Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Tax Equity Talk Taxes What's Good

He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. - Micah 6:8

If God is a Republican, which many Republicans still secretly insist He is, how does this verse fit into Republican efforts to revise America's tax code?

You don't have to wade very far into this season's presidential race to learn virtually all of the Republican candidates are livid that nearly half of America's taxpayers pay, well, no federal income tax.

After all of the earned income credits and other deductions are taken, many wage-earners actually get some sort of refund. At least if they're earning approximately $40,000 per year or less.

Since the top 10% of American wage-earners pay roughly 70% of the income taxes collected by the Treasury, and since the Republican Party long ago ceded its allegiance to those affluent folks, it's now become de rigueur for conservatives to harp on less fortunate Americans for being too poor to pay federal income taxes.

Some Republicans like to insinuate that it's the slovenly, minority, inner-city Democrats who comprise the bulk of non-tax-payers, but at a rate of nearly 50%, there aren't enough poor Democrats to fill the category. There's gotta be some poor Republicans in there, too. And yes, there are poor Republicans.

They just don't want their cover blown. Few poor Republicans have stood up to their field of candidates as they've waded through Iowa cornfields and admitted they're too poor to pay federal taxes.

After all, poor people have pride, too.

Tax Equity

For the record, since I'm considered a freelance journalist, I do pay federal income taxes. Not much, I'll admit, but then, I'm not earning much, either. Still, I'm paying more than nothing. So, at least to Republicans, I'm a good American. I've got "skin in the game," as Indiana Senator Dan Coats likes to call taxation.

Actually, having everybody pay something isn't the worst idea in the world, is it? It could even fit with the "act justly" part of Micah 6:8, where the burden for paying for common civic needs gets shared by the entire citizenry.

However, I'm skeptical of whether getting low-income wage earners to chip in more than they do now will put much of a dent in the national debt. It's basic math: $40,000 salaries don't leave much left over for anybody in this day and age, so do you want to push people into poverty by taxing them more? And if our vaunted economy so desperately relies on voracious consumer spending, how will making half of the country spend even less than they do now help anything?

At least in terms of presenting a unified front to the Treasury, some sort of minimal token won't break the backs of most wage-earners. I don't know what that would amount to in dollars, but at least something in the $100 range for singles and maybe $50 per family member would be a good starting point. Remember, there's more to the economic plight of low-income families than whether they're paying what people richer than them consider to be "fair taxes."

After all, most people still pay sales taxes, state income taxes, license fees, gasoline taxes, and other revenue mandates. And many of these taxes may actually be even more punitive than federal taxes, because both the rich and the poor, for example, pay the same tax rate at the pump. Plus there's the issue of wild discrepancies in corporate taxes, with Uncle Sam ending up owing some corporations even after they earn heady profits. Liberals are correct in pointing out that conservatives don't like talking about inequities on the corporate side of the tax ledger.

But then again, we don't always like thinking of justice working two ways.

What Does the Lord Require of Us?

With all the talk of "shared pain," "skin in the game," "fair taxes," and other politically-charged rhetoric over taxation, it's easy to see how people of faith could ignore that while equity is one thing, mercy is another. Don't forget that if any of us got what we deserved, we wouldn't be on our way to Heaven. So as Republicans ramp up the vitriol against poor Americans, believers have little Biblical justification for joining them.

Remember, even Christ said that the poor would always be with us. He didn't mean to imply that since they'll be around until He returns, we should learn to ignore them; actually, in context, Christ was admonishing His disciples for feigning charity when they should have praised Mary for lavishing Him with expensive perfume. But just as the disciples had no intention of lavishing luxuries on Christ, how many of us plan on doing so with the money we keep from the IRS? Are we as interested in giving our tax savings to our church's benevolence fund as much as we are investing it or purchasing new stuff for ourselves?

We love mercy when we're the beneficiaries. But most of us get miserly when it comes to lovingly showing mercy to others. Especially people we think are lazier, less efficient, and less educated than us.

Which means we're not walking humbly with our Lord, either. After all, God knows why we want to either pay less taxes or want others to pay more. It's not so much about tax equity as it is wanting others to share the pain we feel every April 15. And it's not like any taxpayer willingly ignores the tax loopholes available in every income bracket. Why fault low-wage-earners for taking advantage of tax breaks when you're not willing to forgo credits, either?

No, it's not unreasonable to want all wage-earners to put something in the pot every year. But don't pretend that what low-income workers can put in will be enough to solve our budget woes. At best, this argument is a petty distraction from the major issue of needing to restructure our national budget. Which makes it a curiously unfortunate debate for Republicans - of all people - to foment. It also risks appearing as a crass elitist snub which fails to acknowledge that our economy won't benefit from having low-wage-earners try to raise their families on even less money then what they're managing with now.

Either way, though, God has shown us what is good, and what He requires of us. Plus, if we're walking humbly with our God, we know that He will supply our needs. Even above what we deserve.

We can't expect the same from Uncle Sam.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Another Church, Another Bad Slogan

Roadside billboards work.

With all due respect to the late Lady Bird Johnson - who tried to ban them in her crusade to beautify our nation's highways - people really do read billboards.

More's the pity.

Not just for those interested in freeway aesthetics, but for Pastor Frank Moore of McElroy Road Church of Christ in Mansfield, Ohio.

Don't Believe Everything You See

Seems that Moore had the idea to purchase a billboard emblazoned with "There is No God" followed by, in a smaller font, "Don't believe everything you hear."

Turns out, an organization in Mansfield called Mid Ohio Atheists has fielded several calls of support from people who think the group sponsored the sign.

Not a church.


Handing free advertisement to your opponent is what I think kids today call an "epic fail."

Church Marketing 101

Now, if Moore had read my essay last year on Wolves in Shepherds Clothing, about two other pastors who also tried whipping up some attention for their respective churches with half-baked - and therefore, bad-tasting and possibly lethal - marketing slogans, he'd have understood how wildly such a stunt can backfire.

But sometimes, like the rest of us, preachers have to learn these lessons the hard way.

According to the church's website, their rationale behind this particular billboard seems noble enough:

"The design of this sign is (to) get people to stop and think! We took a common statement that is being said in our culture: "There is no God." We added this thought: "Don't believe everything you hear." It is similar to telling someone, "To break a mirror means 7 years of bad luck." To which the response would come, "Don't believe everything you hear." Because someone says something does not mean it is true! The Apostle Paul says the equivalent in 1 Thessalonians 5:21."

Actually, in context, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 says this:

16 Be joyful always; 17 pray continually; 18 give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus. 19 Do not put out the Spirit's fire; 20 do not treat prophecies with contempt. 21 Test everything. Hold on to the good. 22 Avoid every kind of evil. 23 May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.

OK? So, let's test this idea of Moore's.

First, should we risk the appearance of blaspheming the very God we claim to adore by prioritizing a false statement denying His existence on a billboard? Of course not: God will not be mocked. (Galatians 6:7) The fact that people have called an atheist organization congratulating them on the billboard proves how off-base this idea was.

Second, since we're risking the appearance of blaspheming God, we're not "avoiding every kind of evil," are we?

Third, Whose is the process of sanctification anyway - ours, or God's? According to verses 23 and 24, it's God. That means that we don't have any authority to go outside the teachings of scripture to try and accomplish discipleship, which includes evangelism (ostensibly the purpose of this billboard).

Are believers ever instructed to casually deny our Creator in the process of discipleship? Assuming he's happily married, would Moore use a billboard to deny the existence of his wife? Then why would he do so regarding His Lord?

Christ even provides a parable which proves my point: bad soil does not yield good fruit, does it?

What Does This Road Sign Tell Us?

It's not even like the billboard was well-executed, and simply the target of anti-religious journalists.

If you're going to put up a billboard, you're going to want it to look professional, in addition to communicating what you intend for it to communicate. So in this instance, if there was any merit in putting up a billboard with this particular message, you'd want to put quotes around the first phrase about God (I can't even bring my self to keep typing out that sentence) to indicate that it's a phrase that people say. Using quotes indicates, among other things, that the phrase may or may not be fact, so it needs to be proven.

You also need to evaluate your text to ensure readers get your point. Particularly when readers of billboards are usually in vehicles zooming by, which doesn't afford too much time for pondering tricky wording. Obviously, Moore thought he knew what he wanted to say, but his audience didn't. As proven by the kudos atheists are receiving.

I'd also get a better logo than that confection of layered clipart and wording nobody can see, but that's just me. This church is the one seeking to market itself, after all. The public isn't asking for that bad artwork to be inflicted upon them.

Meanwhile, McElroy Road Church of Christ has spent several thousand dollars to send a message endorsing atheism. To not only the Mansfield, Ohio community, but to readers of websites based from California to Connecticut, where news organizations have picked up the story and run with it.

