors mix, a media tossed salad
Flesh rips intermittently
Under the weight of the pretty peoples’ molars

At a cozy corner tale
Wine and conversation flow and flesh is devoured
Linen napkins dab human debris
From the corners of crooked smiles

It’s Noam Chomsky’s place
Where the ‘catch of the day’ is pricey and sinewy
Where the sound and fury are endlessWhere compassion’s thrown out with the garbage at the end of the day.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Joe and Rita's Miracle

Deuteronomy 11:1-5 (New Living Translation)

Deuteronomy 11
1 “You must love the LORD your God and obey all his requirements, laws, regulations, and commands. 2Listen! I am not talking now to your children, who have never experienced the discipline of the LORD your God or seen his greatness and awesome power. 3They weren't there to see the miraculous signs and wonders he performed in Egypt against Pharaoh and all his land. 4They didn't see what the LORD did to the armies of Egypt and to their horses and chariots--how he drowned them in the Red Sea as they were chasing you, and how he has kept them devastated to this very day! 5They didn't see how the LORD cared for you in the wilderness until you arrived here.”

Today was the first day since our vacation that I’ve felt like my feet are actually planted on the ground. For a couple of days before this beautiful day both my head and my feet were still buzzing, shaking off the cobwebs of our long road trip.

I’m not quite caught up on my reading, but will be by the beginning of next week. One of the things I noticed was that there were a lot of commenters and readers who stopped by my blog over the past three weeks and found time to say something. Most were very kind, and greatly appreciated. There were some that had a bit of bite to them, but they were appreciated as well. I’m going to respond to comments in as much detail as time and space will permit in a week or so. That will give me time to give thought to the issues/questions raised by some of the fire eaters out there or to cool my anger from a boil to a seasoned simmer. It will also give me some time to reflect on the abundant kindness that many others have shown in what they’ve written. With that said, I’d like to offer my sincere thank you for reading Another Man’s Meat.

There were many memorable moments during our vacation. So many, in fact, that it’s hard to say which of them was the most memorable of all. As I think about them I’m reminded of a discussion Nancy and I had with Michael, my youngest son, years ago while we were on the road somewhere in New Jersey. I don’t know why the question occurred to him, but it did. “Do you love Nancy more than me?” Michael asked from the back seat. I remember slowing down for a moment, pondering the question. Then I looked over at Nancy, hoping that I might get some help in answering the question. All I got was a smile that told me that I had a very interesting son and that he had a very interesting question. When I didn’t answer for a while Michael repeated the question. “Do you love Nancy more than you love me?” I first attempted to be clever. “I’m not sure that’s a very good question, Michael.”
“Why not?”
I was stumped. It really was a good question. I reflected for a few miles and then told Michael that Nancy was my first love, hoping that would satisfy him. It didn’t. “You mean that you love Nancy more than you love me,” he responded. I tried responding more directly. “Michael, you know that I love you, don’t you?”
“Then what’s troubling you?”
“I think you love Nancy more than you love me.”
“Michael, it’s not that I don’t love you any less than I ever have, it’s just that my love for Nancy is different in some ways from my love for you. My love for her carries some different responsibilities than it does for you. I’ve promised that I’d spend the rest of my life with her and honor her as long as we “both shall live.”

Michael is now married and I think he understands what I was trying to tell him that night along the road in New Jersey.

Memories are, like love, treasures that come with various shades of meaning. Saying that one is more important or treasured than another is really missing the point. Each memory, each treasure has a very special place in the heart where it resides. It doesn’t compete with any of the others, it complements them.

The first of the treasures we gathered during our vacation was our visit with Joe and Rita Sereika. Nancy and I met them years ago in New Jersey. It began for us with a promotion for me into FedEx’s logistics division based at the company’s eastern region headquarters. As I recall we’d already found a place to live, an old Victorian in Montville, which was not far from the region office. With that done we set out on a search for a church home. About ten minutes after we started we stopped in a Christian bookstore on Route 46 just west of Parsippany. I figured that if anyone would know where the churches were in the area the folks who worked there certainly would. We went into the store and I launched right in. “I’m looking for a church in the area,” I said. The young woman behind the counter chuckled. “There are lots of them,” she replied.
“Well, there’s a particular kind of church I’m looking for.” Then after I described what we were looking for she shook her head and said there wasn’t anything like that in Parsippany or anywhere else around. We were about to leave when a voice from the other side of the store boomed out, “I think there’s a little church in Jockey Hollow like that. I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never been.”

