Friday, August 31, 2007

The Eye of the Beholder

“Glances of true beauty can be seen in the faces of those who live in true meekness.”

- Henry David Thoreau

It’s hard to believe it’s been so long, but the morning news confirmed it, so I have to accept it. Princess Diana died in an automobile accident ten years ago. According to the reports filed today as many as two billion people watched her funeral and mourned her passing.

It’s also hard to believe that it’s been ten years since the death of Mother Teresa. While her death was also mourned around the world, it must be said that far fewer mourned her passing.


Princess Diana was stunningly beautiful, tall and angular. She was young, vibrant, poised, admired, and often adored. She had good causes she advanced – AIDS, the effect of land mines on innocent children in the war-torn Balkans. When the royal family jettisoned her she gained an enormous amount of support world-wide. She was the beauty scorned by the mighty. Given those circumstances, whose heart couldn’t go out to her? Underserved rejection, followed by an untimely death became the perfect recipe for the outpouring of grief.

Mother Teresa was craggy faced, short, with stooped shoulders. She was old and appeared to be weary to the point of death from the burden she’d carried for so long. She was a homely woman, not the type of woman men would lust after or desire to possess. The truth was, she was possessed by Someone else. That, I believe, troubled us.

She was admired, albeit at arm’s length. There was something we feared about her. Could it have been that the message she brought made us uncomfortable. Could she have been telling us that her burden needed more burden-bearers and that too few would come to her aid? Could it have been that she revealed the gaping holes in our philosophy? Could it have been that, by her life, she exposed the moral bankruptcy of our time?

It’s ten years later, and the world is remembering. Diana is being remembered for her beauty and tragic end. Mother Teresa is being remembered for her lapses of faith. Les Csorba, writing in today’s Houston Chronicle, put it this way:

“Ten years ago, Princess Diana's life was taken tragically in a tunnel in Paris. Up to 2 billion people would watch the memorial services around the globe. But, as the world wept over Diana, the news arrived that Mother Teresa had died of cardiac arrest. The irony was that while the world mourned the princess they conferred sainthood upon, they overlooked real beauty.”

It’s been said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If the majority sanctify Princess Diana the turn away from Mother Teresa, does it mean that that the message as well as it bearer are to be rejected? In this self-absorbed world it seems to be so.

Jesus said that the pathway to the kingdom of God is narrow, and few find it. In a world where our notions of beauty are so jaded, the truth of Jesus’ words pierce like an arrow to the heart. In a world so often corrupted by fame and worldly notoriety, they cut us to the quick. They go deep, to the depths of our souls, and we shun them. We’d much rather the superficial and the vain than to trod the lonely path of service and humility. There are indeed two ways, one narrow and the other broad. We most often choose the one that appeals to our vanity and pride. We must validate our choice, hence, Princess Diana is elevated and Mother Teresa is brought low.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Cost of the Democrats' Foregone Conclusions on Iraq

The cost of freedom is always high, but Americans have always paid it. And one path we shall never choose, and that is the path of surrender, or submission.

- John F Kennedy

Pete Petraeus will be reporting to the President, then to Congress, in about three weeks. While no one knows for sure exactly what he is going to say, there are indications that the report will be far more positive than negative.

I’m not sure that it’s going to make a lot of difference. The overwhelming majority of Democrats and their anti-war base concluded that Iraq was an abject failure before the surge began. They did vote to fund the surge, but I think that was only because they feared a backlash from the American people, who don’t lean nearly as far to the left as the Democratic base. Others have seen things in a different light. In May, former New York Mayor Ed Koch had this to say:

“The Democrats, like terriers shaking a rat (Iraq) using a plan of funding war for three months -- salami tactics -- causing the Army command to recognize that the Congress, not the President, is effectively in charge, have achieved their goal: implementing withdrawal.”

It could be. But, whatever their reasons, I’m certain that come September their political wheels are going to be spinning madly. There will be little offered in the way of strategy. What I believe we’ll see is more triangulating and political maneuvering. Will they play to their base and cut off funding? Or, will they endure till the 2008 election and then pull all the plugs.

