Thursday, September 27, 2012

Again With the Divorce Clarification

For about a year, Glenn Stanton with Focus on the Family has been posting an article about divorce on several different evangelical websites.

He seems intent on debunking what he perceives as a myth about churched people divorcing at roughly the same rate as unchurched people.

In case you saw his recent blog on the Gospel Coalition's website, let me once again provide a more rational counterpoint to Stanton's fuzzy math on the subject:
(each link is a different essay I've written just on this subject)
Some of the discrepancies come from different terminology, such as "Christians" and "churched people," which I view as two separate entities.  Churched people don't necessarily need to demonstrate faith in Christ, while many of us assume - however erroneously - that "Christians" should.  The problem with "churched people" is that the outside world assumes that many of them are Christians of an orthodox evangelical faith, when it's quite likely they're not.

Stanton also relies on statistics which appear to inflate the divorce rate among unchurched people - at up to 60% - while in reality, many experts believe it hovers in the low to mid 30's.  That clarification alone puts divorce rates for churched folk squarely in the same ballpark. 

I have not posted links to these three essays on the feedback portion of Stanton's current article on the Gospel Coalition's website because I'm trying to respect his authority as a leader in America's evangelical movement.  I did e-mail my first essay to his office, which obviously didn't change his mind about anything.  I'm hoping it's because one of his underlings couldn't find it in the volume of mail they undoubtedly receive, and not that it's simply because he's a big Somebody in American evangelicalism, and I'm not.

Still, truth is truth, no matter who writes it.  So as many times as I see Stanton continuing to post his aging arguments for his flawed conjecture on the Internet, I'm going to quietly post the reality of the situation, and trust that the Holy Spirit guides the people who need to read the truth to my corner of the World Wide Web.

Eventually, I hope that as statistics chronicle an evolving improvement in marriage rates among churched Americans, through such successful ministries as Focus on the Family, this topic will become irrelevant anyway.  I imagine Stanton would heartily agree with me on that.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Driving Change

Technology is driving some big changes.

Especially when it comes to how we drive.  Or... don't drive.

And change, as friends and regular readers of this blog know, isn't something I'm fond of.  Well, more accurately, it depends on what's changing, and the degree to which it's changing, as to whether I'll embrace it or not.

When it comes to the rapid developments in driverless cars, however, the automobile revolution some experts predict is imminent presents a mixed bag for me.  I can appreciate some of its major benefits, but I'm not sure those benefits can outweigh its major drawbacks.

This is so big, I'm also not sure it will happen as quickly as some people want it to.

Removing Drivers From Driving Has Its Advantages

Back when I was in my teens and twenties, I used to enjoy driving.  As I've gotten older, however, and the driving population has gotten younger and far more reckless, I now consider driving more of a necessary evil than a fun way to spend some time getting from Point A to Point B.  To many Americans, driving is more of a waste of time than a pleasurable experience.  To the extent that so many of us think we can multi-task behind the wheel, it makes sense to try and take operating the motor vehicle in which you're traveling out of that list of tasks.  Few people multi-task well, especially when driving.

The theory behind driverless cars is that once the driver is removed from the driving equation, automobiles will automatically become an incredibly safe mode of transportation.  With the key word being "automatically."  Technology continues to provide amazing advancements in a robot's ability to sense motion, speed, the proximity of other objects, and infinite adjustments to calculations monitoring all of these variables in real time.  If the basic premise of "autopilot" that airplanes have featured for decades can now be extrapolated to the comparatively lowly car, what's stopping us, except more technology?

In their push to accelerate development of the necessary technology, Nevada has already licensed driverless cars, and California did so this week.  Google is testing some prototypes, along with other entrepreneurs hoping to get in on the ground floor of what a lot of people hope is the next big thing in transportation logistics.

After all, it won't be just passenger cars that can use driverless technology.  Cargo vans and even 18-wheelers could theoretically deploy the same technology and remove the oft-maligned profession of truck driver from the employment pool.  Not to mention our roadways.

It has been suggested that individual vehicle ownership itself could become anachronistic, as this new breed of cars becomes less an item for personal consumption, and more a generic mode of conveyance.  Parking lots might become extinct, as people simply dial up a transportation pod from a local fleet, use it to get wherever they need to go, and when they disembark from that transportation pod, it becomes available for the next call.

Kind of like a driverless cab.

Perhaps the very components of cars that make them so heavy and dependent on fossil fuels would become obsolete, since each transportation pod, programmed as they'll be on the street grid, won't need crumple zones, bumpers, and reinforced doors.  Traffic accidents will evaporate, claim experts, saving thousands of lives a year, and preventing thousands more injuries.

Remember, with driverless cars, computers do all of the driving, making split-second accommodations for varying traffic conditions that could otherwise cause a real person to make mistakes behind the wheel.

Yes, we'd probably still have traffic jams during rush hour, but they likely won't be as severe, since computers would be monitoring traffic flow, and there'd be no accidents to cause the traffic jams to begin with.  There would be no fender-benders, since computers would keep safe distances from other vehicles.  Nor would there be rubberneckers, gawking at accidents from the opposite side of a freeway, because first, there'd be no wrecks, and second, computers don't gawk at the misfortune of others.  Computers don't get drunk, tired, or distracted, either.  Neither do they speed.

See how so much of our modern life in post-industrial America would change with driverless cars?  Probably no more car ads, since the cars would all perform basically the same.  It would be more like a bunch of enclosed golf carts, differentiated only by whatever bling with which an individual owner - if there are people who'd still want to own their own transportation pod - would want to customize it.  Hey, back when horse and buggies were a conventional mode of transport, there was little customization, so maybe what was old could become new again.

