Monday, August 30, 2010

Glenn Beck's Messiah Complex?

Remember Gomer Pyle? That big silly country hick from Mayberry who joined the Marines? One of his favorite expressions was - say it with me - "Sur-PRAHZ, sur-PRAHZ, sur-PRAHZ!"

Well, if good ol' Gomer had been watching right-wing TV personality Glenn Beck in Washington, DC this weekend, he'd have been as sur-PRAHZed as a lot of people were.

In place of the average liberal-bashing, right-wing pontificating, and pre-presidential-election posturing, Beck instead launched into a stunning flag-waving church revival. Who'd have thunk it: he fancies himself as some sort of Christian evangelist! While he insists his rally Saturday was some sort of mishmash of war hero, virtue-loving, non-political star-spangled Dr. Martin Luther King tribute, Beck sure sounded like a preacher in search of a pulpit.

And he found his congregation: an adoring crowd of "more than one thousand people," as Beck himself cleverly observed, who traveled from across the country and took his every word as gospel.

Which presents a conundrum to the non-church-going conservatives who have appreciated Rush Limbaugh's avoidance of Christian imagery and allegory. What do you do with a guy who gets up onstage and claims that returning to God will solve America's woes? About the closest Limbaugh gets to God is when he's going through his wedding chapel's revolving doors.

But more importantly, what do evangelical Christians do if they've become devoted fans of Beck and his patriotic swagger? Because, in case you haven't heard, Beck ain't what he claims to be. He's a Mormon.

Let's Get This Straight: Mormons Aren't Christians

Now, I know Mormons like to call themselves "Christians." They believe in historical people named God and Jesus, and they utilize many of the same Biblical buzzwords Christians use to describe salvation, atonement, and eternal life. But without faith in Who these Beings are and what they've done for their people, you aren't a "Christian" in the Gospel sense of the word.

A long-time friend of my family's who is a pastor's wife was gushing about the Beck rally Saturday on Facebook, and she marveled at how he was "doing church" there on the National Mall. When I cautioned that Beck is a Mormon, she replied that people could be both Mormon and saved (which is the Christian word for those who believe in Jesus Christ as their Savior). Another FB friend of hers chastised me for harboring even a speck of disagreement over Beck's rally.

I don't mind acrimony on FB, because I know that it is an imperfect medium for having a genuine dialog about topics like religion. Yet I was grieved for our family friend who proved her cluelessness when it comes to the Mormon faith.

Can it be emphasized too strongly that Mormons are not Bible-believing Christians? Can I share just two crucial proofs for why Mormons do not worship the God of evangelical Christianity? I'll prove my point by simply taking two elements from the Mormons' own Articles of Faith:

  • Mormons do not believe in the Trinity. Without a triune Deity, any religion mocks Christianity. If you think it's OK for Christians to not subscribe to trinitarian theology, then quite simply, you're not saved, either. Hey - that's not my opinion; check out 2 Corinthians 13:14 and John 1:1.
  • Mormons do not receive their salvation through the grace of God. They can get saved by both believing in Christ and following the "laws and ordinances in the Gospel." If you believe the grace of God isn't sufficient for salvation, then you're not saved, either. Again, that's not my opinion, it's in the Bible: Ephesians 2:8.
God's existence as Father, Son, and Spirit comprises Who He is, and contributes to His intrinsic character as our Savior by grace. If your god isn't the gracious trinitarian God, then you're not a Christian. This isn't my opinion; this is fact.

Many more examples of fallacies in the Mormon religion exist to prove they are not Christians, even though they like to think they are. If you don't believe me, check out Watchman Fellowship for yourself.

Is Glenn Beck a New Prophet?

Do you dismiss Beck as just the latest fad in a long line of harmless right-wing talking heads? Do you regard Beck as being antagonized by people like me, pessimistic finger-pointers with our own axes to grind? Or do you consider Beck to be a genuinely spiritual, revolutionary thinker with no other agenda than the welfare of the United States?

However you view Beck, my friends, consider the messianic attributions posters to Beck's blog have been heaping upon him (with all of the original typo's included):

  • "Glen Beck you are a prophet of GOD."

  • "I am thanking God for you to bring our country back to Faith in God."
  • "Thanks again for being the voice of one crying in the wilderness to make straight the way of the Lord."

  • "Thank God for planting the seed in you to speak and get the true message out about what is happening and restoring many's faith in God."
  • "Our prayer is that God will use this to bring revival to the church in America. Thank you Glenn for obeying the voice of God"

  • "What this man has accomplished in such a short time is wiith Gods presence in his soul guiding him to bring us from the brink of an evil empire."

  • "thank you for being obedient to the calling of the Spirit.......all the Lord needed was for someone to listen"
  • "GLENN HAS SHOWED ME LIFE AGAIN."

  • "I'm almost 60 years old and was waiting all my life to hear words of truth. Finally I found it - listening to you"
Hmmm... Sounds almost like the way liberals were gushing over Barak Obama back during the 2008 election, doesn't it? At the time, conservatives called Obama's fervent supporters lunatics.

Glenn Beck Is No Messiah

Of course, just as President Obama was not the savior of the United States then, neither is Glenn Beck today.

Now, don't get me wrong: as I've said in other posts, Beck has accurately pointed out many problems in the United States, and his being a Mormon doesn't mean he has bad politics. What is becoming apparently dangerous about Beck, however, is his religious rallying cries under the guise of Biblical Christianity. True followers of Christ need to be discerning about His Gospel and wary of people who manipulate it for their own purposes.

Or the lack of saving faith you claim to see in liberals may (surprise!) be your own.
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PS - Don't consider me expert enough to have this opinion about Glenn Beck? How about this guy?
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Friday, August 27, 2010

History Can't Save America - Part 2

Conservative talk radio pundits spin a good spiel: liberals are destroying the family values and economic principles upon which the United States was founded. Over 200 years ago, God-fearing men evaluated all of the world's social and financial systems and realized that a capitalistic democracy provides the best environment in which to create and preserve a vibrant country.

Instead of relying on the wisdom of our Founding Fathers and protecting their God-given ultimatum to create the proverbial "city on a hill," liberals have taken all that is decent and right about the American way of life and - both financially and morally - taxed it to death. Now, it's up to decent, God-fearing Americans to re-embrace the Biblical values and God-honoring economic structures that can save our country before it's too late.

Manipulation Through Fear

By George, if this was all I knew about the United States, I'd be just as scared as the millions of people who tune in to the radio and TV programs which shuck this jive. And let's get one thing clear here: these modern media medicine men have become masters at manipulating their audience through fear.

Not that their fear-mongering is entirely false, however. In fact, there's an extent to which I believe the Limbaugh's and Beck's of America perform a valuable service as they hound our elected officials to stay on-task. I'm glad there are armies of watchdogs funded by both right-wing and left-wing activists who spend their lives pouring over the oceans of documents produced daily by our bureaucratic machines. It may not be pretty, but this is a type of accountability which ordinary Americans simply can't perform ourselves. Even though they talk more than they listen, our political pundits can't be written off as over-opinionated blowhards.

But they do need to remember reality. And so do their listeners. Because while pointing out problems is one thing, fixing those problems seems to have become an exercise in futility. Might one of the reasons things don't seem to be getting any better - even with millions of conservative talk radio enthusiasts saying they want change - involve the simple fact that nobody can legislate morality?

An Over-Reliance on Dead Men

One of the favorite themes of our modern media medicine men is that Americans have taken their eyes off of the hallowed principles cherished by our Founding Fathers, and have run roughshod over the morality upon which the United States was based. Conservatives assume they've cornered the market when it comes to integrity, and take pleasure in lambasting liberals who have a greater tendency to endorse public expressions of what have historically been non-virtuous behaviors.

Most evangelical churches no longer tolerate fire-and-brimstone preaching from their pulpits, but conservatives have become fascinated by talk radio's bully-pulpit. Alas, that's the fatal flaw in their approach to fixing what ails America.

Do the Glenn Beck's, Franklin Graham's, Newt Gingrich's, Rush Limbaugh's, and Sarah Palin's of America think that all conservatives have to do is prove that our Founding Fathers would have disapproved of gay marriage, gun control, strict economic regulations, and other right-wing flash points - and the rest of the country would sink back with a big “I had no idea!” look stamped on their furrowed foreheads?

Is the only thing conservatives need to do is prove George Washington would have been outraged at same-sex spouses for the concept to suddenly become abhorrent to the American public?

Should the mere mention of Alexander Hamilton or Benjamin Franklin make government regulators quake in their boots when they even think about making a corporation responsible for how their products impact public safety?

Are people practicing the very things conservatives hate simply waiting for proof that our Founding Fathers wouldn’t like the America we’ve got today? Is that it? Are liberals ready to buy the argument that the faith professed by a bunch of dead white guys is sufficient to overhaul their own lives?

Should we expect history to change moral behavior?

How many gay couples down at the courthouse waiting for a marriage license will be talked out of their plans by proof that Thomas Jefferson fathered more children through his slaves than his wife? Or that the divorce rate among modern-day evangelicals proves we don't value heterosexual marriage any more than anybody else?