The President, in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars last week, drew several parallels between the war in Iraq and other conflicts. Most Democrats didn’t seem to mind the comparisons to World War II or Korea. But they went ballistic when the President compared Iraq to Vietnam. They claimed that the comparisons were inaccurate, that there were few, if any, parallels between the two.

I think there’s much more to it. Vietnam will always be a great revealer of the Democratic Party’s intent and the intent of their anti-war base. That’s what made them climb the rafters, screaming like banshees.

This morning I read an op-ed piece by Robert Tracinski. I think he got to the heart of why the Democrats don’t like the comparisons. He claimed, I believe correctly, that the Democratic Party’s left wing base clamored for defeat and the Democrats gave it to them:

“Whatever the failures of American strategy in Vietnam, there is no doubt that the anti-war left pushed for American failure and accomplished it by persistent and vigorous legislation. And that is the crucial issue. If the architects of the Vietnam War in the Johnson administration can be criticized (as Moyar does) for not doing enough to win the war, the later anti-war left actively pursued American defeat and humiliation as their goal. They didn't merely want us to withdraw; they wanted us to lose, and they did whatever was necessary to make sure that happened.”

I then came across this from Jeff Jacoby in the Boston Globe:

“It is troubling that there are no such profiles (referring to John Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage) among the Democrats running for president this year. JFK was elected at a time when Americans could trust his party to confront international threats with resolve. That changed after Vietnam, where the Democratic left insisted on defeat and got its way.”

I remember coming back from my tour in Vietnam. I kissed the ground at Travis Air Force Base, then proceeded to the transit barracks with some of my buddies. That night I watched the news from “the world” and was treated to left wing demonstrators chanting, “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, the NLF is gonna’ win.” Later, like a lot of others who served, I was called a “baby killer” by young students exercising the right of free speech I went to Vietnam to preserve for them. They were determined, loud, offensive, and wrong, but in the end they got all they wanted and then some – boat people, genocide in Cambodia, re-education camps for those who trusted us in Vietnam, and international retreat under Jimmy Carter.

I think about the Democrats’ current strategy and I get a bit cynical. Why not give them what they want now, like we did in Vietnam? That will make the parallels between the two wars much more understandable. If they want defeat, let’s pull the plug. Hell, I’m an old retiree and the terrorists won’t make it to Emporia, Kansas by the time I’m pushing up daisies. But, then I think of my children and grand-children, my brother and sister and their families, my friends and neighbors, the thousands and thousands of Iraqis who have cast their lot with us, civilization itself, and the cynicism fades.

The majority of us don’t want to lose this war. We actually want to win it. But, the Democrats, dangling like puppets on the strings of the far left, are going to pander their way to defeat in Iraq. We cannot allow that!

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Faith and Doubt - Mother Teresa and NBC Nightly News

“One of the twelve disciples, Thomas (nicknamed the Twin), was not with the others when Jesus came. 25 They told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But he replied, “I won’t believe it unless I see the nail wounds in his hands, put my fingers into them, and place my hand into the wound in his side.”

John 20:24-25 (New Living Translation)

A few days ago Nancy and I watched NBC Nightly News, which was a departure from our normal routine. At about ten till six, anchorman Brian Williams introduced a segment about Mother Teresa’s “dark side.” He said that it just might change the way we’ve come to think of this woman.

The segment, which was about six minutes long, focused on a series of letters that Mother Teresa had written years ago. In some of them she expressed deep doubt, even to the point of doubting the existence of the God she prayed to and served so tirelessly.

By the time it was all over I found it difficult to think of what the point of the piece was. Could it have been that Mother Teresa was a fraud, a wolf dressed in sheep’s clothing? Could it have been that any expression of theological or philosophical doubt casts doubt on the veracity of the message she proclaimed in public? Could it have been that Christians who doubt are schizophrenic lemmings, flitting from ecstatic religious highs one moment to chasms of deep despair the next?