We got directions and the rest, for us, is now history. We attended Christian Center, a small, vibrant Charismatic church, which sat across from the Ford Mansion, which in turn sat at the entrance to Morristown National Park, which is also known in the area as Jockey Hollow.

At first I think it was the idea of a church being in a place called Jockey Hollow that attracted me. But once I began attending I found that there was more to this little church than met the eye. By and large, it was a young person’s church, although not exclusively so. Along with the church’s youth came an on-fire idealism that was bringing young Christians in. Once there they would consider what to do with their lives. I’m amazed even now as I think about it. This little church (about 40 strong) sent missionaries to Tibet, Mali, Russia, the Philippines, Afghanistan, and other far flung places around the world. This little church supported missionaries in the outer islands of the Philippines, India, and Poland. A vibrant pro-life movement sprang up from this church. The church also hosted a coffee house called Light in the Woods that drew young people from all over New Jersey on Friday or Saturday nights. It was a church that was truly alive.

We really got acquainted with Joe and Rita through circumstance. Joe was one of the elders and Rita served in another leadership capacity, finances if memory serves me right. By trade Joe was a design engineer and worked for Monroe Systems. In case you’re wondering what a design engineer does, he or she is the person who can make a calculator or an adding machine look like something you’d want to put frosting on and eat. Joe’ I’ve heard, was exceptionally good at what he did.

While circumstance was kind to Nancy and me during those years, it didn’t seem to be that way for Joe and Rita. I don’t have enough space or memory to give all the details, but there are enough that I recall to give you a real flavor of what life was like for them during those hard times. First, they got caught in a bad real estate transaction. They’d bought a house in the Parsippany area, contingent on the sale of their home in Byram, New Jersey. When the home in Byram didn’t sell Joe and Rita were stuck holding the bag. At one point they pleaded with the “brother” they’d bought the house in Parsippany from to no avail. Then Joe lost his job at Monroe. There were, as there were for lots of companies in New Jersey those days, the dreaded “cutbacks.” In corporate lingo, Joe became “redundant.” With no job and a dwindling savings account things were getting more difficult to manage by the day. In the face of all that a lot of folks would collapse under the strain. But Joe and Rita never did. In fact, it seemed that their faith, outlook, and reliance on principle grew even stronger.

Joe, as I said, was one of the elders at Christian Center. And, it was in this capacity that our friendship really grew. The church itself came upon hard times, and at one point found itself without a pastor. It was at this point that Joe and the other elders asked me if I would help them through the difficulties, and I agreed. Thinking back on it now I can vividly see God’s grace in action. What one of the leaders lacked, another had. I was the wooly haired prophet. Joe was the teacher, the calm, measured, tempered voice in our midst.

The church functioned as a church should. We prayed over wells that had dried up. We prayed with and counseled folks who claimed to have multiple personality disorders. We endured and constantly patched a leaky roof. We sent missionaries to Mali and Afghanistan with our blessing. We made way in our hearts for a group of recovering alcoholics, some of whom later went to other mission fields. And so it went.

The personal elements of our friendship are the most treasured, though. In addition to being a cracker-jack, albeit unemployed engineer, Joe was a master carpenter, fisherman, and jack of all trades. That, combined with my fumbling, inept ways with tools or fishing poles, was the one of the cornerstones of our relationship, with our Christian faith being the chief cornerstone. I remember a conversation Joe and I had once about fishing. As I recall he asked if I’d like to go fishing with him sometime and, trying to bring some levity to the answer, I responded, “No thanks, Joe. I’ve heard that fishing is nothing more than a jerk on one end looking for a jerk on the other.” Joe never got upset. In fact I think he may even have laughed a bit with me. But, some time later, after pre-arranging things with Nancy, he showed up at my house at about 5:30 A.M one Saturday morning., boat in tow. “Let’s go,” he said. “We’re gonna’ go look for some jerks.” It was one of the most wonderful mornings I’ve ever had. Joe would look through his polarized sunglasses, cast, and a bass would find its way to his hook. It was amazing. He caught a bunch and I caught one or two.

