Sunday, October 23, 2005


Isaiah 40:15-31 (King James Version)

15 “Behold, the nations are as a drop of a bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance: behold, he taketh up the isles as a very little thing.
16And Lebanon is not sufficient to burn, nor the beasts thereof sufficient for a burnt offering.
17All nations before him are as nothing; and they are counted to him less than nothing, and vanity.
18To whom then will ye liken God? or what likeness will ye compare unto him?
19The workman melteth a graven image, and the goldsmith spreadeth it over with gold, and casteth silver chains.
20He that is so impoverished that he hath no oblation chooseth a tree that will not rot; he seeketh unto him a cunning workman to prepare a graven image, that shall not be moved.
21Have ye not known? have ye not heard? hath it not been told you from the beginning? have ye not understood from the foundations of the earth?
22It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers; that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in:
23That bringeth the princes to nothing; he maketh the judges of the earth as vanity.
24Yea, they shall not be planted; yea, they shall not be sown: yea, their stock shall not take root in the earth: and he shall also blow upon them, and they shall wither, and the whirlwind shall take them away as stubble.
25To whom then will ye liken me, or shall I be equal? saith the Holy One.
26Lift up your eyes on high, and behold who hath created these things, that bringeth out their host by number: he calleth them all by names by the greatness of his might, for that he is strong in power; not one faileth.
27Why sayest thou, O Jacob, and speakest, O Israel, My way is hid from the LORD, and my judgment is passed over from my God?
28Hast thou not known? hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary? there is no searching of his understanding.
29He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength.
30Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall:
31But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.” (Emphasis added)

I’ve spent the past week doing a couple of things that kept me away from the blogosphere. First, I am in the process of preparing to attend a writer’s conference in Glorietta, New Mexico this coming week. I’ve got two book proposals put together, one a book of essays titled “Prairie Fires – Essays from the Heartland” and an autobiography titled “A Grace Full Life.” So, in addition to putting query letters together for prospective publishers and agents, I’m also going over the material I’ve written to this point to gather the samples I believe best reflect my craft. It’s tedious, but necessary work. About the only thing I’m unsure of is the title of the autobiography. If anyone has any hints or suggestions I’d be very grateful.

I’ve also taken some time to reflect on the year or so I’ve been blogging. In the past couple of months things have taken a turn that I didn’t see or intend. Like most bloggers I would like an audience, and to that end I’ve had some success. I’ve found some kindred souls out there, like Clive Allen, Scot Cunningham, the team at Letters from Babylon, and others. It seems, though, in the past month that I’ve taken on some other readership that has pulled me in a direction I really don’t want to go. In short, my blog has become far more political than I ever wanted it to be. While it’s gained me some audience and comments, it’s also pulled me away from what I want most.

I’ve now realized that, politically, I’ve said all I need to say about my beliefs. Commenters, especially those on the extreme poles, have also said all they need to say. They’ve made their positions clear and I’ve done the same. Our lines are drawn; the die is cast. We’re poles apart and I suspect it will remain that way.

Not long ago I heard something about television that I also think applies to the blogosphere. Television is a medium that, if abused, allows a person to invite someone into their home that they never would answer their doorbell for. I think that what I may have done a couple of months ago was to allow too many shrill voices into my airspace. The end result has been a series of long, contentious dialogues with Noam Chomsky acolytes that have taken a toll on what I’d like to believe is my purpose in life. I’ve answered the doorbell when I shouldn’t have.

These times of reflection have come periodically for me. About a year ago there was a “grand” movement among Christian bloggers to gather together under larger tents so that we could “get the word out,” to catapult ourselves into success under the leadership of the successful, powerful voices. It seemed appealing to me at first, but in the end I decided it wasn’t for me. I saw that what it would mean for me and other independent bloggers was that we would get swallowed up by the larger, more influential blogs, the Hugh Hewitt’s and others. I had two questions when I saw this – “who’s going to be Father Blog, who’s going to have editorial power over the rest of us?” The answer, it seemed to me, was clear. Thus, I opted out. I didn’t want my thoughts subject to a thought editor nor did I want myself to fall into the subtle trap of molding my beliefs and convictions into some sort of groupthink, however noble they might seem to be. The loss of independence, I believed, was far too high a price to pay to gain an audience.

That’s where I think I am today. There are those I’ve come to value as electronic comrades, not because our philosophies are monolithic, but because they are people who seem to want to express in words the life that God has put in them. I suspect that as I chart a bit of a different course in the days to come those relationships will become even more valuable and meaningful.

To that end, Another Man’s Meat is going to once again steer by its original star, to express in words life seen through the prism of the Kansas Flint Hills. My hope is that in so doing my writing will continue to strike some deep chords in the hearts of fellow pilgrims. That’s the course I originally set out upon and that’s the course I’m re-charting now.

This morning I read a devotional piece from Frederick Buechner’s “Listening to Your Life.” The words reflect the high aim that I have. They now follow:

“Finding the Words”

“At the level of words, what do they say, these prophet-preachers? They say this and they say that. They say things that are relevant, lacerating, profound, beautiful, spine-chilling, and more besides. They put words to both the wonder and the horror of the world, and the words can be looked up in the dictionary or the biblical commentary and can be interpreted, passed on, understood, but because these words are poetry, are image and symbol as well as meaning, are sound and rhythm, maybe above all are passion, they set echoes going the way a choir in a great cathedral does, only it is we who become the cathedral and in us that the words echo.”

“Ethically, politically, religiously, the prophets say what they ought to say, to use Shakespeare’s phrase again, but beyond and even more crucial than that they say what they feel in a language that even across all the centuries and through all the translations and mistranslations causes us to feel them, too. At their most truly prophetic they speak things that my guess is that even they themselves did not entirely understand because they are things that are of the truth itself rather than of particular truths, truth which cannot finally be understood but only experienced. It is the experience that they stun us with, speaking out in poetry that transcends all other language in its power to open the doors of the heart. The man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. The one with the cauliflower ear and the split lip. By whose swollen eye and ruptured spleen we are somehow healed. Who can put a word to him and who needs to? They simply hold him up to our gaze. At their most poetic and powerful they do not say something as much as they make something happen.”

John, the Apostle, said of Jesus that He was “the word become flesh.” For close to two thousand years scholars, theologians, skeptics, rogues, seekers, wise men, fools, children, priests, prophets, mothers, and fathers have tried to plum the depth of that statement. How could God, in the life of one man, sum up everything, concrete and abstract, He had to say to all of humanity? “The word became flesh! I believe they may be the most powerful words ever spoken.”

I’ve spent part of this week pondering the meaning of those words to me. I’ve wrestled with them and have come to see that beyond the lesson of Divine love and salvation I’ve known for years there is also the message of Divine expectation that the “words” also become flesh in those who embrace them. While I cannot speak to their practical application in the lives of others, for me believe that they mean that my craft is meant to, as Buechner said so beautifully, “not say something as much as it makes something happen.”

I’ll be back a week from Monday with that vision in mind. See you then!

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Ballots, Not Bullets

“Today, I came to vote because I am tired of terrorists, and I want the country to be safe again. This constitution means unity and hope”

- Zeinab Sahib – 30 year-old mother of three upon voting in Iraq’s constitutional referendum (as reported by the Associated Press)

If early indications are correct it appears that the vote in today’s constitutional referendum in Iraq was heavier than expected, with minimal violence and disruption from terrorists opposed to any move toward national unity.

Sunni participation is, I believe, a positive sign. While there is a long road ahead, this could mean that all of Iraq’s religious and ethnic groups have cast their lot with the ballot box and not the gun.

This is not to say that the referendum will pass. If the reports are correct, Sunni Muslims, who also voted in large numbers, oppose the draft. The count will be completed in a matter of days and we’ll know whether the people of Iraq’s next step will be to elect a parliament or to start the process over again.

I’m sure the pundits are going to be weighing in with their typical ferocity on this. I watched a bit of CNN this morning and got what I perceive to be an early preview. Some beautiful, under thirty, someone asked Jane Arraf, who was reporting from Baghdad, “Do you think they really know what they’re voting for. Ms. Arraf, to her credit, said that they did. But the look of disappointment on our pretty one’s face upon hearing the answer was palpable. She’d have been much more pleased with something like, “No, these people are stupid.”