When the segment was completed, Brian Williams bid America good night. My guess is that his next step was to find his way to some upper crust Manhattan restaurant to order a steak tar tare and a glass of good vintage wine, something as raw and intoxicating as the high tech hatchet job he’d just finished.

I doubt that the piece had much impact on what people think of Mother Teresa. In death, as in life, she was either loved or hated. There was no neutral ground. She worked tirelessly on behalf of the poor and forgotten and she spoke out forcefully against social injustice, especially abortion on demand. She didn’t fear the powerful. She once even called the President of the United States to task for his support of abortion. Given that, it’s easy to understand why the powerful didn’t like her message. Perhaps in exposing her doubts NBC Nightly News was trying to cast her causes in a greyer light – doubt is tantamount to unbelief and unbelief invalidates the message as well as the messenger.

I read the entire piece Brian Williams cited, titled “Mother Teresa’s Crisis of Faith,” published in Time magazine’s on line edition. The conclusion David van Biema, the author, came to was, surprisingly, far different than that of NBC Nightly News:

“But for most people, Teresa's ranking among Catholic saints may be less important than a more general implication of Come Be My Light: that if she could carry on for a half-century without God in her head or heart, then perhaps people not quite as saintly can cope with less extreme versions of the same problem.”

I interpret that to mean that Mother Teresa’s doubts are the same doubts all of us who follow Jesus experience. The significant difference between Mother Teresa and most of us, however, was that her doubts were much more intense, magnified because of the great task she’d been given. As the Book says, “To whom much is given, much is required.” Calcutta’s slums, teeming with the dying, neglected, and forgotten was a far more difficult a forging place for faith than most of us will ever endure in life. Giving a few last meals to a maggot infested street beggar must have sometimes seemed a futile gesture in the face of all the neglect, abuse, and violence she saw played out in the world. She must surely have felt the sting of the apathy of the world. Under those circumstances, the doubts seem not only reasonable, but also inevitable. I’d be willing to wager that Brian Williams would seriously doubt NBC’s ability to “take care of him” if he were resigned to eating chitins’ every day instead of steak tar tare.

The power of this woman’s life lay in the fact that she pressed beyond her doubts and served the poorest of the poor. Having her doubts revealed only makes my admiration for her grow.

Brian Kolodiejchuk, author of Come Be My Light, saw Mother Teresa in that same type of light:

“The tendency in our spiritual life but also in our more general attitude toward love is that our feelings are all that is going on,” he says. “And so to us the totality of love is what we feel. But to really love someone requires commitment, fidelity and vulnerability. Mother Teresa wasn't ‘feeling’ Christ's love, and she could have shut down. But she was up at 4:30 every morning for Jesus, and still writing to him, ‘Your happiness is all I want.’ That's a powerful example even if you are not talking in exclusively religious terms.”

In a world where the superficial too often reigns, Mother Teresa, doubts and all, stands head and shoulders above her detractors and critics. Her face, worn, chiseled, and wrinkled by the burdens she bore, stands as a great testimony against the straight teeth and crooked smiles of those who attempt to cut her down to a size they can manage. When all is said and done, when the last trumpet sounds, I’m certain that she will hear the words she longed to hear in life – “well done, good and faithful servant.”

I wish I could say the same for her critics and detractors, but I don’t have that much faith. I find it difficult to press past my doubts about them. While I hope it isn’t so, I fear that the message they hear at the last trumpet – “Depart from me, into the eternal fire!” – will be far different than the message Mother Teresa will hear.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Cowboy Way

“The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.”
- Albert Einstein

About a year ago our electricity went out for a few hours, giving us the opportunity to visit outside with our neighbor Ellen, and subsequently with our cross street neighbor Shelley Wise. We found out from Shelley that the source of the power outage was a transformer at the sub-station close to the university recreation center where here husband, Mike, works. Shelley said Mike had seen it happen and called her proudly proclaiming that when the transformer blew it was a real thing of beauty. The real big news we got, though, was the news that Ellen, who has been such a wonderful neighbor, is moving to a senior friendly apartment complex being built a bit north of us on 15th Street. Keeping up with the house had just become too much for her, so she’d decided to cash in her chips and move on to more amenable quarters.