The personal elements of our friendship didn’t always revolve around fun things. In time we hired a pastor, who I affectionately think of now as “Pastor Butt-Hole.” It was during those difficult times that Joe seemed even stronger. He hadn’t found a job and made something of a living doing handy work. The bank account, I’m sure was looking slim. In the midst of all this we had a new leader who was clamoring for more and more of the church’s money. One crisis seemed to lead to another until the church teetered on the brink of collapse. It was during these times that Joe was the rock that held us together. Any time I felt like giving in I’d see his face, smiling, and fixed like flint and I’d know that I, too, had to go on.

I’m running up on two thousand words right now, so I’m going to fast forward a bit. When the crisis passed and the church was still standing Nancy and I felt that, with our job done, it was time for us to move on. In 1997 we moved to Memphis, and in 1999 we moved to Emporia. Our paths crossed again with Joe when we moved to these wonderful Flint Hills. I’ve learned over the years that my epitaph will never read “He was a real Handy Man.” Knowing that, when the time came, we found a way to fly Joe out to Emporia to do some work on our house. While the visit was short, it was productive. Joe did an enormous amount of construction in our library and dining room, and on one day trip, helped Nancy find Victory Fellowship, the church we’ve attended ever since we’ve lived here.

Joe still didn’t have a job back in 1999 when we moved to Emporia. It seemed that no matter what he tried, there was no door open to him. I remember that while he was here he even interviewed with FedEx for a manager’s position. I think he would have been a great manager, but I wasn’t on the hiring committee. He didn’t get the job. But he didn’t get discouraged either. He just kept on keeping on.

That brings us to our stop in Lewisville, North Carolina almost two weeks ago. We spent the afternoon before Day catching up. It seems that the miracle that had eluded Joe and Rita for so long caught up with them as soon as they moved south. It was a miracle years in the making, just waiting on all the right elements to come together. This is how it happened. In those difficult days in New Jersey Joe began branching out, trolling so to speak, for jobs in other parts of the country. I don’t know the full circumstances, but what I do know will amaze you. He found himself in North Carolina. He’d been looking for work there, to no avail. During one of the trips he decided to sit down with a school official to see what it would take for him to become a teacher. The meeting was arranged and, in the course of their conversation, the school official got interested in Joe’s engineering drawings. From there things really moved quickly. The official asked Joe if it would be alright if he bought his son over to see Joe’s work. Joe agreed and the son came over. Joe then showed the young man everything about the drawings. There was something in Joe’s presentation that intrigued the man. There was something special.

Joe thought everything was about to wrap up when the school official told him that he wanted to hire him as a teacher. It seems that he saw that Joe has a real gift for teaching and he, unlike the corporate world, saw it as Joe was showing his son the intricacies of his drawings. That, I submit, was a miracle of grace!

Joe’s been teaching for some time now. He teaches a class of “disadvantaged” youth and the fit is perfect. As I sat and listened to Joe describe how much he loves what he’s doing, the wonderful impact he’s having on the lives of young people, and how perfectly it all fit together I could feel the hair on the back on my neck standing on end. To see the culmination of what Joe was searching for, and God was preparing, all those years, converge in Carolina is a miracle of the first order. To see Joe and Rita’s faces lit up with a real sense of everlasting life is a great joy for Nancy and me. I no longer have to wonder whether Joe and Rita’s prayers, or ours, were hitting some brass ceiling on the way to heaven. They were answered!

I wonder now if someone reading this post might be wondering if an answer to a prayer is ever going to come, or if it’s even being heard at all. I hope that this brief recounting of a miracle years in the making will in some way sustain your journey.

C.S. Lewis once called the God we Christians believe in is the “Lord of the narrow gate and the needle’s eye.” There are times I’ve pondered those words, wondering whether God is far more demanding than we could ever imagine, without a shred of grace in His nature. But, when I see a miracle like Joe and Rita’s unfold over the years I see more clearly. The narrow gate and the needle’s eye are designed for those who not only divide the word of Truth, but also live by it. It's grace unfolding slowly, wonderfully, over time.

That’s the story of Joe and Rita’s miracle, a treasured memory to us. It’s history now, recorded in the books of heaven. I hope, in closing, that it will bring comfort and strength for your journey.

Friday, September 16, 2005

The 'Real' Perfect Storm

Matthew 7:24-27 (New Living Translation)

Building on a Solid Foundation

24 “Anyone who listens to my teaching and obeys me is wise, like a person who builds a house on solid rock. 25Though the rain comes in torrents and the floodwaters rise and the winds beat against that house, it won't collapse, because it is built on rock. 26But anyone who hears my teaching and ignores it is foolish, like a person who builds a house on sand. 27When the rains and floods come and the winds beat against that house, it will fall with a mighty crash.”

