Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Busting Filibuster Busts Texas GOP

Embarrassing.

Today, it is an embarrassment to be a pro-life advocate in Texas.

As Republican pundits begin their bitter post-mortems of last night's stunning defeat of their ambitious pro-life legislation in the Texas Senate, liberals continue celebrating their boisterous victory and the birth of two potential stars in the state's Democratic Party.

Wendy Davis, a Democrat from Fort Worth, was supposed to filibuster Senate Bill 5 for approximately 13 hours Tuesday and force Republican governor Rick Perry to call a second special session.  Texas Republican senators had all the votes they needed on SB 5 to pass it handily, including the vote of lone Democrat Eddie Lucio from far south Texas, what we call "The Valley," near the border with heavily Catholic Mexico.

Liberals, however, angry about the bill's provisions that would, among other things, reduce the timeframe of legal abortions by two weeks, and close most abortion clinics in the state, wanted to use the parliamentary procedure of a filibuster to kill the bill.  As it happened, the Texas legislature was already in a special session called by Perry, and if SB 5 died as a result of the Democrats' filibuster, he would be forced to call a second special session to get it passed.

However, as it happened, it wasn't the Democrats who killed SB 5 and it's pro-life measures, but Republicans themselves.  How embarrassing.

Filly Blustering

The rules for a Texas filibuster are pretty straightforward.  The filibuster is a rudimentary delay tactic in which a member of the opposition gives a speech of sorts to simply eat up time.  The person giving the filibuster has to speak on-topic and without breaks for however long it takes.  They have to stand unaided the whole time, without eating, going to the restroom, or leaning against anything or anyone.  I've read where some people preparing to give a filibuster actually fit themselves, underneath their clothing, with spacesuit-type bags into which they can discretely eliminate their body waste.  Depending on how long the filibuster has to be to accomplish its purpose, it can be a physically, mentally, and emotionally grueling process.

Senator Davis started her filibuster yesterday after 11:00am, wearing a white suit and comfy pink sneakers.  I watched for a little bit in the morning, and she spoke slowly and deliberately, as if she wasn't sure if she had enough material to last all 13 hours.  It was all partisan rhetoric about her version of women's rights, without any acknowledgement about the life that was being denied any rights whatsoever inside its mother's womb.

"OK, so she's not going to break any new ground with this speech," I figured, and I then went about my day, only briefly wondering how many of Davis' fellow senators stayed in the chamber to listen to her drone away.

So... that was me being stupid.  Of course, as we now know, Republican senators were listening to her every word.  Not because they found her filibuster interesting or compelling, but because they were checking to make sure she stayed on-topic.  In a Texas filibuster, you have three strikes and then you're out.  And Republicans were picking over virtually every word Davis spoke to find any instances where she broke the rules of the filibuster and could rack up a strike.

Republicans called strike one when Davis referenced federal court decisions regarding abortion, saying it was nongermane to Texas legislation (we're strong on states rights here, remember?).  Frankly, I think that's splitting hairs a bit too finely, since we all know that the whole reason Texas Republicans are pushing SB 5 is because it's their only recourse against the federal implications of Roe v. Wade.

Strike two came when a senator from Dallas, Royce West, helped Davis put on a back brace.  That was a legitimate strike, even though Republicans have caught grief for appearing to otherwise wish ill health upon a colleague.  If Davis has a bad back, she should have put on a back brace before she began, like she put on athletic shoes.  Considering how narrowly Republicans had already proven they were parsing the filibuster rules, Democrats were foolish to try and get away with the back brace thing.

And sure enough, Republicans called strike three when Davis began talking about sonograms and other pro-life laws that had been passed that "restricted" women's rights to kill their unborn babies without seeing them first.  Republicans wanted that ruled nongermane.  Now, I'm pro-life, but I can't see how referencing sonograms - a medical procedure that could be included in the impact of closing clinics providing abortions, as mandated by SB 5 - is getting off-topic.

Rule the Day

At that point, Democrats were clearly frustrated and angry.  They began a series of stalling tactics by calling procedural points, pulling out their personal copies of the Senate's rule book, stumbling over page numbers, editors notes, and generally acting like few of them had ever looked through those books before.  But they saw their chance at picking up the baton where Republicans had tried to wrest it from Davis, and they ran with it.  All the way through the midnight hour, which, at that point, was all but drowned out by the raucous cheers from a defiantly pro-choice gallery of hecklers.

It was theater of the absurd, long before the cheering, with Senator West, from Dallas, calling a point of order on a point of order, or something like that - nobody really knew.  He was definitely stalling, beating senatorial procedures to death with claiming to want a ruling on something he couldn't explain himself.  Obviously agitated, the Senate's president began to simply meander his own way through rulings, eliciting more furor from his Democratic colleagues.  One of those colleagues was Leticia Van De Putte, who began insisting that the Senate's president was ignoring her.

"At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over her male colleagues?” she finally demanded.  It was all the gallery needed to hear.  That's when they erupted into a sustained cheer that carried the session all the way past midnight - about 10 minutes worth of applause, catcalling, whistling, chanting, and general mayhem.

Senators on the floor were clearly caught off-guard.  The Senate president tried to do a roll-call vote, but the cacophony from pro-choicers in the gallery drowned it out.  Finally, a little after midnight, the gallery had been cleared, and silent decorum had returned to the chamber, but it was too late.  A couple of hours later, early this morning, beleaguered Republicans admitted their bill had been defeated.

Most Republicans are angry that an "Occupy Wall Street" mob could so severely disrupt an official business meeting of elected representatives in such a bizarre way.  And I did wonder myself - I watched the last hour and a half live online - why they didn't simply clear the gallery when the protesters obviously were not going to follow the rules.  I've heard some pundits say that the gallery holds a couple of hundred people in a balcony-type setting that is not quickly evacuated, and there were hundreds more protesters on both sides of the debate clogging hallways throughout the Capitol building last night, which was probably giving the fire marshal fits.  Which would have been worse:  allowing the protesters to continue their chants, or sending riot police into the gallery to forcibly remove them?

No, had Republicans wanted the proceedings to continue with integrity, they would have let Davis plod on with her rhetoric-drenched diatribe, even if it meant she would obtain a modest degree of temporary fame as the big-haired Texan who stole a vote by harping on a subject for 13 hours straight.  Republicans were right in calling a strike on the back brace, but the two other strikes they called were illegitimate and downright petty pig-headedness.  Their vitriol against abortion was not confined to the idea of fetal murder, nor was it mindful of the women who've been duped by sadistic propaganda into considering it a morally-viable option.  Through their small-minded machinations of their interpretations of the rules, Republicans betrayed their disdain for Davis, and were so cavalier in the process that they ended up giving Democrats the starring role in what otherwise would have been a legislative yawner.

We've now got a likely second special session, one that would have happened anyway if Davis had been successful in her filibuster.  And, in a way, she was.  And not only her, but Senator Van De Putte, somebody nobody outside of Texas had ever heard of before, and probably not even many Texans.

Republican senators have nobody to blame but themselves and their thinly-veiled malice.

Might Right's Might Right Might?

I've never been able to understand how conservatives in general - and evangelicals in particular, many of whom are livid at what they see as mob rule by the pro-choice lobby last night - can justify their self-righteous swagger.  After all, their own self-righteous swagger was what led to the Republican's defeat on the floor of the Texas Senate.  I suspect the idea that being right equates to might has something to do with this swagger, but isn't there a difference between being confident in your beliefs yet being considerate towards your opposition?  How might conservatives have howled if the tables had been turned?

Remember, I found no pleasure in watching last night's debate unravel into dysfunction.  Republicans - and Democratic Senator Lucio - have the moral obligation in attempting to protect the unborn, and I expect this bill to pass easily should the governor call another special session.  But what Biblical model can pro-lifers reference to hold such animosity towards pro-choicers like Davis?

When considering the life of Christ, when is the one time we see Him lash out in any form of demonstrable anger?  It was the time He saw His Father's house being mocked, correct?  He never held hostility towards rapists, or robbers, or deceitful politicians, even though all of those people must have existed during His time on Earth.  If you could see Jesus calling a point of order on Senator Davis referencing sonograms during her filibuster last night, or blaming unruly crowds in the gallery for SB 5's languishment, then do you have an accurate estimation of His temperament?

As I've been writing this out today, the Supreme Court has bedazzled the media with two highly-anticipated rulings* regarding gay marriage that will likely bump Davis' and Van De Putte's victory way down the list of headline news.  Texas conservatives will lick their self-inflicted wounds and, in all likelihood, come back to pass their sweeping pro-life legislation.  But just like abortion, gay marriage represents an area where we evangelicals have a grand opportunity to demonstrate Godly integrity and holiness.  And we need to remember that the ends don't justify the means.

Swaggering into a debate to claim our stake in its outcome can be fraught with our own self-made pitfalls.
_____

Update:  Governor Perry has called for a second special session to begin on July 1.