I suspect that’s the type of journalism we’ll be treated to for days until the votes are counted.

I don’t know how the vote will turn our, but I’m certain that the people of Iraq know what they’re voting for. These are a people whose history goes back to the beginning of recorded history, to Ur of the Chaldes, to Abraham, the progenitor of three great world religions. These are the same people who historians have called the librarians of the ancient world.

Yes, my pretty little media vixen, these people know what they’re doing. Just ask Said Ahmad Fliha, a seventy-five year old man from Haditha who cast his ballot earlier today:

“I’m 75 years old. Everything is finished for me. But I'm going to vote because I want a good future for my children.”

Friday, October 14, 2005


“While waiting go see the doctor brought Anne Lindbergh’s book “The Wave of the Future” and read it sitting in the truck. It is called a “confession of faith,” but I couldn’t make out what it is she believes in and did not think it a clear book or a good one. So read it all through again, and I think she wants a good world, as I do, but that she has retreated into the pure realm of thought, leaving the rest of us to rassle with the bear. Mrs. Lindbergh feels that the war is so large and so dreadful that a man must at all costs keep his perspective and look at it in a broader way; but I think it is even more dreadful than that, and that we ought to fight and win it. And she says that the things that are going on in the world today are so tremendous and significant that we should concentrate on taking the beam out of our own eye and never mind the mote in our neighbor’s; but I do not like that advice and do not intend to take it, for in this instance the spectacle of my neighbor’s mote is of such character that it has moved me to tears and the tears are dissolving my beam at a fair rate – which is as good a way to get rid of it as any.”

- E.B. White – Commenting on Anne Lindbergh’s defense of Fascism (December 1940)

The melancholy of this past Wednesday has lifted somewhat today, thanks to some wise advice from a friend:

“Yet I think we are always aware of these things, even though they may surface only during our darker moods. In the end, our only hope is He who is the Hope of the world.”

The brooding was also mitigated, I think, by the more mundane needs of the day. There was breakfast to make, a lawn to mow, some spackling to spread on the back porch windows, cats to feed, errands to run. While there are demons lurking on the horizon and “armies on the march and evil reports,” they seem more than a half a world away as I bag leaves for composting or fix some food for Maizey, our calico. “Nothing,” I assure myself, is going to descend on us today.”

But the mood hasn’t entirely lifted. There are still remnants of the black bile lingering. Wednesday night I was reminded by a man of the cloth that Jesus was not, in all likelihood, going to be coming back any time soon. He said what he said four years or so, and he was apparently right. There was no Parousia at the turn of the century and there hasn’t been one this year either. I think the revelation, if I can call it that, was meant to comfort, to force his listeners to plant their feet on the ground of today. It may have helped others, but, unfortunately, it didn’t reassure me. Not even his re-assurance that Jesus actually would indeed come back some day helped. I was looking for some immediate consolation in the face cascading evil and the notion that the Lord Himself would eventually return seemed far too distant. As I ground my teeth, hashing his words over and over again in my mind, I muttered a desperate prayer under my breath. “The whole damned thing is a mess down here, Lord, and I think this would be as good a time as any for some extreme intervention. Maranatha!”

My lack of faith must seem alarming to those who grasp on the times is better than mine. I know, or I ought to know, that everything is going to turn out right in the end. But it’s not the end that troubles me; it’s today, tomorrow, and the day after that. I’m sure that even it that I can be faulted for peering too far ahead or thinking too much. I plead guilty to both charges.

With that said, I think I’ll pursue my melancholy a bit more.

Last night I began reading Tony Blankley’s “The West’s Last Chance.” It’s pretty chilling stuff. At about nine-thirty, just before I turned the lamp above my side of the bed, I read this:

“Likewise, Scheuer’s book took President Bush to task for mismanaging the War on Terror, but also focused on the magnitude of the terrorist threat. He wrote, “Americans, particularly the elites, refuse to grasp…that their country is engaged in war to the death with an enemy who has warned us of his every move and intention. Whatever comes next, whatever disaster befalls us, our children, and our country, we were warned and chose not to fight to our utmost.”

“He went on to explain that the terrorist threat is so great that unless we try to satisfy bin Laden and his organization by acceding to all their demands, we will be forced to fight with all our military strength.”

I went to sleep, praying prayers that must have seemed schizophrenic to heaven. I prayed a prayer of thanks for all I’d been given in life – my life, my family, my health, my freedom. And I also prayed a short prayer of hope – hope that the vision of the apocalypse some are seeing on the horizon is nothing more than a nightmare that we’ll collectively wake from soon.

Then, this morning, I re-read the chilling mantra from the terrorist manual:

“To those champions who avowed the truth day and night
And wrote with their blood and sufferings these phrases.”

“The confrontation that we are calling for with the apostate regimes does not know Socratic debates…, Platonic ideals…, nor Aristotelian diplomacy. But it knows the dialogue of bullets, the ideals of assassination, bombing, and destruction, and the diplomacy of the cannon and the machine gun.”

“Islamic governments have never and will never be established through peaceful solutions and cooperative councils. They are established as they (always) have been:
by pen and gun
by word and bullet
by tongue and teeth”

“Pledge, O Sister
To the sister believer whose clothes the criminals have stripped off.
To the sister whose hair the oppressors have shaved.
To the sister believer whose body has been abused by the human dogs.”

“Pledge, O Sister
Covenant, O Sister…to make their women widows and their children orphans.
Covenant, O Sister…to make them desire death and hate appointments and prestige.
Covenant, O Sister…to slaughter them like lambs and let the Nile, al-Asi, and Euphrates flow with their blood.
Covenant, O Sister…to be a pick of destruction for every godless and apostate regime.
Covenant, O Sister…to retaliate for you against every dog who touches you even with a bad word.”

The words are chilling, yet have a strange poetic lilt to them. They’re eerily reminiscent of the “Allah-u-Akbar’s” that rose melodically as terrorists slit Nicholas Berg’s throat a little over a year ago.

You’d think we, the “apostates and dogs” would have gotten the point by now, but we haven’t:

“If you can – and this may be harder – try to remember those moments in the days and weeks after September 11 when you didn’t think as a Republican or Democrat, as a liberal or conservative, as a devout Christian or big-city agnostic, when you didn’t think for or against George Bush. Remember when Jay Lenno and David Letterman were afraid to make a joke about anything, when there were no civilian airplanes flying in America.”

“At those moments would you have been angry if the FBI had announced that they were going to check public library records to see who had been checking out books on bomb-making and airplane boarding methods? Or, instead, would you have been beside yourself with anger if you heard on television that the FBI was not going to run down every possible lead to catch the terrorists before they blew up the White House, or your child’s school?”

“The big question is whether you were irrational then, to want the government to do what it had to do in order to protect your family and your country from death and destruction- back when you were really afraid of the danger terrorists posed. Or are you irrational now, to be satisfied with the government doing less than it could to stop terrorism? Are you right to no longer be afraid of terrorism?”

Last week, George Bush, the man more and more Americans are learning to hate, spoke with what I believe was a prophet’s mantle:

“The terrorists regard Iraq as the central front in their war against humanity, and we must recognize Iraq as the central front in our war on terror.”

“Third, the militants believe that controlling one country will rally the Muslim masses, enabling them to overthrow all moderate governments in the region and establish a radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia.”

“With greater economic and military and political power, the terrorists would be able to advance their stated agenda: to develop weapons of mass destruction, to destroy Israel, to intimidate Europe, to assault the American people and to blackmail our government into isolation.”

“Some might be tempted to dismiss these goals as fanatical or extreme. Well, they are fanatical and extreme, and they should not be dismissed.”

Of all the melancholy thoughts that grip me right now there is one that overwhelms me more than any other – the thought that while the storm clouds gather all around us, haters of George Bush seem willing, even delighted, to kiss Osama bin Laden’s derriere to the detriment of civilization itself. The murderers, it seems, have powerful allies wherever their tentacles reach. There’s a virtually silent Muslim community. There are political opportunists. There are those who should be our allies. And, there are those who call themselves our countrymen.

