Thursday, April 25, 2013

Seriously?

This summer marks my 20th anniversary of becoming a Libertarian.  (Thanks Bill Clinton!)  Over the years I’ve had plenty of opportunities to be stupefied by much of the political class and major world events.  Usually I’m able to recognize the hypocrisy/irony of a situation and keep it in perspective.  The events of the past 10 days or so here in Boston have left me incredulous, surprised and bereft - and far from objective.
 
The willful and deliberate acts that created the carnage on Marathon Monday and later in the week is something that I just don’t get.  I don’t know that we’ll ever know the answer to “why.” I do know it’s outside of my scope of reasoning.  It wasn’t for the media, however.
CNN speculated for hours and hours on virtually everything related to the case – giving far flung relatives open microphones (without any prior clearance) free reign to a world-wide audience.  Fox News had a number of talking heads in a heated exchange over Immigration Reform with suspects who here in the US legally. MSNBC had a number of eggheads talking about Chechnya and their beef with Moscow when the suspects hadn't been there in over a decade.   In each case:  nothing factual - all supposition and conclusion based on a hypothetical.   Seriously?
 
Friday’s lockdown caused massive upheaval in millions of people’s lives at a cost not yet determined.  To find one guy.  A bad guy to be sure.  In fact, a really bad guy.  What about the other bad guys – the serial rapists who haunt communities?  Remember the snipers who were shooting random people in Washington DC? What about gangs who routinely terrorize neighborhoods killing dozens of people each week?  This is the answer?  Locking everybody in their homes?  When the order was lifted nothing had changed.  The bad guy was still loose!
Relief cascaded as the suspect was captured only to be replaced with the jaw dropping dumbfounded news that the (dead) suspect had been on the FBI radar for years.  The Russians warned the CIA not once, but twice.  Suspect #1 even spent six months in Russia recently according to Homeland Security – but that didn’t get into his FBI record because of a typo.  TRILLIONS of dollars have been spent under two administrations over 12 years beefing up intelligence and security.  Rights have disappeared.  Emails are captured and read.  Phone calls are tapped without warrants.  Surveillance cameras are everywhere with more surely to come.  This is what decades of future debt payments have bought?  Seriously?
Once in custody – there has actually been a dialogue about whether this suspect would have his rights read to him.  An American citizen accused of a crime in America is somehow not entitled to American rights?  This was a debate for days and 9 days after the fact Suspect #2 still hasn't been read his rights.  Politicians who raised their hand and swore to uphold the very Constitution that guarantees those rights were wrapping themselves into a pretzel figuring out how to thwart Due Process.  Seriously? 
 
The Rule of Law is what is supposed to distinguish the United States from the rest.  It exists for the most evil amongst us to be treated equally under the law.  That there was a question, indeed a serious dialogue about this underscores how far we are from the ideals we project.
I have no doubt that more legislation will pass trying (and failing) to eliminate future threats.  Trillions more will be spent on enhanced surveillance on all Americans.  Shutting down major metropolitan areas is now a standard response tactic.  The outrage is that few will fight it.  Seriously.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Praying for the Devil


Monday’s Boston Marathon Bombing resulted in millions of people sending good thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families.  It is as it should be.  The United States does not have a religion, but is religious.  When Gallup surveyed people an average of 40% reported attending worship services 'in the past week.'  That differs from the trends reported by a Hartford Seminary study that shows significant decreases in attendance.  Some figures report 8% of Americans are atheists.  Bill Maher is as evangelical about his atheism as any proselyte!  For me, I was raised with regular Church attendance, was an altar boy and later a leader in the choir.  And then there was the 13 year gap.
 