How do George Washington’s many references to God prove that socialized medicine is wrong? I'm against "Obamacare" as much as anybody, but since people of faith long ago ceded their hospitals to local governments, how much of a leg do we have to stand on now?

Enough Talk. How About Some Action?

We simply cannot legislate morality. We cannot stuff rules down the throats of people who can plainly see that we don't live by them ourselves. That doesn't mean we throw up our hands and let our country go to you-know-where. But it does mean that we have to be realistic in what we can expect of our fellow countrymen, and most importantly, we have to get our own houses in order: our houses of worship, our own families, and our own selves.

It's time to stop blaming. We need to start fixing what we can. And we need to start at home.
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Thursday, August 26, 2010

History Can't Save America - Part 1

This Saturday, one of America's favorite conservative heroes is hosting a rally at the Lincoln Memorial entitled "Restoring Honor."

According to his website, Glenn Beck's purpose for this rally is as follows:

"On August 28, come celebrate America by honoring our heroes, our heritage and our future.

"Join the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and many more for this non-political event that pays tribute to America’s service personnel and other upstanding citizens who embody our nation’s founding principles of integrity, truth and honor.

"Our freedom is possible only if we remain virtuous. Help us restore the values that founded this great nation. On August, 28th, come join us in our pledge to restore honor at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC."


At first glance, there's nothing debatable about the reasons Beck is hosting this rally on the National Mall. Who can argue that integrity, truth, and honor aren't virtues to celebrate?

Indeed, I hope Beck gets a good turn-out at this event, and that many Americans will genuinely commit themselves to living lives of integrity, truth, and honor.

'Non-Political'? Who're You Kidding?!

But I suspect there's more to this rally than platitudes about righteous living. For one thing, Beck claims this will be a non-political event, which right away tips us off as to the liberal-bashing rhetoric which will probably gush down the steps of the Lincoln Memorial like pre-sweetened iced tea.

How can you get a professional conservative talk show host and Sarah Palin on the same platform without drowning in right-wing sound bites? How "non-political" have these two staunch right-wingers ever been?

Not that I think liberal Democrats don't need a good tongue-lashing. They've managed to stuff an atrocious healthcare bill down our throats, their leader has actually bowed to Arab royalty, and they pushed for programs which sparked a worldwide lending crisis. Bailouts and fiscal mismanagement which started in the last Bush administration have ballooned since he left. Racial tensions, which actually became almost a non-issue during Bush's eight years, have roared back to the fore, mostly because of baffling over-reactions by our first black president and his cabinet.

Do Conservatives Have More Integrity Than Liberals?

But this is more than petty politics and economic philosophies, isn't it? Are conservatives the answer to our problems simply because they claim to have the corner on integrity?

The pro-business wonks who've helped stall illegal immigration reform, jumped on the sub-prime bandwagon, and argued for ludicrously imbalanced executive compensation?

The whites who, insisting on moving further and further away from urban minorities and poor folk, suck highway funding budgets dry and inflate school taxes in quaint districts?

The owners of SUVs and other gas hogs who helped Detroit fight fuel efficiency mandates which have only deepened our thirst for Middle East oil?

The church-going families whose divorce rates mirror our society at large, and whose appetite for pleasure makes us the most spoiled believers on the planet? Talk to any cross-cultural missionary returning to the states, and they'll tell you that hedonism in the church virtually mocks what saints across the world have to endure.

What's So Sacred About America's History?

You just know that Beck and Palin won't waste much time before reminiscing about America's good ol' days with the Founding Fathers. Maybe I'm too cynical, but do conservative talking heads rely on references to the past because they can't rely on their own personal morality?

Is creating a version of the past which supports your current ideologies a lot safer and easier than positing an argument on the merits of your own convictions and how you live your life?

After all, history can't always argue for itself. We can make historical figures what we want them to be - especially people who died 200 years ago - because none of their peers can come back and contradict us. We can take their writings and superimpose what we want them to say, taking advantage of differing writing styles to bridge any gaps.

But the real question is this: if George Washington was a born-again evangelical servant of the Lord Jesus Christ, even if he was a virtually flawless human being, are we beholden to him because of how he lived his life? The only Person to whom present-day evangelicals owe allegiance is Christ. Is it easier to take Washington's writings and extrapolate conservative ideology than it is God's immortal words?

(Particularly for churchgoers who rebuff traditional worship and hymnody - saying they're irrelevant - doesn't it sounds howlingly ridiculous to apply sainthood to the Founding Fathers and insist we change our country to how we think they envisioned it? Talk about double-standards. I'll listen to conservatives whose traditional worship acknowledges the Church Triumphant before I'll give much credence to rock-n-roll churchgoers spouting Limbaughese.)

Real Conservative Family Values

If we want conservative family values, let's start with ourselves. Don't have sex outside of marriage, or even joke about sexual impropriety. Honor the marriage covenant and our aging parents. Teach the Bible to your children daily - don't expect Sunday School teachers at church to do it all - and model the Gospel in private and in public.

Whether we're an employer or an employee, let's conduct our business affairs with honesty and integrity. Learn about what the Bible teaches regarding wealth, not what the stock market expects of us. Break out of the rat race and evaluate how much of what we're doing goes to propping up a materialistic lifestyle rather than a life of servant leadership at home, church, and within our community.

Rush Limbaugh is on his fourth marriage, after his first three ended in divorce. Glenn Beck is a Mormon on his second marriage. Both of these modern media medicine men have had issues with chemical dependency in their past. Sarah Palin's eldest daughter got pregnant as a teenager, a sad situation usually triggered by a parental void. None of these are unpardonable sins, and they could even be used as teaching points (except for Rush's serial monogamy, for which there's no legitimate excuse). But neither do they represent all that is wholesome and virtuous in terms of the example conservatives should be setting for people we don't agree with. Just because these common personal faults may be representative of our society at large, does that validate these pundits as experts on integrity, truth, and honor? As contrasted with examples from liberal politicians?

My Challenge

I challenge any self-professed conservative who listens to Rush Limbaugh or watches Glenn Beck to spend an equivalent amount of time reading the Bible every day. See if your attitude changes any. And if you're indignant at the audacity of my challenge, is it because I'm no better than you? If that is the case, then what makes you better than the liberals you think are destroying America? My point is that none of us are righteous - not one (Romans 3:10). Yet conservatives keep hoping the ghost of George Washington is going to redeem us.

Our problems in this country have little to do with political party affiliation. They have to do with sin. And until we recognize that none of us has the superiority to claim the high road when it comes to integrity, truth, and honor in running the United States, then precious little is going to get accomplished.

For people who want to see real change in our country, don't look to our Founding Fathers or our modern media medicine men. Look to Christ. Confess your sins. For His glory, and our good.

And let ol' George rest in peace.

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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Persia's Horrible Secret

Today's essay is intentionally short, because it deals with an extremely distressing subject. And quite frankly, I don't want to write about it. But while researching another topic, I stumbled upon this and think that for the majority of us who've probably never heard of it before, it's something we need to know.

Normally, I try to stay away from topics which could tag me as a sensationalist, so that's another reason why I'm going to be brief. If you want to research this further, just click on the links.

Oh, and another thing - this topic involves explicit material regarding pederasty, so please be warned.

Increasingly, the debate over the "Ground Zero mosque" has turned from religious rights to a public discourse over Islam itself. But how much do Americans really know about this faith which, whether you believe it or not, is spawning most of the violence wreaking havoc on our planet today?

From Greece to Afghanistan

Jeffrey Gettleman currently works as the New York Times' bureau chief for East Africa, including Somalia, which has provided him breathtaking stories of atrocities committed in the name of Islam that should shame any moderate Muslim. In 2003, he won an Overseas Press Club award for a story about Pakistani boys serving as sex slaves in Afghanistan. In addition to the New York Times, no more polar opposites than Fox News and PBS have corroborated that common practice in rural parts of this strife-ridden region. Apparently, pederasty, which began in the ritual debauchery of ancient Greece, has been ingrained in Persian culture for centuries, but I had no idea.

What makes this topic even more scary is that only the Taliban, our arch enemy, has tried to obliterate pederasty in modern-day Persia. They view it as an atrocity against their strict interpretation of Islam.

When I lived in New York City, a friend of a roommate of mine would sometimes come down from his home upstate to lead protests against NAMBLA, an association which promotes pederasty here in North America. At the time, they had a headquarters office in the same neighborhood where we lived. Back then, I had difficulty accepting my friend's descriptions of the organization he picketed against, and now, I'm having difficulty reading about our supposed allies - the "moderate Muslims" in Pakistan and Afghanistan - who promote this same practice, only on a far more violent scale.

Do we really know what we're fighting against?
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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

St. Nick Wants Mosque's Urgency

Before his legacy got hijacked by pop culture and Christmas retailers, Saint Nicholas had been the revered patron saint for sailors, bankers, and bakers. An unlikely mix, to be sure, but in the oft-confounding streets of Lower Manhattan, where slimy wharves once notched the ends of streets lined with - among other things - banks and bakeries, it all somehow made sense.