Yeah, I think "epic fail" pretty much sums it up. At least in terms of how productive we can fail to be when we try to get clever with the Gospel.

We're to "preach the Word," right? Not a catch-phrase, or what we think looks good on a billboard. Especially not a viewpoint endorsed by our culture. Especially since the inverse of the Gospel is, uh, NOT the Gospel.

Why even play around with false claims? Why rely on how the world does things to market your church? Why not rely on the truth in God's Word instead?

"There IS a God" should be what our lives shout out to those around us.

If we believe it, people in our spheres of influence won't need a billboard to know it's true.

Monday, August 29, 2011

No, Really: That's Life

Her mother is nearly blind.

And her father, already blind, has other, even more debilitating ailments.

Talking with friends at church yesterday, I understood once again how caring for the aged poses challenges with which many families struggle privately.

Another friend is going up to Arkansas this week with her husband to get some answers about her aunt's deteriorating mental condition, which they suspect involves Alzheimer's. They've already moved her aged mother to a nursing home here.

All this news, just after my own family has been dealing with somber care issues regarding my 83-year-old aunt.

My friend with the blind parents has been struggling herself for almost a year to endure professional therapy on her back so she can avoid potentially dangerous surgery. This means that she cannot physically care for her parents like she used to, which just adds to her frustration and sadness as she watches, daily, their health fade more and more.

"You look at what they used to be, and all that they used to do," she confided to me, "and then what they are now, and you wonder, 'how does their condition today honor God?'"

And that's the question, isn't it? As modern science has allowed us to live longer lives, the quality of those lives hasn't been able to keep up.

Or at least, what we consider to be quality.

We look at our aging loved ones, who raised us and cared for us, and now we're propping them up in chairs, bathing them, speaking in simple sentences to them, planning their days, managing their finances, and watching helplessly as frailty consumes them. I don't do half of what these friends do for their parents; I'm not even involved in the oversight of my aunt's accounts, nor did I move a stick of her furniture from New York City to suburban Miami. But even from the distance from which I have viewed all of these changes, I find them to be gravely unsettling and fear-stoking. What about when my own time comes? I'm not afraid of death, but I have to admit: I'm afraid of the process of dying.

Aren't most of us?

So as my friends and I commiserated yesterday about the plight in which our families have found themselves, we naturally came to describe how the flickering flame of old life, like the wick in a spent candle, can seem so feeble and perilous.

Yet... the glow is still life, isn't it? It's not something we can turn on and off like an engine or a light bulb. Yes, parents conceive life, but even conception isn't a guaranteed result of intercourse. And murder is as heinous as civil law maintains it to be because nobody has the right to arbitrarily end another's life. And those who end their own we consider to have been mentally imbalanced.

Perhaps moreso than anything with which we come in contact on a daily basis, life serves as a constant reminder of God's gift of creation. Only God can give and take life. Which also testifies to His sovereignty over all His creation.

Even lying in bed, as a friend of mine days from death was doing several years ago at the end of her quick fight with cancer, and as I saw the skin and bones of her frail body slightly rise and fall with each slow breath, I had to marvel at how life remained even when all of her vital functions were shutting down.

Sure, she was comatose, unable to do anything except the basic, involuntary mechanics of breathing. Yet even in what we would consider to be a woeful state of existence, God had a purpose for my friend's life that day.

Maybe not climbing a mountain, or finishing a novel, or winning an election, or anything else we consider to be productive behavior.

Despite everything she could no longer do, my cancer-riddled friend honored Christ by simply being alive.

The teenager plunged into a semi-conscious state by a car wreck last year, about whom I wrote for Crosswalk, honors Christ even though his family and loved ones have to do almost everything for him.

The blind parents of my friend who herself is suffering from back pain honor Christ even though they can no longer see His creation. And the mother and aunt of my friend traveling to Arkansas this week honor Christ, along with my aunt now in Florida, because even though we don't think it's of a desirable quality, they have life.

I'm not saying that any of this is fun, or pretty, or comfortable. In most of these circumstances, both the infirm and their loved ones suffer pain, grief, frustration, and plenty of other miserable afflictions. Believe me; I know. If any of us could turn back time on our loved ones' physical disorder, wouldn't we?

But in terms of the way a life lived with dementia or another disabling condition can be honoring to God, might we find rest in the fact that God is still glorified in our body's use of His gift of life?

It's as Job declared: "The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord."

If what I'm saying sounds trite and negligible, then maybe it's because our society has purged life's intrinsic purpose from our consciousness. We're taught to pursue and achieve and acquire in the name of dominion and productivity. Which aren't bad things if we maintain a proper perspective regarding Who really gives us any of them to begin with.

Those things we accomplish during our time on this planet vary from person to person, but the "force," or the "subtle energy," or élan vital that generates the reality we experience in and of ourselves is something that we cannot produce, generate, store, reduce, or multiply. It either is or isn't. The only way we see one as being better or worse than another is through our own culturally-conditioned lenses of relational hierarchy.

Maybe when our loved ones become stripped of all that we habitually consider life to be, and we're left with looking at life in its most basic form, God wants us to remember that it's all His to begin with anyway. And end with.

And all that we've done in between has no significant bearing on either.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Unleashing the Beach in LA

Why do these types of stories come from Los Angeles?

Last week, it was a lavish 25th wedding anniversary party for "Princess Zsa Zsa," and this week, it's a tale - or, should I say, "tail" - of unleashed dogs on LA's famous beaches.

Whenever I want to escape dreary news from the real world, I surf over to for a bit of zaniness from America's sun-bleached, blow-dried Hollywood types. And usually, I'm not disappointed. Take, for example, one of the growing crises in the City of Angels: a lack of public beaches where dogs can roam free, without a leash.

Now, obviously, the fabulous coastline of the Pacific Ocean offers an amazing amenity to Angelinos - indeed, to most Californians - that they like to enjoy, naturally, with their friends and family. And increasingly, canine companions constitute "family," even to the exclusion of some blood relatives. Which, actually, is true of many Americans, not just Californians. But the fact that only three acres out of 75 miles of coastline in Los Angeles County are "dog-friendly" has become a real bone of contention for many dog lovers there.

Just being able to walk along the sandy carpet of the Pacific Ocean's easternmost shore with your dog on a leash isn't good enough for Angelinos anymore. They want their pampered pooches to have free range in more spots along the beach, where they can play Frisbee and other games, and, as one dog owner pleaded, her companion animal is welcome to do the activities she enjoys.

Which sounds more like the people who want to unleash their dogs on the beach are talking about their children instead of a pet, doesn't it? Of course, many parents today treat their kids as pets, but that's a different discussion for another day.

Are you as struck as I am by the emotion that's been fomented in pursuit of greater freedoms for... dogs? Let's be realistic: the freedom talked about in the LA Times article isn't for dogs as much as it is for their owners, isn't it? A lot of dog owners think their canine is the most wonderful creature on the planet. Many think nothing of spending hundreds of dollars on doggie day spas. Gourmet dog food can also cut seriously into a dog owner's grocery budget. These same people often consider leash laws to be necessary only for other dog owners. All of which makes restricting their access to three measly acres on the edge of the ocean seem ridiculously unfair.

Granted, as these grass-roots advocacy groups for oceanfront dog-friendly zones have pursued their agenda, they've been fairly realistic in their goals. They're not asking for miles and miles of beach space, but localized spots where they're willing to model good stewardship of the sand and water on a trial basis. They're aware that environmentalists - another fact of life in California - are skeptical about combining unleashed dogs with some protected species of wildlife, not to mention the piles of unmentionables unleashed dogs could leave behind.

So it's not exactly a full-scale assault on the tourists and non-doggie-walking denizens of LA that these advocacy groups are waging. And apparently, greater free-range dog access to beaches has worked in other parts of the state.

But Los Angeles is different in many ways from San Francisco and San Diego, which each offer multiple dog-friendly beach areas. LA's citizenry, as a whole, hasn't exactly proven itself to be as law-abiding and socially-responsible as California's other large coastal cities. This gives local leaders sufficient cause to be skeptical that something which works in the world's technology capital can work as well in, well, the city that gave us the Bloods and Crips.

Still, after a week of media overload on Libya, a 5.9 earthquake in DC, and a monster hurricane named Irene, learning that people can still focus on problems like beach access for unleashed dogs seems refreshing.

After all, is there a problem too great that a dog drenched in salt water can't make trivial by comparison?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Gained in Translation?

First night. New season.

You'd like things to go smoothly.

Yesterday evening, I went to church for the start of my sixth season singing in our Chancel Choir. We'd been on a break since June, and although I enjoyed my unhurried Sundays these past couple of months off, it was time to dive into a new year.

Not only was the Chancel Choir back in session, but our principle director, J. Marty Cope, had returned from a year-long educational stint in England, earning his second Masters degree, this one from none other than Cambridge University.