*As we all continue to digest today's Supreme Court rulings, here are a few facts to consider from the Gospel Coalition.



Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Finding Fault With Gang of 8 Compromise

The great American civics lesson proclaims the excellencies of bills becoming laws.

Reality has proven to be far less regal.

Witness the extraordinarily contentious debate roiling Washington over Capitol Hill's latest venture into immigration reform.  What began with ossified partisan rhetoric flanking two disparate sides of the debate over illegal immigration has somehow squeezed through the Gang of Eight's meat grinder of consensus-searching to a vote in the Senate yesterday that, well, didn't resolve anything.

Granted, our elected representatives in Washington take votes all the time that don't mean anything.  But yesterday's vote on the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act represented a procedural exercise designed to determine if the measure has any chance of surviving a full-blown vote for the record.

Apparently, if the bill's overwhelming affirmation yesterday holds, it has a clear chance of passing the Senate for real later this week.  At 67-27, it wasn't even close.  The vote might have been even more lopsided if several senators, flying into Washington for the vote, weren't delayed by bad weather.

Whether the American public will like what gets passed, however, is still unknown.  It's an incredibly expensive bill, projected to cost taxpayers approximately $46 billion, mostly for border security, including new helicopters, vision technology, and the hiring of a whopping 20,000 border agents.  At a time when Republicans are trying to hammer away at rampant government spending and billowing deficits, this chunk of change will hit taxpayer wallets hard.  Ironically, however, all of that money was thrown into the pot by liberal New Yorker Charles Schumer, not as Democratic pork, but as a sweetener to woo security-crazy conservatives.  Liberals are actually mad at Schumer for spending that much money.

Frankly, even though I'm an advocate for bipartisanship, and have been willing to wait and see what the Gang of Eight could come up with, I'm not crazy about fences, helicopters, and the sort of back-door amnesty this bill provides.  We already know fences don't work because of the sophisticated tunnel networks we've uncovered as most of the border sits wide open.  We know helicopters don't work because we can all hear them coming from a couple of miles away.  Plus - and I'm no expert, obviously - couldn't their rotor blades blow up enough sand - remember, the border is arid desert - to interfere with patrol agents wielding guns?  And can technology really ever create the type of virtual border fence that we've already spent $1 billion to develop, with absurdly dismal results?  Yes, technology likely has advanced significantly since the Bush-era project was scrapped two years ago, but instead of trying to fortify our borders, with bricks and mortar or digital surveillance, why not try to keep people out in more effective ways?

I've already advocated that the best way to control illegal immigration is to crack down on employers who intentionally hire illegals.  Border patrols, jail time, splitting up families, and deportations haven't worked well, and, as some human rights activists claim, may actually force illegals further underground to avoid detection, which also compromises their safety.  If Washington would reduce the demand for workers willing to break the law by working for employers willing to break the law, we'd be well on our way to the "organic repatriation" about which I've written before on this blog.  No extra money for fences, border patrol agents, or government bureaucrats shuffling more amnesty paperwork.  Reduce the incentives for employers to treat their workers like chattel and illegals already in this country will return to their homes, and few people will want to come here illegally.

We also need to restructure our guest-worker program to help support industries with short, defined, high-production periods.  Corporate America wants a way to reassure highly-trained foreign workers that they can come here without fear of being deported like a fence-jumper.  And we need to figure out a way to preserve the dignity of people born here as anchor babies of parents who've willfully broken the law to try and secure American benefits without proper naturalization.

So far, the Gang of Eight has managed to cobble together agreements for constructing a new employee verification system, but that will only work for employers that likely are already trying to abide by the law, not employers who want to pay below-market wages under the table.  There's also a visa tracking program included in the Senate's bill to help flag people who've overstayed their welcome, but how does that protect anybody if those people with expired visas never fly?

Maybe the Senate feels so gung-ho on their Gang of Eight's compromise because it looks to the American public like they're actually getting something done, but they know that, in the end, the Republican-dominated House of Representatives won't play along.  Senators figure they can safely throw nearly $50 billion at the problem of illegal immigration and then point fingers when it all crashes and burns on the floor of the House.  After all, it doesn't currently appear as though there's much in the Senate's bill that appeals to a majority of anybody on the other side of the Capitol.

And there's more.  No matter what happens in either the Senate or the House on the Gang of Eight's efforts on illegal immigration, the elephant in the room isn't amnesty, or visas, or guest worker programs.  It's illegal drugs, and the seemingly insatiable demand for the stuff on our side of the border.

Even if Washington had an epiphany and realized that my idea for organic repatriation is a wonderful solution, and illegal immigrants continued their self-initiated return to their home countries - after all, illegal immigration is said to be in decline as our Great Recession drags on and unemployment here remains high - we'd still have drug runners, human traffickers who employ "mules" to deliver their cargoes of narcotics, and the gristly drug gangs running wildly popular cartels that have virtually rendered the Mexican side of our border a lawless wasteland.  Officials in countries like Mexico consider the animosity many American display against illegals as spilt milk compared with the social, political, and economic strife our thirst for narcotics has wreaked on their countries.

Run-of-the-mill illegals may be lawbreakers, but they pose little mortal danger to legal Americans with whom they come in contact here.  Employees of the cartels, however, are ruthless killers, defiant not only of laws, but basic human dignity.  Again, the drug trade is a problem of supply and demand, just like the illegal immigration problem is.  Unfortunately, the drug abuse problem in the United States is more of a moral problem than a legal one, since it's a lot harder to make people obey laws when they're desperate for their narcotic fix than it is employers who only flaunt the law when there are no severe economic penalties for doing so.

Ironic, isn't it, that exploitation is at the root of both of these problems?  Drug runners exploit the need Americans have for using narcotics to dull the pain in their lives, while American employers exploit the desire illegals have to work for a pittance so they can, in turn, earn a greater profit on what they consider "unskilled labor."  Meanwhile, angry right-wing blowhards like Laura Ingram are screeching today about how moderate Republicans and their efforts towards the Senate's compromise immigration bill are "killing" the GOP.  She and other conservative talking heads like scoring points by making illegals the star villains in this saga.

Kinda like how we forget to blame our fellow Americans for the illicit drug trade.

Unfortunately, the unsung villains may just be those of us in our society who like to exploit others.


Monday, June 24, 2013

Maturity Issues Mar Snowden Spree

"Immature."

It's the term that keeps popping up in my mind as I continue reading about Edward Snowden, the rogue Booz Allen techie who's become the world-famous NSA informant.

At this precise moment, it's believed that Snowden is on the run somewhere in Russia, having fled his initial sanctuary city, Hong Kong, yesterday.  Ever since he outed himself as the courageous American who was outraged by the extent of spying his government is perpetrating on its citizens, and apparently, as we're learning, even years before this, his has been a world of intrigue and, frankly, immaturity.

He dropped out of high school, never earned an undergraduate degree, and only took a few online courses for a Masters degree.  He did finally attain a GED after taking classes at a community college.  He frequented online forums for computer hackers and gamers, people not known for conventional displays of tenacity and wisdom.  The one girlfriend of his whose identity we've learned, Lindsay Mills, looks and sounds like a lovely person, but if online ramblings attributed to her on Facebook are any guide, she's got her own issues with reality.

For his 30th birthday, which he celebrated this past weekend in Hong Kong, his dinner consisted of pizza and fried chicken - not exactly the menu of somebody either aware of or interested in the gastronomic delights undoubtedly available to him in one of the world's wealthiest cities, where he's been lauded as a hero.

Then there's this whole three-month stint as a contractor for the NSA, the extent of information to which he had access, and the degree of complexity his employers expected of him.  Techies like Snowden learn on the fly, and learn quickly, and no officials have denied the general nature of his allegations, so what he's told the world likely is fairly accurate, but three months?  Maybe that says more negative things about Booz Allen and their management of new hires than it does the quality of Snowden's information, but it would be far more credible - even for the politicians on both sides of the aisle who adamantly defend such rampant government snooping -  if he was more mature about the situation.

After all, there's a difference between intelligence and wisdom.

Aren't there better ways of devising one's response and executing it than blabbing to the press and running to Communistic countries?  So far, he's more of an enigma than anything else, with accounts of his work, lifestyle, and days on the lam coming to us via third person accounts or video taped for clandestine purposes.  Some people have wondered out loud if Edward Snowden actually exists, or if his name is a pseudonym for a group of hackers or other malcontents.  Indeed, there's a lot of loose space in Snowden's story for conspiracy theorists to poke deflating holes in its credibility.  If he would stop running, surrender to authorities, and let the federal government, in their angst and fury, lend official gravity to these proceedings they've launched against him, wouldn't his case receive instant validation?  Isn't that what he's ultimately hoping for?