For decades, St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church huddled in the rowdy streets hear the Hudson River piers. Its lithe white-stucco structure dated back to the 1830's, and its congregation to 1916. As Lower Manhattan evolved, and neighboring buildings were torn down for construction of the World Trade Center, parking lots eventually engulfed the tiny church, although Tower Two soared just a couple hundred feet away. It unwittingly became part of Ground Zero as the World Trade Center's obliteration literally pulverized St. Nick's into dust.

Ever since September 12, 2001, the Greek Orthodox community in North America has been quietly trying to rebuild their precious little sanctuary at Ground Zero. While their congregation meets in loaned space over in Brooklyn, church leaders have been wrangling with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey over the fate of their site. When the Port Authority condemned whole blocks of Lower Manhattan to construct the World Trade Center (WTC) back in the late 1960's, it stopped just short of taking St. Nicholas, but what the Port Authority didn't do then, it's doing now.

Replacing the Only Church at Ground Zero

Obviously, redevelopment at Ground Zero has proven to be a herculean undertaking. Even without its political showdowns, economic downturns, and psychological stigma, the sheer logistical conundrums of physically rebuilding the WTC can boggle the mind. Not only is the Port Authority trying to reclaim its stake in one of the world's most prestigious corporate centers, it's trying to do so in the face of two terrorist attacks at the site and despite the complexities of building anything larger than a windowbox on Manhattan Island.

For the past nine years, the Greeks and the Port Authority have tried to craft an agreement that would re-establish St. Nicholas Church on the southern flanks of the WTC site, near where it had been before. Nobody has officially suggested the church should not return. Claims that St. Nicholas has been overlooked in the cacophony over designs for the Freedom Tower, 9-11 memorial, and the PATH train station probably have some merit, but the Greeks have patiently allowed these larger issues to be hashed out.

Indeed, the entire site has had to be re-imagined, not just for the office buildings, shopping mall, commuter rail line, and mass transit terminal, but also for the new memorial and various security measures which need to be incorporated into the mix. And apparently, it's those beefed-up security measures that have posed a big part of the delay in getting St. Nicholas re-built.

Understandably, the Port Authority needs to have a new, sophisticated vehicle safety checkpoint on-site before any passenger vehicle or commercial truck can enter what will be a labyrinthine underground parking structure. This vehicle checkpoint will require long ramps and other design features which will take up a lot of space. And a possible location chosen by the Port Authority for all of this vehicular screening is - you guessed it - the southern side of the Ground Zero site. Just below where St. Nicholas used to sit.

This appears to be where the two sides have reached a stalemate, because the Greeks used to own the land under their church, but in the Port Authority's scenario, they wouldn't. Not only would St. Nicholas not own their land, but they'd be sitting on top of a security zone which, potentially, could explode to smithereens in the event of yet another terrorist strike. While admittedly, it's unlikely somebody would try to blow up the underground vehicle screening zone, nobody anticipated planes crashing into both towers, either. A very sobering consideration, indeed.

Muslims Get Attention While Greeks Wait

So why can't the Greeks simply move someplace else? That's the same question that's been asked of the Muslim developers at 51 Park Place. But unlike the plans for the "Ground Zero mosque", St. Nicholas simply wants to come home. They also have taken a decidedly neutral stance on the Islamic rec center proposed for their neighborhood, unlike the liberal Trinity Episcopal Church at the head of Wall Street, which was hardly damaged on 9/11 and is welcoming the Muslims with open arms.

No, the Greeks have been waiting in their borrowed Brooklyn quarters, watching the acrimony over the "Ground Zero mosque" grow ever more heated, wondering how many more years it will take before their own worship space can be restored at the WTC site.

They did get some political firepower in their corner yesterday, when former New York governor George Pataki held a press conference with St. Nicholas leadership, pressing for the Port Authority to work harder at accommodating the Greeks. St. Nicholas officials expressed hope that the attention being focused on the "Ground Zero mosque" might spill over into their own little bucket of need, and help provide some impetus for themselves and the Port Authority to finally find some common ground.

After all, as Pataki hinted, if New York's current governor can find state land to swap with the Muslims for relocating their rec center, surely something can be done to help out St. Nicholas, which has been waiting to rebuild for nearly a decade.

It seems as if things have to get political before lawmakers want to get involved these days. Especially in New York. Since the Port Authority is jointly owned by the states of New York and New Jersey, elected officials could have stepped in at any time within the past nine years to help iron out differences and protect St. Nick's rights. Why does it take Muslims proposing a grand mosque near Ground Zero before the Greeks can finally hope for some satisfaction in their own post 9-11 travails?

Mayor Michael Bloomberg waxes eloquent about religious freedom and different faiths being able to build anywhere they want in the capital of the world.

Yo, Mike! Try telling that to the Greeks!
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Update 8/26/10: Now that the press is starting to re-examine the St. Nick impasse, new information is coming to light. Click here for more information.
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Monday, August 23, 2010

Two Parent Traps and a Schmuck

Do you have kids? I don't, so I've been told that my opinions about parenthood have extremely limited value.

Yeah, well... I'm gonna plow on with today's essay anyway!

First, just to prove I know I'm not a know-it-all, a brief story on a related topic: At dinner last week, some friends of mine who are expecting their first child were talking about the mind-boggling battery of immunizations given to newborns in hospitals these days. Another dinner companion commented that some parents she knows have taken the growing debate over infant shots so seriously that some friendships broke up over it.

Of all the opinions I hold, I can honestly say that I don't have an opinion one way or the other regarding infant vaccinations. So I told my dinner companions that they could freely share with me their convictions on the subject, and I couldn't contradict anything they said! Can you imagine what a freeing conversation that could have been? As it turned out, they hadn't done all the research on it yet themselves, so they hadn't reached any firm conclusions either!

Oh well, so much for trying to carry on a conversation in which I was a blank slate.

Parents Who Care Too Little

While childhood immunizations per say is a topic of relative ambivalence for me, I do recognize that certain shots are required of everybody before they can attend classes in public school systems. Here in north Texas, school starts today, and for weeks, our local media has been reminding parents that school children need to have all of their shots updated before first period this morning. Yet last Saturday, officials estimated that in the Dallas public school district alone, approximately 5,000 students had yet to get their required immunizations.

Dallas County's health commissioner made the rounds of TV stations weeks ago with his blunt message of zero-tolerance for kids without their required shots. Officials have been reminding parents since before the end of the last school year, they've been sending out mailers, advertising on ethnic radio stations, and even providing free shots for low-income families. Children of illegal immigrants don't have to prove legal residency to get their shots. There's absolutely no excuse for any parent to not have gotten their kids vaccinated by the start of school today.

Yet thousands of kids will probably be turned away today. Parents will howl, protesting the school districts' unfairness, and complaining that they didn't have enough time or money. A few will be on TV tonight, with a goofy grin, admitting they just procrastinated, or seemingly simply caught off-guard by the first day of school. Doesn't it just boggle the mind?

California's Version of "The Donald"

Speaking of boggling the mind, over in sunny California, multi-billionaire developer Donald Bren has been in court, fighting a $100 million child support suit by his two adult kids with a former lover. Bren, who made his estimated $12 billion fortune as a real estate mogul during California's boom years, staunchly insists he's already paid out enough to his unwanted progeny and their mother, Jennifer Gold.

Bren's 22-year-old daughter Christie and 18-year-old son David beg to differ. They're seeking $400,000 a month in additional child support retroactive to their individual births, which amounts to approximately $100 million between the two of them.

Not only does Bren admit fathering Christie and David, he's groused in court that at the time, Gold had assured him she was using contraception, so their births he did not welcome. Bren figures the $3 million in child support he's paid out over the years to provide for kids he didn't want in the first place seems more than generous.

On the one hand, Gold's two children appear to be simple "gold-diggers" trying to mine their biological father's vast wealth for their own purposes. With his self-professed lack of paternal affection for his own offspring, Bren readily admits to not having been their traditional father figure, but if they're trying to penalize him for his lack of affection: tough cookies. According to well-documented legal agreements he made with their mother, he's not financially liable for anything more either. Bren has a point: many kids are raised on a lot less than $3 million, so maybe Christie and David have gotten too financially comfortable to ween themselves from the gravy train.

Bren's own parents divorced when he was a teenager, and both eventually remarried. His birth father was a Hollywood producer, and his step-mother an actress, so you can draw your own conclusions about how conventional his upbringing may have been. Still, plenty of child victims of divorce grow up to parent wholesome families, so his childhood can't be Bren's only excuse for his intransigence.

So what's left? Will a $100 million settlement leave him destitute? Although he has vigorously disputed estimates of his fortune as being exaggerated, Bren's stunning charitable portfolio alone sits at more than $1 billion. If $100 million represents all he's got left in the world after all that charity, he hasn't said, but it's odd that California schoolchildren - one of his favorite beneficiaries - have been given so much more than Bren is willing to concede his own flesh and blood.

What's the point in fighting your kids over this comparatively paltry sum of money, if not simple greed or blatant disdain? If Bren is one of Warren Buffett's billionaire benefactors, who's signed Bill & Melinda Gates' list of super-wealthy folk not leaving their fortune to their heirs, his name's not on the list yet.