As I look back on our just completed vacation I’m aware of one startling parallel this one had with the vacation we took to New Mexico and the Grand Canyon in September, 2001. That parallel is, of course, tragedy. Four years ago it was the terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. This year it was Hurricane Katrina.

As I look back on this year’s vacation I’m amazed at how much my wife, Nancy, saw coming. On the Sunday before Katrina slammed into the Gulf she became quite agitated as we watched a joint press conference being held by Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin. To her it all seemed like something out of the Keystone Kops, with neither politico willing, or able, to think critically at such an important time.

As governor Blanco primped for the cameras, Nagin tried his best to inject some sanity into the proceedings, pleading for residents to evacuate. But it wasn’t working. Seeing this, Nancy blurted out angrily, “Why don’t they do something instead of grandstanding for the cameras? Why don’t they get all the school buses and Greyhounds around the city and get those poor people out of there now before the storm hits? And how about all those city vehicles? Why not use them to evacuate people rather than putting them all in a football stadium?”

Unfortunately, Nancy was neither the mayor of New Orleans or the governor of Louisiana.

I suppose it seems easy to see it all so clearly now, but Nancy’s words and feelings that day are still very vivid to me. She saw that the real time for action was in the hours before this crippling storm made landfall. As we left on our trip on Wednesday the 7th I was wondering, in retrospect, about the same things. “If Nancy could see this all converging on the Gulf, why couldn’t the leaders who were on the scene?”

I’ve given it all some thought and I believe I have some answers.

The convergence of thoughts began for me as we left Nancy’s mother’s house in Kansas City, heading for an overnight stay in Louisville. This was on Wednesday. By this time there had been some criticism of the federal effort in the gulf, but little in the way of negative press given to the state and local officials in the area. I didn’t find it especially troubling. It just seems to be the way things are in America these days. Something bad happens and it’s the federal government’s fault. Somewhere around Columbia, Missouri I tuned in NPR and saw that the trickle of criticism was now becoming a torrent. Since then it has become a flood, almost equal in intensity to Katrina’s wrath.

I think there may even be something healthy in all of this. In the light of all that’s happened people need an outlet to express their anger. Some would like to express anger at God, but that’s becoming more difficult to do in America these days. It’s not because God is distant or unwilling to listen, it’s just that fewer and fewer Americans have a relationship with the Almighty intimate enough to express such anger. Some, I think, would like to express their anger to leaders at ground zero, but based on Nancy’s observation, it would be like addressing someone from a Mack Sennett silent film. Given that, George Bush and the federal government were destined to become the focal point for the mounting criticism. And, as far as I’m concerned, it’s as good a place as any for the nation to focus. The criticism may or may not be deserved, but that isn’t what matters. What’s critical now is that the strident voices be silenced, and the best way to do that is to allow them to vent while the rest of us get to the task at hand, which is to rebuild lives that have been uprooted by this enormous tragedy.

The parallels between this storm and another began to occur to me once we passed Columbia. As we passed the Cracker Barrel on Interstate 70 I began to think of the four days we had planned in Gloucester with my brother and his family. My mind was on Katrina and its victims, but it wandered away for a few moments to something my brother, Bill, shared with me about his experience as an “extra” in the movie version of Sebastian Junger’s 1991 account of the Andrea Gale, which was lost in “The Perfect Storm.” Junger’s title is based on the fact that the storm that took the lives of all on board the Andrea Gale was the convergence of an extra-tropical cyclone, Hurricane Grace, and a cold front. The three elements mixed to create this “perfect storm,” with Hurricane Grace actually being swallowed up by the cyclone to provide the amalgamated storm’s enormous energy and power.

I’ve watched the movie a few times, partly because of my interest in the storm, and partly because I’ve wanted to see my brother on the silver screen. The two times I’ve watched it I’ve been impressed by the special effects, but, unfortunately, I’ve yet to see my brother or his wife. From what Bill’s told me, he made eighty bucks a day and got meals for sitting in a small church and then milling around outside the church after a memorial service held for the crew of the Andrea Gale. I keep looking for his red beard and thinning hair, but I miss him in the crowd. If anyone reading this post happens to spot him please let me know where on the frame he appears. I’d be very appreciative.