Well, tragically, they may have their wish granted. As I’ve said before, the wheel’s still in spin. Surrounded on all sides by enemies and “allies” alike, who have an insatiable appetite for hate, western civilization could fall. Dreams of caliphates could be fulfilled. Eurabia may be less than a generation or two away. And God knows what terror might follow from there.

Am I looking too far ahead, seeing the evil of the present and extending it into the future? Perhaps, but I have good reason. I have children and grand-children. I have friends and comrades. I have the happiness of a life shared in love. I care not only about what happens to me, but also to those with whom I still share life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Am I, then, just a man without hope, a melancholy old fool? No! I know that beyond the reality bathed in newsprint there is hope. In fact, I’m certain that hope, while clouded in the stark reality of the times, is the only sane approach left. As with Joseph of old, God has a way of turning things meant for evil to good.

Even Screwtape, the arch-enemy of all that is good, told Wormwood as much:

“In peace we can make many of them ignore good and evil entirely; in danger, the issue is forced upon them to which even we cannot blind them. There is here a cruel dilemma before us. If we promoted justice and charity among men, we should be playing directly into the Enemy’s hands; but if we guide them in the opposite behaviour, this sooner or later produces (for He permits it to produce) a war or a revolution, and the indisguisable issue of cowardice or courage awakes thousands of men from moral stupor.”
And so I pray, sowing in hope. I pray thankfully for the gifts today has brought my way. I pray hopefully that justice and goodness will prevail in these uncertain times. I pray that my children and grand-children will still have reason to hope when I’ve passed from death to everlasting life. And I hope above all that soon, very soon, history will be rolled up and the Last Word spoken.


Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Streams of Consciousness

“Now I’m a champion of the web – I began writing for Salon in 1995 from the first issue on. But the style of the web, not only the surfing and skimming style that you learn – dash, dash – you absorb information not by reading whole sentences. It’s flash, flash. Email, blog, everything is going fast, fast, fast. So the quality of the language has obviously degenerated. It’s obvious.”

- Camille Paglia

I’m trying to make sense of my thoughts today, but I’m having some difficulty. As I sit here now I’m trying to squeeze at my heart and soul, hoping that in the tension I’m creating the disparate pieces will come together.

The “great ones,” I’ve read somewhere, create only when they detach themselves from reality. Mailer drank himself into a stupor, sat down at a typewriter, and the words just flowed. Kerouac would vomit and follow that up with literary confessions. And, I suspect, Gertrude Stein had just finished a whole plate of Alice B Toklas brownies when she penned “rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” for posterity.

It seems to me that loss of identity is too steep a price to pay for a place in literary history. Me? I’d much rather be a “swinger of birches,” in the mold of Robert Frost:

“So was I once myself a swinger of birches,
And so I dream of going back to be
It’s when I’m weary of considerations
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate wilfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of branches.”

I feel the creative impulse, but as I look out my window all I can see is a mulberry tree shedding its leaves. Unlike Frost’s birch, the upper branches of the mulberry, with its stiff upper limbs, are not as pliable. It could afford me the vehicle to climb toward the heavens, but would be too rigid to carry me back to the earth.

If you’ve read this far it’s probably obvious to you that I’m in a melancholy state of mind right now. The mood will pass. It always does. Things are what they are what they are what they are.

I wonder if history is nothing more than one stream of consciousness pitted against another. Or, is it just a matter of civilizations being born in purity, rising in bursts of creativity, heaving in decadence, then falling prey to the barbarians at the gate. Egypt and Babylon come to mind, and so does Rome:

“The citizens of the City of Rome, therefore could not believe it when toward the end of the first decade of the fifth century, they awoke to find Alaric, king of the Visigoths, and all his forces parked at their gates. He might as well have been the king of the Fuzzy-Wuzzies, or any other of the inconsequential outlanders that civilized people have looked down their noses at throughout history. It was preposterous. They dispatched a pair of envoys to conduct the tiresome negotiation and send him away. They envoys began with empty threats: any attack on Rome was doomed, for it would be met by invincible strength and innumerable ranks of warriors. Alaric was a sharp man, and his rough fashion, a just one. He also had a sense of humor.”
“The thicker the grass, the more easily scythed,” he replied evenly.
The envoys quickly recognized that their man was no fool. All right, then, what was the price of his departure? Alaric told them: his men would sweep through the city, taking all gold, all silver, and everything of value that could be moved. They would also round up and cart off every barbarian slave.
“But,” protested the hysterical envoys, “what will that leave us?”
Alaric paused. “Your lives.”
In that pause, Roman security died and a new world was born.”

The barbarian stream swept civilization away. Left in the wake of their conquest was a world void of law, justice, art, literature, science, history, mercy, inquiry, and discovery. It was indeed a dark, dark, time.

One stream of consciousness is born. Another dies. Is that the lesson of history?

The barbarians are once again at the gates. Dreams of a caliphate are once again dancing in their heads. Their tactics and philosophy are being made clear:

“The Americans will exit soon, God willing, and the establishment of a governing authority-as soon as the country is freed from the Americans-does not depend on force alone. Indeed, it's imperative that, in addition to force, there be an appeasement of Muslims and a sharing with them in governance and in the Shura council and in promulgating what is allowed and what is not allowed. In my view-which I continue to reiterate is limited and has a distant perspective upon the events-this must be achieved through the people of the Shura and who possess authority to determine issues and make them binding, and who are endowed with the qualifications for working in Sharia law. They would be elected by the people of the country to represent them and overlook the work of the authorities in accordance with the rules of the glorious Sharia.”

“And it doesn't appear that the Mujahedeen, much less the al-Qaida in the Land of Two Rivers, will lay claim to governance without the Iraqi people. Not to mention that would be a contravention of the Shura methodology. That is not practical in my opinion.”

“You might ask an important question: What drives me to broach these matters while we are in the din of war the challenges of killing and combat?”

“My answer is, firstly: Things may develop faster than we imagine. The aftermath of the collapse of American power in Vietnam - and how they ran and left their agents - is noteworthy. Because of that, we must be ready starting now, before events overtake us, and before we are surprised by the conspiracies of the Americans and the United nations and their plans to fill the void behind them. We must take the initiative and impose a fait accompli upon our enemies, instead of the enemy imposing one on us, wherein our lot would be to merely resist their schemes.”

The barbarians are indeed at the gates. They’re determined. They’re merciless.

I hear the rattle of the saber and wonder. “Does Rome hold any lessons for us today?” Of course she does. In fact, there are many:

“There are, no doubt, lessons for the contemporary reader. The changing character of the native population, brought about through unremarked pressures on porous borders; the creation of an increasingly unwieldy and rigid bureaucracy, whose own survival becomes its overriding goal; the despising of the military and the avoidance of its service by established families, while its offices present unprecedented opportunity for marginal men to whom its ranks had once been closed; the lip service paid to values long dead; the pretense that we still are what we once were.”

I suppose I could console myself with the thought that western civilization won’t fall in my lifetime. I’ll have flown away long before the gates are breached. Why, then, should I worry or even speak, for that matter? I do so because I care. I do so because I must.

The barbarians are pressing the battle to the gates of this global village. The world seems very small now. Things happen in the twinkling of an eye. Civilization has no walls to protect itself. Schemes and doctrines hatched in caves can find their way to the great centers of power and culture.

“Oh, but we have armies,” you say. “How will an army defeat an idea?” I ask. There are some thin threads of civilization, some threads of ideas that have been passed down to us over the centuries since Rome fell. Will they hold long enough to stem the barbarian stream flowing from the east to the west?

The strained threads were once chords that bound us together. But, in a culture where ideas mean little and image is everything, the ties that bind seem like distant fiction. We’re post-modern now and self aggrandizement is the doctrine of the day. In that, the barbarians have almost won over a generation who live and breathe within the gates of civilization. They’re unwitting allies of Osama, who live only for spectacle and their pleasure. There is little or nothing now that binds them to the rest of us. Their god is their belly and they live for themselves alone. The only world they see is the one inside their laptop or I-pod.