Of course, at its core, this is little more than a family dispute for which too much supposition from the bleachers can be deleterious. So, what validates this particular case as an intriguing vignette of modern American life? Bren's obvious disconnect between the physical act of paternity and its nurturing responsibilities. How stunning is it that a man as driven and self-made as Bren could so hopelessly insulate himself from affection for his own offspring?

Parents Who Smother

Bren's dismissive attitude flies in the face of yet another parental type which has surfaced this new school year. But we're not talking about schoolchildren - we're talking about parents taking their kids to college for the first time.

During the past couple of decades, these parents have been dubbed "helicopter parents" or "Velcro parents". They've developed a parental subculture in the United States bent on creating high-achieving progeny.

And experts have seen it coming for years: the push by parents for their children to be over-involved in activities. Too many sports, too many music lessons, too many dance recitals, too many teen church trips, too much of everything that in moderation can help produce a well-rounded post-modern American child.

Only this time, it's not fights among overzealous parents at their child's soccer practice, but parents who hover at college after their freshman child gets situated in their new dorm. Apparently, colleges all over the country, from Princeton to small liberal arts schools in the Midwest, are finding the affects of Velcro parenting becoming harder to break without built-in programs to ween parents off of their kids.

Now, the first day of kindergarten is one thing. But on the first day of college, parents shouldn't be attending classes with their freshman student. Yet that's what's been reported to have happened at several campuses, and many more parents linger on-campus or very closely nearby, unable - or unwilling - to let their teenager step onto the first rungs of adulthood.

While this phenomenon hasn't reached epidemic proportions, it's become problematic enough that many colleges have now instituted a parental break-away as part of the freshman orientation and move-in weekends. And while in kindergarten, kids probably prefer having their parents stick around, college students rarely want mom and dad in the picture as they seek to establish themselves away from home for the first time.

I'm not saying that homesickness isn't a problem. But when it's the parents who are the ones having the difficulty cutting the apron strings, then colleges have found it's up to them to stand by with the scissors. How odd is that?

Of course, not having kids, I can't say parent traps aren't easy to fall into.

But something tells me daddy Bren wasn't attending first day college classes with his kids. Doesn't sound like he and Jennifer talked much about infant inoculations, either... except maybe if he could be inoculated against progeny.

_____

Friday, August 20, 2010

Who Obama Seems to Worship

President Obama cannot shake the Muslim problem.

And no matter what you think of our president, the "Ground Zero mosque", Islam in general, or terrorism politics in particular, isn't it amazing that one religion has managed to commandeer so much of the President's attention this week?

Consider, for example, the Obama administration's renewed campaign to get the freed Lockerbie bomber extradited from Libya back to Scotland to serve out the remainder of his prison sentence. The one-year anniversary of Scottish officials releasing Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi is today, but furor over his release has only increased since al-Megrahi, presumed to have three months to live when he was freed, remains very much alive and enjoying stardom in his violence-loving homeland.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has reportedly begun placing new pressure on the Scottish government and newly-elected British Prime Minister David Cameron, as well as Libya's dictator Muammar Qaddafi, to get al-Megrahi back behind bars.

While you may be laughing out loud at the absurdity of asking Qaddafi to reincarcerate al-Megrahi, you would be justified in suspecting that Obama and his cabinet seek to gain some leverage with the American public in the face of withering declines in his popularity.

Poll Shows More Americans Think Obama's Muslim

Yet another indicator of Obama's flagging credibility came yesterday with the news that even more people suspect him of being a Muslim, not a Christian, as he has personally claimed.

In March 2009, 11% of polled Americans said Obama is Muslim, but a recent poll placed that number at 18%, despite persistent denials by the President and claims even by national religious leaders that he is not.

Why do these suspicions persist? And they are suspicions, aren't they; since hardly anybody thinks it's advantageous for Obama to actually be Muslim.

Perhaps part of the reason can be found in the State Department's recent use of "Ground Zero mosque" Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf in a religious tolerance junket to the Middle East. On your tax dime. As if Rauf has earned street cred for his brilliant execution of his Park 51 Islamic center.

Speaking of street cred, unfortunately for Obama, the Christian leaders who have come out in support of his Christian claims have very little street cred with two key voting blocs: evangelical believers whose bar for being a Christian is set - Biblically, I believe - high; and rank-and-file Republicans with greater faith in Rush Limbaugh than pastors. True, Kirbyjon Caldwell, the pastor who married George W. Bush's daughter and claims Obama's saved, is a Methodist, but so are the Clintons.

Who We Worship

For many people, the term "Christian" has come to simply mean "Not Jewish" or "Not Muslim." People have found they can claim the category, but not the Person for Whom it is named. So unless you can't be seen as someone struggling to apply Christ's truth to daily life, evangelicals feel justified - however erroneously - in assuming you're a Christian in category only. Such theologically conservative evangelicals, however, don't comprise that large a proportion of the population, and even among ourselves, the concept of "Lordship Salvation", which this describes, isn't universally accepted. And some true believers actually exercise far more forgiveness than us hard-liners.

However, I suspect the strongest reason for people to say Obama is lying about his faith involves his own panderings to Muslims. The most egregious of these was seen in his deep bow to Saudi Arabian King Abdullah when he thought the cameras weren't on him. That in and of itself - and the flat denial by Obama officials flying in the face of videotaped proof - have angered many Americans, and quite frankly, rightfully so.

Today we learned that the Saudi government has been shopping a back-breaking request to hospitals in the Kingdom, looking for a doctor who'll break the back of a man who broke somebody else's. Hey - you can't make up this stuff!

Apparently, it's the old "eye for an eye" punishment that the Saudis are seeking for a man who severely injured another Saudi. While King Abdullah has reportedly said he's opposed to outlandish punishments as this, one wonders why such a powerful and influential leader can retain those adjectives if even the idea of getting a doctor to intentionally break someone else's back can gain traction in his country. Is this the kind of guy to whom Obama should be bowing?

Personally, I don't think Obama is a practicing Muslim. I don't think he's anything, except a self-worshipper. And in a sense, that's his real problem.

_____

Thursday, August 19, 2010

France Getting Its Groove Back?

One of my favorite quotes comes from retired Desert Storm general Norman Schwarzkopf, who ruminated that “going to war without the French is like going duck hunting without an accordion.”

If it wasn't for their cuisine and Parisian architecture, France would have lost its raison d'ĂȘtre years ago as its infamous moral relativism rendered it geopolitically irrelevant.

Recently, however, the French have managed to discover where they had misplaced their backbone after supporting the insurgent New World colonists over two hundred years ago. You'll recall from your American History lessons that France was the only country to support our revolution. For the better part of a century, however, they foundered as the doormat of nihilism. Now, not only have they enacted legislation prohibiting the identity-robbing facial scarves and burkas of Muslim women in public, but they’ve begun evicting Gypsy squatters from their fetid camps. Yesterday, two flights carrying 700 ethnic “Roma”, as Romanian Gypsies are called in politically-correct Europe, left Paris and Lyon for Bucharest.

A Culture With Few Friends (I mean the Gypsies, not the French)

In the United States, Gypsies are sometimes referred to as “Travellers" or "Irish Travellers," since many of them emigrated from Ireland during the Great Potato Famine. But wherever they live, Gypsies have the unflattering reputation as being shoplifters, pickpockets, truants, child molesters, and masters at scams, particularly home improvement fraud.

Here near north Texas, a camp of Travellers used to live in the rural fringes of Fort Worth. Nobody knew they were here until five of their young boys were killed in a spectacular traffic accident. These Gypsies had been running a string of construction rip-offs and shoplifting sprees across the Southwest. Reporters tried to learn more about their community, but were confounded by the doubletalk or outright silence from Travellers who claimed nothing was wrong with their lifestyle.

Granted, in North America, it's hard to tell Gypsies from ordinary folk. Aside from their bad grammar and limited education - pardon my bluntness - they often pass for typical Texas rednecks with more money than sense. They drive ludicrously fancy pickup trucks and new luxury cars, wear far too much bling, and clothes that seem just a little too stylish.

They're a far cry from their ancestral brethren in France, who have lived for years in the squalor of approximately 300 unauthorized encampments infested with vermin and rife with communicable illnesses. They're reputed to endorse adolescent marriage, tolerate sexual abuse, and perpetrate various crimes and scams such as prostitution to maintain what appears to be a meager existence. Their "repatriation," as the French government calls it, has met with cries of xenophobia (apparently the Europeans don't like the word "racism") from liberals and the Romanian government, which apparently has no desire to welcome their fellow countrymen back home.

Drawing Lines In The Sand (On the French Riviera)

Although according to European Union laws the Roma may have originally entered France legally as tourists, they never qualified for nor obtained work visas which would have authorized their stay in France. Roma adults claim the work permits have been difficult to obtain, but fail to explain why that should excuse their stay in France.

Sound familiar?

While numerous and significant differences exist between the Roma in France and illegal Hispanics in the United States, the basic problem appears the same: what to do with people unauthorized to be in your country?