You know; "pip-pip, cheerio, and all that rot."

That Cambridge.

So all things considered, it was a big night. For a bunch of Presbyterian choristers, anyway.

As I approached an open doorway, a number of my fellow choir members were milling about the steps in Texas' relentless August heat. After a couple of hugs and "welcome back's", I walked through the open doors into a dark hallway, with dozens more people just milling about in... the heat? It was only marginally cooler inside than outside.

And dark!

"Yes, the power's out!" one lady informed me. "Didn't you notice the streetlights aren't working?"

Actually, the street by which I'd come had functioning stoplights, so I hadn't noticed anything amiss.

About that time, J. Marty, our resident anglophile, appeared, just a little agitated that the power had gone out on our first rehearsal of the new season. Not only was the church dark and hot, but its fully-automated key and security system had shut and locked all of the exterior doors and interior fire doors, meaning nobody could get upstairs to our rehearsal hall. Or our music.

Several of our church's sextons appeared, but none of them had anything to override the non-functioning electric locks. One of the church's security guards had inadvertently closed the only remaining unlocked door on the other side of a fire grate which had rolled down automatically, so all we had to ourselves was a long hallway in front of Fellowship Hall.

Thinking quickly, J. Marty recruited a couple of other people and myself to go with him to one of the old sanctuary doors that still had a manual lock. If we could get in that way, we might be able to figure out how to get back around and open up some more doors. Yet alas, although a key he possessed fit into the lock, a non-functioning electronic override still refused to let the door open.

Foiled again!

By this time, about 75 people had gathered, everyone joking about how inauspicious a circumstance it was for our first rehearsal back from summer break, and for J. Marty back from England (where, he told us later, they suffered a heat wave in the low-80's before he left... poor guy!).

Just when it looked like we'd run out of options, a joyous holler erupted from inside the hallway, as the lights came back on! Doors unlocked themselves, the air conditioning came back on, and we were back in business.

"Praise the Lord," I exclaimed to J. Marty, who looked at me with a wry, stressed grin.

"You know, that always sounds so trite," he chided, nevertheless aware that I probably didn't intend it to be.

"Hey, after the month I've had, I've said it a lot," I replied, referring to the struggle my family has endured dealing with my aunt's health problems. "And meant it every time!"

Yet his point remains a valid one that I've thought about a couple of times since last night. It's true that a lot of people - some who aren't even saved - use the phrase as a perfunctory response to good news of all types. Whether it's learning the price of a gallon of gas just dropped four cents or somebody's cancer has gone into remission, we use the same three words so often that many of us have blunted their meaning.

Maybe having the electricity come back on just at the last minute isn't earth-shaking enough in some peoples' estimation to say "praise the Lord!" But we were all grateful, and rehearsal was only delayed for about 10 minutes. So even though our situation ranked somewhere between the price of gas going down and somebody getting a great medical diagnosis, I'd say it was appropriate.

But, still...

We're supposed to praise the Lord, obviously. We're commanded to in Scripture, and through basic social etiquette, we're to affirm our appreciation appropriately.

But how do you avoid stripping "praise the Lord!" of legitimacy? Not the most burning question facing evangelical Christendom at this moment in history, perhaps, but considering how often we risk invoking our Lord's name tritely, isn't it something nonetheless worthy of contemplation?

Technically, Biblically, we should be thankful for everything God gives us, but just as we didn't go around thanking our parents for every blade of grass they cut or sock they laundered when we were kids, God doesn't expect us to use our time that inefficiently, or treat our relationship with Him as if it depends on our cataloging His blessings.

So how about if we feel the urge to say something like "praise the Lord," we say it in a way that denotes a particular declaration on our part; not something that sounds like it rolls off the tongue without our even thinking about it.

Which brings me to Latin. Don't words in Latin have a certain prestige or officiousness to them? Medical terms and scientific names always sound more convincingly important when we hear them in Latin.

For example, doesn't "perussi duos aspirin quod contactus mihi cras" sound a lot more impressive than "take two aspirin and call me in the morning"?

Or maybe that's just me.

In any case, I looked up some suitable Latin phrases to replace the English "praise the Lord" wording, and came up with the following list. One of them might sound familiar to even the least-fluent Latin speaker:

Laus Deo = Praise to God

Gloria in excelsis = Glory to God in the highest

Deus est regit qui omnia = There is a God who rules all things

Deo gratias (D.G.) - Thanks be to God

So, what do you think? Can you see yourself substituting any of these Latin phrases for "praise the Lord" during the course of your day?

Maybe I'm making entirely too much of this idea, but I think I'm going to try for the "Deo gratias" version (which is pronounced "DAY-o GRAHT-see-us"). For one thing, our Chancel Choir has an anthem in our repertoire by that name, with the phrase repeated throughout it.

It may not be the king's English, as they'd see it at Cambridge.

But I'm sure Christ, my King, will understand.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

No Noble Gestures May Cost Us

Right-wingers may not like admitting it, but noblesse oblige is a Biblical concept.

According to Merriam-Webster, noblesse oblige can be defined as "the obligation of honorable, generous, and responsible behavior associated with high rank or birth."

Or, in other words, "to whom much is given, much is required" (Luke 12:48).

Personally, I'm not a fan of the term "noblesse oblige." Maybe because it's of French origin, or maybe because it implies that only incredibly wealthy people have disproportionately greater civic obligations to the less-economically-endowed. If you read the Scriptures carefully, you'll note that Christ doesn't let anybody off the hook just because they may not be top income earners. Just about all of us have more stuff than somebody else - whether it's money, status, privilege, education, health, or material goods. To people who have less than us, the things we have more of than them is "much."

So Christ expects more from just about all of us than the French would.

But then, that probably doesn't surprise many people.

At any rate, the term "noblesse oblige" has recently been used in reference to American billionaire Warren Buffett and his bold assertion last week that Congress should raise taxes on fellow citizens in his income bracket. He called it "shared sacrifice."

As could be expected, some liberals have championed Buffett's call, pleased that such a highly-regarded capitalist would support such a political hot-potato in our rhetorically-charged financial climate. At the same time, some conservatives have chided Buffett for pandering to the masses, dropping a surprising admission of weak economic integrity on his part.

To be frank, I don't understand why, if Buffett himself wants to pay more taxes, he doesn't voluntarily step up to the plate. Every year, a smattering of taxpayers already send the United States Treasury unsolicited checks, ostensibly to help pay down our national debt, even though the amounts they send - generally totalling a couple of million dollars annually - don't even begin to put a dent into our outstanding balance. I doubt a few million extra in taxes from Buffett - or even the rest of our top income earners - will, either.

Let's be realistic: What's necessary isn't more taxes, but a wholesale overhaul of the way government runs and what it spends our taxes on. So conservatives are correct in portraying Buffett's suggestion as ignoring the real issue.

But can conservatives sputter, as they usually do in the same breath, that raising taxes on the rich will actually cost our country jobs?

If, for example, the choice was between making the companies these wealthy people run hire more employees, or raising their income taxes, would these wealthy folks hire more employees, or just pay the taxes?

Wouldn't it still be cheaper in the long run for the uber-rich to just pay higher taxes than hire enough workers to lower the unemployment rate? Because they'd need to hire a lot of people, wouldn't they?

How likely is it that the money these wealthy folks would supposedly pay in higher taxes could increase employment to the point where the economy could noticeably improve? Our debt is in the trillions, and growing every day.

We can't tax our way out of this mess. So no matter how you look at it, giving more money to the government will neither lower unemployment, nor pay off much debt. As far as more taxes for the rich is concerned, conservatives appear to have logic on their side.

Speaking of logic, however; after Buffett's statement last week, some of France's wealthiest taxpayers have taken up the gauntlet, calling on their government to raise their taxes. The world's second-richest woman, L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, joined 15 executives of French companies to petition their Parlement français for the opportunity to pay a "special contribution." Their spin on Buffett's "shared sacrifice," and a way of modeling noblesse oblige, I suppose.

For some Americans, such a grand gesture by the French elite means very little. I'm reminded of one of General Norman Schwarzkopf's funniest quotes, when, upon learning the French refused to join coalition forces in the first Gulf War, he purportedly scoffed, "going to war without the French is like going duck hunting without an accordion!"

Of course, having American conservatives blasting a tax on the rich might have more credibility if Standard and Poor's hadn't lowered our government's debt rating to AA+ from AAA. France still has their AAA rating. But then, the French still seem to have more faith in government's ability to find financial fixes than we do.

If we're going to prove that private industry drives economic prosperity, and not government policy, wouldn't now be a good time to do it? Although Buffett has seized on the wrong approach, he does have one thing right: America's richest are in the best position to make positive economic changes for our nation.