The 1991 storm was described in those famous terms. But as we made our way past St. Louis I slowly began to see that Katrina was the “real” perfect storm. In the same way that three elements had combined in 1991, three elements joined forces a little more than two weeks ago to create a catastrophe like none that has ever hit the United States.

The first deadly element was the storm itself. With winds as high as 160 miles per hour, barometric pressure that read as low as 902 milibars, and an incredible storm surge, Katrina became, in a short period of time a hurricane of enormous strength and size. By the time it made its way inland it had devastated over 90,000 square miles of the Gulf region, stretching from Louisiana on the west to the Florida Panhandle on the east.

The second element was the geography of the region. Southern Mississippi is especially susceptible to storm surges and New Orleans itself lies below sea level. I visited the “Big Easy” once in the early nineties, to attend a Council of Logistics Management conference. One of the eerie sights I recall was being able to see boats above me on Lake Ponchatrain off to my north. In the aftermath of Katrina the city has been described as a “bowl,” and it’s a very apt description. When I saw the vulnerability of the city I could almost hear a siren’s song in the air, beckoning all the deadly elements to come together and wreak havoc.

The deadliest element of all in this toxic mix, though, was the political and social climate of the Delta. Katrina couldn’t have come to a more perfect region to inflict the maximum amount of damage. The city was poised for it, especially after years of political corruption, carpet-bagging, cronyism, racial division, and leadership failure that had become the norm rather than the exception.

The political history of New Orleans is somewhat like the history of Memphis, Tennessee, where I spent two years of my professional life. What I found in Memphis was a culture of benign neglect that had developed over a long period of time and had been carefully nurtured from generation to generation. The city has survived a Civil War siege, a Yellow Fever epidemic and other plagues to settle in to the “normality” of Delta life. What is the “normality” of Delta life? Memphis has one of the highest, if not the highest, bankruptcy rates in the country. They were so high at the time we lived there that my nephew’s fiancé, who was practicing bankruptcy law at the time, wanted to know more about whether Memphis would be a good place to sink down professional roots.

There seems to a progression to it all, and it begins with status, which seems paramount in the region. The great desire is for the four or five thousand square foot house. In fact, when folks meet you one of the first questions they ask is “How many square feet do you have.” The second is “Is your place in Germantown or Collierville,” a signal that these communities east of downtown Memphis are the places to be. All of this means that the city has been, by and large, abandoned by whites, contributing to the racial divide of the area.

On the surface it all looks okay. The discourse seems polite, but once you dig your way past the local idioms it’s apparent to an outsider that real ugliness beneath the surface has all been cultivated for well over a hundred years.

Nancy and I eschewed the big house in Memphis, settling instead for a thirteen hundred square foot place close to the University and downtown. We did so partly because we like the area and partly because we knew we couldn’t afford one of those four thousand footers. The last thing we needed was a trip to bankruptcy court or one of the numerous pawn shops that were another symptom of Memphis’s problems.

Beyond the economics of the city though, the politics was the most toxic element of all. We move there in 1997, a few years after the city elected its first African-American mayor, Willie Herrinton. Well, some things change and some things don’t. While Memphis’s inner city children had to attend schools in the swelter of late summer and early fall without air conditioning, the mayor was busy cutting down trees along the river in what was termed a “beautification project.” Bank robberies were a daily occurrence. Political corruption was more the norm than the exception. Safety concerns were routinely neglected with the kind of fatalism that used to make me ill. At one point during our time there was a rash of needless deaths. In a one month period, several little children died in “accidents” that were eminently preventable. These children were dying because day care centers were leaving them in parked vans and then “forgetting” them. The neglect was, I believed, criminal. But the overwhelming response, from the community and its leaders, was as obscene as the neglect. “Things like this happen,” they said. There was no outcry for legal remedies or legislation that would begin to fix the problem. What made it especially repulsive was that the victims of this neglect were African-Americans. The city’s leadership, which was primarily African-American, seemed neither to care nor want to act on behalf of its constituents. Instead, they supported projects that enhanced their image in the minds of those interested only in status and projects like river beautification to convey the image that Memphis was, indeed, the “Queen of the Delta.”

I’m sure that if some Memphians read this post they’ll disagree with what I’ve written. But I lived there! I know what things were like!

What does all of this have to do with New Orleans? Plenty!

Louisiana politics is much like the politics of Memphis. The big difference, I think, is that the corruption that has plagued Louisiana is much more open, much more rough and tumble than Memphis’s. When I think of Louisiana I think of Huey Long, Edwin Edwards, or David Duke. When I think of Louisiana I think of euphemisms like “Every man a king, but no man wears a crown.”