It remains to be seen whether France will repatriate all of the estimated 12,000 Roma living there without permission. Some government critics say it's all a simple political stunt to appease Frenchmen reeling from the Great Recession. Others say that it's a modern expression of the age-old European discrimination against Gypsies, the perpetual scapegoats for legions of maladies.

What seems particularly interesting, however, is that after years of blithely clucking its disapproval at American hegemony, the French government has chosen this time and this people group to fly - literally - in the face of liberal social policy. A decision taken on the heels of banning burkas in public. This, the country which refused to allow American jets to clip French airspace while flying sorties to the Middle East, prompting General Schwarzkopf's droll pronouncement.

Maybe history indeed is more cyclical than we give it credit for being.
_____

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Say Goodbye, Dr. Laura

I didn't even know Dr. Laura was still on the air.

So I was surprised to hear that not only has her show been plodding along since I last heard it about 12 years ago, but that she had the audacity to use the n-word 11 times on a recent episode.

Schlessinger has always been a difficult nut to crack. I never could understand why she'd treat some callers differently than others. She could be patient and sympathetic to some, yet rude and dismissive to others, her bi-polarity seemingly unrelated to the attitudes of her callers or the problems they were sharing.

Although her general support of conservative family values resonated with me, I couldn't tell if the often wacky and sometimes outlandish comments she made on the air were some sort of psychological therapy tool or simple showbiz shtick.

Whatever she spiked her shows with, however, definitely crossed the line with her repetitive use of the n-word. To have used the infamously derogatory term once or twice to clarify the word with her caller might have been excusable. But 11 times is simply reprehensible. Period.

Schlessinger insists her repetition of the word constituted some sort of First Amendment exercise in parodying racial insensitivity. She's announced that she's quitting her radio show after the end of its current season because her sponsors have been hounded by enraged customers. She's portraying herself as a victim of uber-political-correctness in an age where anything controversial gets silenced by people who get offended too easily.

But what Schlessinger fails to realize is that while she has a radio show, she's not recognized as a public figure with authority to moderate a discussion on this issue. Rightly or wrongly, the use of the n-word is simply inappropriate for both whites and blacks.

While you may indeed have the right to say it, you have an obligation not to.

If we have to have another national dialog on the reasons why, then Schlessinger has proven why she should no longer be on the radio.

_____

Monday, August 16, 2010

Qualifying Birthright Citizenship

They're called "anchor babies:" children born in the United States to parents who are here illegally. Simply put, anchor babies help protect their parents from being deported.

Currently, about 8% of all births in the US are to illegal immigrants. In 2008, when the latest study took place, that amounted to approximately 340,000 anchor babies born to people illegally residing in this country. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, 4 million legal children live in the United States with undocumented parents.

Amidst the fallout from Arizona's infamous SB-1070 which opponents - rightfully, in my view - believe promotes racial profiling, some advocates of controlling illegal immigration have picked up a dusty old ball which has been bouncing around the schoolyard of discarded ideas: changing the citizenship clause in our Constitution. Wouldn't one of the easiest ways of staunching the flow of illegal immigrants to America be to remove one of their key incentives for coming here in the first place?

Framing the Debate

Our United States Constitution’s 14th Amendment currently grants citizenship automatically to anyone born here. Opponents of illegal immigration believe - rightfully, in my view - that illegals are misappropriating a provision intended to benefit Americans, and we're currently handing law breakers a blank check on a silver platter. Republican senators Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham, among others, have called for hearings to explore the issue, with a view towards limiting citizenship by amending the 14th Amendment.

Should a person be automatically granted US citizenship simply by being born here? That current privilege, called “birthright citizenship,” has generally been considered a fundamental characteristic of procreation in America, one of the last First World countries to maintain the principle of birthright citizenship. Conventional interpretation of the amendment holds that Americans can be assured that their children can share in all the rights of citizenship. However, the concept could be subject to unprecedented restrictions in the effort to push back the tide of illegal immigration.

Former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee has gone on record that limiting the 14th Amendment would penalize kids for mistakes their parents have made. Other opponents hypothesize that removing something as simple as birthright citizenship will create a bureaucratic nightmare, and could even lead to a national ID system as the government wrestles with ways to identify who can and can't receive birthright citizenship.

Frankly, considering the appalling lack of political will to fix our illegal immigration situation by simply enforcing the rules already on the books, changing an amendment risks being a futile exercise. You’ll recall from your high school government classes that reworking the US Constitution requires considerable effort, and rightfully so. The document which undergirds our entire legal system should not be trifled with. So the very idea of using an amendment to the Constitution to address our problems with illegal immigration should give everyone in this debate pause.

But not too long of a pause; otherwise, we’ll be demonstrating the same political inactivity which has contributed to the mess we’re in.

Can We Protect Our Laws From Abuse?

If you believe amending the Constitution represents an overreaction to the illegal immigration dilemma, your concern has some validity. Since we’re talking about the 14th Amendment in particular, we need to recognize the stunning privilege it grants people born here. Birthright citizenship holds immense power, and those who want to leave it alone can’t be simply dismissed as intransigent.

However, just as birthright citizenship cannot be taken lightly, don’t we need to protect it when it gets abused? Could crafters of the amendment, working in the heady days at the end of the Civil War, ever have imagined how many people would violate our nation’s borders to plant their seed here? Does birthright citizenship grant an unfair advantage to Hispanics, who can migrate here simply by traveling up the continent? Asians, Africans, and Europeans who might consider coming here illegally have to first figure out how to cross an ocean and pass through a port before they can set foot inside an American hospital. By denying birthright citizenship to the children of illegals, do we strengthen the integrity of our immigration laws and restore some equity to our immigration policies?

America has flourished from various stages of relatively controlled immigration; indeed, the unprecedented flow of Europeans to our shores after the Civil War profoundly re-shaped our still-developing country.

But haven’t times changed since then? While we still welcome all emigres who come to the United States legally, why do we also remain responsible for people who come here by breaking our laws? Jewish law calls for the Hebrew faithful to care for the gentiles and sojourners in their midst, but to what extent are people who breach our borders to be equated with the nomadic cultures and conquered societies of Biblical times?

And as for the national ID argument, isn't that just a red herring? We already have social security cards based on birth certificates, which should be enough to determine the citizenship status of any parent.

Change Isn't Easy

Not that the process for determining who gets birthright citizenship will be easy. It does appear as though some significant details will need to be ironed out before this idea could be practical. For example,

  • Even if an amendment of this magnitude could be ratified, how would it be enforced? Would enforcement be on a state level, as it basically is now; or on the federal level?
  • Would citizenship be required of both parents, or just the mother, or one of the two?
  • If only one of the parents needed to be a citizen, and that parent was the father, how does he prove he's the father?
  • Can we afford all of the DNA testing which would be required to prove patrilineal citizenship?

At first blush, even Mike Huckabee's concern about penalizing children for the sins of their parents sounds like a plausible reason to keep things as they are. However, do two wrongs make a right? If we're talking about equity here, how do people who obey our immigration laws benefit when law breakers get benefits they're not entitled to?

We Need to Talk About This

In one definitive action, changing the 14th Amendment could remove from the illegal immigration debate one of its key facilitators. Our country's immigration process could be made more equitable, and the messy conundrum of deporting the children of illegal immigrants could evaporate within a few years.

But real life is rarely that simple, is it? What might the chances be that our politicians could craft revisions to birthright citizenship that solve the myriad contingencies that reside in modern procreation? Is an 8% birthrate to illegals a percentage our country can live with, considering our other problems that need fixing? Would simply enforcing our current immigration laws end up being more effective in terms of time and cost?

These questions, however, should not shroud the 14th Amendment in imperviousness. Our Constitution is a remarkable document, but it is not perfect. Shouldn't we be able to revisit the parts of it that fail to keep up with our country's evolution in a rapidly-changing world?

Personally, I think the 14th Amendment should be clarified to specify that children born in the United States are only granted citizenship if their mother is a legal resident. But I have no illusions that getting there from where we are today will be a piece of cake.

_____

Friday, August 13, 2010

Does Amnesty for Illegals Discriminate?

I'm not an anti-Hispanic bigot, and I'm gonna prove it.

I'm going to start with conservative political commentator and former presidential contender Mike Huckabee, who raised more than a few eyebrows this week when he waffled on a simple question about illegal immigration.

At first, he said he did not support any amnesty program, but then he claimed kids who were brought here illegally by their parents should be allowed to stay here. During his interview on NPR, Huckabee argued that penalizing children because their parents broke the law is a bad thing. And in theory, he’s correct. If your father runs drugs, and you don’t, you shouldn’t be held responsible for your father’s crime. But on this issue, we're talking about a whole family of illegal aliens. They're not citizens of the United States.

Of course, you can't oppose amnesty and support it at the same time. How can Huckabee say he's against amnesty but still wants kids to stay (along with their parents, presumably)?

Typical Duplicitous Politician?

Aside from being a right-wing media celebrity, Huckabee is also a politician, and he's trying to make it sound as if he's a progressive on this issue while simultaneously dropping all of the anti-amnesty key words he hopes will pacify his conservative base. It's an old-school smokescreen, lest we forget the 2012 presidential election starts next year.