One of the nice things about a good neighbor is that there is no need of a fence between us. There are none of those incessant quarrels about where my neighbor’s property line ends and mine begins. There are no mine fields between us, protecting the sanctity of our little plot of ground. It’s quite idyllic, really, which makes me sometimes ask why, as did Robert Frost, fences are needed at all. Wouldn’t the world be a beautiful place if we didn’t spend our time worrying about whether or not my neighbor’s apple trees are eating the cones under my pine?

The morning after Ellen announced her move I took a long walk. It felt wonderful to be out in the cool of the day. The heat wave had broken for the time being and being outside was quite pleasant. I meandered from my place through downtown, past the Friends church on Sixth Avenue, occasionally walking a block or two down side streets to add a little mileage. At each detour I would hear the barking of dogs as I passed by their houses. There was a sheltie on the south side of Union Street, a Boston terrier on Exchange, a chocolate labrador on Cottonwood, and a toy poodle on Sylvan. Their barks, whether high pitched soprano like the poodle’s, or deep bass like the lab’s, all voiced the same sentiment. “Do you see this fence, buster?” “Do you know what it’s here for?” “This is my yard, not yours and I’m not going to let you play in it.”

As much as I’d like to live in an idyllic world, I think the barking dogs have something on Robert Frost and me. Fences and property lines are there for a reason and it’s a good idea to respect them.

I’m a great fan of western movies, with Shane being my all time favorite. I watch it once a year, much to my wife Nancy’s dismay. I even dust it out on special occasions. I’ve played it for Corina, a young exchange student from Moldova who lived with us for a year and for Binna, the South Korean exchange student who just got back home from her one year visit to the Flint Hills. They seemed to like it too. It’s all about simplicity, about right and wrong, in what seems to be a complex world. Film historians and critics (a double oxymoron if I’ve ever heard one) call it a cold-war parable revealing the way America viewed itself in the post-World War II period. We had defeated Tojo and Hitler. America’s natural sentiment saw the great victories as a time to turn the swords into plowshares. But was it? Unfortunately, the victory over tyranny was short lived. New enemies were on the horizon. The iron curtain was beginning to descend between international neighbors, one casting a greedy eye beyond the invisible wall he was erecting; calculating ways to take what belonged to his neighbor, and the other casting a wary eye to the east. We had come out of the war as a great world power and were on the horns of a great moral dilemma. Great oceans separated us from the tyranny that threatened to engulf Asia and Europe, like fences often separate us from our neighbors. Why couldn’t we put the guns away? After all, we were safe. What moral obligation did we have to the rest of the world? Hadn’t we sacrificed enough? As much as we wanted to, though, we came to realize that we couldn’t disarm because there was no one else who had the power to stand against freedom’s enemies. The burden was ours to bear.

Shane is the story of a gunfighter who would love to put his gun away and settle down. He wants what we all want – peace, security, a home. He comes across the Starrett family, homesteaders who just want to work the land they’ve invested their money, sweat, and tears in. He puts his gun away and goes to work for them. The good life is within reach. But, the Starretts and the other homesteaders in the valley can’t lay hold to the peace and security they so desire, because the Ryker boys are terrorizing them, trying to force them off the land. The homesteaders are no match for the ranchers’ guns. What good are plows and rusty shotguns against the weapons arrayed against them? In the end the great battle between good and evil comes, when Shane realizes that he’s the only one who is able to face down Jack Wilson, the gunfighter the Rykers have hired to do their bidding. Shane wins the gunfight, the bad guys are dispatched to hell, and Shane leaves the valley, knowing that he’ll never be able to break the mold he’s been existentially cast in. He is what he is and little can change that. There will always be some homesteader somewhere who needs his gun. As Shane rides off, young Joey Starrett begs him to come back home and settle down. His young voice can be heard echoing through the Wyoming valley – “Shane, come back. Pa’s got work for you to do… ShaneSHANE……Come back!” Shane never looks back. He just keeps riding away from the things he would really love to do. He has a burden to bear.