The image Louisiana and New Orleans projects is pleasing to the eye. It’s the Superdome and the French Quarter. It’s Mardi Gras and Cajun cookin’. The reality is twenty-four percent unemployment, poverty, corruption, political incompetence, and neglect.

As with Memphis, everything in Katrina’s march through Louisiana cut a swath through a carefully orchestrated façade. As with Memphis, image was the critical element to maintain. For example, when an east coast writer called New Jersey the “Louisiana North,” governor Kathleen Blanco strenuously objected:

“As governor of Louisiana, I understand that some will always be more interested in our colorful political past and not our vision for the future,” Blanco wrote. “But because your paper recently castigated my state's politics ... I must correct the record.”

Strip past the carefully crafted defense, though, and the Louisiana reality remains:

“Currently, federal investigations are being conducted into New Orleans City Hall and public schools, along with another probe into corruption within the judiciary in Jefferson Parish. The FBI also recently announced that it would set up a task force in Baton Rouge to conduct investigations into state government.”

This third element was planted long ago and it’s been cultivated and watered since the days of the carpetbaggers. Nothing I’ve read recently says it better than this piece from

“After the forced desegregation of the south, the white Democrats adopted a paternalistic stance toward the black population, expecting to keep them within the folds of the Democratic Party by purchasing their loyalty with maintenance-level welfare doles. Trapped in a cycle of poor educational opportunities and limited access to business opportunity within the Cajun stranglehold on Louisiana resources (including patronage and graft), blacks seemed doomed to live in cycles of deprivation. With a 24% unemployment rate, New Orleans was among the worst metropolitan areas in America in terms of poverty, crime, drugs, and poor education.”

As a young man I was fortunate to escape the clutches of liberal politics that, as I see it all years later, could have doomed me to a life of dependency and poverty. Unfortunately, many the poor in New Orleans were victimized not only by Katrina, but by the leaders who had curried favor, sought status, and cozied up to the trappings of power while they were left to fend for themselves.

Katrina did her deadly business. She ripped a city apart and exposed its raw undercurrent of Delta politics.

I heard this morning that well over fifty percent of the people who were taken in buses to the Houston Astrodome and other points in the country don’t want to return. Perhaps, in the midst of this tragedy, there is a silver lining in this. Perhaps for those who were ravaged by Katrina, the geography of the Delta, and Louisiana’s corrupt political machines, can start anew. Perhaps, away from the clutches of nature and political chicanery, they can embrace the opportunity they deserve like any other American citizen. I’m convinced they can, and will succeed. They’re not political footballs. They good, decent people.

For those who want to return, that opportunity also needs to be made available. New Orleans can be rebuilt. It just can’t be rebuilt in the same slipshod way it has been allowed to decay over the years. Resources need to be infused. Opportunities need to be made available. And, most of all, the day to day operations need to be taken out of the hands of the political hacks who have allowed this to happen.

The President has recommended the formation of a “Gulf Opportunity Zone,” an “Urban Homesteading Act,” and “Worker Recovery Accounts” to assist those who have lost everything they had to Katrina. He’s called upon American private enterprise to do its part. I support those efforts. To my conservative friends who may think this is all a massive welfare scheme I would say that it is now our duty to help Katrina’s victims rebuild their homes and lives. Your duty is to now embrace the basic tenets of “compassionate conservatism.” For those on the left who are wary of conservative politics I would say that is now your duty to dig, give, pray, and support. This is not the time to be concerned with whatever political advantage this disaster can reap the Democratic Party. It’s time to roll up your sleeves and work, not the time for shrill rhetoric. It’s the time for us all to hear the sound of shovels digging and the hammers of reconstruction banging out their glorious strains. If we all do our part the President’s words, well spoken and heartfelt, will one day become a reality:

“I know that when you sit on the steps of a porch where a home once stood … or sleep on a cot in a crowded shelter … it is hard to imagine a bright future. But that future will come. The streets of Biloxi and Gulfport will again be filled with lovely homes and the sound of children playing. The churches of Alabama will have their broken steeples mended and their congregations whole. And here in New Orleans, the street cars will once again rumble down St. Charles, and the passionate soul of a great city will return.”

Four years ago we all rallied around two powerful words – “Let’s roll!” Today those words once again need to be our guide into the future. Let’s roll!