It has been suggested by some political scorekeepers that Huckabee may be attempting to distinguish himself from his fellow Republican media stars. Sarah Palin, his closest campaign rival, has lent her support to several races in local elections across the country to keep her name in the spotlight, while Huckabee has made a point of supporting the conservatives Palin doesn’t. Is he trying to paint himself as the softer, gentler, more family-oriented side of the Republican party? After all, the incessant drumbeat of pop drama emanating from the life of Palin’s eldest daughter can’t be helping Alaska’s most famous soccer mom with her virtuous image.

How odd that Huckabee, one of the favorites many business-oriented Republican stalwarts supported in 2008, is now posturing himself on the status-quo side of the illegal immigration debate. Wasn’t one of the reasons President George W. Bush waffled on illegal immigration because his deep-pocketed pro-business pals make a lot of money on the backs of undocumented workers?

But I digress...

Let's Be Fair

Granted, this is the United States of America, and Huckabee wants to talk fairness. So let's do it.

What does fairness have to do with deporting children for something they haven’t done? Very little, admittedly. But that’s not the issue, is it? The issue is parents - who are predominantly Hispanic - who intentionally cross our borders without permission. Just as the parents aren't citizens, neither are their kids.

An illegal alien of any age is still an illegal alien. Former president George W. Bush deported five-year-old Elian Gonzalez, remember? Don't kids from other countries get deported? How much damage is done to the integrity of our immigration laws if parents know they'll be allowed to stay if they bring their kids illegally to our country? What is fair about granting pseudo-amnesty to illegal Hispanic kids and their parents when we still drop-kick illegal Africans, Asians, and Europeans out of our country? Where do we draw the lines to be fair to everybody? Do we just keep them all?

Secure Our Borders?

Oddly enough, Huckabee says that the best way to control illegal immigration involves securing our borders. But he's not talking about the Canadian border, is he?

What keeps Canadians from coming here illegally, and what compels Hispanics to come here illegally?

Let's see: corrupt Latin American governments which suck inertia from their economies; unrealistic expectations given to Hispanics by human traffickers; violent drug cartels; citizens of other countries who willingly break laws to get into ours; greedy American contractors who treat illegal day laborers like glorified slaves; authority-hungry American bureaucrats and politicians who need constituents who are dependant on them... I'm not seeing any equity here, are you?

Removing the institutionalized incentives which unfairly skew the immigration debate towards Hispanics involves taking amnesty for even kids out of the equation. Recognizing this sad fact may hurt Huckabee's chances for election if he decides to run in 2012, but it's not the future of his political career I'm worried about. What happens when people from other countries around the world see how lax we are with illegal immigration?

Kids Caught in Their Parents' Misdeeds

As a former Southern Baptist minister, Huckabee may be in cahoots with other pastors nationwide who are quietly soliciting for a watered-down approach to illegal immigration. I can't fault him for feeling sorry for the kids who are virtually being used as hostages by their parents in these situations. Illegal alien parents know it's hard for most Americans - even me - to consider the cost of this debate on children.

Here in north Texas, our local news outlets frequently cover stories where children are crying, being pulled from classrooms and readied for a trip back across the border. Teachers and reporters bewail the harm being done to these kids as they’re torn from the only lives they’ve ever known and being deported like criminals.

True, irreparable harm probably is being done to these kids, but it’s not being done by the law enforcement agencies tasked with the miserable job of fighting illegal immigration. Doesn’t the fault like squarely on the parents who knowingly violated the law and risked their own childrens’ well-being by coming here illegally in the first place?

Many illegal Hispanics claim they're coming to America for the sake of their families. I have no problem with people who want to come here and benefit from our quality of life, which in large part depends on the rule of law.

I would simply ask Hispanics who want to come here to get in line. You're not any more special or desperate than anybody else wanting to enter the United States for the benefit of their own families.

See? Equal access. Isn't that being racially-tolerant?


Next Monday: Revising the 14th Amendment?

_____

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Slater Marks New Era of Flight?

To the list of pop-culture flash-in-the-pans, add the name Steven Slater.

Slater, the now-former flight attendant for Jet Blue airlines who erupted into a criminally-negligent tirade on a Pittsburgh-to-New-York flight earlier this week, has found himself with a gaggle of new Internet friends and a host of charges in court.

A lot of other flight attendants have rallied to Slater's defense, increasingly irate over the treatment they receive from passengers increasingly frustrated by the airline industry's increasingly rigid business models. For most airline employees and passengers these days, air travel has become something to be endured rather than enjoyed.

Airline Travel Isn't What It Was

I'm not ancient, but I can barely remember when flying was fun. My parents and people just a little older than me can recall a time when passengers dressed up for air travel; when flying represented glamor and prestige; when flight attendants were called "stewardesses" because almost all of them were female and were paid to pamper their passengers, not play luggage police.

A good friend of mine has been an American Airlines flight attendant longer than Slater has, and virtually every time she talks about her job, she says "Boy, it ain't what it used to be."

She's had a passenger hand her a napkin only to find a dirty diaper inside. An FAA official who just happened to be on the flight and observe the passenger's impudence actually fined the passenger for exposing a flight attendant to potentially hazardous material, since my friend was in the process of serving drinks.

She's had more than a few passengers yell at her because the carry-on bags they packed were too big for the overhead bins. As if that's my friend's fault.

And apparently, a tussle over the overhead bins contributed to the Jet Blue's Slater reaching the end of his rope. A female passenger inadvertently hit Slater in the forehead with her carry-on at the start of the flight in Pittsburgh, and then cursed him as he was trying to get passengers on the just-landed plane to remain seated while they taxied to their gate. Apparently, the same passenger that had gashed Slater's forehead in Pittsburgh had gotten into another tussle with another passenger before deplaning in New York. So Slater wasn't the only person on that flight who was having a bad day.

Landing in New York City

If this flight was similar to the ones I've taken into any of New York City's three airports, the scenario in the plane's cabin after landing is something I've witnessed myself. As soon as the plane's tires touched down onto the runway, the clicking of seatbelts filled the cabin as passengers immediately unlatched them. Yes, all passengers are supposed to remain in their seats with their seatbelts securely fashioned until the "Fasten Seatbelt" sign has been turned off (you can hear the intercom announcement now, can't you?), but when any plane lands in New York City, all bets are off.

This is New York City, passengers are thinking. We're New Yorkers. We've got important places to go and important people to see. Rules apply to dweebs and suburbanites and people from Iowa. I've gotta get off this tin can of a plane and get on with my important life.

Now, I haven't flown into New York City since 9/11, so maybe the rules are better enforced these days. But when I used to fly, this is how it always was. It never failed.

After touchdown, as the plane reached the end of the runway and turned onto the taxiway, somebody would get up and start rummaging around in the overhead bins. Usually, that was still too early for most everyone else, and the false-starter would get a sharp admonishment from a still-seated flight attendant, or the false-starter's embarrassed wife.

But as the terminal came into sight, the cabin would begin to crackle with pent-up expectation, as passengers waited on the edges of their seats (back when we still had legroom in coach), impatiently savoring the first sensations of the plane coming to a stop.

By this time, a flight attendant would be on the intercom, knowing what was about to take place, and nevertheless reminding everybody that we were to wait until the "Fasten Seatbelts" sign had been turned off before getting our stuff from the overhead bins.

But we all knew that didn't make any difference.

As I said, the cue was the initial sensation of inertia - the precise moment in time where you knew the plane had stopped. And suddenly, the cabin would erupt into a mad scramble for the overhead bins.

New Yorkers live their lives by inches. They rush to elevators. They curse out loud when somebody wants to get off at the second floor. They fight over taxi cabs. They body-slam themselves through closing subway doors. If your car is still stationary after a red light turns green, you can expect half a dozen horns to blare at you. Every second gained, every gain notched in competition with somebody else, every rule bent to give you more of something, that is the energy upon which many New Yorkers thrive. Or, at least, claim to thrive.

Meanwhile, the plane may be making a couple of last-minute lurches as the pilots position it for a complete stop. Doesn't matter to the New Yorkers frantically reclaiming their luggage from the overhead bins. They bounce into each other like its a bumpy subway ride. Seasoned flight attendants know resistance is futile at this point, but they drone on anyway over the intercom about the "Fasten Seatbelt" sign.

By the time the cabin door has been opened to the jetway, everybody has been standing in the aisle with their luggage for quite some time.

Golden Era Becoming the Leaden Era?

I wasn't on Slater's flight this week, so I can't say for sure that this scenario I've witnessed many times before actually happened then. Slater himself professes to be a "bag nazi*," meaning he was a stickler for baggage rules. A lot of passengers - who already feel like they're being nickled-and-dimed by airlines - don't like flight attendants who are sticklers for rules. My flight attendant friend who works for American Airlines predicts the pressure they're under to get planes to and from gates, combined with the increasingly miserable flying experience for passengers, will only get worse as the suits in the airlines' corporate suites remain sequestered with their profit/loss reports.

And that's the real problem, isn't it? As a veteran flight attendant, Slater's a product - along with many of his passengers - of the golden era of flight. Most corporate wonks who prowl the paneled halls of airline headquarters never stand in that increasingly minuscule space between the flying public and the front lines of new corporate income policies: flight attendants, gate crews, and pilots.