Many cities around the world today have implemented bike-share programs, where people can rent bicycles in different parts of the city, and ride them to their destination, where another bike rental facility would receive the bicycle, and another person can rent it for wherever they need to go.  If parking lots don't become extinct, they'll likely become centralized rental depots for these transportation pods, kinda like today's car rental lots at airports.

Switching Gears

Yes, it all sounds rather weird, and would take some getting used to, but the savings in lives alone represents a hard benefit to downplay, doesn't it?

With all of the efficiencies and safety improvements we'll likely achieve with driverless cars, however, I see some significant drawbacks.

First, what will Government Motors (er, I mean - General Motors), Ford, and the other legacy car manufacturers have to say about this transportation transformation?  It's unlikely that driverless cars will be able to retain the aura and intrigue of what's become a conventional aspect of car ownership - each model's driveability.  If it doesn't matter how quickly a car can accelerate or stop, or maneuver out of a dangerous situation, who's going to buy one simply for the hood ornament or nameplate?

The loss of the driving aesthetic is potentially the greatest liability for driverless cars, since by their very description, the reason most customers are willing to pay what they are for the cars they buy has to do with how they drive.  If it doesn't matter how they drive, or what kind of safety features they have, then car manufacturers will pretty much be trying to push those glorified golf carts.  After all, you can bet the government isn't going to be crazy about allowing driverless cars to travel very fast - they'll be more interested in the environmental value of reduced carbon emissions.

And speaking of speed, certain intangible conveniences will be lost with driverless cars.  How many people speed to make up for lost time?  In a driverless car, you can only go as fast as the government will physically let your car be programmed, and only on prescribed roadways.  If you're running late, you likely won't have time to program off-the-cuff shortcuts into your transportation pod's GPS.

Also, remember that the speed at which your car travels is also the speed at which every occupant in the car is traveling.  Therefore, just because you won't be driving, your car's computer will still need to compensate for the reaction time necessary in case it encounters, say, a dog running out into the street.  If you're working on your laptop computer or drinking a cup of hot coffee, and not paying particular attention to the roadway being navigated by your car, you could suffer injuries inside its passenger compartment if your car is traveling too fast for emergency maneuvers.

What else is there?  How about money, since many government entities count on speeding tickets for much-needed revenue.  Road construction costs would remain the same, while undoubtedly, new technology would have to be purchased by transportation departments to help manage computerized traffic flow.  Even though each transportation pod wouldn't need expensive safety features, somebody's going to have to pay for all of the new driverless technology, and you can bet its developers will be looking for a hefty ROI as well.  If the passenger car looses its allure as a commodity, who - or what government agency - will purchase them?

Then there are emergency vehicles, such as fire engines, police cars, and ambulances, who will still need to navigate the same streets as driverless cars, but at greater speeds, and likely with less flexibility in terms of inputting GPS coordinates for the latest crisis environment.  What about inclement weather?  Will driverless cars need to crawl at a snail's pace just because they detect water, ice, or snow on the road surface, or will they be able to adjust for varying conditions being experienced not only by your vehicle, but other vehicles concurrently traversing different patches of slush, mud, and other hazards just another lane away from you?

Indeed, the scenarios and complications that need to be worked out before driverless cars become commonplace seem far more numerous than the benefits of driverless cars.  It seems quite unlikely that I'll be having to face this drastic transportation - and cultural - revolution in my lifetime.  Maybe that's why I can look at the benefits of driverless cars with such surprising sanguinity.  I can appreciate the same things their ardent advocates appreciate, but I don't need to worry about having to fret through the details of making the switch myself.

Some people sometimes say change can't come soon enough.  In this case, change seems to be coming soon enough to suit my tastes!

That's the kind of change I like.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Christ Got Into the Boat

22 Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. 23 After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it. 25 During the fourth watch of the night Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. 26 When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. "It's a ghost," they said, and cried out in fear. 27 But Jesus immediately said to them: "Take courage! It is I. Don't be afraid." 28 "Lord, if it's you," Peter replied, "tell me to come to you on the water." 29 "Come," he said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, "Lord, save me!" 31 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. "You of little faith," he said, "why did you doubt?" 32 And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. 33 Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God."  Matthew 14:22-33

For the past two Sundays, my church's pastor has been preaching from Matthew 14 and the account of Christ and Peter walking on the water.

And while his sermons have explored lessons on how focusing on Christ can eliminate fear, and that we should worship Him for his wondrous acts on our behalf, some other elements of this famous event hit me this morning as I was pondering this same passage during my devotions.
  1. Jesus "made" the disciples get into the boat.  It's as if He wanted to get rid of them for a while, like parents telling their children to go play outside.  Why?
  2. Why?  So He could fellowship with His Father.  He went up on the mountain to talk with God, with Whom He shares a uniquely holy relationship as both God's Son, yet a fellow member of the Trinity.
  3. Christ stayed on the mountain with God for quite a while, likely enjoying their utterly profound interpersonal bonds; both paternal and spiritual.
  4. Meanwhile, what were His disciples doing?  They were out in a boat on the Sea of Galilee, likely chatting amongst themselves about any number of things, from the miracles they had just witnessed, to Christ's shunting them off into the boat so He could be alone, to the wind that was battering their craft with increasing strength.
The contrast is stunning, isn't it?  Christ, secluded on a mountaintop, in communion with the God of the universe, Who was also His real father.  On the other hand, there are His bumbling disciples, on a lake, in a boat, struggling to maintain course.