He's run away from his gorgeous girlfriend, Hawaii, his family, and even the country he professes to love, almost like a kid who's tracked mud in the house and then freaks out when he can't figure out how to clean up his mess before mom sees it.  His escape plan was rudimentary at best, and has been sustained solely on the anti-American bias that flourishes outside of our country.

Personally, I'd like for Snowden to get a good lawyer and negotiate terms for him relinquishing himself safely to America authorities.  I'd like the charges of treason to be dropped, and if they're not dropped, that Congress disband the NSA for its own undermining of the United States Constitution.  Regardless of the remaining charges against him, Snowden should obtain an open trial with live cameras in the courtroom during which exhaustive evidence in his defense can be presented and vetted.  And if he's found guilty of the charges against him - which I assume would involve the illegal way he dealt with classified information - his punishment should be vacated by the President for a lifetime's probation.  I would think any president would prefer to show leniency to somebody like Snowden than incite a planet full of computer hackers against his country.

Not that Snowden hasn't done anything wrong, or that he shouldn't be punished for it in some way.  There are legitimate areas of classified intelligence that our sovereign nation needs to protect, and setting a precedent by completely exonerating Snowden could wreak havoc on our ability to protect that intelligence.  And Snowden himself has seemed to be resigned that at some point, he broke the law, and at some point, he's going to have to face the legal consequences.  Apparently, he's simply scared that the feds want to kill him for what he did.  Which may not be the most immature of his actions to date, but the very possibility of its validity should have scared him into better plotting how to reveal what he thought needed to be revealed.

As it is, we've got a 30-year-old kid running around the planet leaving muddy diplomatic footprints wherever he goes.  Granted, he may have been trying to scare away a burglar at his home, or chase the family dog that got loose from its collar, but there are ways mature people do these things.

And the less mature you are when doing them, the less credibility you'll have retained if and when you ultimately get caught.

Having said all of that, however, and if our government has no intentions of treating Snowden with the respect and humanity towards which he's entitled as "innocent until proven guilty," I couldn't completely fault his efforts at self-preservation.  After all, he may have broken the law, but according to his allegations, our government is undermining it.

In a way, that's maturity gone berserk.





Friday, June 21, 2013

Another Pro-Choice Call Fails Integrity Test

I am a man.

And because I am a man, I will never give birth.

Not to another human being, anyway.

It is widely believed that we men have no voice in the abortion debate, unless it's a voice that further deprives the unborn of theirs.  And to a certain extent, I respect the fact that as a male, I will never understand the emotions and psychsosematic dynamics that take place in a woman who is pregnant.  So I confine my public dialog on the subject to facts and logic, and let the multitudes of women who are confidently pro-life address the more nuanced arguments of pro-choicers.

For example, I didn't even bother to address on my blog the Congressional skirmish this week over the House of Representative's vote to make abortion illegal after the 22nd week.  The House vote is impotent, since the Senate will not go along with it, and it's based on flawed science and goofy logic about when a fetus can experience pain.  Texas Republican Michael Burgess went so far as to embarrass his entire state by claiming that as a professional OB/GYN, he's witnessed male fetuses masturbate.

Talk about lending credibility to a serious argument!  I'm just relieved somebody hasn't taken Burgess' fallacy to its illogical conclusion by extrapolating it to mean that men are sexually uncontrollable.

This is a serious debate, people.  And it's a debate about people, not concepts or romanticized ideals about life or the marvel of human pregnancy.

Which brings me back to having a logical voice in the abortion debate, and specifically, my incredulous reaction to an op-ed in today's New York Times by Judy Nicastro, who writes about what she considers to be her brave decision to abort a son at his 23rd week.  Her opinions were intended to bolster support for the call by liberals to squelch continued tinkering with the timeframes within which abortion is legal.  But with all due respect to the agony she professes to have had over her decision, her story drips with the same problematic hubris as Burgess' masturbation theory.

For one thing, Nicastro starts off her piece by attempting to compare good parenting to being pro-choice.  "I believe parenthood starts before conception, at the moment you decide you want a child," she rhapsodizes, as if pro-life advocates would hoot in disdain at the thought.  If she really wanted to match her preaching to her audience, Nicastro should be patronizing the urban men scrounging their hoods for "baby mammas" instead of Times readers who likely ration their flings with unprotected sex like they do swigs of soda.

Then she tells us she served on Seattle's city council.  For whatever that's worth.  It just kinda seems to hang there at the beginning of her article, as if her stint in public service contributed to the horror story coming next.  She then got married, and had one child in a process that apparently was completely healthy and uncomplicated.

Two years later, she became pregnant again, but with twins this time.  A boy and a girl!  Unfortunately, during their 20th week, during her ultrasound, a heart defect in the boy was detected, which led to a diagnosis of a herniated diaphragm, which meant that his chest's organs were not developing properly.  He had a hole in his diaphragm, only one lung chamber had formed, and it was only 20% of what it should have been at the time.  He would be on multiple life support machines for an undetermined period of time after birth, and who knew how many other complications there would be.

By this point, after all of the additional test and consultations, Nicastro and her husband had one week to make a decision to abort, since in Washington state, abortions are illegal after the 24th week. 

"The thought of hearing him gasp for air and linger in pain was our nightmare," Nicastro recounts, depicting a scenario that would scare any parent.  But then she assuages her fears by rationalizing the killing of her son the next day.  "We made sure our son was not born only to suffer," she plaintively writes.  "He died in a warm and loving place, inside me."

Except that her son, had he been born with the fullness of these debilitating conditions - or worse, would not have been born "only to suffer."  Is life all about pleasure, ease, and comfort?  Would the Nicastro family not have been a warm and loving environment for him?

Nicastro admits that they took a steep risk in permitting a procedure that could also have killed their healthy daughter.  Which begs the question:  so, they were willing to kill both of their unborn children because one of them had health issues?  What kind of parenthood is that?

"My little boy partially dissolved into me," Nicastro romanticizes of her abortion, "and I like to think his soul is in his sister."

And what is his sister going to think when she learns that she could have died in Nicastro's womb, right next to her twin brother?

To a certain extent, Nicastro's story is a public account of a private family tragedy.  Even if they'd allowed their son to live, and he was born with the problems their doctors diagnosed, we all would likely call the situation "tragic," because we wouldn't wish such conditions on anybody.  Read through Nicastro's op-ed quickly, and in the blur of emotions and descriptions of peril, even the staunchest pro-lifer might feel pangs of remorse over the incomprehensible health trials God allows His creation to endure.

I understand how, to pro-choicers, my logic gets murky here.

Some would say that just as it strikes them as unfair for God to allow fetuses to develop such awful conditions, it's unfair for pro-lifers to buttress our animosity towards abortion based on faith in a God Who can use all things for His glory and our good.  Because that's what we pro-life Christ-followers would say, isn't it?  Somehow, had this little boy lived, and was forced to endure such hardships, we would find some comfort and purpose in God's mysterious plans for such hardships.

People who don't share our faith, however, won't share our optimism over life's extreme pains.  This is a major part of the pro-life debate that simply can't be explained or rationalized to people who do not share our faith in Christ.  And while this reality is something we believers in Christ cannot accept, it's something we need to respect.  We need to model the compassion of Christ, particularly in our public dialog on these types of conversations, even as we pray the the Holy Spirit can use us despite our inadequacies.

In a way, it's kinda like how we'd have prayed for that little boy and his parents, if he'd been allowed to be born despite whatever physical obstacles were before them.

Frankly, though, if liberal outlets like the Times wants to posit stronger anecdotal challenges to our faith response to medical complications during pregnancies, they need to find more compelling stories than Nicastro's.  She was over 40 when she conceived her first child, and all of her pregnancies relied upon in vitro fertilization.  Now, I have friends who were in a similar situation, but frankly, they are adamantly pro-life, and were staunchly committed to bringing into the world whatever their pregnancies produced.  For parents who are not willing to take both the risks and rewards of such a biological gamble, what merit can be found in their stories of aborting deformed fetuses?

Call me cold-hearted and cruel if you like, but just as Nicastro's somber story attempts to put a personal face on late-term abortion, it also explains how parenthood really requires more blatant integrity than what she attempts to portray in her opening paragraph.

The fact that her second son is now in Heaven with his Creator is the only affirmative persuasion I get from her misguided advocacy.


Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Too Much to Too Few on Gay Marriage?

Well, here's another one.

Another well-written article arguing the perils of gay marriage.

This one's by Matthew Franck, writing for the Witherspoon Institute, a social ethics think tank of a politically conservative persuasion.  Entitled "Same Sex Marriage and Religious Freedom, Fundamentally at Odds," it furthers the case against gay marriage by discussing how a government's embrace of concepts at fundamental odds with religions of various kinds - after all, this isn't an exclusively Christian dilemma - can actually weaken the ability of those religions to function for the good of society.