As long as they sit on their cash during tough economic times like these, somebody's going to get inordinately jealous. Either the government, or lower-bracket taxpayers, or the welfare class that pays no taxes at all.

The more affluent a person becomes, the greater the expectation that they contribute more to society. That's not just a social phenomenon, or a socialist manifesto; it's a Biblical mandate.

And the longer we try to pretend that isn't true, the worse things may get for all of us.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Human Link to Rabid Rules

There are two types of R-and-R.

One is pleasant and enjoyable: rest -and- recreation.

The other is onerous and tedious: rules -and- regulations.

It's the R-and-R of the onerous variety that tends to rub many Americans the wrong way when it comes to our government and the many ways we perceive bureaucrats are trying to control our lives.

And in our current political climate, rules and regulations have become ripe as targets for ridicule and overthrow as the specter of Nanny State control seems to have sent its tentacles into every aspect of modern American life.

Yet, as I've said before, how many of these rules and regulations have actually been codified because a group of people originally abused something that used to be free and unregulated? How many times has the government been called to step in when somebody has crossed the line between respectful compliance with normative - albeit non-regulated - behavior, and pushing the line into something unsustainable?

Take, for example, the longtime sport of coon hunting in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Not that I have anything against hunting. Or any particular affection for raccoons.

But did you know that the entire East Coast of the United States, from Maine to Florida, has been infested with a severe raccoon rabies crisis?

And it all started when some enterprising hunters broke the law.

The Lacey Act, to be specific.

Trafficking in Raccoons

Back in the 1970's, Florida found itself with a burgeoning population of raccoons, who were spreading rabies amongst themselves at epidemic proportions. Meanwhile, back in Virginia, a group of raccoon hunters feared they were running out of their favorite prey, and learned of Florida's extra supply. Whether they also learned of Florida's rabies plight is unclear.

Let's assume that the coon hunters from Virginia didn't know about the rabies, since that will help out their side of this sordid tale. The Virginia coon hunters traveled down to Florida, caught thousands of the ring-tailed critters, and hauled them back to ol' Virginny so their coon dogs could have a field day chasing them through woods and, well, fields. And grown men could go a'hunting and bond over the slaughter of innocent animals.

Like I said, I'm not anti-hunting, but there has to be a point to it for it to be worthwhile. Hunting raccoons to help control their population is a legitimate pursuit. But doesn't trapping animals and trucking them to your own patch of forest so you can hunt them again seem woefully unsportsmanlike?

At any rate, enough of the raccoons either never got shot - or had plenty of time between being released in Virginia and getting killed for sport - to infect the indigenous raccoon population with rabies, a little souvenir from their Florida days. And, thanks to some naturally-occurring environmental conditions, particularly in Virginia's Loudon County, the rabies epidemic took off like a scared varmint out of a trap. It sprinted up the East Coast to Maine and into Canada, and all the way back down the Carolinas to Florida. And within a decade, rabid raccoons were everywhere. Even more than those Virginia hunters could ever hope to kill.

Don't believe me? How about England's Twycross Zoo, and it's WildPro website of wildlife experts? In a study on raccoon rabies along the East Coast of their former colonies, Wildpro made the following assessments:

"Long-distance translocation of raccoons for hunting is considered to be the method by which raccoon rabies reached the mid-Atlantic states... Deliberate translocation of raccoons from the south-eastern USA is considered to be the most likely source of mid-Atlantic/north-eastern USA rabies epizootic in raccoons... Thousands of raccoons have been imported into the mid-Atlantic area for hunting purposes yearly."

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, several thousand of these raccoons purportedly had proper inter-state shipping documentation and health certificates. But many of them were held in cages with other raccoons - which were rabid - at different stages of the shipping process, invalidating the legal paperwork. In 1992, after it was obvious the situation had gotten out of hand, Virginia began putting some teeth into its enforcement of the Lacey Act, which had originally been written to help prevent similar types of man-made wildlife imbalances. Shippers of nearly 3,000 raccoons worth almost $57,000 were fined, and one was jailed, before it was all over.

But the damage had already been done.

Just One Bite

You're probably aware that rabies is a fatal disease for most household pets. Thanks to effective wildlife control and vaccines, of the tens of thousands of Americans who get bitten by a rabid animal every year, "only" two or three die. In 2003, the first American to die from rabies contracted through a raccoon was a 25-year-old from, of all places, Virginia.

Some people may say that's an insignificant ratio of human death compared to years and years of hunting enjoyment. How many other people accidentally have gotten shot while hunting, for example (which, of course, depends on whether Dick Cheney has a Virginia hunting license)?  So I'm not going to peg the death of this poor young Virginian on the coon hunters who violated the Lacey Act thirty years ago.

And who's to say that having raccoon-born rabies consuming the eastern seaboard hasn't kept the region's veterinarians and vaccine suppliers busy?

But how much of this was necessary? Is coon hunting that valuable to the human race? Don't the government and wildlife experts have a legitimate reason to regulate the interstate transport of animals for the protection of society? Aren't we just making life that much more complicated by pushing the boundaries of rationality? After all: if you add up all of the rules and regulations intended to counteract things like disease disbursement, don't you end up with the lethargic bureaucracy we keep lamenting our government has become?

At some point, Americans are going to have to come to the realization that in a society, very few personal actions take place in a vacuum. Don't underestimate the interconnectedness of one person's inability to take personal responsibility for their actions and the government's need to protect everyone else from those people.

Not that innovation and entrepreneurialism need to come to a screeching stop because we might risk causing something bad that we can't think of yet. Like I've said, coon hunting as a sport is one thing, since people who find it fun also help control the population of a varmint that can wreak a lot of havoc. Yet isn't violating interstate wildlife transport laws - which were designed to protect us - simply further proof that government regulations tend to exist for a reason?

Not all of them, certainly, but enough of 'em.

If we'd all think beyond our own interests, one person's rest and recreation has less chance of becoming somebody else's rules and regulations.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Playing Games with Brain Injuries

Frequent readers of this blog will know that I'm not a sports fan.

Yet I sometimes play one when watching TV!

Last night, after a stressful week of family issues, my father and I watched the Dallas Cowboys (that's football, to all y'all laymen out there) play the San Diego Chargers in their nationally-televised pre-season game.

Normally, if I watch sports, I watch baseball, where you can get some genuine intrigue and the athletes have skills I can appreciate. In my estimation, however, there's no better way to let your brain vegetate than watching professional football. I clarify the level of football because, I have to admit, college games can be far more interesting than watching multi-millionaires pushing each other up and down a field.

And last night's game was no exception. The Cowboys still seemed to be back at training camp, only managing to put seven points on the board to San Diego's 20. Actually, Dallas could have had at least 13, if the touchdown by Phillip Tanner had counted for anything.

A running back, Tanner scrambled to extricate himself from a pile of Chargers during one down and in the process, lost his helmet. But he managed to escape and make a crowd-loving run to the end zone for some badly-needed Dallas points.

To the home crowd's chagrin, however, a new rule in the NFL designed to address the rising awareness of brain injury in the sport meant that when Tanner lost his helmet, the play was over. In fact, not only did the touchdown not count, Dallas was penalized 5 yards for a separate infraction they committed on the play.

Up in the broadcasters' booth, however, announcers Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth were lavishing praise on Tanner, gushing about his enthusiasm and stubbornness, being so eager by running the ball even after losing his helmet. That kind of driven, goal-oriented athleticism makes a great player, they crowed.

All this adulation, ironically, even after some long-winded comments earlier in the same game about the NFL's new concussion-risk rules when San Diego's Malcom Floyd was taken out in the first half after suffering one. And even despite Collinsworth's reputation as an advocate for brain-trauma prevention in the NFL.

Last year, the New York Times quoted Collinsworth, a longtime youth league coach, as questioning the suitability of football as a sport for children:

“'This is a league that we’ve always celebrated the biggest hits and the bone-jarring blows, but you can’t hide from the evidence anymore,'” Collinsworth, in a telephone interview, said regarding the short- and long-term effects of football head trauma. “'We’re talking about the very essence of the game. I’d be less than honest if I said I didn’t have my doubts as to whether my children should be playing football.'”

What a curious thing for a football announcer to say!

After decades of phenomenal popularity, America's lionized football industry has begun to face a dark reality that the physical brutality for which it is so celebrated can penalize its players with irreversible brain injuries. The trauma players suffer despite state-of-the-art helmets and other protective gear can return to haunt them in the form of mental illnesses later in life. Speaking as a person who's watching a loved one lapse into the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, I would think the NFL would want to do everything it can to help its players avoid anything that could precipitate a similar diagnosis.

Broken bones are one thing. A damaged brain is something else entirely.