Christ Chooses To Be With Us Despite Ourselves

I don't know about you, but I'm not on the mountaintop with Christ and His Father.  I'm in the boat, anxious, along with His other disciples.  I'm trying to figure out from which direction the wind is coming, and fretting about being blown off-course.

Maybe you're up on the mountaintop with Christ, in a sublime fellowship with God that sets everything else around you into a confident perspective.  Enjoy it, because even Christ's time up there didn't last for long.

Eventually, Christ comes to His disciples in the boat, tossed about by the waves.  He walks on water, both literally, and perhaps even figuratively, since He'd just left the immediate presence of His Father, our God.  What a dose of reality that must have been for Jesus, having to leave the mountaintop - again, both literally and figuratively - and resume His association with such a rag-tag band of mortal followers.

No titans of industry, no heads of state, no engineering geniuses, no entertaining celebrities.  Christ's disciples were ordinary, politically disenfranchised, and of modest economic means.  It seems Peter was the only one to provide the entertainment, only whenever he did, it was entirely unintentional.

And probably only really funny to us, reading the Bible's accounts of his bumblings with the benefit of millennia of hindsight.

Speaking of entertainment, isn't it almost laughable for the disciples to initially wonder if the apparition they see on the water is a ghost?  Had the wind and choppy water made them that afraid?  They'd only been deprived of Christ's physical presence for perhaps a matter of hours, and after some pretty spectacular miracles, too.  It was so easy for them to forget that He had just fed thousands of people with five loaves and two fishes.  Why wouldn't he be able to walk on water?  The psalmists say that seas obey Him, right?  Yet short memories of Christ's power is so very typical of not just them, but us, too.

Isn't it?

Having Christ call out to reassure them, and having the mental picture of Peter - of course, it would be Peter - demand that Christ allow him to walk on water, too, can almost be anti-climactic.  So often, we mortals assume the climax of this story is Peter's walking on water.  But perhaps the climax actually is Christ getting in the boat with His followers.

Did He have to?  How much of His earthly ministry depended on the disciples?  None of it, right?  Christ could have accomplished His work on Earth in any number of ways that wouldn't have required what must have been an arduous, demanding, oftentimes thankless job of teaching - and re-teaching - an ad-hoc group of tax collectors and fishermen.  He'd just come from fellowshipping with His own father, and was likely forcefully reminded of what He was missing, working on Earth, instead of being with God in Heaven's glories.

Leaving Glory

Instead, He was climbing - literally and figuratively - back into that wooden boat, with that same group of forgetful, feeble, selfish, confused guys who mostly thought they were working for a new political kingdom for Israel.  It's like His incarnation all over again.

Christ got back in the boat with us.  But not to be "one of the guys."  He didn't get back in the boat to hone His street cred as a savior-type dude.  He got back in the boat, because as our Savior, He exudes love, and His disciples could do nothing else but immediately worship Him.

They didn't slap Him on the back and say, "boy, that was a cool trick!  How did You do that?"

They were transfixed in awe and wonder, and likely, a good deal of shame at their obvious lack of faith and incredibly short memories.

And they were also undoubtedly greatly relieved and happy that He was back with them.  Joyful, even.

Christ's love for them honored God, and modeled for both them then, and us today, one of the many reasons we have to worship Him.

He left God's glory and got in the boat with us.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Grace Within the Political Margins

Regardless of whether his statistics were accurate, many Republicans seem proud of him.

Last week, we heard Mitt Romney unscripted and unedited.  When news broke that Jimmy Carter's grandson had provided videotape to the press in which Romney says he's not trying to woo the 47% of moochers in America, there was an audible gasp from some conservative corners.  And then after the obligatory media frenzy, some right-wingers took Romney's idea and embraced it.

The statistic may be accurate in the strictest sense, regarding federal payroll taxes, but it cannot be used to say that 47% of Americans don't pay taxes and rely too much on government.  For one thing, many retired Americans may not pay taxes on their savings or retirement income, and many working families obtain earned income credits that reduce their federal tax bills.  But most workers still pay into the Social Security system, even though many of us have given up hope of ever taking advantage of it ourselves.  Many Americans also pay property taxes, sales taxes, and government fees.

We Need to See Need

So in a sense, 47% of what Romney said was flat-out wrong.  About the only part he got right was that in terms of political reliability, the presidential race comes down to the relatively small percentage of "undecideds."  But that's not nearly enough motivation for a politician trying to work a room in Boca Raton, Florida, full of big-money Republican donors.

Indeed, some Republicans almost seem to enjoy pitting people who supposedly don't pay their "fair share" against themselves, assuming that they themselves never benefit from government programs for which other taxpayers are paying.

Then too, right-wingers like to bash entitlement programs, but they've come to display their own attitude of entitlement.  They believe they're entitled to not be bothered by the problems other people may have.

To the extent that certain government programs, such as welfare and public housing, have actually created the phenomenon of institutionalized poverty, then yes; we have a lot of work to do in streamlining the ways in which our government tries to help people we ourselves don't want to help.  We need better ways of determining legitimate need, and setting policies - both in government and in the private sector - which help our country avoid drastic economic swings like the one we're experiencing now.  People who champion capitalism - of all people - also need to realize that our chosen economic system has a history of swings, and that usually, many more people suffer than profit during downturns.  Just like even in the good times, fewer people profit richly than profit modestly.  Capitalism isn't a we-can-all-be-kings system.  If it was, it would be called communism.