I experienced an unfortunate 'fire and brimstone' sermon early in my college career that coincided with coming to terms with my identity socially, scholastically and sexually.  Thirteen years later I was on the board of Vox Femina Los Angeles which held a concert in a small Church in Hollywood.  The sense of having arrived home permeated my entire being when I set foot in the gothic building.  I went to the Sunday morning service and became a fixture for the next fifteen or so years – even pre-paying and selecting my spot in the wall for when the time comes (hopefully later rather than sooner).  In my travels over the past couple of years I have not been able to replicate the specialness that place has…but that doesn’t stop my attending services and exploring my spiritual life...indeed seeking home.
Wandering from Parish to Parish while I was in Minnesota provided me a unique opportunity to examine whether my preference for a liturgical style was thanks to the more 'theatrical' side of my personality, or something more.  Having the smells and bells of a traditional Anglo-Catholic Parish definitely is more than show - it enhances my experience.  But it’s the community and the connections that contributes to a sense of home.  Ultimately what matters the most spiritually is the message.
 
 

Whenever something bad happens – personally, professionally or in the world – I look to understand it.  I do so politically through the prism of my libertarian perspective.  I do so personally through my life experiences.  I do so spiritually through my beliefs, teachings and of course the Bible.  Somehow they all coalesce in the pastiche that is who I am.
Bishop Prior of Minnesota sent out a message on Monday, as did many Bishops and Dioceses of many denominations.  His message perfectly communicates my own thoughts and beliefs – especially about praying for the perpetrator.  It is the most evil amongst us that I think need our prayers the most.  It is the hardest prayers for me to do, yet for me it is the essence of how I understand and express my faith and what God means to me.  It works for me – it won’t for everyone…and thank God I have those Libertarian beliefs as well that allows me to accept and celebrate those who disagree!
Here is Bishop Prior’s message:
It is with great sadness and shock that I learned of the explosions at the 26th mile of the Boston Marathon a few hours ago. While the apparent bombings and subsequent injuries and deaths are themselves horrific and saddening, the fact that they occurred exactly at the spot meant to honor the 26 dead in Newtown is especially heartbreaking.
At times like this, the deep injury that violence has caused to us as a society and as a people can often feel overwhelming. The divisions and problems in our society that are underscored by such random and brutal violence can threaten to define us.
But we do not have to accept this self-definition: of ourselves as a violent and frightened nation.
We can focus on the helpers: the brave people who rush in to protect, to comfort, to heal. The strong people who speak out against violence -- even when it is not politically expedient. The resilient and passionate victims of violence who advocate for change, who work hard, who speak up. Who witness; who testify.
We can choose to emulate those people. We can choose to reach out to one another across lines rather than drawing fearfully away. We can see ourselves as a united people, working together and praying together to put an end to such violence.
To that end, we pray for the victims of these bombings: those who were injured in the blasts and their families, but also those who now see the world as a less safe place. Those who are rattled and frightened, angry and miserable. We pray for the families in Newtown who have received more emotional injury at the hands of violent people.
And we pray for those who have perpetrated this violence -- that they might feel a sense of connection to the rest of humanity; that their hearts might be moved in the direction of peace and wholeness.
Pour out your peace over us, Lord, that we may all know that we are brothers and sisters in your name.
Go forth into the world in peace;
be of good courage;
hold fast that which is good;
render to no one evil for evil;
strengthen the fainthearted;
support the weak;
help the afflicted;
honor all people;
love and serve the Lord,
rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit;
and the blessing of God almighty,
the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,
be among you and remain with you always. Amen.

(From the Book of Common Prayer)
Blessings,
 
Brian N. Prior
IX Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Minnesota

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Ready, aim...blather!

Shots have been fired across the Potomac on gun control this week.  The President is barnstorming at political rallies drumming up support for legislation that some 90% of the country claims that it supports.  Certain Republicans threatened to filibuster so that the issue doesn’t come up for a vote.  One side has dead (white) children gunned down at Christmas.  Another side has freedom wielding Americans dedicated to saving the Republic for which it stands.  If it wasn't the 21st century you'd think it was a 19th Century Western showdown.  Cable television is beside itself in covering the conflict. 
 
Cartoonist Michael Ramirez is often biting, frequently frustrating and usually draws a smile.  The cartoon below meets two of the three descriptors.  More people die by hands and fists or die by blunt objects than die by military assault rifles or rifles themselves.  Volume is the deciding factor on whether there are enough deaths to justify legislative action?  If so then a lot of what the Consumer Product Safety Council does could be eliminated!  It’s a simplistic argument...but an effective toon.
 