Is the world the barbarians are aiming their sights at a coherent, rational world? No, not any more! And therein lies the problem. We’ve become post-modern. The ideas that could sustain us when the enemies close in have been jettisoned for pleasure and spectacle.

Tradition has it that Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Here in America at the turning of a new age I suspect that, if something doesn’t break the cycle, civilization will once again burn. Who will be fiddling? I think I know who, but I’ll leave the question to you, the reader, to answer.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Television and the Internet - Technological Salvation or Snake Oil?

John 1:1-5 (New Living Translation)
“1In the beginning the Word already existed. He was with God, and he was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3He created everything there is. Nothing exists that he didn't make. 4Life itself was in him, and this life gives light to everyone. 5The light shines through the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.”

Yesterday I read the transcript of Al Gore’s comments made at a recent media conference. His remarks started with great promise:

“I came here today because I believe that American democracy is in grave danger. It is no longer possible to ignore the strangeness of our public discourse. I know that I am not the only one who feels that something has gone basically and badly wrong in the way America's fabled "marketplace of ideas" now functions.”

“Not bad,” I thought. I read on and came to this place in the transcript:

“In fact there was a time when America's public discourse was consistently much more vivid, focused and clear. Our Founders, probably the most literate generation in all of history, used words with astonishing precision and believed in the Rule of Reason.”

“Their faith in the viability of Representative Democracy rested on their trust in the wisdom of a well-informed citizenry. But they placed particular emphasis on insuring that the public could be well- informed. And they took great care to protect the openness of the marketplace of ideas in order to ensure the free-flow of knowledge.”

“The values that Americans had brought from Europe to the New World had grown out of the sudden explosion of literacy and knowledge after Gutenberg's disruptive invention broke up the stagnant medieval information monopoly and triggered the Reformation, Humanism, and the Enlightenment and enshrined a new sovereign: the “Rule of Reason.”

“Still not bad,” I mused. I continued, sorting through the maze of ideas, and eventually found that Citizen Gore was lamenting the loss of civil discourse in America. The lament was rooted in what he saw as the increasingly limited role the consumers of information (you and I) have with those who gather and disseminate it:

“Clearly, the purpose of television news is no longer to inform the American people or serve the public interest. It is to “glue eyeballs to the screen” in order to build ratings and sell advertising. If you have any doubt, just look at what's on: The Robert Blake trial. The Laci Peterson tragedy. The Michael Jackson trial. The Runaway Bride. The search in Aruba. The latest twist in various celebrity couplings, and on and on and on.”

“And it really matters because the subjugation of news by entertainment seriously harms our democracy: it leads to dysfunctional journalism that fails to inform the people. And when the people are not informed, they cannot hold government accountable when it is incompetent, corrupt, or both.”

“One of the only avenues left for the expression of public or political ideas on television is through the purchase of advertising, usually in 30-second chunks. These short commercials are now the principal form of communication between candidates and voters. As a result, our elected officials now spend all of their time raising money to purchase these ads.”

After all the gloom and doom the former presidential candidate offered a solution. It was the internet:

“The greatest source of hope for reestablishing a vigorous and accessible marketplace for ideas is the Internet. Indeed, Current TV relies on video streaming over the Internet as the means by which individuals send us what we call viewer-created content or VC squared. We also rely on the Internet for the two-way conversation that we have every day with our viewers enabling them to participate in the decisions on programming our network.”

Putting his money where his mouth was, Gore, along with his partner, Joel Hyatt, purchased a cable news channel, NewsWorld International, from Vivendi Corporation. The purpose of the joint venture is a mix of jaded altruism and opportunism, an idea that only someone like Al Gore and an ambulance chaser, who parlayed his wealth into a Stanford professorship and Democratic Party power, could hatch:

“This will not be a political network,” the former U.S. vice president said in a statement. But NWI will be developed into a network offering programming for a target audience of 18-34 year-olds, said the company.”

Well, I read the words over and over again to see if I could get them to add up. But, like most things Al Gore has dreamed up over the years, this one fell apart where it mattered most. Professing a desire to make Americans once again a full partners in a literate, interactive culture, he has offered a solution that defies good sense. To solve what he perceives as the problems of access and literary he has gone out and bought a television network.

Forgive me if I don’t jump on the bandwagon, but Citizen Gore’s idea, while promoted with rousing one-liners, is a non starter. To say that television is the cure for an incessantly visual culture is akin to buying Sneaky Pete or Thunderbird in truckloads to cure winos.

I want to give Mr. Gore credit, though. He’s actually seen that television is a big contributor to the literacy problem in America. That much he got right. But how he could make a leap from that to positing that television itself is the solution to the problem it created is beyond me.

I’ve read about one third of the way through Arthur Hunt’s “
The Vanishing Word – The Veneration of Visual Imagery in the Postmodern World.” This is one of the things the author had to say early on in his work:

“There is a big difference between processing information on a printed page compared with processing data conveyed through a series of moving pictures. Images have a way of evoking an emotional response. Pictures have a way of pushing rational discourse – linear logic – into the background. The chief aim of television is to sell products and entertain audiences. Television seeks emotional gratification. As a visual medium, television programming is designed to be amusing. Substance gives way to sounds and sights. Hard facts are undermined by stirring feelings. Important issues are drowned out by dramatic images. Reason is replaced by emotion.”

It’s frightening. The very medium Al Gore is buying in to is the one that is, in large part, responsible for the destruction of reflection, discourse, and literacy in America. And, it’s even more frightening to consider the power that television has had on other media, especially those intended to be read:

“In this age, we find that Americans have been seduced by breadth rather than depth, by quantity rather than quality, by style rather than substance. It is the rare person who reads publications that require reflection; instead the likes of “People,” “Sports illustrated,” and “TV Guide” dominate the newsstands. Harlequin novels and pop psychology reign at the bookstore. Conversations about the weather and the Super Bowl are more common and more intense than those about values and the meaning of life.”

There’s a part of me that would like to believe that the internet, and blogging, hold some promise to turn America from its hell-bent pursuit of the visual toward reason and reflection, and the written word. I see glimmers of hope. But, more than anything, I see a youth dominated medium that is more preoccupied with visual effect than it is with serious discourse.

I’m sure there are some who would say that television and the internet are distinct media. I think they’d also try to argue that television is an empty medium while the internet is a medium of ideas and content. I contend that the two are related. Television has helped shape America’s new millennium young into a visual, shallow, vapid generation. And the internet, which is really not much more than a hybrid of television, a way for one medium to morph into another, has just given them the opportunity to sharpen the skills they learned while their eyes and souls were glued to the glass tit of their childhood. Television, which America’s mothers and fathers used as a baby sitter, has, by re-inventing itself and attaching a keyboard to a monitor, become the taskmaster rather than the servant. The tragic by-product of it all is that it has helped produce a generation almost incapable of thought or reflection.

Do I have a solution? Yes! Turn the television off, sit down, read a book, then sit alone and reflect on what you’ve read. Think about it. Think about it some more. Once that’s done, repeat the process over and over until the human mind, soul, and spirit take over and begin to reclaim the life lost to these “technological wonders.”

Some might say it’s a simplistic solution. “Just pick up a book, read it, and everything will be alright.” Again, I say yes.
I believe in the power of the written word to truly transform:

“The power of a book lies in its power to map or transform a life. The question we would ultimately ask of any work of art is this: Can you live it?”

It’s in that one idea that I clearly see the damage television and the internet, with all their visual wizardry, have done. The written word can transform; it can elevate. The visual media have done little but debase its viewers.

In the end I’m sure I’ll be written off by many as an alarmist, someone who refuses to see the possibilities, a man out of step with his time. I contend that I may be more of a visionary than those caught in the vice grip of this technological sleight-of-hand could ever imagine. I suspect that in the end my view, as antiquated as some might think it to be, will be vindicated.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Lemmings of a Feather Flock Together

“Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it’s namin’
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the time they are a-changin’.”