It's not even like we're really interested in helping everyone succeed anyway.  Right-wingers like to rant about the alarming rise in the number of people qualifying for food stamps, but how many communities of faith participate in effective food pantries?  How many churches are full of self- righteous people who either see the need to ask for food a result of shameful personal failure, or would never ask their church for assistance for fear their friends would find out and ostracize them?  How much easier is it to apply through relatively anonymous government programs to provide food - and shelter - for your family?  We seem more interested in helping to feed people we'll never see again in far-off places than people in our own spheres of influence.  Speaking of basic needs is taboo in many evangelical circles.

When the Right is Right

Not that conservatives have everything wrong in this narrative.  One area where it's hard to fault hard-line Republicans is in our emphasis on personal responsibility.  Having each person in a society develop an awareness of what they need to contribute is a good thing.  Initiative, integrity, tenacity, and productivity are words and themes one often hears in Republican rhetoric, and there's nothing wrong with that.  With the exception that Republicans sometimes don't understand how one person's initiative can deprive somebody else of their opportunity, having conservatives look to free markets instead of government intervention in terms of personal responsibility makes a lot of sense, and plenty of passages from the Book of Proverbs provide a solid basis for doing so.

When conservatives point out that in American society, we appear to have arrived at a tipping point in terms of the number of people who seem to be lost without government assistance, I've never argued otherwise.  The institutionalized poverty with which we now suffer seems to be solidifying a subculture of ambivalence, slothfulness, and outright anti-social contempt in the United States.  In a way, extremes on both sides of the socioeconomic scale seem to be fighting against the common goals towards which we should all be working.

Hopefully, the recent rise in food stamp recipients will reverse itself once our economy improves and our employment market thaws.  The assistance many people need these days should be temporary.  Of course, this means that our economic models will need to rediscover the value of employees, no easy task in our brave new world of automation.  But the hard-core assistance - increasingly seeming more like guaranteed provision - that our society gives to a persistent percentage of our population shows no sign of abating.

And that is not good news no matter your faith or political views.

"Charity" is Not a Four-Letter Word

Christ teaches us that "the poor will always be with us."  Perhaps in our society, we've been fortunate thus far to have experienced as much wealth and economic vitality as we have, and that now with globalization forcing lower-skilled jobs offshore, our socioeconomic structures need to recalibrate themselves for a less prosperous new normal.  But Christ doesn't teach us to ignore the poor and wait for conditions to improve.  He doesn't tell us to blame the poor for why more and more of our tax dollars are going to fund "entitlement" programs.  Poverty, like wealth, is a relative concept.  At least for conservatives of faith, we need to understand that as much as we talk about personal responsibility, this topic extends not only to how we provide for our own families, but how we administer all of the resources with which God blesses us.

Natural human emotions concentrate on self-preservation at the expense of broader humanitarian concerns.  It may speak more to a weakness of free market capitalism than whatever "Christian" values our Founding Fathers may have had, America's conservatives view money - and not ethics - as the major, pivotal, critical consideration in our upcoming presidential election.

And to the extent that poverty is, by definition, an economic problem, Americans who are worried about our country's financial future have a right to be concerned.  Government spending needs to be cut, and regulations inhibiting job growth reduced.  Neither left-wingers, whose social altruism can actually enslave the poor, nor right-wingers, who vilify those who don't pay as much in taxes as they do, have a lock on the way to fix what ails America's finances.  We need to advance the expectations of personal responsibility along with a realization that charity's work still needs to get done, either on macro or micro scales.  After all, charity, too, is part of being a responsible citizen.

Mitt Romney is an easy target for liberals who don't like his venture capitalist background and his off-the-cuff fundraising platitudes.  But we Christ-followers had better beware making the poor an easy target for our political blame games.

Let's not marginalize grace, or those of us who need it.

Lest we make ourselves unfit ambassadors for the One from Whom all grace originates.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Kountze Banner Cheer is Out of Bounds

On the southern fringes of Texas' vast Piney Woods, a battle is brewing.

It's a battle between Southern small-town cheerleaders and out-of-state liberals.  From Wisconsin.  If you know anything about Texas, you know that can't be a good thing.

A couple thousand people live in Kountze, a hardscrabble town with more churches than fast-food joints, miles from any Interstate, about an hour and a half away from the outskirts of Houston.  Over 70% of the population is white, 22% is black, and 5% is Hispanic.  Voters in Kountze are overwhelmingly Republican, and only 12% of the townsfolk identify their religion as something other than Christian.

In other words, it's the kind of town where, if the cheerleading squad at its only high school wants to create banners with Bible references on them, nobody's going to make much of a fuss.  Even if they wanted to.

Publically, anyway.

So imagine the surprise in Kountze when an anti-religion organization out of Madison, Wisconsin began protesting over those banners emblazoned with Christian theology.  Either somebody living in Kountze, or somebody who had heard about its local high school's practice, had notified the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which then sent a letter of complaint to the school's principal, who this past Tuesday, was compelled to ban the banners.

So supporters of the school's cheerleading squad contacted the Texas-based Liberty Institute, a non-profit law firm that advocates in religious liberty cases.  The Liberty Institute managed to swiftly win a court injunction against the complaint by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, meaning that at least for now, the cheerleaders can continue making and displaying their Christian-themed banners at football games.

Football, after all, is practically a religion in Texas anyway.

A hearing is set for October for both sides to decide how this case is going to progress.  Or digress, or regress, or whatever.