Assuming, of course, that people can see how religions function for the good of society.  In his article, Franck acknowledges the distressing likelihood that advocates for gay marriage have every intention of scraping religion in general - and Christianity in particular - from America's social framework.

Franck's is a good article, despite its annoyingly academic grammar, which actually may be doing his argument a disservice.  After all, he hardly has to convince most of his readers, who likely are equally disturbed as he is about encroachments on religious liberties in the United States.  His argument has already begun to see its fulfillment in our nation's abortion debate, including the morning-after pill and other contraceptive mandates, particularly in Obamacare.  And to the extent that we Americans have been able to watch how the gay marriage movement in Canada has begun to have punitive effects on religion there, prudence says it may be only a matter of time before we start seeing similar problems here.  While technically, professional religious leaders can refuse to marry gay couples in Canada, government officials authorized to perform civil ceremonies cannot.

Certainly, there is nothing wrong with reminding ourselves about what's right, wrong, and perilous.  It's not that Franck and the many other writers who've been churning out volumes of articles against gay marriage over these past few years aren't helping to preserve the sanctity of marriage.  And it's certainly possible that the Holy Spirit can use this groundswell of affirmation for heterosexual marriage to preserve the institution for our good and His glory.

Yet how much of this dialog, consternation, preaching, angst, theological pontificating, advocating, and writing is actually being consumed by the people who can help change the course of our marriage debate?  Are political conservatives going to be swayed more by conservative religious doctrine or by poll numbers?  Are business leaders going to be swayed more by theology than profitability?  Are voters going to be swayed more by esoteric morality than personal hubris?

Just today, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska became the third Republican senator to announce their support for gay marriage, news that barely elicited any notice from the nation's media machine, including Fox News, which this afternoon, has no mention of it anywhere on their website's home page.  But Fox has space for a feature entitled "Stars First Nude Scenes."

And there's the rub.

When it comes to gay marriage, the task of convincing the American people of its dangers is being undertaken by a segment of our society with precious little credibility when it comes to morality:  right-wing conservatives.  Right-wing Catholics have their pedophile priests, Mormons have their polygamy baggage, and evangelicals have disturbingly high divorce rates.  And we're all known to enjoy a little winky-winky, hey-hey gander at immodest TV shows, movies, and websites that have little to do with the sanctity of marriage.

"Sanctity of marriage!"  No wonder that, to increasing numbers of Americans, the very phrase reeks of sanctimony, instead of sanctity.

So, do we give up, and let the tidal wave of marriage desecration sweep over our country?  Well, actually, if you look at the divorce statistics among churched Americans, some would say it's already happened.  Gay marriage would simply be the proverbial nail in the coffin.

Some knee-jerk Christians reflexively blame homosexuals for bringing this crisis to marriage, but how easy would it be for anybody to attempt a wholesale deconstruction of the institution if it wasn't already on shaky ground through the ambivalence of those who should have been its guardians?

No, we don't give up on protecting the sanctity God intends for marriage to have.  But if we're not confessing the ways in which our own sins have contributed to this path our country is now skipping merrily along, how realistic should we be that our own hearts are in the place God wants them to be for His name to be glorified through the union of two people - male and female, as He created them?


Tuesday, June 18, 2013

When Working is a Job

I'm not an economist.

But sometimes I play one on the Internet.

Wow - can you believe a whole generation of Internet users probably doesn't understand that attempt at humor?  People my generation and older will remember the commercials that were popular about 20 years ago when an actor who portrayed a doctor on some TV show would be hired by a company to sell their product.  And the actor would introduce himself - they were always men (only men could be doctors back then) - and say, "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on television, and I recommend..."

It was a way to get around the issues of medical ethics and advertising legalese so a famous face could endorse a product.  As if people in televisionland needed to be told that, in reality, that actor really is no medical doctor.  Which kinda ruined the whole credibility issue for the product, if a real doctor wouldn't endorse the product, and a fake one needed to be brought in.  But advertisers were hoping their audience wasn't that analytical.  They needed the famous face - most real doctors look nothing like TV doctors.

So work with me here, because even though I'm not a specialist in the field I'm about to discuss, I like to think that there is some value in me discussing it anyway.  And the field is economics, and in particular, the stubbornly high unemployment rate.

I'm not going to get into numbers, because whether they're up or down a fraction of a percentage point is, well, beside the point.  We all know that a lot of jobs were wiped out during our Great Recession, and that technology has been taking jobs away from human beings for years now.  College students are graduating and finding an exceptionally tight job market, and even those who get jobs are simply joining a national workforce whose wages have been relatively stagnant relative to the cost of living for decades.

Then there are the untold numbers of people who have jobs but are "under-employed," meaning they have skills and training that exceed the job they've been able to find.  This reality contributes to large numbers of workers who profess extreme dissatisfaction with their job, their supervisors, their co-workers, and their chances for advancement.

It all paints a pretty dour picture of the great American workforce, doesn't it?

Meanwhile, a growing chorus of human resource managers, manufacturing executives, and technology entrepreneurs are complaining that they have jobs going unfilled because they can't find qualified workers to hire.  Despite having one of the best-educated workforces in our country's history, some say the labor pool is ill-equipped to do the work that's needed in our modern economy.  If colleges would teach people real-world skills, if college students would drop their air of entitlement during job interviews, if middle-aged job seekers would give up on their expectations for being paid for their experience, then our modern workplaces would have the people they need to start humming again.

Of course, the push-back from job seekers has been vociferous:  companies are obviously not interested in training people anymore.  Companies don't want their employees to have "careers" with them; they simply want an automaton who can perform a certain function for a certain period of time, and that's it.  Careers - and human beings in general - are expensive and time-consuming from a company's perspective.  When you're competing with people half a world away who are willing to work for a fraction of what Americans want, your staffing must be nimble and thrifty, not ossified and tenured.

To a certain extent, our brave new world of globalization is both a blessing and a curse.  Even though they risk a brief spate of negative publicity, American companies can ditch legacy employees and their related costs through blunt layoffs for fewer, cheaper workers in parts of the world that haven't yet come to expect full heathcare coverage and PTO.  Hopefully, by the time these foreign workers figure out what their American forbears were earning and receiving in benefits, the technology will exist for companies to then fire them, too.

In the void that is being created between all of the layoffs, jobs employers can't fill because they don't want to train anybody, and offshoring, some business experts scoff at those of us complaining about the situation by saying that we shouldn't just wallow in self-pity.  We should go out there and create our own companies!  Whatever happened to that great entrepreneurial zeal that made America great, they wonder?  Don't blame somebody else for your sad economic lot in life!  Be the change you want to see in your job situation!

Which, of course, would make perfect sense... if we lived in a perfect world.  Trouble is, not everybody can come up with a legal money-making idea that nobody else has ever thought of.  Nor can everybody come up with the financing to get their idea off the ground, even if they could come up with one.  And then, if everybody was running around, dreaming up their own enterprises, who would actually create the product whose idea you've dreamed up?

It's fallacious to suggest that today's employment problems can be predominantly solved by entrepreneurialism.  But that's not to say that creative minds shouldn't be suppressed, particularly during economic downturns.  Indeed, the technology incubators that are thriving in Silicon Valley, Washington state, New York City's Flatiron District, and metropolitan Boston stand as testament to the power of ideas and imagination, even if it is mostly digital, and likely to reinforce technology's two-faced stranglehold on our planet.  One of the faces is efficiency, while the other one is alienation.

Then, I look around my circle of friends and acquaintances whom I've known for the past thirty years or so, and while some of them have become quite prosperous and influential, it seems that many more of us are losing ground in terms of our standard of living.  Are we more prosperous and influential than our parents were at this same stage in their lives?  Some of us are, but many more of us either are right at their level, or below it.  Many of us have more education than our parents had, and more opportunities in terms of career options and social networking.  Many of us seem to work longer hours, and endure longer commutes.  Those of us who are married have a spouse who also works outside the home, but all that does is get us more expensive homes.  It doesn't seem to be achieving for us the type of holistic economic superiority we were told our generation would have over our parents' generation.

Compared to our grandparents, we can see what appear to be obvious proofs of our parents' advanced prosperity.  But those proofs also appear to dwindle in the present day, if we can find the time to step back and look at our family's timeline.  We're all still probably better-off than our grandparents, but considering the trajectory of expectations that our country set for us, it's small comfort when we consider what the future holds.

Experts are telling us that millions of jobs have been wiped out forever due to technological advancements, globalization, and the sheer practicality employers have discovered in their ability to force fewer workers to do more work.  Although our new breed of high-tech innovators are coming up with some remarkable things, they're not generating the demand for employment that can make up for what's been lost.  And although there's more wealth in the West today than there's ever been, it's also indisputably concentrated within a disproportionately small segment of society.

Most of these issues are only considered problems by the people who are negatively impacted by them.  And some of these issues are likely more problematic in terms of achieving a broad economic vitality for Americans than others.  After all, it's not like we should expect companies to simply give up profits or intentionally refuse to be competitive just so more people can have jobs.  If a company isn't profitable or competitive, they go out of business, and that doesn't usually help anybody.