- Bob Dylan – “The Times They Are a Changin’” (1964)

Two days ago I commented on the Harriet Miers nomination, noting that:

“I suspect that in the current political environment that Harriet Miers is going to need a lot of grace and a little bit of moxie too. She’ll be excoriated not only for her lack of experience, but also for her loyalty to George Bush or her temperament. Every closet in her life will opened in a search for political or judicial skeletons. The boys and girls on Capital Hill are soon going to pull the swords out of their scabbards to see how much political flaying they can do. Unlike John Roberts, Ms. Miers will have to fend off the blows and slashing from the far right and the far left. I hope and pray that she’ll hold her ground, centered on her faith and integrity. If she maintains her hold on those pillars of her life she’ll fare well. I wish her the best.”

Having now read some of the commentary since then, I hope that she has leather skin and a bullet proof heart.

What’s really been disappointing (although not surprising) is the viciousness of the attacks from the right. Here, for example, is what Pat Buchanan had to say about the nomination:

“Bush capitulated to the diversity-mongers, used a critical Supreme Court seat to reward a crony and revealed that he lacks the desire to engage the Senate in fierce combat to carry out his now-suspect commitment to remake the court in the image of Scalia and Thomas.”

George Will, who is normally quite temperate, weighed in with these carefully chosen words:

“Under the rubric of “diversity” -- nowadays, the first refuge of intellectually disreputable impulses -- the president announced, surely without fathoming the implications, his belief in identity politics and its tawdry corollary, the idea of categorical representation. Identity politics holds that one's essential attributes are genetic, biological, ethnic or chromosomal -- that one's nature and understanding are decisively shaped by race, ethnicity or gender. Categorical representation holds that the interests of a group can be understood, empathized with and represented only by a member of that group.”

So, Harriet Miers, if you believe the press, is either George Bush’s crony or a “tawdry corollary” to the “idea of categorical representation.”

But wait. There’s even more invective coming from the right. Earlier today John Podhortez asked whether the President had chosen her “because she is an evangelical Christian:”

“Is this the real meaning of the “trust me” message -- and are her religious beliefs the reason that James Dobson, Chuck Colson, Marvin Olasky and others have given her the big thumbs-up? They were clearly given an early preview of the Miers nomination and were told things about her or told things by her that made her right with them. Has the president decided, in effect, that just as there has been a Jewish seat and an African-American seat and a female seat on the court, there will now be a born-again seat?”

Adding insult to injury, Molly Ivins has taken up her sword to discredit Ms.Miers. Some samples of her latest follow:

“Miers, like Bush himself, is classic Texas conservative Establishment, with the addition of Christian fundamentalism. What I mean by fundamentalist is one who believes in both biblical inerrancy and salvation by faith alone.”

“She is enrolled in the Valley View Christian Church of Dallas, which she attended for at least 20 years before moving to Washington five years ago. Among that church's other members is Nathan Hecht of the Texas Supreme Court, considered second only to Priscilla Owen as that court's most adamant anti-abortion judge.”

“Miers’ church states on its Web site that it believes in biblical inerrancy, full immersion baptism, original sin and salvation dependent entirely upon accepting Jesus Christ. Everyone else is going to hell.”

“I have said for years about people in public life, ‘I don't write about sex, drugs or rock ‘n' roll.’ If I had my druthers, I wouldn't write about the religion of those in public life, either, as I consider it a most private matter. Separation of church and state is in the Constitution because this country was founded by people who had experienced both religious persecution and state-supported religions. I think John F. Kennedy's 1960 statement to the Baptist ministers should stand as a model of how public servants should handle the relation between religious belief and public service.”

It seems to me that the old adage is true – politics makes strange bedfellows. Rock-ribbed conservatives and die-hard liberals have joined hands across the political divide to discredit Harriet Miers even before the confirmation process begins.

If I read the pundits correctly Harriet Miers has three strikes against her. She’s a crony, a token woman, and an evangelical Christian to boot.

Her detractors claim to be conscientiously objecting to at least three principles the President has violated in nominating her to the Supreme Court. First, while they can’t say for sure, they don’t believe she has the pedigree of a Supreme Court justice. Then, if only being a lawyer and a woman isn’t enough to disqualify her, being an evangelical Christian is, in their minds, more than enough to throw her to the wolves.

What could I possibly say to such noble principles?

Responding to Harriet Miers’ detractors could be dangerous. It could be a bit like standing down wind of them while they’re coughing up ammunition to aim at her and those who might seem to be her supporters. But I’m going to go ahead anyway. I’ve had the phlegm of my enemies deposited on me. I’ve been spit on before and I’m sure I’ll be spit on again before I return to the dust.

While I don’t consider myself an anti-intellectual contrarian, I must admit that the hue and cry about this woman’s lack of pedigree amuses me. It reminds me of a conversation I once had with a “real intellectual” when I was doing my graduate work in Kansas City. One acquaintance, a brilliant mind, used to dominate our between class conversations with his expert language and thought. One phrase, in particular, became his mantra – “considered consequent eschatology.” He used it liberally, and often found creative ways to inject it, or its derivatives (“considered consequent eschatological developments”) into our daily dialogues. One day, out of curiosity, I asked him a question. “How would you explain that clever little catch phrase of yours to a cab driver?” Nonplussed, he responded, “This isn’t for cab drivers or the rank and file for that matter. It’s for minds suitably intelligent to grasp.”

Well, I suspect we may have one, two, or more of this genius’s relatives sitting on the highest court in the land right now. Perhaps someone like Harriet Miers would be like a breath of fresh air in Washington. Perhaps it would be refreshing to have someone on the High Court who would ask questions like, “How would you explain this clever little decision of yours to a cab driver?”

A while ago I read this from Marvin Olasky:

“But perhaps that makes Miers the perfect candidate. Perhaps it takes someone who did not go to Harvard or Yale and has never seemed to care. Miers went to law school at Southern Methodist University, which, although a well-respected institution, was unlikely to have been a bastion of progressive thought when she entered it in 1970.”

Like Olasky, I’m not impressed with the high sounding credentials. I once delivered newspapers around the campus of Harvard and I learned something. While the elite may think so, a Harvard or Yale degree doesn’t mean that its holder craps ice cream.

There’s little that can be said about the “token woman” argument that’s being raised. She is what she is. She’s a woman. I suspect that she’s probably more a woman than many of her detractors are men. I’ll leave it at that.

I think that when it comes right down to it her religion scares the hell out of both the left and right. Molly Ivins cited John F. Kennedy’s speech to the Southern Baptists in 1960 as her principle. What principle, I wonder, was she adhering to? Was it this one?:

“Finally, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end -- where all men and all churches are treated as equal -- where every man has the same right to attend or not to attend the church of his choice -- where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind -- and where Catholics, Protestants and Jews, both the lay and the pastoral level, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.”

Or was it this one?:

“That is the kind of America in which I believe. And it represents the kind of Presidency in which I believe -- a great office that must be neither humbled by making it the instrument of any religious group, nor tarnished by arbitrarily withholding it, its occupancy from the members of any religious group. I believe in a President whose views on religion are his own private affair, neither imposed upon him by the nation nor imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office.”

I find the rhetoric coming from the seats of power both fascinating and frightening. This one nomination, this “religious” woman, has caused shock waves. The president who nominated her is being pilloried from the left and the right. While I don’t think that George Bush harbors any Messianic designs, I suspect that his detractors, like the Pharisees and Sadducees of old are worried enough to stir up the masses. In His day, the religious right and left dealt with Jesus harshly. There were clever catch phrases back then, as there are today. “We have no king but Caesar!” “If you’re the son of God, come down from there!”

Well, I can smell a new millennium crucifixion brewing in the editorial board rooms right now. I read all the commentary and wonder, “Who am I to be thinking in such a contrary manner when the experts seem to have spoken?” I guess when it comes right down to it I don’t want to be just another lemming jumping off the cliff into the philosophical darkness.
Yes, there’s a crucifixion brewing and I think I’ll stay home with the cab drivers, the rank and file, and those who aren’t “suitably intelligent.”

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Let the Games Begin!