The skies haven't been friendly for quite a while now. Slater's meltdown may mark the new leaden era of flight.

_____
* I refuse to capitalize this word

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Divorce Cripples Gay Marriage Stance

What big lesson did America learn from Prohibition?

That you can't legislate morality.

In other words, a society cannot simply make people adopt a code of moral behavior. Ethics cannot be rammed down somebody's throat. Sure, people may outwardly act in compliance with a law, but as long as their personal will runs counter to the law, people will seek out ways of getting around the punitive aspects of that law, like water looking to breach a dam.

Laws can set boundaries and assess punishments for infractions of those boundaries, but unless you get buy-in from the society at large, laws do not result in behavior that fundamentally improves the community as a whole.

Legislating Moral Marriage?

On the one hand, most people claim to accept this fact, yet many people of faith continue trying to hammer "square" pegs - literally - into round holes.

Take the gay marriage issue, for instance. Conservative religious leaders have lathered themselves into a dither over the prospect of legally recognizing unions between two homosexuals. Last week's court ruling in California appears to have been a victory for supporters of gay marriage rights. Liberals and conservatives both vow to take this issue all the way to the Supreme Court, setting the stage for another Prohibition-esque social experiment.

Because even though a majority of Americans oppose gay marriage, a lot of us don't seem to know why we oppose it. Gay marriage supporters claim it's because of homophobia, and if that were true, then their discrimination claims would actually have merit. I say there's something else.

The main reason Prohibition failed was because the law could not tell people how they wanted to act. If gay marriage is outlawed without a convincing reason, what does that say about our legal system?

The Biological Argument Against Gay Marriage

As with many hot-button issues, there is both a moral side and a practical side in the opposition to gay marriage. I'll get to the moral side in just a minute. But first, there are practical considerations about the purpose and value of marriage itself which need to be addressed.

Quite simply, marriage between two heterosexual people has been endorsed by governments since communities were first formed for the unromantic, utilitarian function of perpetuating a people group. Gay people aren't denied their civil rights when we acknowledge they can't procreate together. It's basic biology. Since gay unions can't perform this essential role in sustaining a community, then why should governments bestow the same recognition to gay unions that they do straight unions?

Sexual gratification is one thing, but governments don't exist to sanction personal pleasure. Heterosexual marriage represents an institution designed to serve society, and it has been deemed worthwhile enough to benefit from certain subsidies from civic authorities to help ease the burdens of raising families. One might argue historic aberrations to this conventional arrangement, or that not every hetero couple can procreate, but you can't deny the utter utility of heterosexual marriage.

True, modern medical advances now allow lesbians to give birth, but the simple biology of parents coming in a set - male and female - across species should speak volumes about gender diversity in parental units.

The Moral Argument Is A Bit Trickier

Morally, however, we have an entirely different kettle of fish. For decades now, the evangelical church has been preaching the sanctimony of marriage between a husband and wife, and apparently, people of faith have gotten so excited about marriage that they can't stop. We try marriage once, and then keep trying. Divorce and remarriage have become so prevalent within churches that our marriage, divorce, remarriage, and blended family rates virtually mirror those in the unchurched culture.

Believers of the Bible are taught that God intends marriage to be a covenant between Himself, a husband, and his wife. No matter what happens to us during the course of this covenant, nothing should be able to break it except death. God is perfect, and He will never die, so His part of the covenant is rock-solid. However, husbands and wives are neither perfect, and neither are their covenants. Still, the concept of marriage, particularly in Western societies, represents a component of the family structure, the building block of society. It has been adopted to legally represent the union of two heterosexuals for the civic purpose of procreation.

(At least our liberalized public schools don't yet include study modules on that topic in their social studies curriculum!)

We're Not Supporting Our Own Argument

However, just like the Israelites in the Old Testament, modern churched people have bought the same sex and feelings emphasis that we're accusing unchurched people of buying into. Sure, pleasure and emotions play vital roles in a committed love relationship, but the emphasis on such temporal marriage components reflects, I believe, the church's overall infatuation with secular culture and our regrettable acquiescence towards mortal impetuousness rather that divine reliance.

If we honestly believe that marriage represents a sacred covenant between a husband, his wife, and their God, then how can we excuse such high divorce rates in communities of faith?

If we honestly believe that marriage represents a sacred covenant between a husband, his wife, and their God, yet we tolerate such unholy divorce rates among people of faith, what message about marriage are we sending to the people we think are sinning with gay marriage?

If you're reading this and you've suffered a divorce, I apologize for the blunt language. I have a number of Christian friends who are divorced, and I sympathize with them over the agony they've suffered as their marriages have been destroyed. I look at the circumstances that have led them to the decisions they've made about divorce, and I wouldn't wish their pain on anyone. But each of these individual examples combine with others across the country, and before long, personal stories of tragedy are lost in the staggering data on divorce that paints such a dismal picture of failed marriages in communities of faith.

Courtroom Strategy

Although I personally believe that gay marriage flies in the face of all that is logical about the legal aspects of the institution, and that it cannot be compatible with the Biblical covenant, I also believe the evangelical church has only ourselves to blame for abdicating our stance on the holiness of marriage.

Without our ability to unequivocally demonstrate the virtue of the heterosexual marriage covenant, we can try to argue on moral grounds, but we shouldn't count on it. Don't even kindergartners see through the "Do as I say, not as I do" spiel? We would probably be better off taking the perpetuation-of-the-society angle instead.

To legislate against gay marriage, the courts are going to ask for proof. Unfortunately, our own morality on this issue may not suffice.

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Monday, August 9, 2010

In Whom Do We Trust?

Should an evangelical church encourage its parishioners to attend a class on "constitutional government and the promotion of freedom”?

My church has, and I’m not sure it’s a good idea. Right-wing politics oozes out of the assumption that studying one of our country's core documents is something churchgoers need to do.

Constitution of the Church?

Not that I'm against all right-wing politics. Shucks, some of my best friends attend church and are right-wingers. My church, Park Cities Presbyterian, boasts a highly-visible location bordering one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in one of the most conservative areas of Texas. While you don’t have to be a Republican to be a member of Park Cities Prez, a lot of church members think the two are synonymous.

True, conservative politics constantly lap at the shores of evangelical Christianity, but they virtually pound the beachheads at Park Cities Prez. In fact, I’m almost surprised somebody at my church thinks anybody's left in the pews who even needs to attend a class on the US Constitution!

Nevertheless, my church has seen fit to advertise a “Making of America” seminar by the National Center for Constitutional Studies.

All things considered, a seminar on the Constitution of the United States doesn’t rate among the worst things churchgoers could attend. Indeed, no matter the country they live in, people of faith have an obligation to be as active in civic life as they possibly can be. This means Americans, with our rich legacy of freedoms and living standards, actually risk being disobedient when we shirk opportunities to vote, run for office, and educate ourselves on issues in a non-partisan way.

Should Church-Goers Be Non-Partisan About the Constitution?

But it’s that non-partisan thing that’s throwing me on this seminar. The group sponsoring it, the National Center for Constitutional Studies, claims to be unaffiliated with any political party. However, its website’s homepage features an endorsement by right-wing talk show host Glenn Beck, who is not known for his bipartisan opinions. Among the books they sell on their site is “America’s God and Country” which features quotes equating references to Christian themes as salvific proofs. You already know what I think about the incessant need some conservative pundits have for practically cannonizing our Founding Fathers.

If the NCCS can conduct an impartial, balanced, and historically accurate seminar on the Constitution, I certainly can’t oppose it. But I still don’t think an evangelical American church has any business promoting such a class. That is not the purpose of Christ's body, neither does it glorify His divine sovereignty. Of all the wonderful things the Constitution is, it is neither doctrinal nor infallible. God did not author it. Granted, Presbyterians place great stock in the Westminster Confession and other creeds - documents written without divine inspiration - but at least our Reformed creeds and confessions employ proof texts from the Bible to qualify their theology.

Knowing what I know about Glenn Beck, too, doesn’t convince me that he would endorse an organization that doesn’t put a conservative political spin on something as important as the Constitution. Glenn Beck says many things I actually agree with, but he also pontificates a lot on issues he perceives through the narrow lens of WASP traditionalism. Pluralism isn't necessarily good, but neither is conventional neo-conservative ideology. Many Republicans today find considerable solace in what they believe to be the original intentions of America's early leaders, but what is the extent to which we replace our trust in the sovereign God of the universe with an idealized version of our country's past?

Liberals Aren't Uneducated, but Other-Opinioned

Not that left-wingers have a better grasp on our Founding Fathers’ intentions for the Constitution than conservatives. I believe Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, and the rest were flawed people with some good ideas and some really bad ones. But liberals want to be just as impertinent about core tenants of our history as conservatives are, only with different motives.

Indeed, this is the basic problem with our country’s growing debate over government and law. Even a well-meaning seminar on constitutional history can be subject to significant interpretation based on the instructor's political preferences. Conservatives such as the NCCS insinuate the reason our government faces a pending constitutional crisis is because their opponents don’t know our Constitution. But that’s not the problem, is it? Liberals aren't as ignorant of the Constitution as they are opposite of the interpretation conservatives espouse.