It seems that just about everybody in town supports their cheerleaders, and even the high school principal claims he's "between a rock and a hard place," since before the complaint, he'd obviously been the one who allowed the banners, despite knowing he didn't have solid legal footing in this matter.

The Liberty Institute insists the principal and his cheerleaders indeed have solid First Amendment legal footing in this matter, despite a Supreme Court ruling in 2000 interpreted by the Wisconsin group as forbidding such expressions of religion on school grounds.  Both sides, with their nationally-sponsored advocacy teams, have their knickers in a twist over this, and neither appears likely to stand down.

Hearing the townspeople of Kountze tell it, they're the ones having their opinions suppressed by the Wisconsin group's complaint, saying that liberal intolerance is working against them.  Sounds like a lot of them listen to right-wing radio, where the "tolerance" catch-phrase is a popular zinger in an attempt to twist what liberals insist Christians don't practice into some rallying cry for Christian normalcy.

But once again, it's actually some basic ignorance on the part of some religious conservatives that's at fault.

In a republic, the majority needs to protect the minority, to ensure fairness for all.  Considering the fact that genuine, orthodox, evangelical Christians represent a minority of United States citizens, this should be something that we want to work in our favor.  But protecting the rights of genuine, orthodox, evangelical Christians means that we also need to protect the rights of adherents to other religions.

Think about it:  if some Muslim group wanted to hold up 20-foot banners with quotes from the Koran on them for football players to run through, how many of these folks in Kountze would be similarly protecting the Muslims' supposed First Amendment rights to do so?

Why should believers in Christ be destroying pieces of paper decorated with Bible verses anyway?  That's what football players do when they run through these banners on their way onto the football field before a game.  Shouldn't somebody be complaining that this isn't an appropriate use of scripture?

I don't support the denial of Christ's Gospel being perpetrated by the Freedom From Religion Foundation.  I pray for the salvation of their souls through the transforming work of the Holy Spirit.  But I also think they have a point, even if this small, apparently provincial, and relatively homogeneous southern town can't see it.

Thankfully, we Americans have many ways to display our faith and encourage each other with God's Word.  And even if Kountze's population had every Constitutional right to do what they want to do with these banners, I don't think they should.  Letting cheerleaders - who are really only teenaged girls being exploited for their looks - hold up banners with holy texts on them so a bunch of teenaged boys can charge through them in some wacky display of adolescent warfare doesn't strike me as particularly reverential.

And if winning the right to do such a thing with Christian verses means Koranic or Mormon verses can also be used, who wins then?  Because that's basically what the Liberty Institute is arguing.

These cheerleaders and their naive supporters need to tread very carefully on this case.  Otherwise, the intolerance they claim is hurting Christians may truly come back to harm us.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Can Karma Be All About Looks?

I just saw my first Fisker.

A Fisker Karma.  Silver.  With a black glass roof lined with metallic circuitry.

This Karma Ain't No Chameleon

Fisker Karma is a brand-new hybrid luxury sedan that can get up to 52 mpg, despite its sprawling dimensions.  I saw my first Fisker today while gazing out a third-floor window in none other than Arlington, Texas, a city better known for sports and chain restaurants than exotic automobiles.

Who knows - the driver may have been a sports celebrity.  He was a fairly short, muscular white guy with a thick head of black hair.  I watched as he pulled into a bank's narrow parking lot, and found his Fisker was too wide to fit between a poorly-parked black pickup truck and an idling armored truck.  The driver waited for a while, and then got out of his car (that's how I know how tall he was), motioning for the driver of the armored truck to move up just a few feet.  But the driver in his burly rig just stared at him.

Was that karma, maybe?

Finally, the Fisker guy got back into his swanky ride, backed away, and drove off.  Since I was up high, I could see him soon coming around the back way into the bank's drive-through area.

Maybe he had to make a deposit to cover his first month's payment.

We have a hazy sky here in north Texas this afternoon, but still plenty of sun to keep the solar cells built into the Fisker's roof drinking up the energy rays.  That's why, from above, the car's roof looks like a sleek circuit board hovering over the passenger compartment.

Developed for around $1 billion by a team of automotive and ecological engineers headed by Danish designer Henrik Fisker, the Karma represents the leading edge of a brave new world of ultra-luxury low-emissions vehicles.  At least, if you view hybrids and all-electric cars apart from the coal and gas-powered factories powering the massive electric plants essential for this new automotive technology.  We may all be fooling ourselves that "green" cars are really helping to save our planet, considering that somewhere along the way, fossil fuels still play a huge role in how they operate.  But if the ride into our environmental fantasy is going to be in cars like the Fisker, we'll at least be stylin' our way around the proverbial bush.

Immediately, looking out the window from my perch, I could tell this was a different car, even before I could recall it's name.  Fisker is brand-new to the automotive world, completely separate from the Big Three and any foreign legacy car makers, except for its GM-produced engines that power each car's generator.  Its fluid, sexy styling invokes flashbacks to the Jaguars of old, and comparisons to today's Aston Martin Rapide - at twice the price - or maybe a late-model Maserati Quattroporte.  In any event, these are all relatively rare cars, even in the exotic environs of haughty north Dallas, where elite nameplates seem to breed in valet parking lots.

Earlier today, I was chided by a reader of an essay of mine about Mitt Romney and his $250 million fortune.  My reader thought I sounded jealous of Romney's wealth, which seems to be the typical reaction these days from conservatives who think pointing out millions of dollars in assets is akin to class warfare.

