Tagged: Commentary

A New Year’s Eve Reflection

I’ve heard the United States described as an “experiment” in democracy ever since our founders put quill to paper and muskets to shoulder. The experiment continued when industrialization transformed the economy and the workforce in ways the founders could not foresee. Now, the experiment continues as we adapt, yet again, to a world our founders could have never imagined, a globalized economy and the era of big data.

At each fork in the road, we have been led by those who anticipate the future with caution, secure in the comforts of the status quo and cautious of the uncertainties that lie over the horizon. They are joined by others who find their comfort in the anticipation of the undiscovered country and who set their fears aside, inspired by the success of their predecessors who successfully navigated the equally daunting challenges of their day.

As the New Year arrives, I find myself with a foot in each world. When I see the empty factories on the west side of my town, I can only imagine the hardships that those closings have had on thousands of families and how bleak the future must seem to some of them. Contrast that with the energy and vitality of the east side where tens of thousands of young people are pursuing an education and living into the hope of a promising future.

In this microcosm, where fear and discouragement live side by side with hope and possibility, it is easy to see the challenges that face our national leadership. What disheartened me most in 2016 was watching our politicians exacerbate these divisions in their attempts to energize their base of supporters by creating warring factions rather than focusing on the common ground on which we all stand.

Rather than forcing us to choose between environmental regulation and jobs for the unemployed, are there not both/and solutions? Instead of retreating into Fortress America, can we not retain a leadership position in the global economy while launching initiatives that will better equip our workforce to compete in the global economy? Do we really believe that government is the problem that underlies all these challenges and that tearing down the establishment provides the better way?

My hope for 2017 is that the conflicts that are sure to arise as we inaugurate a new president will point us back to the fundamental understanding of our founders that a well conceived government is the guarantor of liberty and prosperity not their antagonist. I hope that these conflicts will inspire a new generation of leaders to enter the game and remind us that politics is a respectable calling that demands the talents of our best and brightest. I hope that our next generation of leaders will again call for our allegiance to create one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Black Lives Matter

We hunted you down
like animals in the forest
bound you in chains
and loaded you into ships
like so much freight.

During the long dark voyages
from below deck
we heard your cries of anguish and pain
as murmurs, strange sounds in foreign tongues.

We sold you at auction
making fortunes in the marketplace.
We bred you like livestock and trained you
to the arduous and dangerous tasks
of building fortunes for ourselves
and our descendants.

We deprived you of your culture
and languages but continued
hearing the murmurs
in the secret meetings around campfires in the night
strange sounds in foreign tongues.

You worked and toiled for generations
while we talked in pious tones
of liberty and freedom from the bondage
of our British overlords
still hearing your murmurs, strange sounds in foreign tongues.

We banned your religions and traditions.
We civilized you and saved you from the wrath of our God
and forced you to sit in our meetinghouses
apart from our families whom you toiled to serve.
In exchange for your myths and sacred truths
we gave you St. Paul:
“Slaves obey your masters”

Your freedom came,
not as a declaration of your humanity
or recognition of your personhood,
or as the fruits of the tireless work of our enlightened few.
We released you from chattel slavery
as a military tactic to undermine the economy
of your rebellious overlords.

No sooner had we changed the law of the land
to make room for you at the table
that we found new forms of slavery
to keep “you in your place”

Jim Crow visited you in the night
shrouded in white
by the light of burning crosses.
As you huddled in fear,
again we heard your murmurs,
this time in a language we should have understood.

At last, you quoted our scriptures back to us
and found strength and comfort in our God and our Jesus.
Still we turned a deaf ear
to your humanity and dignity.

We grudgingly offered you a “separate but equal” place
in the country that you labored to build.
All the while we took steps to ensure that your place
would always be separate but never equal.

We took comfort in our rationale
that you just weren’t ready for full citizenship
you couldn’t cope with the complexities of urban life
you were essentially and fundamentally different
and need our continued guidance and direction.
(read: our oppression and exploitation)

You labored on, and on,
finding your dignity and strength
in the truth we refused to hear.
This time your murmurs rang out loud and clear
We shall over come…
Someday…

And that day came and went
and we pointed to Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays
and Michael Jackson and Michael Jordan
and Tiger Woods and an African-American President
with an African Name.