So to hear Collinsworth and Michaels cheering Tanner for his tenacity in running the ball even without a helmet sounds disingenuous at best. We saw live video of Tanner's teammates congratulating him for what medical experts would say was a stupid move. Upon losing his helmet, Tanner should first have known that the play was over, but even if instinct had compelled him to make a run for the end zone, his own awareness for his physical safety should have been equally strong, urging him to let the play end.

Is it good enough that Tanner kept going, risking injury to a naked head when everybody else on the field still had their helmets on? Is such bravado in the face of such risk worthy of admiration? Should sports writers, commenting today on the play, be casting the NFL's new rule about helmets in such a somber tone, considering how helpful a touchdown would have been for the Cowboys?

How herioc does Tanner's success at reaching the end zone become when you realize that everybody else on the field likely assumed the play was over the minute his helmet came off? How strenuously did the Chargers try to stop him after that? Even though, admittedly, the chances of Tanner getting walloped in this short run and suffering a head injury weren't great, is this really something anybody can brag about or uphold as an example of gritty determination?

I hope that today, Tanner has reconsidered his impetuousness and at least resigned himself to a rule that could, in some future game, save his life. Or at least his mental health. Hopefully, other players and coaches are using last night's incident as a teachable moment today, reminding themselves of the important protection that helmets provide, even thought that protection isn't failsafe.

On the topic of head injuries in sports, NBC sports writer Gregg Rosenthal wrote an opinion column on July 4, 2010, pontificating that "Americans, by our very nature, take risks. And if we didn’t take risks, we wouldn’t be celebrating 234 years of independence today."

With all due respect to sports lovers, taking risks for establishing a democracy, building the Hoover Dam, and engineering the Space Shuttle can hardly be compared with playing football without a helmet.

Let's have some real-life perspective here, people!

It's this type of blind, consuming reverence for sports that keeps me from taking much of it too seriously.

Although meanwhile, I'm saddened that too many people don't take brain injuries in sports more seriously.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Paradox in Pro-Choicers' Angst

Hip and slick, the webzine isn't known as a bastion of conservative ethics.

Yet there it was this past Tuesday, William Saletan's article "Half-Aborted: Why do 'reductions' of twin pregnancies trouble pro-choicers?"

Um, what? Did he just use the term "abortion" in a negative sense?

Now, to be fair, just because some pro-choice advocates believe abortion should be legal doesn't mean they all want the practice to be common. Yes, some militant pro-abortion activists would have no problem with fetus-killing becoming as ordinary as having semi-annual dental cleanings. But a lot of abortion defenders hope the practice is used as little as possible.

Still, that's hardly a defense of abortion, even though it does indicate that abortion isn't even wildly popular among many of its supporters.

And apparently, a new twist in the debate has made even more pro-choicers think twice about what's really at stake here.

It's called "twin reduction," and it involves deciding to terminate one of two twin fetuses if the expectant mother decides she doesn't want both of them. Apparently, according to abortionists, the procedure is quite safe - except for the fetus whose future is terminated by its mother, of course.

And that's the rub.

Some abortion advocates have begun wondering about the ethics - ! - of killing one twin but not the other. As if aborting both of them would be more ethical than just one.

If you can breach the fallacy of that illogical idea, then you can move forward with understanding how a mother would become increasingly guilty about depriving a twin of their, well, twin; and being reminded of that choice every time she looked at her surviving child. How do you know if you aborted the right one? Who's to say you shouldn't have aborted the other one?  What gives you the right to deprive a twin of their twin?

Saletan writes:

"That's the anguish of reduction: watching the fetus you spared become what its twin will never be. And knowing that the only difference between them was your will."

As the pro-choicers in Saletan's piece all agree, the situation seems to become ethically complex quite quickly.

Of course, if you're pro-life like I am, you know the situation isn't complex at all. You just don't abort. But how ironic is it listening to people who claim abortion is OK suddenly finding themselves struggling over life issues when two - instead of one - are involved? Again, it's amazing to hear that it doesn't seem as though killing both twins is as difficult a decision as killing just one, which begs the question: why is killing ANY of them OK?

It's a question that appears to have rattled pro-abortion folks.

Indeed, this dawning realization that a fetus can have intrinsic value may re-captivate a critical component of America's abortion debate. And how ironic that it's been pro-choicers who've stumbled upon it all by themselves! Shouldn't this be some sort of encouragement to the rest of us? Just when it seemed like the abortion issue had faded into the background of our sociopolitical discourse, it comes burning back into focus.

By none other than the very people who said they could live with abortion.

As it's turning out, some of them are wondering if their kids can, too.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Reduce Taxes by Saving Your Marriage


Wanna help reduce the size of government and how much money it spends?

After all, that's the resounding battle cry these days in conservative circles, isn't it?

Well, here's an idea: don't divorce.

Granted, it's not a new concept, but the Heritage Foundation's weekly e-newsletter called "Culture Watch" neatly summarizes some basic facts about the ancillary financial costs of divorce on society. Entitled "The Fiscal Benefits of Fixing Broken Homes," their e-mail this week counts some of the ways keeping families intact saves all of us money: ‏

"As the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project notes, just one divorce can cost state and federal governments up to $30,000 as dependency on government aid increases with family dissolution. With roughly 40 to 50 percent of marriages predicted to end in divorce, marital breakdown can cost billions each year in government assistance.

"Perhaps even more troubling than the economic costs of divorce, society’s grand experiment in family breakdown has serious ramifications for the well-being of future generations. Children who do not live in intact families are more likely to have decreased academic performance and experience higher rates of divorce in their own marriages. Adolescents from non-intact families are more likely to engage in sexual activity, use illicit drugs, and exhibit anti-social behavior.

"Intact marriage, on the other hand, can have profound social and economic benefits for current and future generations, promoting greater physical health, improving finances, and providing the emotional stability to raise well-adjusted children. Marriage can even help reduce child poverty."

Now, maybe this will all sound hollow and insensitive from a never-married, no-children white male, but as a United States citizen and taxpayer, maybe I need to make a little noise about how all the people out there who get divorced are actually costing me money!

Think about it: if you're a fiscal conservative, and you don't like paying taxes, and you favor limited government, and you encourage personal responsibility, and you think government intervention in private family affairs has become too intrusive, and you believe public school systems have too much authority over our kids, and you're married; then don't divorce!

Not that financial considerations should be the primary reason spouses decide not to end their marriage. There are plenty of sound moral and Biblical reasons to remain true and faithful to the person with whom you've walked down that matrimonial aisle.

But if those esoteric rationales seem to fade in the heat of anger, distrust, frustration, disillusionment, and betrayal, then think about the money. Not what you might salvage in divorce court, but what your divorce and everybody else's could end up costing the rest of us.

Granted, since selfishness tends to rule at the top of reasons people get divorced, caring about how the destruction of your marriage vows impacts people unrelated to you probably matters little. But the facts - unlike, perhaps, the spouse with whom you're unhappy - don't lie.

Ultimately, in too many broken families, the government needs to step in somehow and make up for something that evaporates in the disunity. Both for the sake of the immediate family members involved, and for the rest of society at large. This government assistance takes various forms, and it's all far more expensive than if families managed their own affairs privately, together.

From unpaid child support, which can lead to poverty and welfare; to latchkey children, which can lead to poor academic performance and crime; to miserable academic performance, which can lead to poverty, welfare, and crime; to teenaged pregnancies, which can lead to poverty and welfare, divorce simply does not provide any fiscal benefit to society. None. Zip. Except to divorce lawyers, and who thinks the world needs any more of those?

Sure, maybe with your income and professional degree, you'll be able to salvage some of the economic supports that will keep yourself, your ex, and your kids out of poverty. Not all kids from broken homes become criminals, and not all ex-spouses become dependant on government agencies for sustenance. But emotional scars from something as destructive as divorce have a way of manifesting themselves in all sorts of social dysfunctions that end up costing all of us money. Maybe not now, or two years after the divorce becomes final. For some fortunate families, maybe not at all. But who can control their divorce that successfully? After all, you couldn't manage to salvage your marriage.

Sure, it's easy for me to talk, never having been married myself. But one of the reasons I've yet to be married involves my appreciation for how hard it must be. Marriage isn't all sticky love and passion, like immature lovers imagine it to be. It's compromise and self-sacrifice, resolute commitment, deep emotions you wouldn't dare show anybody else, brutal honesty, and the daily grind of morning breath and unmentionables drying in the bathroom. And that's all before you even have kids!

I'm not naive enough to expect every marriage to last happily-ever-after. But haven't the rates of divorce in the evangelical church - not to mention our society in general - gotten completely out of hand? For people of faith to live out their faith in a covenant of marriage, raise children who will honor them and God, and model family ethics in a culture pushing for things like gay marriage, divorce cannot be a realistic option.

Especially if we're also trying to bring down our nation's debt.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Are Christians Doing Less With More?

It never ceases to amaze me how many professional Christians we have running around North America, busy with professional Christian stuff.