Chill, people!  Who's the one who preaches on this blog that it's the love of money that's the root of evil, not money itself?  Like many things, money is relative, and I only wish I had a relative with lots of it!  Okay, bad jokes aside, as long as anybody with money - whether it be somebody working a minimum-wage job or somebody with Warren Buffett wealth - tithes the portion of that money God directs them to, how they spend what's left over is more a matter of being responsible to God than being restricted by Him.

And "being responsible" is laden with cultural variables.

In the United States, spending $25,000 for an automobile is considered relatively normal and prudent, and hardly extravagant.  But in India or Bangladesh, spending that amount of money would be seen as absurd by most of the populace that barely earns that amount in their entire lifetime.  Meanwhile, spending $100,000 on a car like the Fisker is low-balling it, at least in the orbits of New York City's hedge fund titans, or the technology wonks out in Silicon Valley.

What Effect is This Cause Having?

Maybe it's because I've always had a weakness for cars, but if somebody can honestly afford to buy something like the Fisker, I say "congratulations, and enjoy it!"  Having said that, if I personally had the money to buy one, I'm not sure I would.  But not directly because of the cost.  Being the cynic I tend to be, I'd be anxious about some crazy uninsured driver hitting it.  And speaking of valet parking, I don't even let valet employees park my humble Honda Accord anymore, after one of them scuffed the bumper of my last Honda in the back lot of a Dallas restaurant.

It's also valid to point out that cars like the Fisker have a history of introducing new features and engineering to the broader, mass-consumption market.  I'm not crazy about professional car racing, but I can't deny that many of the safety standards and equipment we drivers and passengers enjoy today have come from NASCAR and other real-world racing venues.  Who knows yet the amount of technology Fisker and other new hybrid car manufacturers are pioneering that could make ordinary cars more environmentally-friendly in the future?  Indeed, a lot is riding on cars like Fisker's in more ways that one.  The fight over hybrid technology is so fierce these days, one of Fisker's competitors, Tesla, alleged in a lawsuit that Fisker had stolen some of its secrets.

As new as this technology may be, however, at least one part of the Fisker story seems to smell of the same old bad politics that have corrupted other environmental projects.  Fisker won half a billion dollars in guaranteed loans from our federal government, like the now-defunct Solyndra did.  Fisker also received $193 million in taxpayer-funded incentives to provide "green" jobs, even though the Obama administration knew Fisker is building these Karmas in Finland, of all places.  A mothballed GM plant Fisker purchased at a government fire sale will ostensibly be used for future cars in Fisker's pipeline.

That is, if Fisker can hold out that long.  Within weeks of its debut last fall, Fisker had to issue a recall, and has issued two more since then.  At least one fire has been definitively linked with their vehicles, and another fire may have been.  Such numbers wouldn't mean much for a mass-market vehicle, but Fisker has only sold a few thousand of their Karmas so far.

Some people with $100,000 to spend on a vehicle might let the car's incredible looks overrule a more pedestrian logic, and indulge themselves with one.  However, if you've earned that money yourself, you're probably also smart enough to consider your other, more time-tested options in this price class.

I spotted that gorgeous Fisker right away out of a parking lot full of cars, and a four-lane avenue teeming with traffic.

Maybe that kind of attention is still worth it to the guy who couldn't even get an armored truck to move a few feet out of his way.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

What Might They Say About You?

Some friends of mine who live in Europe recently told me a story.

They once shared a meal with some friends of theirs:  the husband a Frenchman, the wife a product of the former East Germany when it was under communist rule.

The wife who'd grown up in East Germany recounted how several years ago, her mother, who still lives in what's now a united Germany, received something completely unfamiliar to us Westerners.  She was given the file kept on her by the Staatssicherheit, or Stasi, which was East Germany's secret police.  While she was growing up, the wife knew her family was under suspicion because they would receive packages of things as harmless as denim jeans from family members living in the democratic, capitalistic west.  Such deliveries were major red flags for government agents trying to repress its citizenry.

Who knew blue jeans were subversive?

To try and avoid any further trouble with the Stasi, the wife's family stopped going to church, a custom widely known to invite friction with East Germany's government-sanctioned thugs.  After all, they couldn't really communicate to their free relatives how even something as ubiquitous as jeans could jeopardize their safety under communist rule.  At least, they rationalized, they could try to reduce their visibility by dropping church attendance from their list of activities which would be considered objectionable.

It doesn't seem the family was ever really harassed by the Stasi, but in the file this family's matriarch received after the Berlin Wall's fall, it wasn't for lack of evidence.  Turns out, close acquaintances, co-workers, and neighbors had all turned in the family to the Stasi for various things.  As you can imagine, the family was shocked more by the familiar names they saw in the file, not particularly what activities and habits those back-stabbers shared with the Stasi.

Apparently, too, this family had never thought to report these same friends to the secret police.

It has been estimated that approximately one in 63 East Germans collaborated with the Stasi, which is one of history's most impressive records of manipulation by a nation's secret police.  During its reign, the Staatssicherheit employed over a quarter-million people in various capacities; one soccer club alone had 18 agents.

In 1992, after German unification, the security organization's files were opened to the public for the first time.  As government researchers, ordinary citizens, and journalists went on the hunt for Stasi criminals, they soon discovered that much of the most incriminating evidence necessary to produce convictions in a court of law had been shredded or otherwise destroyed.  Indeed, the process for literally piecing together these paper trails - estimated at 45 million documents - has been arduous and time-consuming.  So far, only two former Stasi officers have been convicted of any crime from their years of torturing suspects, covering up state accidents, executing dissidents, and whatever else secret police officers do in the line of nefarious duty.