We declared a post-racial America had finally arrived
and we continued to stop and frisk your young men on the streets
and lock them up and throw away the key
and hunt them down so we could stand our ground
and choke them to death in police custody
and shoot them down
and break their backs
and shoot them down
and turn a deaf ear
to the murmurs that have haunted us down the years
the murmurs that we cannot silence by declaring
“All lives matter”

The Reason for the Season

Preface: Despite what the reader may think, this is not a lament on the state of the celebration of Christmas. That topic is in the queue for future treatment. A reflection on college football follows.

Having grown up in Texas, I was infused with enthusiasm for football; as inescapable a part of the culture as The Alamo, country music, and of course, revival preachers and the Southern Baptist Church.

My hometown team (and later alma mater) is the Baylor Bears, who had about five winning seasons in the last half of the twentieth century.  Recently Baylor’s teams have had more success than I could have ever imagined as a child: a Heisman Trophy winner, and now, back-to-back conference championships. So, at last, with a quarter-billion-dollar stadium to call home, and a season in which they were serious contenders for a shot at the national championship, the Mighty Bears seem mighty indeed. No more “wait until next year.” Baylor University has finally arrived in the promised land of big time football.

But, as with all promised lands, there are new challenges and new grief to bear. The 2014 Fiesta Bowl gave me the greatest disappointment of my 57-year fandom: a one-sided loss to a relatively unknown upstart University of Central Florida. I later learned that rather than bringing a windfall of profit, the University barely broke even on their appearance. The expenses of travel for the team, band, and official entourage plus the cost of 8,000 unsold seats of their ticket allotment resulted in a financial disappointment as great as the on-field performance. As an ever-hopeful Alumnus I can only hope that this season’s Cotton Bowl appearance, sited in the heart of “Bear Country”, will be both an on-field and back-office success as great as last season’s disappointment.

Speaking of disappointment, who is more disappointed than the TCU Horned Frogs? Not only were they Big Twelve Conference Co-Champions (sharing the title with the Mighty Bears, from whom they received their only loss); they were also ranked #3 until the selection committee met and selected the Ohio State Buckeyes to take their place in the inaugural national championship playoff.

Don’t get me wrong. I think Urban Meyer and his coaching staff put on a National Championship quality season winning their Big 10 division title under the leadership of their second-string quarterback, and the Big 10 championship game, decisively, with their third-string quarterback at the helm. Clearly a demonstration of great talent, great play, and great coaching that rivals anything Alabama, Oregon, or Florida State bring to the show.

The new grief that TCU has the misfortune of experiencing first-hand is the new reality of life in the promised land of big-time college football. Whereas collegiate athletics in general and football in particular were once undertaken for the sake of the university; now they serve a new master. At one time, the Saturday afternoon game gave students, faculty, alumni, and friends an occasion to come together for a few hours, loosen their neckties and clerical collars, yell and cheer, and loose themselves in a collective experience of support for their team and their colors. Attending the game, whether win or lose, strengthened the bonds of friendship among the fans, the affiliation of the fans for the school, and the support of the alumni for their alma mater.

Now, the teams have become the minor leagues for the National Football League. The colleges have undertaken the expense of and liability for maturing each year’s crop of aspiring athletes without compensation or support of the NFL.

The promise of great riches from big time football is as elusive as the Rainbow’s End. Baylor’s $250,000,000.00 new stadium lies less than 100 miles from Texas A&M’s $400,000,000.00 renovation of Kyle Field. Salaries for the coaching staff run into the millions, as does the cost of equipment and practice facilities. I suspect that if the fully-loaded cost of the football programs at the top-tier schools were revealed, few if any would show great riches. Great revenue, great expenses, but hardly great profits.

The selection of The Ohio State University over Texas Christian University for the national playoff is explained by the spectacular conclusion of OSU’s season and the triumph over adversity it represents. The cynic in me suspects that the driving reason is the selection committee’s conclusion that a match-up that included The Ohio State University would draw a bigger television audience than a contest with Texas Christian University no matter how spectacular TCU’s performance might be. Name recognition, the number of alumni spread around the world, and a long history of success carried the day in favor of The OSU.

The bottom line for big-time college football is the bottom line of the accounting ledger; not the college’s accounting ledger, but the accounting ledger of the broadcaster of the game. Big time college football has ceased to serve the interest of the college, its faculty, students, and supporters. Big time college football has become a content provider for the entertainment industry. As a result it is more important that a star quarterback be kept eligible to play in the championship game than that he be held to account for his behavior off the field be it merely boorish or clearly criminal.

The show must go on.

The risk of life altering brain injuries is a small price (read no price to the broadcaster) to pay for the audience-pleasing play of a talented young quarterback.