And I'm not just talking about ordinary senior pastors and church staffers.

I'm talking about the people of faith who write books and blogs and magazine articles, who guest-preach and teach and hold seminars, who pontificate on nuances in doctrine and theology, establish non-profit ministries to advance their viewpoints, market their radio and TV programs and websites, and generally contribute to a vast religious subculture of ways to propagate faith among the world's wealthiest Christians.

Not that it's all bad, wrong, ill-intentioned, or even new. It's been going on for at least half a century, and probably only now seems overwhelming since the Internet and social media make it so easy for anybody to set up a website, blog, or Twitter account. Granted, some individual participants in this mass-marketing of Christian ideology may not present the best expressions of faith-based ministry, but as a whole, I cannot dismiss the potential efficacy and sincere intentionality of many of these professional Christians. After all, we're promised in the Bible that when God's Word goes out, it does not return void.

But I have to look at all of this professional Christian activity, and then at our country, and wonder: God's Word may not return void, but how productive are all of the efforts of these professional Christians? Judging by the evangelical church's impact on our modern society, it looks like rain falling on fields of netting: the nets get wet, but most of the water just drains right through.

Or, perhaps what we see today in our world would look far worse if we didn't have this massive religious marketing machine churning out new books, paradigms, formulas, growth models, CDs, and opinions?

I look at my own blog, and question its relevance and necessity in the North American church culture. As I mentioned almost two years ago when I started, this blog primarily is supposed to be serving as a living resume for me to secure a writing job. Of course, I've been pleased at the feedback I've received along the way, and it has been helpful as I've tried to hone my writing craft and provide readers with a better product that's more respectful of their time and attention. But at the end of the day, isn't it up to the readers who are willing to invest that time and attention - especially to stuff by far more eminent people than myself - to make this material worthwhile?

Doesn't it seem like those types of readers, perhaps even instead of we bloggers, writers, teachers, and ministry leaders, are the people upon whom the legitimacy of this massive Christian publishing and marketing industry rises or falls?

Because I have no real reason to do otherwise, I'll take on face value that most of the personalities and material that North American Christendom is churning out these days has some benefit to Christ's kingdom. Every generation has people upon whom God has provided an impetus for writing about aspects of His glorious character, and any of us who squelch the honest calling of God in this way is to be pitied.

But let's face it: very little of what any of us write or teach is actually new. Everything we NEED to know about God is provided in His Word, while a lot of what the Christian marketing industry produces these days addresses materialistic, hedonistic, and narcissistic issues God never intended His people to prioritize in their lives anyway.

Good and insightful Christian writers and teachers inevitably rise to the top in every generation as people blessed with more skills and gifts than others, and I try not to be jealous of those people, like the Al Molher's, Tim Keller's, and Tim Challies' of our day. Besides, my purpose isn't to pick apart some leaders and ministries as inferior to others. To the extent that people believe they are being led of God to participate in His work on Earth by writing and teaching, I pray that they are indeed glorifying God with the talents they believe they've been given. Remember, what makes me question this whole industry is the apparent lack of impact this massive confection of professional Christianity is having on our world, not the likelihood that some participants in this industry have more integrity than others. The stronger one's faith, the easier it should be to discern the better messengers of God's truth.

Think about it: more resources are available to North America's believers than to any other cohort of believes at any place at any time in the history of the world. And to whom much is given, much is required, right? Yet we evangelicals still burn through our marriages at rates equal to the society around us. We still bicker, squabble, and gossip in churches like they're more country clubs than houses of worship. Most of us even center our lives around our careers, instead of Christ, and that's reflected in the choices we make regarding how much time we spend teaching our children about Christ in our homes.

Perhaps most telling, I'll point out to the consternation of most Christians, is the amount of energy we spend trying to emulate the things of the world rather than the Son of their Creator.

After all, careers, nice homes, vacations, technology, sports, education, and even politics and church have been created by a God Who loves us. None of them are bad in and of themselves, and there's not one verse in the Bible which tells us to flee any of these things. Yet in our society, they all add up to a culture of urgency, necessity, and consumption which inevitably distracts us from what should be our overarching aim in life: to worship God and enjoy Him forever.

So to many people of faith, it makes sense that consuming books and seminars and blog entries presenting concepts and ideas and opinions of urgent necessity plays a legitimate part of faith. In fact, technology has widened our access to all of this media and our natural inclination to feel behind the curve if we're not up on the latest popular preaching series propels us to continue feeding the obligation to continue consuming more and more of it.


Along the way, of course, a number of people actually do get fed, and people of faith do encounter gems of truth presented in novel ways that help them capture God's Word in a fresh relevance. If none of this stuff had any value, the market for Christian material wouldn't be running rampant with new content all the time.

But at what point should we be seeing a credible impact by the way we live our lives and believe in God on the society around us? Rather than having a Christian subculture that would be sorely missed in North America if it disappeared tomorrow, how many of us would be mourned if our spheres of influence were denied our presence? Remember the early church in Acts, which actually found favor in Jerusalem at large by fellowshipping and worshipping with each other in counter-cultural ways?

Let's fact it: we are not influencing our culture in North America as much as copying it. And the volume of material cascading over and generated by the Christian community appears to be concealing that fact.

But is that the fault of the people and ministries producing this material?

Or the people who are supposed to be consuming it and letting God use it in them to live for Him?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Does This Movie Help Anything?

I hadn't heard about the book, but I've sure heard about the movie.

Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel, The Help, adapted into this summer's blockbuster of the same name by director Tate Taylor.

In case you're unfamiliar with this suddenly famous story, I'll summarize it briefly. The Help is a fictional account of two black maids in 1960's Jackson, Mississippi, ostensibly chronicled by a novice white journalist who herself grew up with black maids in her family's house.

Since I'd never heard of the book until last week, you can assume correctly that I've never read it. But I don't think I'll go to see the movie, either.

Not because it's a chick-flick disguised in historical drama, which, frankly, would be a good enough excuse for me anyway. But because I'm uneasy about what it presumes to say about our nation's legacy of racism, how it presumes to say it, and whose battleground stories have greater validity if it needs to be said.

I'm not the only person treading cautiously over this movie and its subject matter. In fact, discussions over the such concerns have appeared to eclipse evaluations of the movie's cinematic qualities.

Perhaps not surprisingly, most movie critics scoff at the controversy and rave about The Help's script and acting. Or they treat the controversy as a matter of opinion, and since all opinions are equal these days, the value of the movie is in the eye of its beholder. Subjectivism, after all, is the opiate of the masses.

But what several observers to the craze over The Help have pointed out is not a discomfort with the actual portrayal of racism in 1960's Mississippi, but whether a legitimate story about racism can be told with such apparent sympathy by white folk.

And although some people may see that as splitting hairs when we're trying to move beyond race in the United States, isn't that still a real, honest question?

Sure, you can have black actors telling a white actor their stories, as in The Help, but what is the purpose in that, especially when we know the whole thing is fiction? If this were a real-life story, we'd probably not be having this conversation because facts command greater respect.

In addition, what amount of genuine pathos and first-person authenticity remains after a white author and a white director polish off Hollywood's latest for-profit movie on racial themes? This is not a documentary, yet even as fiction, the lines for the maids are all created by Stockett, a white woman, even if they're acted by black women. I'm not saying that 1960's Mississippi racism is a story that can only be told by black folk. But I think whites need to be extraordinarily sensitive to the inferences and inflections we may ascribe to people who've experienced a real phenomenon we'll never know.

After all, can white folk understand what segregation meant to blacks who went through it? Does drinking at the whites-only fountain give you an understanding of what it's like to drink from the "coloreds?" Does employing black women to tolerate your insufferably bourgeoisie attitudes make you an expert on what it's like to work for wages that are artificially depressed because of ones' skin color?

For a story which purports to offer a moral perspective of something as lopsidedly-perceived by its participants as racism, The Help pretends to possess far more authority to do so than it really has. The threat of such an over-extension on the people who watch it can be subtle, but no less pernicious as the story's claim of authority. Basically, this is the unanswered question: What is the extent to which white guilt gets a fresh summer whitewashing by The Help in the feel-good aura of an air-conditioned theater in 2011 suburbia?

I'm not suggesting that everybody who made this movie, read this book, and enjoys the story is a latent racist. I'm not even saying you shouldn't go see it for yourself.

I'm simply saying that for a work of fiction this compelling to be told, why did it take a white woman to come up with it? For my money, I think the real-life biographies in Same Kind of Different as Me provides a far more challenging perspective on race and class relations, since it's told by both a white guy and a black guy who've lived out the story in real-life.