We take for granted the fact that here in the United States, stuff like this is something we hardly ever need to think about.  But do you know at least 63 people?  How many Facebook friends do you have?  How many people work for your employer?  How many people live in your apartment building, or in your suburban neighborhood?

In East Germany, remember, at least one in 63 people would be spying on you!

Here's another question:  If our CIA was recruiting informants to turn in evangelical Christians, believers in Christ whose primary allegiance was to God, not our president or any particular political party, who might turn you in?

You may be familiar with the time-worn question, "if you were on trial for your faith, would there be enough evidence to convict you?"  In a way, though, that's a fairly benign question, isn't it?  In a way, the personal nature of your faith is removed from how your faith may or may not impact the lives of people around you.

But what about those people around you; the people you know, with whom you work and associate?  The people who live next-door to you?  What might they say about you and how you live your faith?

What might a secret police organization's dossier on you look like?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

What Voters Deserve From Romney

Seven weeks.

Seven weeks from today, if Mitt Romney wins the presidency of the United States, it won't be because he's an eloquent orator, will it?

He won't have won because he empathizes with Middle America, either.

He won't have won because his campaign was a well-oiled machine of team players and fastidious message-sticking.

Nor will he have won because his religious beliefs are widely and confidently embraced outside of the insular cult to which he belongs.

He won't have won because conservatives across the political landscape trust him, are enamored by him, believe he's supremely qualified to serve as president, or think he's truly worth all of the money they've lavished on his campaign.

He won't have won because he's built his financial empire without getting a gigantic kick-start in his career from his well-connected father, a former governor himself and auto industry CEO.

He won't have won because Clint Eastwood gave a personally-heartfelt endorsement of him at the Republican National Convention.

He won't have won because he refused to play the class warfare card.

He won't have won because whether speaking in public or private, fact checkers found few problems with the statistics he used.

He won't have won because he offered American voters a convincing alternative to Obamacare from his own experience as governor of Taxachusetts - I mean, Massachusetts.

He won't have won because his pro-life credentials passed close scrutiny after it was learned Bain Capital may have owned a company that, among other things, earned money by disposing of aborted fetuses.

He won't have won because he stated factual problems with the Middle East peace process - or lack of a process - with diplomatic tact.

If Mitt Romney wins in seven weeks, it will be because a relatively tiny fraction of America's voters managed to overcome everything that appears to be wrong about him, and decide he's less of a threat to America's future than President Obama.

Is this a great country or what?

With the exception of a few evangelical blacks who have grown disenchanted with the President over his stance on abortion and gay marriage, Obama's supporters see nothing in Mitt worth changing their votes over.  And with the exception of a few Muslims who might have ordinarily sided with Romney for his pro-business stance and overall social conservatism, but who now bristle over his comments about Iran and the Palestinians, people who usually vote Republican see nothing in Romney that scares them more than what they see in Obama.

That leaves the 11% or so of the electorate considered to be swing voters to break the stalemate, and even within this slice of wait-and-see Americana, a Pew Research Center Values Study found a fairly even split when it comes to embracing or refuting the Republican worldview.

How many voters in this statistically minuscule cohort will swing the balance to either Romney or Obama?

If it's true that the people of a republic elect the leaders they deserve, Romney has seven weeks remaining to prove we haven't gotten what we've deserved from Obama.

If he thinks his campaign so far has helped him in that regard, however, he may get what he deserves seven weeks from today.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Can a Religion Riot for Respect?

We're almost a week into it now, and what have we learned?

We've learned that just when we think we know how stupid people can be, we get proven wrong.  Somebody wastes a few thousand dollars on a juvenile, cinematic mess.  Somebody hounds an Egyptian journalist to write about it.  And somebody manages to convince adherents of the religion it parodies to take it seriously.

Ostensibly, the video which languished on YouTube since July served as a trailer for a feature-length movie ridiculing Islam's prophet, Muhammad.  But now, it appears no feature-length movie exists.  We're still not even sure the name of the person who's responsible for the travesty of a quasi-animated, poorly-dubbed, and mindlessly scripted video that supposedly was a trailer.  What is on YouTube is so hopelessly amateurish, it's hard to imagine anybody giving it any credibility.

True, Muslims rioted after a previously unknown Danish cartoonist crafted a drawing of a bearded man with a bomb in his turban.  Muslims rioted when a previously unknown Florida self-aggrandizer who calls himself a preacher threatened to stage a Koran-burning.

Do you see a pattern here?

More Than a Culture Clash

Much has been pontificated during this past week about how Western cultures simply can't understand Muslim cultures, and vice-versa.  Since many Muslims live in tyranny, they can't understand how the freedoms we take for granted in the West can allow for the type of speech that national governments can't regulate.  Many right-wing Americans fear that our government is taking away our free speech rights, but let the right-wing zealots across the Muslim world tell you the type of punitive autocracies under which they survive, and you'll probably kiss the next Democrat you see.

So, in terms of causality, we've got political repression, and of course, religious and social repression, since even a cursory reading of Muslim holy texts proves how remarkably liberating the Christian Bible is by comparison.

We also have economic repression in many Islamic states, since it seems that too many Muslim countries put religion ahead of making a living.  Which wouldn't be so bad if that happened in someplace like the United States, where most economic actors at least claim a modicum of allegiance to Christianity.  Islam's adherents, unfortunately, are worshipping a false religion, a religion based not on opportunity or grace, but on fear, control, and relentless legalism.