America is a violent society.  The violence manifests itself in our media which is a reflection of society itself.  There are distortions, of course.  I stopped watching local television news more than twenty years ago because the mantra “if it bleeds it leads” meant that a disproportionate amount of the coverage was (is) crime – and it felt watching the news that my community was totally overrun by crime, when, in fact, quite the opposite was the case.
The same is true in the current gun control ‘debate’.  The coverage and the hyperbole from the politicians and cable television personalities makes it appear that this is the single most important issue facing the republic.  (Yes, forget about $17 trillion in debt, wars, unemployment…) 
 
 
The tragedies that gun violence have produced are numerous and numbing.  Finding ways to mitigate violence in our society is a noble, important and necessary goal.  Passing one piece of watered down legislation that creates a new opportunity for the government to gather information will not actually DO anything in getting the United States near that goal line.  It will only result in a lot of people patting themselves on the back.  In fact the proposed bill would not outlaw how the Sandy Hook CT shooter got his guns.  It feels an awful lot like the TSA making tens of millions of people take off their shoes and belts because one person tried (and failed) to make a bomb out of their sneakers.  Or allowing knives on planes when 9/11 was the result of the use of box cutters.  There's no real change or impact other than cosmetic.
Mental health professionals, leaders in entertainment, educators, religious representatives, parents and children all need to be in a conversation about the various ways to address violence in American society.  It is part of the culture and the people who constitute that culture must be part of any effort to change it.  Everything else is just blather.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Lesson learned?

Atlanta and indeed the entire country have a lesson to be learned from the growing scandal .  180 educators have been implicated in a scheme to fix test scores.  The breadth of the impact of the cheating shows that it wasn’t one or two teachers, but included a systemic approach that included administrators and principals.  The kids weren’t even the drivers of the scheme.  Better test scores means better paychecks.
 
I’m all for accountability and responsibility.  In business there are many metrics that are easily measured.  In education testing should be part of the measurement, but can’t be the sole measurement.  George W. Bush and Edward (“Teddy”) Kennedy’s No Child Left Behind Act realigned the education system to a standards and goals derived system.  A dozen years after it was signed into law teachers, students and parents complain about being hamstrung by the test.  Employers are frustrated that graduates lack critical thinking abilities.  Like most government programs, a well intentioned goal that hasn’t been met.
America lauds itself for individuality and creativity yet has designed an educational system that punishes either.  I’m not so arrogant that I can propose a simple solution to a complex problem in a few hundred word blog.  I do know what doesn’t work though.
Throwing more money at the current educational system doesn’t work.  Education funding has increased in the U.S.  Federal funding of education in 2001 (when the Act kicked in) was $69.7billion  In FY 2011 it had soared to $157 billion – 2.25 times growth in ten years.
The additional dollars have not correlated to better test scores or improved literacy rates.  The U.S. ranked 31 of 74 in mathematics, 23 of 74 in science, 17 of 74 in reading according to the U.S. Department of Education.  Classroom sizes have decreased – from 15.2 to 14.5.  That’s a 0.9 change against a 2.25 increase in funding. 
Teachers are underappreciated, overworked and inadequately compensated for the importance that they have in the world.  How effective the United States will be in the world is being determined every day by the men and women who are instructing today’s youth.  The few hundred bad apples in Atlanta are a black eye on the millions of dedicated people who go above and beyond to teach beyond the test. 
 
The role of government in education must be refined and, indeed, curtailed.  Broad parameters of basics should be attained at certain grade benchmarks. Communities and parents must work hand in hand with the professional teachers to find what works.  The approach to critical thinking and reasoning that works in Alabama is not going to be the same approach that works in Los Angeles or New York.  You don’t need a number 2 pencil to know that.
Our decade long experiment with expecting that every individual will learn alike and test alike must come to an end.  The lesson has been learned.  Let’s let teachers teach.