Then, too, I think the older aspects of racism have begun to dissipate somewhat in the United States as strife between classes moves to center stage in our sociopolitical sphere. Pockets of 1960's Mississippi still exist, obviously - mostly in and around Mississippi, not coincidentally - but with a solid black middle class now, the struggle isn't so much equal rights as it is finding jobs and paying mortgages as corporations and our government keep tightening the screws on our workforce.

At least that's this under-employed white man's opinion.

Meanwhile, Americans need to encounter plot lines like The Help's with a greater dose of critiquing ability than the average movie ratings guide. We need to remember that the best grand, moral spectacles Hollywood can produce, like the epic Schindler's List and even Saving Private Ryan, are still based on perspectives that can be legitimately qualified by the realm of human experience. That's what makes them genuine narratives of a place and time that speak to us still today.

Not that The Help is totally without merit. It's just that fictional stories that make you feel good in the end don't necessarily amount to much when you have to leave the theater and walk back into real life.

In that regard, The Help may be more of a hindrance.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Elder Care Debate, Gabor-Style

And then there's this:

Zsa Zsa Gabor and her ninth husband, Prince Frederic von Anhalt, threw a lavish 25th wedding anniversary party yesterday in Bel Air.

Well, actually, it was 68-year-old von Anhalt who threw the party, ostensibly for his 94-year-old wife, who is ailing from a variety of medical problems.

Gabor's only child, Francesca Hilton (yes, of the hotelier's fame) was not invited, although some of Hollywood's B-listers and a smattering of paparazzi did attend.

More than Meets the Eye

At first, it's easy to fault von Anhalt for his apparently insatiable thirst for publicity, and the press over the mockery they've made of this story. They've both had a field day recently over the ostentation with which von Anhalt continues to buttress the facade of lavish comfort he claims to provide his wife. For yesterday's fete, he took out a $68,000 billboard on Sunset Boulevard proclaiming the anniversary, replete with royal titles ("Princess Zsa Zsa") and an inaccurate website URL. Meanwhile, citing the high costs related to his wife's care, he's put Gabor's hillside mansion on the market for $15 million, despite claims by Hilton that a prenup prohibits him from any claim to it.

The press won't let this story fade for more reasons that just von Anhalt's narcissistic photo-ops, however. There's a real tension here between a woman who might actually be mentally incapable of making her own decisions and her sole heir, who's being kept at arm's length by the domineering ninth husband. Granted, von Anhalt has a certain claim to notoriety, considering his marriage to Gabor has lasted far longer than any of her other marriages, and he's the one who's stuck with her as her health rapidly declined. If he's really got a title, and she's really got only a fraction of her former wealth left, most people in Hollywood wouldn't have batted an eye if he'd just left her for some other lonely Tinseltown has-been with deeper pockets.

After all, Gabor really only made a name for herself - and a small fortune, to boot - by marrying up and up, and parlaying her glamor on the talk shows of television's golden age. She's never built anything, gotten an advanced degree, or been critically acclaimed in any movie or TV show. Even her sister, the equally-glamorous Eva, managed to earn some bona-fide studio credentials by schlepping through several seasons - and muddy farm scenes - on the delightfully daffy Green Acres.

Which probably makes the irony for the last surviving Gabor that much more bizarre. And, even, poignant. She's got a husband from who-knows-where with a royal pedigree likely worth squat who employs a publicist to trot out his frail wife's every ER visit with gusto. She's got an heiress daughter caught someplace between an estranged stepfather's lawyer and a media machine eager to capitalize on what they consider to be a story laden both with voyeuristic fodder and real-time medical ethics:

What to do when families can't agree on elder care?

Indeed, it's a timely topic, with people living longer in North America, and dilemmas regarding debilitating medical issues facing more and more families. Alzheimer's, cancer, and other life-ending conditions strike with more and more frequency, imperiling life savings and meager health insurance policies. Von Anhalt has said that caring for his wife in her dated villa costs about $35,000 a month, and depending on how many nurses she needs and their specialties, he may not be exaggerating. I've done some recent research myself for a dear family member in New York City, and the average stay in an average Brooklyn senior care facility runs almost $10,000 per month if you don't want a city-run home.


Is This a Train Wreck or Not?

Part of me wants to just move along and treat this story for what part of me considers it to be: a sad, gaudy, but private family struggle. Gabor was never known for her discrete taste and modesty, and van Anhalt's camera-mugging at her expense smacks of sleaze.

Yet another part of me, the part dealing with aging loved ones himself, wants to see von Anhalt's side of things; how his wife led a glamorous life, and how he'd like her declining years to at least hold a fraction of that glamor. Perhaps because glamor is really all Gabor wanted out of life, at least publicly; but also to de-stigmatize the aged as a cohort of sub-humans who don't deserve the same pampering and attention they received when they were more vibrant in their earlier days.

It's all part of the story of the validity and sanctity of life, isn't it? Hilton and von Anhalt obviously have issues they need to resolve regarding Gabor's care and finances, but neither one has come out and said Gabor should be shunted off to the periphery of society.

As long as that's the direction our society's overall dialog continues to trend regarding the way we deal with our senior citizens, then maybe having Gabor and von Anhalt star in the tackier parts of the script could give them both some much-needed legitimacy. And make conversations regarding end-of-life considerations less taboo.

After all, life for a 94-year old bed-ridden amputee with marginal cognition skills is still life, that precious gift God gives to each of us. He may be taking the cheesy way of doing it, but for a star of the old Hollywood, Gabor's husband is playing her script to the end.

Sure, it's gilded and shallow. For a couple who built their reputation on such vacuities, however, more of the same at 94 has a certain ring to it.

Even if the "R" in "ring" should be replaced with "BL."

Friday, August 12, 2011

Bare Heads and Bears

Recently, a single female friend of mine made a joke about dating bald guys.

(BTW, she's dating a guy with a full head of hair.)

After realizing what she'd said - and acknowledging, well, the fact that I'm bald - my friend rushed to apologize, fearful she'd accidentally insulted me or something.

But no, she hadn't insulted me, and I assured her there was nothing for which to apologize. Quite frankly, I've gotten used to having very little hair. Yes, I know I'm bald. No, I'm not convinced I look better now than when I had hair. And yes, I realize baldness doesn't look compelling on most men.

Or women, for that matter.

But we cope, we victims of denuded scalps. There are bigger problems on this planet than a lack of hair, even though this particular one can bother some of us more than others.

And in the most peculiar ways.

Hair Apparent

For example, when I used to ride New York's subways, it never ceased to amaze me how desperate some men were to re-grow hair. Standing smushed in a packed subway car, holding on to the railing, and gazing down at the head of a guy seated below you, it became common to see neat rows of little red dots in the wake of mens' receding hairlines, where hair follicles had been transplanted. It looked like Farmer Jones was growing corn on the guy's forehead.

I'm not vain enough to have ever even considered hair transplants, but I'm reminded of my baldness whenever we recite, of all things, the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism and its answer. I always tend to grin with an acknowledgement of God's sovereignty - and humankind's attempt at quantifying it - as expressed by a particular line. See if you can pick it out:

Question: "What is your only comfort, in life and in death?"

Answer: "That I belong - body and soul, in life and in death - not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of His own blood has fully paid for all my sins and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil; that He protects me so well that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that everything must fit His purpose for my salvation. Therefore, by His Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for Him."

Obviously, since God protects me so well, not one of my hairs has ever fallen from my head without His approval, and I can appreciate the theological significance of that fact. While that analogy portrays an incalculable comprehension and repository of knowledge and data on God's part, and helps describe how intimately familiar He is with all of His creation, since I'm bald, my mind has sometimes wandered into the far more trivial aspects of this truth.

For example, might the people who drafted the confession with this example about balding have been follicly- challenged themselves? Why didn't they pick some other fascinating factoid to describe God's attributes? And since God has ordained my personal baldness, is it wrong for me to wish that he kept count of changes in my life by some other method than my rapidly declining hair inventory? Or, might having less hair on my head for Him to count make up for all of the other benefits and graces He needs to bestow on my fragile, mortal existence?


After my friend's joke earlier this week, then, imagine my delight in finding this passage from 2 Kings in my devotions this morning, concerning the prophet Elisha after Elijah was taken to Heaven in a celestial chariot:

From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some youths came out of the town and jeered at him. "Go on up, you baldhead!" they said. "Go on up, you baldhead!"  He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the LORD. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the youths.  And he went on to Mount Carmel and from there returned to Samaria.  2 Kings 2:23-25

Good grief! I've read this account before, but it's certainly not one of the Bible's epic narratives, like Daniel in the lion's den or Christ's feeding of the multitudes. Have you ever heard a sermon on Elisha's retaliation against mockers of his baldness?

Actually, Elisha likely was less perturbed that the youths were making fun of his apparent lack of hair then he was their insolence at his position as a prophet of the living God. He'd just taken up the mantle of Elijah the prophet - literally, even - so maybe these kids still had no idea who he was. But it better fits the character of God for Him to zealously protect His prophet's status than to be so bothered when somebody taunts a believer's physical characteristics.