“The Sox, one feels were ever touched with tragedy. But, lord, have they ever played in a beautiful ballpark. ... The beauty that is Fenway is something to behold. Go out on a bright, warm day in early summer, or a clear, crisp day in early fall, and you'll see a sight you'll never forget. The greenest green in creation sparkling beneath a perfect blue sky. ‘How God meant baseball to be played,’ John Pesky said to me once upon a time.”

--John Anderson, Boston Magazine

A season’s passed since the “Curse” was lifted. My beloved Red Sox, in a star crossed 2004 season, ended what Harry Frazee had started in 1920 when he sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. When I wrote the piece I’m re-running today the regular season wasn’t quite over, but the Sox were already assured of a playoff spot.

From that point on the magic seemed to envelop Fenway Park. Sox fans will always remember how the “Idiots” stared down what seemed to be certain defeat and dug their way out of a three to zero hole to defeat the New York Yankees. For those of us who had seen the painful collapses, defeating the boys from the Bronx would have been reward enough for a lifetime. But it didn’t end there. The Red Sox swept a really good St. Louis Cardinals team in four games to win the World Series.

A year has passed and the setting is once again familiar. The Red Sox have made the playoffs, as a “wild card” team. Their first order of business is the Chicago White Sox, a team that has a curse of their own to lift. The last time they claimed the title of world champions was 1917. Two years later, in 1919, they made it to the World Series again, only to be caught in the most infamous scandal in baseball history. The monkey this year’s White Sox are trying to lift from their backs is far weightier than the Curse of the Bambino. Gambling and deceit did the 1919 White Sox in. One phrase has captured the feeling of the Chicago faithful ever since – “Say it ain’t so, Joe.”

While I can’t say that I have the same emotional investment this year as I did last, I have to admit that I’m still going to tune in. With one curse already exorcised, will another also be lifted this year? Will my Red Sox find a way to win again? Will the Yankees take it all? Will the St, Louis Cardinals, a superb team with great hitting, great fielding, and great pitching bring another world championship home? Or, will the Houston Astros, a team that’s never competed in the fall classic, pull a great upset?

My post from last year now follows as a reminder that at this wondrous time of the year all things are possible. With that said, let the games begin!

“My beloved Red Sox are in second place, two and half games out of first in the eastern division of the American League. They’ve already clinched a playoff spot.

For all of us unrequited Sox fans this is familiar territory. We’ve been in these situations before, with our hopes up and emotions poised to celebrate, only to have our collective hearts broken by one strange play after another. In the 1946 World Series it was
Johnny Pesky double clutching a relay throw that allowed Enos Slaughter to score from first base on a single that did us in. In 1978 Mike Torres served up a gopher ball to Bucky Dent, a .243 hitter who had only four home runs all year, that cost us the pennant. That was the year that the Sox led the Yankees by 14 games in July only to collapse down the stretch.

In 1986 we thought we had it won. The Sox were one win away from ending the half century drought. We were up by two on the Mets in the bottom of the tenth. The fateful inning started with such promise:

“Wally Backman hit a fly to left for the Mets first out in the bottom of the tenth. Keith Hernandez followed with a deep fly to center for the second out. With nobody on and two outs, the Shea Stadium scoreboard read "Congratulations Boston Red Sox, 1986 World Champions." Boston pitcher Bruce Hurst was selected as the World Series MVP.”

Then, “something happened:” “Gary Carter hit a 2-1 fastball for a single to left. Kevin Mitchell (who was in the already in the clubhouse arranging for his plane ride home) was called upon to pinch hit. Mitchell and Schiraldi had played together in Jackson, Mississippi in 1983. Mitchell remembered that Schiraldi had once told him that if he ever faced him, he would start with a fastball inside, and try to get him to bite on a slider away. Schiraldi started with a fastball inside, and Mitchell lined the slider to center; Carter was on second. Ray Knight faced Calvin Schiraldi. Schiraldi got ahead with a 0-2 count; Boston was one strike away from winning. On the next pitch, Knight blooped the ball into short center; Carter scored and Mitchell advanced to third. The Mets were down by one, 5-4. Bob Stanley came in to face Mookie Wilson. The count went to 2-2; Boston was again one strike away. Third base coach Bud Harrelson advised Mitchell to be ready to charge home on a wild pitch. Wilson fouled off two balls.”

I’ll leave you there for a moment or two to digress.

My wife and I had only been married for a couple of months, but she was well aware of my passion for my Bosox and the
“Curse of the Bambino.” I’d told her all about the strange doings that followed them ever since 1920, when Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees for $125,000 in cash and a $300,000 loan. Frazee used the money to produce a Broadway play, “No, No, Nanette.” In 1920 and 1921 the “Bambino” hit 109 home runs. And, you know the rest. The Red Sox have not won a World Series since that infamous sale. The Yankees have won twenty six. TWENTY SIX! In short, Harry Frazee, Broadway producer extraordinaire got “No, No Nanette and the fans of New England got “No, No, Bosox.”

When I told Nancy about the “curse” she just laughed. “There’s no such thing.”
“I’m tellin’ you Coach, something happens every time we get close. It always does.”
“It’s just an old wive’s tale, Slick.”
“There’s more to it than that. How do you explain ’46? How do you explain ’78?”
“It’s just baseball. The Yankees were just the better team.”
“You keep that up and we’ll be in counseling. There’s no way they’re better than my Sox. I mean we’ve had Tris Speaker and Ted Williams and Jimmy Foxx.”
“Yeah, and they’ve had DiMaggio and Ruth Gehrig and Mickey Mantle.”
“We’re still better.”
“Well then maybe this is your year.”

It was October 25th. We’d just gotten home in time to watch what appeared to be everything I’d waited for years to see. It was the bottom of the tenth. There were two outs and nobody on. It seemed like a sure thing. “See,” Nancy said. “This is going to be your year.”
“I can’t stand it. I can’t watch. I’m going downstairs for a while. I’ll come back up to watch the celebration.”
“You’re not serious.”
“I’ve gotta’ go.”
“Don’t you want to see this. I mean you’ve waited so long.”
“I do, but something always seems to happen.”

I went downstairs for what seemed to be 30 seconds. It actually turned out to be forty five minutes. I came back upstairs, hoping for good news. When I got to our bedroom where the TV was on Nancy looked at me, stunned. “I don’t believe it, the ball just went through his legs. It was such an easy play; how could it happen? How did you know it was going to happen?”
“I didn’t know “it” was going to happen. I just knew “something” was going to happen.”

For those of you who don’t remember what happened, the account of those fateful moments follows:

“Stanley's next pitch bounced off of Catcher Rich Gedman, allowing Mitchell to score the tying run. Knight advanced to second base. With Knight taking a large lead, Marty Barrett snuck in for what seemed like an easy pickoff, but Bob Stanley was too focused on the plate to realize. Wilson fouled off the pitch. On the tenth pitch of the at-bat, Wilson hit a slow grounder towards first. The ball rolled under Bill Buckner's glove into short right as Knight rounded third to score the winning run. Boston stranded fourteen runners in the game. McNamara later said that he had left Buckner in the game so that he would be on the field when the team won the World Series.”

That was eighteen years ago. It’s now September 29, 2004. My Sox are two and half out. They’ve made the playoffs and they’ve got a shot once again to lay the “Bambino” to rest. Is this to be the year? We’ve got Pedro and Curt and a Manny and David. Everything seems to be right. But, as I sit here typing I wonder. Will some mysterious thing happen this year like it has since 1920? Will a baseball do something that defies the laws of physics and doom the Sox once more? Will the Bambino strike again. Or will the Sox finally requite the love and adoration of the fans of New England and those dispersed, but still attached to Fenway. Let me know sometime in early November, because I’m going into hiding till then.”

Monday, October 03, 2005

A Lot of Grace and a Little Bit of Moxie

Luke 7:31-35 (New Living Translation)

31 “How shall I describe this generation?” Jesus asked. “With what will I compare them? 32They are like a group of children playing a game in the public square. They complain to their friends, ‘We played wedding songs, and you weren't happy, so we played funeral songs, but you weren't sad.’ 33For John the Baptist didn't drink wine and he often fasted, and you say, ‘He's demon possessed.’ 34And I, the Son of Man, feast and drink, and you say, ‘He's a glutton and a drunkard, and a friend of the worst sort of sinners!’ 35But wisdom is shown to be right by the lives of those who follow it.”