So, is communistic socialism the answer, when we artificially collapse economic stratification so that doctors and blog writers receive similar wages?  Of course not - "a worker is worthy of his hire," which, among other things, means different occupations are more valuable than others.  That's just a fact of life.

What we might want to re-consider, however, is how we measure those values.  It's a long-running debate, for example, as to whether school teachers are worth less to our society than TV actors.  I've brought up before the discrepancy airlines seem to make between pay for their executives in corporate suites and their pilots who actually keep planes in the air.  When pay structures are out of balance with metrics of intrinsic values a society should hold, it may take a couple of generations for the resulting discrepancies to become exaggerated, but might that be what we're beginning to witness these days?  After all, inequities always are more painful than equity.

Which brings us to fairness.

That's a solution we like to ignore because it requires an awful lot of work.  And unfortunately, it's the people who are out of work who usually are the least capable of building fairness back into our economy.  It's part of the proof that inequity is a raw, festering, perpetual, ugly, and powerful part of life.

Does that dismal fact mean that there's no point in trying to change anything?  Of course not.  And when it comes to economics, it doesn't even mean that the people who try and advocate for fairness will get financially rewarded for doing so.

None of this is likely new to you.  And while professional economists might quibble with some esoteric implications of my observations, I doubt many of them would claim I've said anything that is incorrect.

So, what's the point of all this? 

The point is this:  God created work as part of the ramifications of the sin Adam and Eve committed in the Garden of Eden.  Work itself can be rewarding, and it can put food on the table, but it is not intended to be perfect as long as sin is in the world.  This means that the more we idolize it, and make it our purpose, the more we pervert it, and the less we focus on the One Who made it to begin with.  Our employer may benefit the more we concentrate on and fret over our job, but we likely won't.  And God likely won't be honored with that part of our lives.

Work is imperfect, and while that doesn't relieve us of our God-given mandate to work for peace and righteousness in every area of our lives, including the workplace, let's try not to let it consume us.  This applies to those of us with jobs we love, or jobs we hate, or jobs for which we're overqualified, or even without jobs.  Jobs that pay a wage, anyway.

We believers in Christ are all to be about the work of God's Kingdom.  Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.  Even at work!


Monday, June 17, 2013

Saints Unbecoming

Two weeks ago, an article entitled "How Do I Know When It's Time To Leave A Church?" was the most-read article on Crosswalk.com.

At the time, I commented about how telling it must be that such discouraging subject matter - a strong dissatisfaction with one's church - would be the top article on one of Christianity's most popular websites.

So, it's been two weeks, which can be an eternity in Internet time.  Who knows how many topics, headlines, crises, opinions, and tweets have come and gone.  You'd think the article about leaving one's church would be long gone, too, wouldn't you?  At least, it wouldn't still be listed among Crosswalk's top ten.

But you'd be wrong.  Okay, so it's not number one today... it's number three.  After two other articles of similar subject matter.  Currently, the most-read article is "What You Are Wearing To Church," which has likely been a weekly debate in families across the Western world for centuries.  The second-most-read article currently is entitled "Seven Viruses That Infect the Church."

Ouch.

Isn't this "church" thing supposed to be helping us?  Isn't it supposed to be the place where our faith walk can find refuge from the sins of the world?  Judging by what people are choosing to read on Crosswalk, however, it looks more like church is a thorn in our side, or a cross we have to bear.

When Doing Church Becomes One's Undoing

Maybe I'm back on this topic of dissatisfaction with church because I've been interviewing somebody for an upcoming article of mine for Crosswalk.  After years of trying to act like a Christian, find a church where she can grow as a Christian, get involved in ministry with other Christians, develop Christian friendships, and plug her young son into a similarly God-focused faith community for his age level, she's thrown in the towel.

She walked out of church.  She's not really bitter, or even angry, although she's sad, and almost bemused at what the rest of us continue to tolerate in our faith communities.

Looking back on her conversion experience, she figures it must have been an emotional reaction to her failed marriage.  She was told she needed God in order to have peace.  And for a while, it all seemed to work... until she tried to assimilate into a large church that asks people to "come as they are."  So she did.

Things went downhill from there.

Early in her faith walk, a small-group leader chastised her in front of their home group for professing to enjoy a popular but mildly-raunchy television sitcom, but then she witnessed him in his own home watching something even raunchier on cable.

She found out by accident that malicious gossip was being spread around her church about her and her son.

Her son went on a couple of church youth outings and witnessed adult sponsors of the events getting tipsy on contraband liquor.

She herself attended events with fellow church-goers where alcoholic beverages were flowing.

It was as if everybody else was as wounded, anxious, and depressed as she was, and church had become simply another crutch, or a glorified passport to Heaven.  The church people she saw drinking weren't living under grace, they were addicted to the stuff to fill the void she thought churchy stuff was supposed to fill.  Preach hellfire and damnation for the world's gays, but adultery within the church is only wrong if you get caught.  None of it matters - your passports to Heaven have already been stamped.

When she started expressing her doubts on Facebook, church friends either ignored her, or de-friended her.  When she saw one of her pastors at their kids' mutual sporting event, he didn't want to talk to her.  She realized she was more wounded, anxious, and depressed now that she had gotten involved in church, than she was before "professing her faith."

So she relinquished her faith.  Returned it, even though she didn't get a refund for all she'd been through.  She didn't expect to find a bunch of holy-roller saints in church, but she didn't expect a bunch of sinners who self-righteously claimed to be holy-roller saints, either.

"Don't pray for me," she's asked me, "because that's so patronizing.  I have explored your faith option and found nothing that comforts me more than my own awareness of my own spirituality."

Preachers Missing a Teachable Moment

We evangelicals might be tempted to parse this woman's refutation of Christianity in order to find clues to its theological inadequacies, but before we do that, consider the haughtiness with which one of our celebrity preachers recently praised a fellow celebrity preacher friend of his.

Mark Dever, senior pastor at Washington, DC's wildly popular Capitol Hill Baptist Church, served as a guest preacher earlier this month in the pulpit of Sovereign Grace Church in Louisville, Kentucky.

Sovereign Grace Church is the new congregation established by C.J. Mahaney, the embattled former director of Sovereign Grace Ministries, which has come under fire for hiding allegations of child abuse.  However, Dever has come out not only in support of Mahaney, but veiled contempt towards those who have filed a lawsuit against his former ministry as its alleged child abuse victims.

In what appears to be an arrogant affirmation of the indicted despite a Biblical need to be sensitive to any harm that has befallen alleged victims, Dever offered Mahaney's congregation a heavy dose of hero worship.

"If you’re visiting or if you’re sort of new to Sovereign Grace," Dever said in his sermon, regarding Mahaney, "you have a privilege in having this man as your pastor that you don’t fully grasp..."

Not only does one celebrity pastor inadvertently chastise fellow Christians who dare question the integrity of another celebrity pastor, but he appears to display a degree of impunity that seems to defy the Gospel of Christ.  It's not that during a time of crisis in one's personal life or public ministry, a minister of the Gospel shouldn't be able to depend on his peers for comfort, friendship, and support.  But it almost appears as though Mahaney's friends have willfully ignored the facts in this case.  Indeed, the fact that we need to keep talking in abstract terms instead of facts betrays the fact that Mahaney and his friends have not broached the accusations with the seriousness the rest of us have accorded them.

Either way, their attitudes and actions don't seem to square with the Gospel they've built their careers preaching.

I don't personally know any of the people about whom I've written here today.  The woman who's returned to atheism was referred to me by a mutual friend, who thought I should hear her story.  Our mutual friend is saved, and the only church friend who remains in contact with this woman who's left the church.  I've never met either Dever or Mahaney, and only know of their disturbing, stubborn alliance through what I've learned about it online.

But hey - even if all the rest of this is anecdotal, don't we know how hard it is to do church?  We don't need to be told this by an atheist, or preachers pretending that accusations of child molestation don't exist.

Still, I believe that God is sovereign.  He knew from eternity past that these days would come for His North American church, when His people would be so cantankerous, malicious, hypocritical, self-righteous, and unlike Christ.  Yet still, the church is His invention.  He has purposes for it, even if we can't see them.  I believe that, because I believe God is sovereign.  We can't irrevocably screw up His church, even though it sure looks like we're giving it our best shot.

What am I to make about all of the feedback I've received from this atheist, who, frankly, seems almost freer now that she thinks she can cross "God" off of her list of things to make her happy?  I don't know.  After all, most of the world today sees religion as simply one of many means to an end, with the end being some sort of self-realization.  All the better to find those things that don't work earlier rather than later, right?