Perhaps it’s an oversimplification, but being a child of the forties and fifties, I see our modern world in much the same light that Shane did his. It would be wonderful if we could all just settle down and work our land in peace. It would be wonderful if the walls and fences could all come down and the same harmony that Nancy and I enjoyed with our neighbor Ellen would prevail for all mankind. The dream of a day when the swords will be beaten into plowshares is as real for me as it is for any peacemaker. But, like Shane, I can see that it’s “not just yet.” If we don’t confront the evil afoot in the world, who will? Who has the power to confront it? Who is even willing? The United Nations? The European Union? The people of Rwanda or Darfur? The starving in North Korea? Those being brutalized in Iraq and Afghanistan by thugs and terrorists? Where does our moral obligation end? At the water’s edge? Why do we have to carry so much of the burden?

I’ve had some tell me that I cast things in shades that are too black and too white. Perhaps, but I really don’t believe the international stage is nearly as grey as they would lead me to believe. There is a right and wrong in our world. There are good and bad guys, there are homesteaders like Joe Starrett, ranchers like the Ryker boys, Jack Wilsons, and Shanes.

My answer to the moral question of our time is not as complex or nuanced as the solutions offered by America’s critics. It’s the cowboy way. It’s simple, with few if any nuances. It’s not an easy answer, but it is straight-forward. We are what we are in the world. If we don’t stand up to the Jack Wilsons of the world, who will? The burden is still ours to bear.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


“Question: “I understand that Congress is considering a so-called ‘flat’ tax system. How would this work?” Answer: “If Congress were to pass a ‘flat’ tax, you'd simply pay a fixed percentage of your income, and you wouldn’t have to fill out any complicated forms, and there would be no loopholes for politically connected groups, and normal people would actually understand the tax laws, and giant talking broccoli stalks would come around and mow your lawn for free, because Congress is NOT going to pass a flat tax, you pathetic fool.”

- Dave Barry

One of our most distinguished citizens here in Emporia is at it again. I think it has something to do with his age and municipal seniority. Also, it doesn’t hurt that he’s been proclaimed and anointed as a professor emeritus at Emporia State University.

Last Thursday he wrote an op-ed piece in our local rag titled “Taxes are a Must.” Upon reading it I realized that the only thing I needed to read was the title. He made two points in the piece, first that “we would all agree that taxes are a must, if I had my way,” and second that we should have a flat tax accompanied by surcharges on those he deemed to be wealthy. For those making $500,000 per year, an additional five percent would be added to their tax bills. Those making a million would pay an additional ten percent. For those making two million, the good professor advocated a fifteen percent tax surcharge in addition the other income taxes that would be taken in what he called “routine fashion.”

The “routine fashion” comment was especially clever, don’t you think?

In a town like Emporia, where there are lots of folks living on fixed incomes and poverty rates are very high, it’s a very popular idea. For someone like me, a retiree, it should seem eminently fair, but I can’t bring myself into a state of ecstasy over the idea.

Last night I decided to send a response to Mr. Peterson’s proposal, risking the wrath of one of Emporia’s finest. I just couldn’t help myself. My response follows for your edification and enlightenment:

At first blush, John Peterson’s populist ideas on taxes published on August 9th seem quite appealing, especially for folks like me who are retired and living on fixed incomes. Why not add a tax surcharge on the wealthy. After all, “it is our magnificent cultural and economic system which gives them the opportunity to be rich. They should give back.”

The problem with first blushes, though, is that they are much like puppy love, where emotion overwhelms good sense. The first blush says that it’s love. Given time and reflection, the emotions of the moment give way to the truth that it was nothing more than raging hormones.