Nevertheless, it's one thing to "call down a curse" on malcontents, and then for bears to come out of the woods and kill them! Although the NIV takes a relatively wimpy stance on the translation of this account with the word "maul," other translations get far more graphic. What chaos must have ensued as two bears tore apart 42 teenagers!

Several years ago, walking down a lonely Maine road through some woods one evening, I saw several yards ahead of me, a roly-poly black ball trundle out into the roadway. This country lane was lined with tall trees, and this cub just rolled out of one wall of trees, scurried across the pavement, and into another thick bank of trees on the other side.

It was so cute, and regular readers of my blog know I don't say that tritely.

By that time, I had reached the spot at which the cub had crossed the road, and - unwisely, in retrospect - I crept to the tree I'd seen him dart in behind.

As I slowly approached, I could hear the little bear, likely frightened out of it little wits, start to instinctively climb the tree, whose bark was old and crusty. Displaying remarkable acumen for such a young animal, the bear scooched itself around the other side of the big, fat tree to keep itself out of my sight. Yet alas, the crusty old bark gave way in its claws, and the cub dropped from the tree, about three feet, to the leaf-cushioned ground below.

As adorable as ever, it let out a muffled, painless grunt when it hit the base of the tree. I could practically hear it go "oof!" After catching its breath, and figuring it was now or never, it picked itself up quickly and scampered into the thick forest, by now rapidly descending into dusk's deep darkness.

I stood there for a minute, reveling in what I'd just witnessed, and so impressed at the bear's dexterity and human-like grunt when it fell. Then I remembered something: There is no such thing as a cub on its own! Certainly not in this part of coastal Maine, at least. Wherever there's a young bear, its mama is somewhere close by.

I didn't run, but I turned around and walked very quickly back the way I'd come, glancing over my shoulder every other step to make sure I wasn't about to become dinner for a family of bears. Thankfully, mama bear knew I wasn't a threat, and was probably more interested in giving her offspring a lecture that went along the lines of, "See what happens when you don't follow me closely?"

I've been called worse things in my life than "baldy," and nobody has to worry about me cursing them to death if they use that term towards me. Still, I take some comfort in knowing that God responded aggressively to the sensitivities of His newly-christened prophet, Elisha, who lived in a time when long hair on men was culturally significant.

"I'm Also the President"

God could have sent a pack of wild dogs to scare away the kids who were mocking Elisha. But no; He sent two bears to kill 42 of them.

For making fun of His chosen prophet's apparent lack of hair.

God used Elisha's baldness to demonstrate His own power, as well as validate Elisha's holy mandate.

Hmm... I wonder if that means hair restoration remedies are unBiblical?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

No Book Burning in These Riots

Have you read a good book lately?

Being the guardians of an illustrious literary past, the British as a people generally love their books, and quaint bookshops help characterize villages and neighborhoods across the sceptered isle.

Yet today's England isn't what it used to be, for which many Anglophiles blame American pop culture. So perhaps it should come as no surprise that bookstores in England have emerged relatively unscathed from the country's burst of rioting this week. Electronics stores, clothing stores, and even a Sony distribution center have been looted and burned, but only about two bookstores have even had their windows smashed.

And even then, few books - if any - have been reported missing.

Now, I can't claim to be an avid book reader myself. The last book I read cover to cover was Meryl Gordon's Mrs. Astor Regrets last year, about the life and times of the late New York philanthropist Brooke Astor. And I didn't even buy it - my mother had, during the society trial of Astor's son, Anthony Marshall.

I haven't been able to concentrate on literary fiction for years, so what I do read mostly involves history, current events, biographies, or other forms of non-fiction.  To me, real life can be far more fascinating than what publishing houses think makes for creative storytelling.  When I do read a book, a book which captures my mental attention (which is a feat all in itself), I like reminding myself that what I'm reading about actually took place to actual people, even if the events themselves run the gamut from World War atrocities to the first rough-hewn settlements around what became New York Harbor.

But then again, I suppose the marauding gangs of thugs smashing windows, looting stores, and burning cars these past few days across England have little interest in the Holocaust or New Amsterdam.  Considering that England's stilted economic disparities may have fueled some of the violence we've been witnessing, looters and arsonists likely care little about who Brooke Astor was, or how many millions of dollars she spent on inner-city investments across the Big Apple.

After all, if angst over Britain's economic disparities has helped spark the recent violence, it can't be unfair to blame low education levels among wide swaths of impoverished British citizens.  While it may be one thing for an average middle-class wage-earner to ever hope to afford even a hovel in London, plenty of disillusioned taxpayers have resigned themselves to schlepping into town from more affordable suburbs without resorting to crime and mayhem.  They've been able to figure out other ways of validating their relatively humble lifestyles other than measuring their worth against the denizens of Knightsbridge and Mayfair.  I wouldn't be surprised that some of Britain's lower-paid workers even turn to books to at least read about lifestyles they can't afford, indulging in some literary flights of fancy, although it may not truly be an adequate substitute.

So for those people, if they need one, finding a new flat-screen television might prove to be a bit difficult in the next few days, as electronics retailers fix their stores and receive replacement inventory. But the lack of damage to Britain's bookstores should at least provide some solace to England's many literary-minded citizens who still love to read. And probably don't watch TV all the time anyway.

Who says looters can't be a considerate lot?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Flash Mob Flashback

Mayor Nutter has had enough.

Philadelphia will not tolerate flash mobs any more.

You may recall that flash mobs are roving bands of troublemakers summoned to a meeting point by text messages and tweets, who depart their meeting point and embark on an aggressive, threatening romp through city streets, and maybe inflict some violence and mayhem along the way. These petulant expressions of faux gangsta bravado have been staged in cities around North America, but seem to have been particularly popular in the City of Brotherly Love for over a year.

Two weeks ago, a relatively sparsely-attended flash mob of less than 40 people still managed to attack and injure two unsuspecting people at random in Pennsylvania's largest city.

Of course, not all flash mobs are violent. Perhaps not coincidentally, the old Wanamaker's Department Store in Philadelphia's Center City - now branded by Macy's - hosted a marvelous choral flash mob performing Handel's Hallelujah Chorus this past Christmas season. Last year, this same Macy's was vandalized by a flash mob which tore through its main retail floor.

But impromptu renditions of the Hallelujah Chorus aren't the type of flash mobs Mayor Nutter wants to squelch. It's the hoodlum kind, the ones with mostly black teenagers who seem to get a kick out of assaulting passers-by, smashing store windows, gridlocking traffic, and terrorizing shoppers.

"If you want to act like an idiot - move," Mayor Nutter, who is black, announced this past Sunday. "Move out of this city. We don't want you here anymore."

Making his comments from the pulpit of the church he's attended for 25 years, Mayor Nutter received enthusiastic support from his equally-weary fellow parishioners.

"Parents, get your act together," he ordered the adults in his city, as church members applauded. "You need to get hold of your kids before we have to."

And to continued applause, the Mayor made a gutsy analysis of the situation.

"A particular problem in the black community is we have too many men making too many babies that they don't want to take care of. We end up dealing with your children."

Wow - a sermon on personal responsibility! And Nutter isn't even a pastor, although he ended up sounding like one.

"The immaculate conception of our Lord Jesus Christ took place a long time ago, and it didn't happen here in Philadelphia. So everyone of these kids has two parents who were around and participating at the time. You need to be around now."

Mayor Nutter's reference to Christ made me think back to the crowds of people who followed Jesus when he walked the streets of Jerusalem in Biblical times. Those days, before social networking had its technological sophistication, the mere sight of Christ would attract throngs of people, to the envy and consternation of religious officials threatened by Christ's teachings.

But unlike modern flash mobs in Philadelphia, even though Jerusalem's streets must have become jammed with humanity, the people were all straining to hear what Christ was saying, and see what He was doing.  After all, He preached a Gospel they'd never heard before, and performed miracles as demonstrations of His Father's power.  They knew He was different.  And indeed, Christ's presence among them proved to be utterly historic, and His life the most pivotal in world history. Our calendar is set by His birth, and our faith by His resurrection from the dead.  No other Person can claim such eminence.

But Christ didn't ask for civilization's calendar to be oriented around His birth, and He even pleaded with God if there was some other way for the salvation of sinners than His death.  He had no swagger about Himself, nor anything humanly attractive about His appearance.

Still, to this very day, people like you and me - who He has called to Himself through the Holy Spirit - follow Him.  We don't maraud through neighborhoods, depending on strength in numbers to intimidate others.  In fact, we often find ourselves fewer in number than those who would seek to turn us away.

Too bad Philadelphia apparently has a generation of young people who can't even get the flash mob concept right.