I had an interesting conversation this morning. I had just about completed my walking loop through town and decided to stop at the Town Crier, one of our local book stores. There were two books in the display window that attracted me, Bernard Goldberg’s “100 People Who Are Screwing Up America” and Bob Dylan’s “Chronicles.” As I was completing my purchase the sales clerk, a young woman, updated me on the news flash. “We’ve got a girl nominee now,” she said. “I think she’s a Bush crony.” I registered a bit of mock surprise at her revelation, just enough to try to convince her that my interest was in buying the books, not Supreme Court politics. Apparently my look wasn’t convincing enough. “And she’s from Texas to boot,” the young woman added. I realized that she was in a provocative mood and decided to oblige her. “What’s wrong with Texas? I asked.
“Nothing I guess, but doesn’t it seem strange to you that a president from Texas is nominating a woman from Texas?”
I tried to see the conspiracy in the nomination, but all that I could muster was a brief chuckle. “No, it doesn’t surprise me,” I said. “In fact it would have been more surprising to me if he hadn’t nominated the person he wanted.”
My answer was met with a frown of dismay. “But she’s a crony, and she’s from Texas.”
I tried my best to reassure her that there was nothing sinister in what the president had done. “When John Kennedy was elected president a lot of his friends from Massachusetts went to Washington with him. He even appointed his brother to be Attorney General. And, not too long ago Bill Clinton brought every Arkansas chicken farmer or political hack to the Capital with him. So, to answer your question, I don’t see anything unusual about it.”
“Maybe so,” she replied. “But she’s kinda’ old too.”
I rubbed my hand against the receding hairline above my right temple. “Young lady, you’re not making many points with me this morning.”
Her apology only made things worse. “What I meant was that she is probably out of touch with the younger generation.”
“How so?” I asked.
“She’s going to come to the job with outdated thinking.”
“I mean, it’s just hard for older people to think clearly about all the issues.”
I saw that it was time to really bore in. “Kid, I’ve got to let you know something. I’m two years older than Harriet Miers and I’ve never thought more clearly in my life. Not only am I smarter than most young people I meet nowadays, I’m a whole lot wiser too.”

I think she had more to say, but saw that I was going to be a tougher nut to crack than her average customer, so the only response I got was, “That’ll be forty-one, eight-five, please.”

As I was making my way out of the store I noticed the headline in this morning’s
USA Today. “Govs to Bush” Relief Our Job,” it read. Wanting to read further, I plunked down seventy-five cents and added it to my growing stack of reading material.

I got home and took about thirty seconds to read the USA Today piece. The story, by Bill Nichols and Richard Benedetto, outlined how most state governors are feeling about George Bush’s trial balloon, floated in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Congress, and left-leaning America. To blunt the complaints about the slow response to the disasters, the president out loud asked, “Is there a circumstance in which the Department of Defense becomes the lead agency?” As I suspected, most state governors, including Republicans, think it’s a bad idea. Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, a Republican said, “Some federal help might be necessary, but we don’t need them coming in and running things.” Democrat Jennifer Granholm of Michigan issued a two word response – “Hell no!”

I don’t like the idea of too much federal intervention either, but I understand the president’s dilemma. What do you suppose might happen in the future if some great cataclysm were to strike the state of Michigan? If there are problems with the response do you think that Jennifer Granholm is going to fall on her sword, taking full responsibility for what’s happened? Don’t you think that the congress would fight federalizing disasters, limiting the ability of the federal government to respond and then complain when the state or states at ground zero don’t get the “proper” response?

I suppose this damned if you do, damned if you don’t thinking has always plagued America’s political process, and probably always will. The people who do the complaining have almost always been the ones who act like frozen ropes at the most inopportune times. They get elected as leaders and prove to be nothing more than critics. Unfortunately, that’s normative politics in America these days.

This morning’s White House announcement has the critics crawling out of the walls like cockroaches, sensing there’s a good meal to be had at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. To critics on the right she’s not conservative enough. To critics on the left she’s an unknown quantity. Some are thinking she’s too far from the center and some are thinking she’s too close to it. She’s got enough to displease almost any critic.

I doubt, given the current reality, that someone like Mother Theresa or Jesus Himself would be given a free pass.

The process has just begun, but I’m sure that the rhetoric will reach a fever pitch before long. Senators and interest group icons from all over the country will soon be sharpening up their meat grinders, hoping to make full use of them to discredit her. If she passes muster I suspect someone’s going to have to put all the pieces of flesh and sinew back together and drape a judicial robe over her bruised and broken body.

One of the interesting things going on early in the process is that some have taken note of the fact that Harriet Miers
has absolutely no judicial experience:

“Other Democrats sounded anything but conciliatory. “The president has selected a loyal political ally without a judicial record to sit on the highest court in the land,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.”

As I thought about the Ms. Miers’ apparent lack of experience my mind faded back to a time in my life when I didn’t have the “credentials.” It happened in 1994. At the time I was a logistics analyst for Fed Ex, working in the company’s eastern region. I’d been in place for close to six years and felt that I’d done everything I could with the position. As the feelings of the day to day humdrum slowly came over me I cast an admiring glance at the engineering department. It seemed to me that the engineers I’d met and had interaction with had interesting jobs. So, I decided to find out what it would take to become an one. I talked to engineers. I listened to them. I followed them around in the evenings after I’d finished my daily logistics chores, observing what they did.

Some thought I was foolish, but I became convinced that I could become a very good engineer. So, when the right time came I applied for an open position. When I didn’t get the position, some assumed I was going to give up and go away. But in time another position became available. I applied, was interviewed, and again turned down. A third interview came and went with the same result. Then came a fourth. Finally, after my fifth interview the hiring manager gave me the position, based, he said, primarily on my persistence.

In the years after that final interview I proved to be what others called “a cracker jack engineer.” I was good, very good. What had been seen as a professional disadvantage became my biggest plus. I was able to look at things with a much fresher eye than most who had been educated and “trained” in the discipline. I was also able to apply years of experience and wisdom to the position, translating linguistics, creativity, theology, and experience into the language and decorum of an engineer. I formed alliances with the managers I supported and they found that in me they had someone who would shoot straight with them and give them what they needed to succeed. I can say today, with some measure of pride, that those I supported did so because of the work I did on their behalf.

In the years after I was hired as an engineer people have asked me how I managed to do it. They look at my resume, with the undergraduate degree in linguistics and creative writing and the graduate degree in theology and ask how it all fit together. My answer is always the same – “A lot of grace and a little bit of moxie can go a long way.”

I suspect that in the current political environment that Harriet Miers is going to need a lot of grace and a little bit of moxie too. She’ll be excoriated not only for her lack of experience, but also for her loyalty to George Bush or her temperament. Every closet in her life will opened in a search for political or judicial skeletons. The boys and girls on Capital Hill are soon going to pull the swords out of their scabbards to see how much political flaying they can do. Unlike John Roberts, Ms. Miers will have to fend off the blows and slashing from the far right and the far left. I hope and pray that she’ll hold her ground, centered on her faith and integrity. If she maintains her hold on those pillars of her life she’ll fare well. I wish her the best.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Words, Words, Words

Genesis 11:1-9 (New Living Translation)

The Tower of Babel
1At one time the whole world spoke a single language and used the same words. 2As the people migrated eastward, they found a plain in the land of Babylonia and settled there. 3They began to talk about construction projects. “Come,” they said, “let's make great piles of burnt brick and collect natural asphalt to use as mortar. 4Let's build a great city with a tower that reaches to the skies--a monument to our greatness! This will bring us together and keep us from scattering all over the world.”
5But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. 6”Look!” he said. “If they can accomplish this when they have just begun to take advantage of their common language and political unity, just think of what they will do later. Nothing will be impossible for them! 7Come, let's go down and give them different languages. Then they won't be able to understand each other.” 8In that way, the LORD scattered them all over the earth; and that ended the building of the city. 9That is why the city was called Babel, because it was there that the LORD confused the people by giving them many languages, thus scattering them across the earth.”