Must we all pay taxes? Unfortunately, yes. We’re taxed on every hand. The federal government taxes us; the states tax us, municipalities tax us. They tax our income, our purchases, and our homes. They tax gasoline, food, and clothing. They tax the books we read and things that seem sinful like cigarettes or a glass of Zinfandel. If we occasionally eat at a restaurant, they tax the meal. Our check stubs reveal that government withholds additional taxes for government programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. They even tax us when we die. By the time they’re done with us they’ve taken 50% or more of the money we’ve earned by the sweat of our brows.

Will Mr. Peterson’s ideas work? No! They won’t, first of all, because they’re not as fair as he would have us believe. It’s easy to say that income and wealth of others should be surcharged. It’s not Mr. Peterson’s ox that’s going to be gored, nor will it be mine. I suppose it might not mean much to some these days, but as it was once observed, the eighth commandment expressly prohibits theft (taking something that belongs to someone else and using it for another’s purpose, agenda, or pleasure) and the tenth commandment also prohibits coveting our neighbor’s house, his goods, or anything that is his or hers.[1] I don’t know how long Mr. Peterson has been hatching his plan, but I do know that the eighth and tenth commandments have been around a lot longer than his notions of fairness, and came from a far more credible source.

Second, it won’t work because it encourages government at all levels to find ever more creative ways to redistribute our wealth. The last thing we need here is more creative ways for government to mug us. And, lest you think they won’t, I’ll remind you of a California case some years ago. The state was plagued by drought and the answer to the problem was conservation. The tool used to conserve was an increase in the water use tax. The more water people used, the higher the tax rates went. It worked so well that it created another problem when the rains came. Lower water usage meant shrinking government revenues. Another creative solution was implemented to solve the problem government had created. A non-use tax on water was proposed. As Orwellian as it seemed, government bureaucrats were going to tax people for something they weren’t using because they were trying to conserve the resource and reduce the tax load government had imposed on them for using too much of it to begin with. Mr. Peterson might think it quite clever to give government ideas on how to tax us more. I don’t. Our representatives are clever enough without his help or anyone else’s.

Third, it won’t get the desired result. Here in Emporia our city’s leaders are seeing that truth painfully played out in the current budget processes. The people of this city are tapped out and many who can afford to leave are voting with their feet. Few people, other than Mr. Peterson, are in any mood to encourage increases in taxes. The recent messages from the public have been “Hold the line.” Hopefully the various entities have gotten the message and taken the pledge.

Fourth, and most important, the power to tax is becoming increasingly the power to control. In 1999, historian Daniel Pipes sent an ominous warning:

“Such immense concentration of citizens’ wealth in the hands of the government carries with it obvious dangers to individual liberty, because the government, by dispensing or withholding its largesse, is able to influence the behavior (and secure the conformity) of a large segment of the population. It is not fortuitous that the foundations of Western liberty were laid when governments controlled but a small fraction of the nation’s assets.”

Prior to the ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment government controlled about seven percent of our gross domestic product and employed about four percent of the total workforce. By 1995, our federal bureaucracy employed nearly twenty million Americans and controlled one-third of gross domestic product. That’s as staggering as it is sobering.

In about a year and a half the page of history will turn and in all likelihood there will be a complete shift of political power in America. I can only imagine how much more of our property and wealth will redistributed when that day dawns.

How could we ever survive without taxes? I suppose we might ask our founding fathers, who funded a revolution without levying taxes. In fact, wasn’t one of the principle reasons we shook off the tyranny of George III the matter of taxation without representation. How did we ever manage to secure our liberty without so much as a hint of an Internal Revenue Service?

If I had my way, unlike Mr. Peterson, I would require him and government leaders at all levels read Laffer curves into the wee hours of the morning, much like sleepless people count sheep. I’d also require them to read the works of economists like F.A. Hayek, Hernando DeSoto, or Thomas Sowell until the ideas sank in. Maybe if that were to happen they’d see that tax reductions actually produce increased government revenues or that our freedoms shrink as government’s share of what is ours is increases.

[1] Daniel Pipes, Property and Freedom, (New York: Vintage Books), 1999