What our celebrity preachers are doing in the name of this God, however, truly unnerves me.  The God in Whom the Holy Spirit has given me faith is not a God to be mocked by elitist games of personal favorites during - of all things - sex abuse cases.  In their cloistered world of church plants, seminars, and doctrinal associations, it's almost as if the guys with the biggest bully pulpits win the day, while hapless sheep bleat in the fields.

Or go online in droves to Crosswalk.com, getting advice on evaluating how sick their church may be.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

What Price for Cheap Junk?

It's not our fault.

We're not imprisoning people who don't agree with us and forcing them to make plastic junk we don't need.

We're not the ones trying to suppress the civil rights of people who don't like the way we govern, or how we cheat them out of fair wages.  We're not the ones denying them freedom of religion.

All we want is the ability to pay the cheapest possible price for disposable commodities like holiday decorations.  What's wrong with that?

Perhaps you missed the story this past winter about the woman in Oregon who found a hand-scribbled note tucked into a box of Halloween decorations.  She had bought the ornaments at her local Kmart store a year earlier, but had saved them for this past Halloween, when she opened the box in her home and the note tumbled out as her kids examined its contents.  She read the note, and, becoming alarmed by what it said, contacted federal authorities, who got the international ball rolling to determine its authenticity.

"If you occasionally buy this product," the note read in choppy English, "please kindly resend this letter to the World Human Right Organization.  Thousands people here who are under the persecution of the Chinese Communist Party Government will thank and remember you forever."

It went on to describe the grueling workdays and other forms of punishment being forced upon Chinese prisoners who made the Halloween decorations the woman had bought.

Frankly, I hadn't heard about this story until today, when the New York Times reported that the note's writer has been satisfactorily identified in China.  He had been held as a prisoner in the notorious Masanjia labor camp as punishment for being a member of Falun Gong, the outlawed religious group that, even by Western standards, is considered a cult.  In China, Falun Gong is a cult of the worst sort, since it mandates the supernatural over science, a wordview that is anathema to conformist Communism.

The man, known only as Zhang for his protection, says he wrote 20 such letters during his imprisonment at Masanjia, but since the products into which he tucked his notes could have been shipped anywhere in the world, it's not known who else might have found those notes and simply failed to notify authorities.  Indeed, when people open such packages, the wrappings, foils, and cardboard holding the contents inside are usually ignored.  The excitement of getting these goofy, plastic trinkets usually only lasts as long as it takes to open the box they came in.  Which is one reason why people don't like spending a lot of money on them to begin with.

Which is why the Chinese government needs people like Zhang:  political prisoners, people who complain too much, members of underground Christian churches, and especially adherents of Falun Gong.  These are people Communists find threatening.  One woman was sentenced to 18 months in a labor camp for complaining that seven men who had abducted and raped her daughter didn't get appropriate sentences themselves.  It has been estimated that over 1,000 work camps may exist across China, and while the government doesn't exactly deny their existence, they call them centers of "re-education through labor," and instead of prisoners, the occupants are referred to as "students."  Estimates to the number of students - err, prisoners - at these labor camps run as high as 190,000.

In addition to forcing these prisoners - some of whom are children, and others actually are hardened criminals - to perform slave labor under harsh conditions, the government selects some for forced organ harvesting.  As you might imagine, the Chinese government doesn't release reports and statistics on what they do in these camps, and they hate people talking about them.  Just yesterday, it was learned that Du Bin, a Chinese photojournalist investigating labor camp abuses was abducted by officials and being detained by the police.  His family didn't know where he was for two weeks.  Du's abduction and detention is being decried by human rights activists as proof that Xi Jinping, China's new president who just this past weekend met with Barak Obama for a personal meeting in California, plans on tightening his tolerance of dissent.

Indeed, anecdotal reports from human rights and religious groups inside China estimate that the Christian house church movement there may be witnessing new increases of government-imposed persecution, with the number of confirmed cases of official sanctions against house church members rising by 14% in just the past year.  This statistic includes an increase in detentions of house church members, a punishment that ranges from being under house arrest to being sent to labor camps without a court trial.  Fears of further persecution are rising after testimonies of renewed government scrutiny and harassment of suspected house church Christians - including Catholics - continue leaking out of the country.

Although some political watchers hoped China's appalling record regarding human rights abuses would be one of the topics presidents Obama and Xi discussed this past weekend, it's unlikely any substantive improvements regarding the labor camps sponsored by America's largest trading partner will be taking place anytime soon.  You see, the degree of complicity for which we American consumers are responsible when it comes to the cheap products - including coats with "Made in Italy" labels and Christmas wreaths, according to the Times - coming out of these labor camps only compounds the problem.

You and I are helping Communists make a profit off of slave labor.  Twisted, huh?

So often, when presented with such problems whose solution appears impossible for individuals to accomplish on their own, we find it easier to shake our heads in momentary mournfulness at the fallen state of our world.  And then we pick ourselves up, shake off the bad news, and go on with our day.

But what if we actually looked for something substantive each one of us could do to help address this crisis - and, yes, it is a crisis - in China's labor camps?  After all, those are real, living, breathing, thinking human beings slaving away right now, making stuff none of us need in inhumane conditions so we can pay as little as possible for it.

What would happen if we just stopped buying that junk?

How do we know what junk we don't need?  And how much of it is made with slave labor?  Well, yes, those are hard questions to figure out, but why not start with the reason we buy this stuff in the first place.  When we buy this stuff because we think we need it to enjoy life, or because we don't think we have the time to make homemade versions of it ourselves, how lackluster will our lives be if we try sticking with those good old "Made in America" labels?  And if we think that stuff is too expensive, simply resist the urge for cheaper stuff.

Because if you're in a dollar store, or another store where the prices seem attractively low, you need to remember that actually, they're not.

The price somebody in China likely is paying so you don't have to spend much of your own money is probably considerable.

More than you or I would be willing to pay.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Military Bases as Sacred Cows... or Jails

Sacred cows.

Sometimes, with politics, it's hard to tell if you're in a barn or a church, there are so many sacred cows.

Take military bases, for example.  Yesterday, a Senate panel stepped in to prevent the Pentagon from closing military installations deemed obsolete or unnecessary.  Last week, a House committee decreed practically the same thing.  This means that although Congress has ordered our military to achieve certain reductions in its budget, the military can't reach those fiscal cuts by ridding itself of underused assets like unwanted bases.

Granted, a military base is not any ordinary piece of real estate.  Many of them have been designed for specific war-centric uses that make them costly to retrofit for civilian applications.  Then there is the slipshod history of how our military, acting with impunity as a government agency above the law, has spent decades disposing of its hazardous wastes on military land.  If an air base, for example, was shut down, the military might be able to sell it to a private aircraft manufacturer, but they'd either have to sell the place for pennies on the dollar or pay mightily for expensive hazmat remediation, a dilemma that has plagued the closure of an aging Naval Air Station here in suburban Dallas.

Then there's the location of these military bases, which for security and political reasons, aren't usually in prime neighborhoods that command top-dollar valuations.  During the Cold War, locating a base important enough to be targeted by the Soviets close to densely-populated urban centers compromised both security and political perspectives.  Plus, politicians discovered that smaller communities without much economic vitality loved having military bases in town, so paybacks and compromises were all the better for the Pentagon setting up shop in places desperate for the jobs and ancillary benefits.

Indeed, it wasn't so much the noise, pollution, and congestion military bases brought communities across America, but the hundreds - if not thousands - of military servicemembers and their families, not to mention the scores of civilian employees and contractors who worked on-base.  Over time, military bases became coveted economic development engines, as our vast military industrial complex grew in might and authority.

So it hasn't really been front-page news to learn that both houses of Congress have pretty much put the kibosh on closing any more of them.  In the past, as various rounds of base closings - politically couched with the euphemistic term, "decommissioning" - have elicited raw episodes of economic and political bloodletting, anger and resentment against the process has solidified not only in communities that haven't been able to replace what they lost when their local base shut down, but in Congress, whose members can't afford to lose votes by doing something so unpopular.

But how many unneeded bases can we afford to keep on the country's books?  The key reason given for deciding not to close any more bases has to do with money:  the bureaucratic closure process is itself costly.  The economic impact to communities struggling to emerge from the Great Recession would also be considerable.  Instead of looking at how much money the Pentagon would save by closing bases, how much money might individual taxpayers and small businesses lose in the process?  Yes, our economy is more dependent on the military than is healthy, but it seems we've realized that truth a bit late in the game.  And if cost savings are the over-arching concern regarding budgets, deficits, and taxation, might there be other cows that are less sacred that can be sacrificed on the altar of political survival?

Probably not, at least not if we value both efficiency and saving money.  But then again, if our government was ever a true model of efficiency and saving money, that was a long time ago.

Here in Texas, our politicians still try and make a concerted effort at both, with prisons, instead of military bases, coming under scrutiny for closure.  Yesterday, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (as if true justice can ever be criminal) decided to close two prisons in an effort to save money and reduce the state's current glut of prison beds.