Having an electorate which is educated on what the Constitution says and doesn’t say could itself become a tug-of-war between conservatives and liberals, each of which thinks their interpretation is right and the other’s wrong. In this vein, I’m not sure how the NCCS can help, since by all appearances, they are at least right of center, if not veering far right. Objectivity has become a commodity in scarce supply these days, which while not negating the value in studying the Constitution, certainly redefines it.

A Global Perspective

Which brings us back to my original question. My church isn’t the only one promoting NCCS and studies of the Constitution. But should churches be doing that at all? How much is too much when it comes to churches getting involved in the political life of our country?

What about our global perspective as people of faith? After all, the Kingdom of God is far greater than the United States. While we have fundamental problems in our country, many of our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world would still love to trade places with us. Do communities of faith get too bogged-down in non-essentials when politics gets interwoven with doctrine?

If believers individually wish to attend events like a seminar on the Constitution, that's one thing. However, I don’t think churches should officially endorse them. The Gospel we’re supposed to be proclaiming is greater than our country and its Constitution. After all, Biblical freedom isn't so much about political freedom as it is freedom in Christ. Yes, a fine line does exist between teaching Christ’s expectations of His followers as national citizens and advocating particular political preferences. But isn't it a line we cross at our own risk?

The problems we have in the United States don't stem from a misunderstanding or misapplication of the Constitution; they stem from sin, don’t they? Presidents, judges, and legislatures who appear to be re-drawing the boundaries of our government’s three branches do so because of greed and lust for power. Friction between states and the Federal government take place because somebody wants what somebody else has. National borders aren’t protected because people bristle at laws. Take any negative headline from today’s newspaper and prove the root of the story doesn’t come from sin.

That doesn’t mean people of faith shouldn’t work for justice and peace, particularly here in America, where we have so many opportunities to do so. Learning more about our Constitution can be a good way of doing that, but applying what we know to be true from God’s Word is an even better way. Putting our faith into practice may involve learning about crucial documents related to our country's history, but more importantly, it means exercising the Fruits of the Spirit:

Love. Joy. Peace. Patience. Gentleness. Goodness. Meekness. Self-control.

How people interpret the Constitution helps explain our current national dialogue. How we demonstrate Christlikeness to people who interpret the Constitution differently than us would make a better seminar.

After all, God is our refuge, not George Washington.

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Friday, August 6, 2010

Bad Dad, China Spill, and Another Kagan

Make Room for Daddy's Vicarious Life

This week, 14-year-old Laura Dekker of the Netherlands has become the latest victim of parental abuse. Dekker's father, Richard, wants her to become the youngest person to sail around the world alone, as if that’s some sort of admirable achievement.

For a teenager to be able to survive a shipwreck is one thing, but doesn't a parent encouraging their teenager to unnecessarily attempt such a feat as crossing the globe in a boat solo represent an abrogation of parental responsibility? How is this less harmful than other forms of criminal behavior, like a leaving your kid in a hot car, or letting them drive without a license?

Dekker's mother did have some apprehension about the trip. Being divorced from her husband, she had taken out a guardianship order over her daughter which she allowed to be lifted only last week. Apparently, time is of the essence, because since Australian Jessica Watson, 16, just set the current record this past May, Dekker only has until 2012 to claim the title for herself.

As recently as this past June, Abby Sunderland was attempting the same feat as Dekker when her boat was damaged in a storm and she had to be rescued at sea. The French and Australians who saved her declined to press for repayment of the estimated $300,000 it cost to reunite her with her family. Sunderland's mother said they couldn't afford it anyway.

Hmm.

I am not an explorer, so maybe I can’t appreciate the thirst for danger and conquest that drives these uber-over-achieving parents. But I can’t escape my amazement that people who encourage such activity and risk for adolescents can be so foolhardy. Can’t they see they’re living vicariously through their pawn of a child?

What makes Dekker's trek even more absurd is that the Guinness Book of World Records has decided not to recognize such stunts anymore out of its own concerns for parental stupidity and child safety.

Greenpeace is Equal-Opportunity

In case right-wing conservatives have ever doubted that far-left-wing Greenpeace serves any useful purpose, recent news from China may help portray the environmentalist group in a different light.

While we’ve been dealing with our own oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, China has been trying to sweep a much smaller – yet potentially far more lethal – oil accident under the rug. Literally.

After an explosion and fire at a crude transfer station in the port city of Dalian, conflicting reports of the extent of the resulting oil slick into the Yellow Sea began to emerge, prompting Greenpeace experts to examine the incident. After their investigation, they produced a report last week which has been validated by independent experts and local citizens in Dalian – and has been refuted by the Chinese government, a sure sign of its accuracy.

In their report, Greenpeace alleges that as fires spread after the initial explosion at the transfer depot, a large oil tank was manually drained to reduce the risk of further catastrophe. You see, the fire could have reached another nearby tank holding a lethal mixture of the liquid chemical dimethylbenzene. Highly flammable and poisonous, dimethylbenzene is a component in some solvents which, if released into the atmosphere over Dalian’s six million inhabitants, could have killed thousands.

Although the Chinese managed to avert one disaster by saving the tank holding the dimethylbenzene, they let raw crude from the nearby tank they had drained flow down into the bay. Officially, the Chinese say only 11,000 barrels of oil were released, compared to the estimated five million barrels in the Gulf of Mexico. But the tank which had been drained could hold up to 365,000 barrels of crude. By comparison, Alaska's Exxon Valdez spill involved 270,000 barrels.

While the Chinese may be correct in assuming the tank they drained was almost empty anyway, Chinese fishermen up and down the coast near Dalian report having seen a massive oil slick up to two miles from shore. A lot of it is gone now along the shoreline, because as I said, the Chinese actually employed legions of locals to sop up the oil along the coast, using reed mats and rugs, along with socks stuffed with human hair (a method, surprisingly, BP claimed would be ineffective in the Gulf). Environmental experts have actually been stunned at the remarkable progress the Chinese have made in cleaning up their mess in such a short period of time.

Of course, the Chinese government being the Chinese government, a lot may never be known – 0r proven – regarding their recent oil spill. They may have been right all along, and the quick clean-up may be proof that only 11,000 barrels were released into the Yellow Sea, although even aerial surveillance of the area after the accident showed otherwise.

But can’t Greenpeace at least be credited for giving both capitalists and communists an equal run for their money?

Liberal Teachers Perpetuating Myths

And a familiar name in the news this week has been Elena Kagan's, having won her nomination to the Supreme Court yesterday along mostly partisan lines. But Kagan isn't the only newsworthy celebrity from her family, at least not in their hometown of New York City.

Her brother, Irving Kagan, is a teacher at Hunter College High School in Manhattan, a highly-ranked school for intellectually gifted pupils, and of which his sister, Elena, is an alumnus. Teachers there have been fighting with school administrators at Hunter College and the City University of New York, both of which control the high school (yes, don't get me started on NYC bureaucracies), regarding what they perceive as a student admissions process which is biased against blacks and Hispanics.

Specifically, the admissions process at HCHS consists of one exam which measures language and math proficiency, which the teachers believe prohibits a consideration of other criteria, such as artistic aptitude and social skills. They point to falling percentages of enrolled blacks and Hispanics as proof that the test only benefits kids from, well, families and environments where education and achievement are stressed.

Hmmm.... Isn't that supposed to be the target group of schools for academically-gifted students?

Anyway, Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan's brother, Irving, has been somewhat of a pot-stirring ringleader among the teachers, even going so far as to read aloud a letter of no-confidence written by a group of teachers to one of their administrators in her office. The whole thing has gotten tongues wagging in the rare air of prestigious academia.

Not that I personally have any problem with teachers expressing righteous indignation at real problems in their school. But unless I'm missing something, aren't Irving Kagan and his fellow instructors still living in the Dark Ages of Affirmative Action?

True, most of the student body at HCHS is Asian and Caucasian, but does that mean the entrance exam is biased against blacks and Hispanics? Have these teachers ever heard of the term "spurious relationships"? Just because two facts may look like they're correlated doesn't mean they are. If the whole point of the school's existence is to foster the educational potential of intellectually-gifted New York City high school students, then maybe having a dearth of blacks and Hispanics should be telling people that there's a disconnect not with the ADMISSIONS process but the way blacks and Hispanics, in general, are raising their children.

Re-defining the admissions process to evaluate qualifications which have less and less to do with intellect hardly sounds like a viable way to maintain school standards which, in turn, help their students become successful adults. Does coddling kids in high school create high-functioning college students and college graduates?

To their credit, administrators at Hunter College have held their ground on admissions standards. And few people are surprised to hear that the illustriously liberal Kagan family has more than one leftward-marching progeny.

But in this day and age - when so many studies and educated minorities now recognize that it's not the standards that are wrong, or even a person's skin color, but the way some people raise their kids - it seems almost laughable that a cloistered group of educators in one of the country's most elite high schools is doing the very thing they're always accusing their conservative antagonists of doing:

Playing the race card.
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