The show must go on.

The criminal misbehavior of a Jerry Sandusky was kept secret for decades to preserve the reputation of an iconic coach.

The show must go on.

As the evidence mounts, the conclusion is inescapable: college football has sold its soul to the highest bidder.

College football has had its critics for a long time. In 1897 the Religious Herald of Richmond Virginia reported that its editor “agreed with another editor in failing to see what pleasure cultured ladies and gentlemen and university professors could derive from ‘that dirtily clad, bare and frowsy headed, rough-and-tumble, shoving, pushing, crushing, pounding, kicking, ground-wallowing, mixed-up mass of players, of whom any might come out with broken limbs, or be left on the ground writhing with ruptured vitals’”.

In that day, the focus of concern was on the physical and moral well being of the participants of the game. Today, it is time to reflect on the moral well being of the institutions that are “left on the ground writhing with ruptured vitals” and on an entertainment industry that demands their complicity.

Things We Can Do About Gun Violence

In a Facebook post following the Newtown Connecticut school shootings, I made the statement that there must be a thousand things we as a society and as a nation could do to address gun violence and mass shootings.  Appropriately, a friend replied “post ‘em if you got ‘em”.

So, I’ve decided to ignore the hyperbole of my original statement and begin posting every thought that comes to me on the subject.  I also invite readers of this blog to add to the list.  It is my hope and expectation that in the course of listing responses to mass shootings in particular and the gun culture that underlies the 21st Century American Zeitgeist we can find reasonable changes that can and will contribute to safer and more peaceful communities.

Here are some thoughts to get the dialog started:

1.  Do nothing.  Nothing needs to change.  Our right to keep and bear arms is more important than the lives that are lost to gun violence each year.  After all, guns don’t kill people, people kill people.  If killers don’t have guns, they will find other ways to continue the killing.

2.  Wait a thousand years and see if we evolve into a civilized society.  That’s about how long it has taken European countries evolve into societies that have lower levels of gun ownership and significantly lower murder rates.

3.  Trust the marketplace.  When people decide they no longer need assault weapons, they will stop buying them.  When people stop buying them, the manufacturers will stop making them and the importers will stop importing and selling them.

4.  We could look at other nations where the death rate from gun violence is lower than ours and find out what they do differently.  See what strategies and policies work in those countries then adapt those strategies and policies here.

5.  We could stop waiting for “someone” to do something about gun violence and think about things we can each do as individuals.  Here are some suggestions.

6.  We could attend neighborhood association and homeowner association meetings where we live and discuss the issues that surround gun violence and mass shootings. Then, take our concerns to our city councils and county governments.

7.  We could petition of our state legislatures to make changes to our state’s gun laws.

8.  We could join with individuals such as Gabrielle Giffords and contribute to lobbying efforts that provide alternative perspectives to those proffered by the NRA.

9.  We could form and support a think tank to develop model legislation and lobby for its enactment in our local and state governments.

10.  We could demand access to the facts about gun violence by asking Congress to release the data that various agencies collect on gun violence and have those data studied by universities and agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and National Institutes of Health.

11.  We could gather facts for ourselves.

12.  Attend a local gun show.  Find out what weapons are for sale.  Find out how easy it is to purchase a gun.  Find out how easy it is to obtain a high-volume magazine.  Find out how easy it is to obtain instructions on how to convert a semi-automatic weapon into a fully-automatic weapon.  Journal or blog about your experience.

13.  Purchase a handgun at the gun show.  Go to a shooting range and learn how to use it. Journal or blog about your experience.

14.  Obtain a concealed carry permit for your newly purchased handgun. Journal or blog about your experience.

15.  Carry your newly acquired and licensed handgun for a month. Journal or blog about your experience.

16.  Take your newly acquired and licensed handgun to a local law enforcement agency or gun buy-back program and turn it in. Journal or blog about your experience.

17.  After a month without your licensed handgun, journal or blog about your experience.

18.  Reflect on the above experiences then advocate for the gun laws you would like to see in effect in your community.

19.  Get to know your state representative and your member of congress.  Meet with them and discuss your newly informed ideas on gun control.

20.  If this experience has been informative for you, invite/challenge others in your community to undertake this same course of action.

In future posts, I will continue this discussion and expand it to a broader discussion of the factors that contribute to a less violent society.  In the meantime, please join the discussion.  I welcome comments that challenge as well as support the ideas presented here.