Nancy and I began a series of conversations on the written word a couple of days ago. I’m sure we’ll explore this theme more in the days to come, to test our ideas and theories against the reality all around us, but for right now we’re both lamenting the loss of creative power in America these days.

The problem seems to be especially acute among the young. In the year or so I’ve been blogging I’ve read samples from many bloggers, fresh from high school or college, who have little to say and even fewer literary gifts with which to express what they see or feel.

I don’t believe we’re alone in our lament. Clive Allen expressed some of the same feelings yesterday in an essay titled “
Mr. Salinger and the Haiku,” in which he gently dissected the false depth that many bloggers seem to think they’ve found by using haiku:

“But haikus seem to be spreading through the blogosphere like a contagious disease. Fortunately, I seem to have been inoculated against this particular infection for I find nothing attractive or special about this particular poetic form.”

“Maybe in Japanese the haiku is a wondrous thing but I wouldn't know since I have only about three words of the language (all culled from that Richard Chamberlain TV series, Shogun). It appears to me that, in English, the haiku is not poetry at all but merely a statement of the obvious pretending to be deep and significant.”

Along with this pretense of depth comes a new blogging language, developed in expediency. If you read a lot of blogs you’ll know what I mean. For those with short attention spans phrases like “lots of luck” or “lots of love” have become “LOL.” “Oh my God” has been replaced by “OMG.” “By the way” has been supplanted by “BTW.” Accompanying the acronyms are the catch phrases of the new millennium’s young. One day it might be “We be bitchin.” The next it will probably be “He rocks.”

Beyond the linguistic shortcuts, though, there is what seems to me to be a shallowness of soul that’s been exposed in these would be authors and poets. Again, if you read many blogs you know what I mean. There’s a fascination with gutter language, especially the word “fuck.” I think its exponential growth in use stems from the emptiness of mind that accompanies the moral vacuum in their souls.

In our conversations Nancy and I have wondered out loud how this has all come about. One of the clear sources we’ve seen is the poor quality of education in the disciplines of language young people are getting in America. And, that poor quality isn’t only the domain of our high schools. Colleges are also becoming havens for subsidized stupidity.

I probably expressed it a bit more directly than some readers would like, so I’ll let someone from inside the belly of America’s educational beast say it in more muted tones. This is how
Mark Edmundsun views what was happening in higher education. His language is more genteel than mine, but it is also right to the point:

“The freshman–to-be sees photographs of well-appointed dorm rooms; of elaborate phys-ed facilities, of expertly maintained sports fields, of orchestras and drama troupes, of students working joyously, off by themselves. It’s a retirement spread for the young. “Colleges don’t have admissions offices anymore, they have marketing departments,” a school financial officer said to me once. Is it surprising that someone who has been approached with photos and tapes, bells and whistles, might come to college thinking Shakespeare and Freud courses were also going to be agreeable treats?”

“How did we reach this point? In part, the answer is a matter of demographics and also of money. Aided by the GI Bill, the college-going population increased dramatically after the Second World War. Then came the baby boomers, and to accommodate them colleges continued to grow. Universities expand readily enough, but with tenure locking in faculty for lifetime jobs, and with the general reluctance of administrators to eliminate their own slots, it’s not easy for a university to contract. So after the baby boomers had passed through – like a tasty lump sliding down the length of a boa constrictor – the colleges turned to promotional strategies – to advertising – to fill the empty chairs. Suddenly college, except for a few highly selective establishments, became a buyers’ market. What students and their parents wanted had to be taken potently into account. That often meant creating more comfortable, less challenging environments, places where almost no one failed, everything was enjoyable, and everyone was nice.”

The good professor was right to say what he did. I spent my first year of undergraduate work at Ohio State University. My grade cards were incredible during that time, all A’s, but I knew I wasn’t learning anything. In order to escape the state sponsored learning factory in Ohio, I enrolled in a small college west of Chicago. Once I was accepted I decided to repeat my freshman year, foregoing the credits I could have had transferred from Ohio State. I felt that if I was going to really learn it would be best to start with a clean slate. It’s a decision I’ll never regret. While my education took more time and cost more money it was far more rewarding, far more complete, than any education I would ever have gotten had I continued at Ohio State.

A good education doesn’t necessarily make a man elite material, but it will do something that a learning factory very rarely does. Of all the lessons I learned at Judson, the most valuable was to treat language, literature, and the written word with respect. I learned to value language as a window on the world, a tool I could use to describe my world, my feelings, and my experience. That’s what’s missing in so many colleges and universities today.

The literary environment today, particularly in the blogosphere, is all too crowded with people, especially young people, who have little more than contempt for words and language.

While I was attending Judson a friend and I conducted a little experiment. He was attending Elgin Community College, taking a class in composition. One night at work he came to me with the college’s newspaper, which was dedicated to the poetry written by one of its students. “Phil, you’ve got to read this,” he said. “Tell me what you think.” I read the poems, then hesitated for a minute. “Did you write these?” I asked.
“No,” he replied.
I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that if he had written them and I’d have told the truth he would have been very hurt. “Well, I can’t imagine poetry getting any worse than that,” I said.
My friend nodded in agreement. Then he shook his head. “The problem is,” he said. “The guy is getting straight A’s and he’s being called a genius.”

We gave it some thought during the night and came up with a little experiment. I would write really bad poetry, give it to him under a pen name (Pamela Cartwright Smith), and he would in turn submit it to the university newspaper. A few days later I wrote the first of “Pamela’s” three poems. It was titled “How ‘Bout ‘Dem” and went like this:

“How ‘bout ‘dem four doors,
And how ‘bout ‘dem cuspidors
And how ‘bout ‘dem toreadors
Raz mataz, raz mataz, and all that jazz
Raz mataz, raz mataz, and all that jazz
How ‘bout ‘dem.”

To our utter amazement we got word back that students were clamoring for the work of Pamela Cartwright Smith. The reviews were coming in and everyone, it seemed, believed she was a real genius. Words like “profound” and “incredible” were sprinkled into the faculty reviews. Thinking that something worse would end things, I submitted another piece of grotesque poetry a week later. It went like this:

“fjeiejruiejrkfejeieriue, ijrkienjre-hjnfkjiejrkemn:rhienj,
And that’s the way it is America.”

Another two days passed and another set of glowing reviews made their way back to Pamela.

The best was reserved for last. It was what Pamela described as a piece of “Americana:”

“Hey Crystal, make with the java.
Crystal obeyed
What’s with them blue eyes, doll?
Crystal flared
Bring the bounty, little wench
Crystal dumped the java on Rocco
Get your own damned Bounty.”

A few days later my friend came to me with bad news. “They loved it, called it introspection into the soul of America,” he said. I couldn’t believe it. “They’re putting us on, right?” “No,” he replied. “They’re serious. In fact they’re so serious they want to arrange an interview with Ms.Smith.”
I sat in stunned silence for a minute or two, then gathered my thoughts. “Tell them that Pamela is too busy right now. She’s working on a big Random House deal that can’t wait.”

That’s where it all ended. Pamela Cartwright Smith never won the Pulitzer Prize, but she did, before she went on to bigger and better things, win the undying admiration of a faculty of fools.

I think that’s where we’re headed now. Slick marketing and youth have been tossed together into some sort of mixing bowl, thrown into an oven, then under-cooked. The end result of the recipe is that we are creating something that can best be described as the illiterate illuminati.

I started this essay with a photograph of Koko the gorilla. Koko, if you aren’t aware, is the gorilla who has been “taught” to read. While I take no position on whether or not this is true, I will take a position on Koko vis a vis the folks who have embraced the “OMG’s and the BTW’s. I don’t know whether he’s catching up with them or if they’re falling further and further behind, but I do know that the gap is narrowing in Koko’s favor. Pretty soon he’ll be graduating from
McGuffey’s Readers to “doing” haiku. And what will America’s young students and bloggers be doing? They’ll be on a quest, searching for Pamela Cartwright Smith and her America.

It’s strange, isn’t it? The time may be coming when we’ll have to pin civilization’s hopes on a gorilla. How the mighty have fallen!