One of the prisons being closed is the Dawson State Jail in downtown Dallas.  It's a homely, brown-brick tower across the street from Dallas County's massive lock-up, on land that the city, the county, and the state's department of transportation all have their eyes on for various projects.  The jail itself has been beset by complaints about conditions for inmates, all of whom are women, and at least one birth was botched in its clinic that resulted in the death of the newborn.

On the other hand, the Mineral Wells Pre-Parole Transfer Facility has been lauded by officials in its small hometown northwest of Fort Worth as a model corporate citizen.  The city of Mineral Wells has a population of 17,000 people, and the pre-parole facility has been one of its largest employers for years, with an annual payroll for over 200 employees of nearly $12 million.  It has fought the closure tooth and nail ever since the state announced their jail was on the chopping block.

Problem is, the jail wasn't built to be a jail.  Originally, the buildings it occupies were part of Fort Wolters, a military base that was closed in 1973.  When the state was scrambling for jail cells in the late 1980's, a section of Fort Wolters was repurposed as a minimum-security prison by a private jail company, Corrections Corporation of America.  It has netting, a chain-link fence, and razor wire around its periphery, but relatives of inmates housed inside would throw pre-paid cell phones and other contraband over the makeshift "walls," compromising the facility's security.

Officials in Mineral Wells say the contraband issue is fixed now, and that Corrections Corporation of America has partnered with the town to be as beneficent a neighbor as possible.  But the state, currently facing a glut of prison space thanks to its spate of overbuilding as a knee-jerk reaction to its shortage in the 1980's, simply doesn't need the Mineral Wells facility, especially since it's been an ad-hoc, makeshift makeover of antiquated military buildings from the beginning.

To the extent that Fort Wolters has provided a home to this prison and jobs to hundreds of Mineral Wells residents over the past couple of decades, its "decommissioning" has not decimated the dusty town huddled on the fringes of the dynamic Fort Worth and Dallas metropolitan area.  Many workers make the daily drive from Mineral Wells to Fort Worth where, indeed, another much larger military base has managed to hang on through a series of closings, mergers, and realignments over the years.  And with the prison's closing, more space will open up in that industrial park for maybe some other opportune enterprise.

Not that the industrial park today has a waiting list, however.  The place appears mostly derelict and vastly under-utilized.  But you can almost capture a glimpse of what the base, spilling out over the flat Texas prairie, may have been like, humming with activity and even helicopters, since it used to be a helicopter school for the Army during the Vietnam War era.

Up in Washington, Congress may have terminated the nation's base closure process... at least, for the time being.  Meanwhile, here in Texas, Mineral Wells is being reminded once again about how empty a former military base can be.

Mooo.


Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Right-Wing Trash Talk Rivals Commie Hype

And we're supposed to be the better country?

Last week, I wrote about President Barak Obama meeting with China's President Xi Jinping at Sunnylands, the former Annenberg estate in Palm Springs, California.

You may recall that I mentioned about how, even though Xi's wife, Peng Liyuan, would be accompanying him to Sunnylands, that Michelle Obama would not be joining her own husband for the meeting.  The Obama's daughters were finishing the school year on Friday, and Michelle wanted to stay home and make it somewhat of a family event.  Even if, well, their dad was in Palm Springs wooing the leader of our planet's largest Communist country.

Some conservatives have tried to seize upon Michelle's absence from the Sunnylands meeting as a flagrant violation of diplomatic protocol, and further proof that she doesn't understand what's expected of her as First Lady.  Which, frankly, is a stunningly duplicitous attitude to take, considering the fact that Michelle was staying home to be a mother to her daughters!  Good grief - isn't motherhood one of the things most conservatives have enshrined in their ideology?

In one of the articles I researched for my blog essay last week, an expert on Chinese diplomacy was quoted as saying that since the Chinese people are very conservative when it comes to the role of motherhood, some might affirm Michelle's choice to stay in Washington with her daughters.  It was even possible that Peng, Xi's glamorous wife and a celebrity entertainer in her country, would enjoy not having the media comparing her to the First Lady.  It's not like either country considered this an official state visit.  In fact, both sides took great pains to make it as informal and understated as possible.

As it turned out, the press apparently didn't give Peng much attention, and that seemed to inflame Chinese pride more than anything.  Did the press ignore Peng at Sunnylands because Michelle wasn't there?  Who knows.  It sounds like some of the members of China's state-controlled press, known for blathering the drivel of Communist propaganda with barely even a pretense of integrity, took the opportunity to frame Michelle's absence as an acknowledgement that Peng is the more attractive one.

Silly, huh?

Yet today, as I was flitting through Facebook, I noticed where a friend of mine had commented on a conservative page's comments about Michelle's "snubbing" of the Chinese president's wife.  While the Chinese propaganda machine called it a case of failed vanity, you see, some American conservatives insist on calling it a case of diplomatic blundering.  When I clicked on the Facebook link, sure enough, there was vitriol pouring out from Americans commenting on the woefully biased news bite from the conservative group taking Michelle to task for skipping Sunnylands in favor of her daughters.

Okay, so I kinda expected that.  This was a dilemma Michelle simply wasn't going to win in the media.  But what I didn't expect to see was the vulgar, vile nature of what these people - nearly two thousand of them - were posting.

Russ L. called Michelle an "ugly bag of bones."  Carolyn M. said "she's a thug from Chicago."

Linda F. railed, "She's mean, ugly and has absolutely NO CLASS!!! She's a complete disgrace to this country and the position she holds because her husband connived his way into the White House. They're both despicable!!!"

Despicable for staying home with her teenaged girls?  Really?

Many people called her not only a witch, but another word that rhymes with "witch," but begins with a "B."

Curtis B. reasoned that if Michelle had gone to Sunnylands, "she would only embarrass us by wearing some ghetto outfit anyway."

Jeff W. claimed "that broad is pure evil."

Then there were the dozens of people who decried the appellation of "lady" in association with Michelle.  Ricky B., for example, complained that "it is a disgrace to call her a 'First Lady'."

Apparently oblivious to the irony in his rant, Roy M. said Michelle is "the ugliest 1st lady ever. She lives on hate."

Are you as appalled at this atrocious display of disrespect, contempt, and - yes - hate as I am?  Hey, I'm fully aware that the Obamas are not the most popular people to ever occupy the White House, but to see such bitter hatred directed towards them on just one post in our vast social media orbit truly disturbs me.  I won't even bring myself to write some of the obscene things people posted and that Facebook apparently hasn't yet had a chance to censor.

Yes, we live in a country where we have the right to speak our minds and voice our opinions.  We're able to criticize our leaders and suggest ways we think things could be done better.  However, our freedom of speech is not a blanket amnesty for vulgarity, name-calling, and general defamation of character - especially when a mother stays home from a business trip to be with her daughters!

Is that such a liberal, left-wing concept these days?

It's been said that in a democracy, the people get the representation they deserve.  Judging by how these Republicans so willingly trash the Obamas, and upon such perverted logic, I'm not sure I want the representation they deserve.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Big Boos for Booz, but Snowden?

Too little, too late?

Some are making political hay out of Edward Snowden's bold admission this past weekend that he is the leak behind the bombshell reports of massive government spying on American civilians.

CNN and the Huffington Post have joined with an unlikely ally in Drudge Report and other right-wing outlets to froth over the news, while the New York Times is left on the sidelines as its arch-rival, the Washington Post, relishes its role as co-breaker of the story, along with England's less-reputable Guardian.  Today, the Times appears to be in full pout mode, bending over backwards to give President Obama - and, by extension, Republicans George W. Bush and New York Representative Peter King - the benefit of the doubt regarding spying as a legitimate anti-terrorism tool.

Bush's presidential cabinet crafted our country's post-9/11 scramble to detect and thwart attacks against the homeland, and King, from suburban New York City, symbolic locale of America's front line on homeland terrorism, serves on the Homeland Security Committee in the House of Representatives.

And indeed, many Americans still seem unable to reconcile the need (we've been told we have) to give up certain privacies for freedoms (we've been told are) under ever-increasing threats.  While small-government Libertarians have been quick to seize upon the blatant - and bloated - unconstitutionality within which PRISM and other secret data surveillance programs appear to operate, we've known since President Bush's deployment of the Patriot Act that a brazen exploitation of Fourth Amendment rights against unwarranted searches and seizures was taking place somehow, somewhere in our nation's vast security apparatus.  We've known that our online privacy is nil, and that we're all sitting ducks for personal identity thieves, let alone government cyber-sleuths.

Still, getting what looks like confirmation that our government doesn't even bother to obtain search warrants anymore, and that media brands we all use every day, like Verizon, were forced to participate in such scheming, suddenly makes the matter seem far more urgent and palpable.