Final Thoughts on Mass Killings

Part One: How we have been set up for all this violence.

A recent radio interview with Senior Analyst for the Violence Policy Center Tom Diaz provided me a missing piece for my understanding of how to look at gun violence in America.  What follows is my reflection on the role of the arms industry and its unwitting ally the entertainment industry in creating an America in which these mass killings occur and why these occurrences are inevitable.

Gun manufacturers in America are just another example of a profit-driven enterprise that, having saturated its traditional market, seeks to exploit new market opportunities.  What separates gun manufacturers from other enterprises that trade in potentially lethal products like the pharmaceutical industry, the auto industry, and the tobacco industry is that they have been given the gift of a tangential mention in the Bill of Rights.

While legal scholars and commentators currently state that the Supreme Court has settled the question of whether the Second Amendment protects individual gun ownership; I find myself holding to the interpretation of the Second Amendment that says that its intent was to protect the right of citizens to participate in local militias.  This later interpretation would disestablish the arms manufacturers’ protected status and subject them to the same regulatory apparatus that has served the American People so well by protecting us from unsafe products and practices by all other American corporations and industries.

So, the arms manufacturers, through their handmaiden the NRA, have sold us the notion that any regulation whatsoever of their lethal industry is an assault on our personal liberty and a threat of oppression by a menacing “government” that is dead set on depriving us of all our constitutionally protected rights.  If we submit to any limitation on the right to keep and bear arms, what will be next?

They have convinced the American public that we can protect ourselves from an increasingly dangerous and menacing world by the ownership, possession, and concealed carrying of lethal handguns and assault rifles.

They have fought – to their profit and to the demise of 30,000 Americans each year – reasonable data gathering, study, and regulation of handguns, hunting weapons, and anti-personnel assault rifles.  Thus, allowing them to expand their market base to ordinary citizens who have no reasonable need for their products and to continue to increase their corporate profits in the face of declining sales to sport hunters, law enforcement, and the military.

Part Two:  Are we really that gullible?

Do violent television programs and video games incite violent action or do they provide a means of vicariously expressing our violent nature and result in a more peaceful society?  I’ve heard arguments expressing both perspectives.  While this is an interesting question for further study, I think there are some inferences that we can draw on the impact of our fascination with violent entertainment.

First, let me state unequivocally, I am a willing and active consumer of the products of our violent entertainment industry.  My television viewing has included such titles as Perry Mason, The Rockford Files, Law and Order, Law and Order, Criminal Intent, The Sopranos, 24, Homeland, and recently, Breaking Bad and The Wire.  Although some of these programs do not directly depict violent acts as graphically as the series 24, they all depend to one degree or another, on the plot device of a violent crime, usually a murder.

As those of you who know me can attest, I have yet to be accused of a violent crime as a result of my television viewing.  Further, I would like to think I would be considered low risk for the kinds of criminal behavior depicted in these television dramas.  I have of late however, given thought to limiting my consumption of dramatized violence to see what impact such a change might have on my serenity and sense of the world because I am given to speculate that dramatized violence is a major factor in the widespread belief that we live in a dangerous and menacing world.

Over recent years and decades the studies I have encountered continue to show that Americans’ fear of being a victim of violent crime is far greater than our actual risk of crime and violence.  Consequently, I think we have been set up by our entertainment to be receptive to the fear mongering that the arms industry relies on from the NRA to promote the sales of their anti-personnel weaponry.

The other and perhaps more insidious effect of dramatized violence is the creation of the violent warrior-hero who commits acts of violence to avenge the deeds of the villain and restore order.  There are two consequences of the glorification of these violent warrior-heroes.

First, they sanction and valorize the use of violence.  Jack Bauer, violent warrior-hero of the series 24 slaughtered hundreds of minions of the masterminds of the conspiracies foiled.  He effectively used harsh interrogation techniques and even resorted to murder to gain the information he needed to succeed in foiling his fictional villains.  All this at a time when our national conscience was struggling with the actual use of harsh interrogation against suspected conspirators.  Did Jack Bauer’s success in these fictional episodes contribute to our willingness to accept the use of torture and interrogation techniques that have repeatedly, over the centuries, been shown totally ineffective in evoking useful intelligence; even though they are effective in convincing witches and heretics to confess their sins? (Not, I hasten to add, their actual sins, but the sins their inquisitors accused them of.)