And the level of trust even some liberals have struggled to maintain with Washington seems to be evaporating in front of our eyes.  For many other Americans, whatever trust they used to have has long since evaporated, and today, they're simply more angry and cynical than ever before.  Not just towards Washington, but the part of corporate America that depends on farmed-out espionage and national security that today, contractors do more of than civil servants.  The multi-billion-dollar-annually company Booz Allen Hamilton, for example, the contractor for whom Snowden briefly worked, earns approximately 98% of its business from Uncle Sam.

Boo, Booz Allen!  What part of your free enterprise is free?

Indeed, perhaps just as stunning as the scope of these programs are, if Snowden's accusations are accurate, and as brave as Snowden's whistle-blowing may prove to be, the blithe acquiescence to and participation within these security programs of legions of government bureaucrats, politicians, and employees for contractors like Booz Allen may represent a new low in greed and arrogance.

If a high-school dropout with only a junior college diploma could work at Booz Allen for three months and learn enough about what he perceives to be such a massive threat against personal liberty, imagine how long and hard other people have labored knowing even more than Snowden does, and kept their mouths shut - yet their wallets open.  Didn't any of them struggle with personal angst over what they were doing?  How many other employees on these top-secret programs balked at something that they considered too unconstitutional, and were either cajoled back into complicity with bonuses, or forced to resign under punitive penalties for talking to the press?  Snowden has told the Guardian and Post that he realizes he may never see America again as a free man, and he fears for his family's safety, now that he's spilled the beans.

Then, too, part of me wonders if he really has spilled any genuine beans.  He was only on this job for three months - how much did he see, or have access to?  Doesn't it seem somewhat curious that after the Obama administration has been hit with a series of scandals, such as accusation that the IRS asked for telephone and e-mail records from conservative non-profit applicants, this story would break out in the open?  Is this simply more proof that the Obama administration can't manage national governance, or is Snowden a sacrificial lamb designed to throw the press off of even bigger fish out there waiting to be fried?

Meanwhile, some politicians still want to claim that the government needs to treat everybody as a suspect in order to find the big bad terrorists.  It's kind of like the Transportation Security Agency has mutated across Capitol Hill.  We've grumbled for years now about whether assuming all passengers are carrying bomb-making material until being proven otherwise risks being unconstitutional.  Now, if the government is demanding our phone data wholesale, without a search warrant for particular suspects, are we once again being treated like we're all potential terrorists?

If you don't understand why gun-rights advocates bristle at even more gun control laws, now maybe you can.

If you don't understand why welfare advocates bristle at drug screening for welfare applicants, now maybe you can.

Might this latest scandal be the meeting point at which liberals and conservatives begin to see some common objectives for our society?  Or might our society collectively shrug its shoulders as the public consternation over Snowden's story dies a slow death in the face of whatever scandals are coming down the pike?  After all, it's been one bad revelation after another so far for this administration's second term.  And voters get jaded quickly these days.

Whatever happens, nothing can alter the fact that billions of bytes of our personal information has been compiled and processed by our government, and has already been stored for who knows what other purposes.  According to Booz Allen, Snowden's actions represent an egregious violation of company policy, but considering how Snowden's "violation" was for what he thinks is the good of our country, what's to stop other employees from committing more nefarious "violations" for their own gain?

Or indeed, the nefarious gains of our own government?


Friday, June 7, 2013

Power Talks at Bilderberg, Sunnylands

I guess since you're reading this, you weren't invited to Bilderberg either, huh?

No, not "Build-a-Bear", like the fuzzy workshop store in your local mall.

Bil - der - berg.  It's the name of an elegant hotel in the Netherlands, site of the first Bilderberg gathering.

This year, the Bilderberg conference is meeting at a country hotel in merry old England.  And although it's been meeting annually since 1954, both in Europe and the United States, it's only been recently that Bilderberg's very existence has caught the attention and imagination of the general public.

In case your invitation to this year's conclave got lost in the mail, here's what you and I are missing:  a highly secretive pow-wow of select high-powered politicians and executives from the United States and Europe.  Rumored to be in attendance this year are such movers and shakers as Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com; Robert Rubin, former US Treasury Secretary; Henry Kissinger; assorted European royalty; and multiple financiers from Goldman Sachs and Lazard.

Think of it as a family meeting of the West's highly wealthy and influential.  And its name, "Bilderberg," can in one word be used to describe the group, kinda like "Mafia."

Except, unlike the gaudy Mafia, Bilderberg likes to couch itself in a grim anonymity that helps enhance the extraordinary gravitas of the global topics with which it engages.  This year, for example, retired General David Petraeus will reportedly discuss Orwellian aspects of cyber-warfare and security.  Most of the other topics are decidedly hush-hush, kind of like the goings-on at patrician country clubs in the Deep South that don't allow women to be members, or the meeting rooms inside Masonic temples.  Considering the stupendous personal wealth most of Bildergerg's participants enjoy, you'd think that if they really wanted to gather off-the-record, any of their country homes would be as suitable a site as the hotels they instead choose all the time.  After all, less than 150 people ever get invited.

This year, David Cameron, Prime Minister of England, will be in attendance at Bilderberg, but President Obama won't be.  Obama will be holding a sort of personal detente with Xi Jinping, the new President of China, at the late Walter Annenberg's modernist estate in Palm Springs.  In fact, Sunnylands, as the Annenberg home is called, gleams of such 1950's sterile design and architecture, it looks more like an old Holiday Inn hotel than a private retreat.  The President's visit with Xi has been heralded as an important opportunity for the two leaders to meet on a less bureaucratic level so that a more open dialog can take place between them.  Which, considering how Bilderberg is a creaky hold-over from when Europe was America's economic rival in the world, may play as a veiled irony from the White House:  here is Obama, reaching out to the powerhouse of the Pacific Rim, while the old white Atlantic cronies yuck it up across the Pond.

Many conservatives, and even some liberals, view the Bilderberg meetings with cynicism and contempt.  The annual affairs have rarely been awash with Republicans, and even though this year's invitees include two representatives from the right-wing American Enterprise Institute and numerous banking executives, Timothy Geithner, a limousine liberal if there ever was one, is also attending, as is a member of the family that owns the liberal Washington Post, and plenty of politicians from European countries many right-wingers brand as socialist.  Indeed, it's a mix that defies quick political stereotyping, and lends itself more to conspiracy theories about what such a polyglot of Type-A people need to do that can't be achieved democratically.

And it's true that no votes are taken at Bilderberg, and supposedly, no official diplomatic doctrines or studies are presented for affirmation.  Which begs the question:  what can be accomplished at Bilderberg that can't be accomplished at some billionaire's secret hideaway?  Why do they need to flaunt their desire for secrecy by renting otherwise public-access hotels?  It's almost as if they're inviting the scrutiny, suspicion, and even protests that have come to accompany each of these get-togethers.

Wouldn't it also be interesting to know who turns down invitations to attend?  Assuming some people are invited who don't show up.  Wouldn't it almost be a testament to one's belief in their personal importance if they declined a Bilderberg invitation?  What does it say about the people who are attending that they didn't want to miss this opportunity to meet with people who otherwise they might not get a chance to meet?

"Wow - I really need to be in that hotel with all of those other people because I don't want to miss out on whatever credibility being in their presence gives me."

Ahh, yes... who will not be at Bilderberg?  President Obama, for one, who is arguably the most powerful person on either side of the Atlantic.  His absence itself speaks volumes about the importance of Bilderberg.  Either attendees truly are more powerful than the President of the United States - which is likely a contributing plausibility that juices the conspiracy theorists - or this really is little more than a pretentious club.

The Queen of England also is not attending, and she's arguably the most powerful woman in Britain.  I don't see anybody from the BBC, an international journalistic empire that trounces the Washington Post, on the list.  Nor are there any executives from such international superpower corporations as Wal Mart, Exxon, or Apple.  Oddly enough, however, the senior advisor to Microsoft's CEO is on the guest list.  I guess Bill Gates - not to mention Warren Buffett - were busy doing something else this weekend.

See what I mean about who's not on the list being as telling as who is?

Suffice it to say that maybe the reason Bilderberg revels in what anonymity it tells us it wants for itself involves the likelihood that, by the public getting so worked up over it, we're providing attendees an affirmation of the power they wield perhaps more in theory than reality.  Take away the limousines with tinted windows, the police presence (overtime costs for which Bilderberg says it will only partially reimburse), the staging area provided for demonstrators, and their "shh! It's a secret!" website, and we're left with one of the world's most prestigious sleepovers.

Even if it is almost all guys.  Only 14 women have been invited.

Oddly enough, Michele Obama declined to join her husband at Sunnylands this weekend, creating a minor diplomacy crisis, since the Chinese president's wife is traveling with him, and will be left without a peer.  It seems that the Obama children's last day of school for the year is today, the youngest daughter's birthday is Monday, and their mother wanted to celebrate with them at home.

What is it they say about "the hand that rocks the cradle?"