Further, how many times did we see Jack Bauer draw his handgun, fire a few rounds, and kill his intended target?  Let me remind you that Jack Bauer is a fictional character, enacting a script that reads  “Jack fires.  Terrorists #3 and #4 fall dead.”  There are NO real-life Jack Bauers.  No human being alive could make the kill shots depicted in these televised fictions.  Yet I think every concealed-carry permit bearing, gun toting, NRA member, gun owner believes he could prevent the next mass shooting if only HE were there.

It is time for us as individuals and as a nation to grow up; put away our childish fantasies and super heroes; and give up violence as a solution to anything.  It is time to band together and repudiate the lie that “the only solution to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

Aren’t we Americans smarter than that?  Aren’t we Americans more creative than that?  Aren’t we Americans deserving of better solutions to the challenges that face us?  I hope so.

Reflections on Sandy Hook: Part 2

Members of the religious right are being heard to make statements such as “something has gone wrong in America and that we have turned our back on God…I think we have turned our back on the scripture and on God almighty and I think he has allowed judgment to fall upon us. I think that’s what’s going on.”

Were I to use those words, I would be saying something quite different from what usually follows from the right.  They will follow such words with a condemnation of whatever social issue they feel represents the great evil of our time.  Where I agree with the statement is that I think the events of Sandy Hook, Aurora, Columbine and the numerous other mass shootings of recent years are the inevitable result of the attitudes and values that we as individuals, and we as communities, and we as a nation have embraced.   Or, if not embraced, we have not challenged or offered alternative perspectives in the public discourse when these unspeakable events occur.

For starters, I think it is counterproductive to speak of the shooters in these episodes as “monsters” though their deeds are indeed monstrous.  I think it is a mistake to label them “evil” though their actions certainly conform to every definition of “evil” that I know.  I think it is more important to see these perpetrators as persons not much different from ourselves.  Then we can ask more productive questions such as “what went wrong for them?” Or “what influences have guided my choices that I did not fall into the depths of despair that spawned their actions?”

I am given to ask, “Have our spiritual leaders and spiritual institutions failed us?”  For, surely there are significant spiritual dimensions to these tragedies.  Have our spiritual institutions become so caught up in institutional survival that we have neglected the care, nurture, and training of our souls?  Have we sought power, influence, and prosperity at the expense of our prophetic vision?  Further, have we as parishioners and congregants been unwilling to be challenged and insisted only on a message of comfort and reassurance?

More questions than answers.  Who will join me in the conversation?

Reflections on Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting

I am a bit disconcerted to discover that I am fast becoming numb to the news of yet another mass killing by a lone and heavily armed gunman.  I certainly can’t in any way condone what was done, so I call on each and everyone of us to stop condoning a society in which such heinous events happen.  As the national discussion begins on what we should do I have a couple of observations.

First, we must resist simplistic solutions and hasty reactions.  As appealing as it may be, banning private ownership of firearms is not the answer and arming teachers, principals, and all law-abiding citizens is also not the answer.  Gun violence and senseless mass murders are but symptoms, or manifestations of deeper systemic issues.

A fruitful starting point may be to acknowledge the interconnections between seemingly unrelated issues.  What about examining the connection between how we entertain ourselves and how we act toward others?  What immature (or perhaps irrational) beliefs have we developed about how effective guns are as a solution to our problems?  On a larger scale, what do we believe about the power of state-sanctioned violence to resolve our conflicts and solve our problems?  What has been the impact of living through the first decade of a perpetual state of war?  Does military power really lead to world peace?  Does an armed citizenry produce a safe community?

Next we need to admit that the status quo produces the status quo.  The byzantine web of regulations and loopholes; restrictions and liberties; private and public interests has built a society where these kinds of incidents happens with what seems like increasing regularity.  Yet we defend each dimension of the status quo as necessary for the maintenance of the private interests that would need to change if we are to make a meaningful change. What we have failed to do is take a long and thoughtful look at the whole that is the sum of these fragmented yet interconnected parts.

Clearly the children of Sandy Hook Elementary School were not made safer by the Lanza family’s constitutionally protected right to keep and bear arms.  Perhaps there is a collective good that is more relevant and more important, and more in the need of our collective efforts than personal desires, pleasures, and sense of security that is maintained by those who want to see firearms in every holster.

I don’t have the answers, but I think our collective response to the events at Sandy Hook Elementary needs to include both individual and collective soul searching.  I think we need to make local, state, and national decisions to change the status quo.  What we are currently doing clearly isn’t working and more of the same will change nothing.