It's easy to wonder why all of those self-righteous men rioting and burning - and grinning from ear to ear whilst doing so - aren't at work someplace, trying to provide for their large families, until you realize that unemployment is rampant across the Muslim world.  Many of them are angry, restless, and poorly educated - the perfect recipe for religious leaders to mix in their warped ideologies and half-bake their listeners into misguided zealots.

After all, it's not like this newest video, the book-burning preacher man, or the Danish cartoon are the only examples of media with content Muslims could find objectionable.  Indeed, some Majority World Muslims condemn our entire society and lifestyle here in America, but that must be too broad an accusation to sustain on its own, even among impoverished, envious Muslims.  Still, there's obviously something peculiar about the way these select examples of objectionableness have exploded upon the Islamic consciousness.  Perhaps it's their graphic content or the audacious attitudes behind the content.  In the case of this latest video, however, the fact that it sat on YouTube for nearly two months before being publicized helps lend credence to the suspicion that some imams and other pro-violence Islamists hold more control over the extent to which vitriol is fomented than the actual items of objectionable content.

Charisma can be dangerous.

More's the Pity

Maybe it's un-American of me to admit this, but whenever I see the photos and videos of Muslim rioting, I quickly become sorry for all of those people.  Not necessarily angry at them, but mournful.  I mourn for their absent opportunities, for their being subjected to so much hateful rhetoric from their imams, for their inability to understand that no American president can - or should - control the few stupid Americans who make worthless drivel like this YouTube video.  We're supposed to be the country of innovation, opportunity, and free speech.  Yet all the makers of this video have done is proven that any good thing can be perverted.  I feel sorry for the Muslim rioters, since they can't even understand this twisted reality of America.

Granted, most Muslims probably don't want my pity.  Many of them probably wouldn't even want my money, or my freedom, if they could have my soul instead.  After all, it's not Christianity that says I have to kill unbelievers to prove myself worthy before my god.

Here in the United States, I have a handful of Muslim acquaintances, and I don't think any of them want to kill me.  But that's me hoping that's the case.  On the other hand, I know many evangelical Christians, and even though a number of them don't agree with me politically, I'm absolutely confident in saying none of them will kill me to honor our God.  Politics represents one of the most divisive arenas for evangelicals, and I spend a lot of time on this blog trying to reason with factions in evangelicalism who vote less on the Gospel and more on the GOP platform.  Even though sometimes Christians joke about such things, left-wing liberals who profess to be complete, atheistic heathens also fail to muster murderous desires among evangelicals, some of whom simply figure Hell will be bulging at the seams with deserving Democrats.

I just like to remind us all that plenty of Republicans will be down there, too.  And probably more Democrats up with us than we expect.

Meanwhile, practically the sum of international diplomacy these days gets easily consumed by Islamist violence.  One of the really sad realities of all this involves the persistent claim by more moderate Muslims that theirs is actually a religion of peace.

Believers in Christ can have peace in the midst of political storms, and economic strife, and physical calamity.  We can even have peace when others make fun of our faith, and our Savior - although sometimes, we avoid conflict by simply acting out of apathy, rather than faith.

With all of the reflexive animosity displayed towards nondescript, unofficial, and culturally insignificant statements about their religion, however, Muslims don't seem to understand that even as I pity them, their destructive indignation relative to its provocation threatens to engender more apathy than pity to their plight.

Not an apathy that will let them get away with whatever violence they want to perpetrate against Western interests, or even their own.  But an apathy that further marginalizes whatever messages they want to send ordinary voters like me in the West.  The irrationality of others has a way of eradicating their credibility.

What have we learned since last week's anniversary of 9/11?

Whatever it is, it's costing Muslims the very thing they claim to want from us:  respect.

Friday, September 14, 2012

How Bosses Treat Their Workers Matters

1 Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. 2 Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. 3 Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. 4 Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. 5 You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter... 9 Don't grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!  - James 5:1-5, 9

With all of the understandably intense news coverage of Ambassador Stevens' assassination this week in Libya, you will be forgiven if you hadn't heard.  Pakistan suffered the worst industrial accident in its country's history on Tuesday.

In Karachi, 289 textile workers died after a boiler exploded in their factory and ignited a stubborn, smoky fire.  Reports from survivors indicate that managers, in hopes of salvaging the company's stockpile of stonewashed denim jeans, refused to unlock security exits and allow employees to evacuate the facility.  It took two days to put out the fire.  Most of the victims died of smoke inhalation.

Upwards of 600 workers were in the factory when the fire started, so the death toll accounts for almost half of them.  Nevertheless, public fury against the three owners of the factory, who seem to have disappeared, has already proven to be short-lived.  In a country like Pakistan, where rules mean nothing and bribery fuels whatever economic development takes place, this week's fire represents just another reminder of how insignificant low-skilled workers can be in the eyes of their employers.

Scrooge Employers Know No Geopolitical Boundaries

Indeed, although right-wing capitalists don't like talking about it, the mindset of employers in a country like Pakistan isn't far removed from the mindset of some employers in First World countries.  Countries like Australia, in fact, where this week, the world's richest woman suggested that workers in industrialized countries should be paid much less so their employers can remain competitive in the global marketplace.

Mining heiress Gina Rhinehart, who parlayed a $75 million inheritance into an $18 billion empire of metals and mass media, is the latest imperious executive to consider their payroll more penalty than investment.  Rhinehart made a videotaped presentation to Australia's Sydney Mining Club in which she lambasted punitive governmental and environmental restrictions on Aussie industry, and then mentioned $2-per-day wages in Africa in conjunction with comparatively high wage costs in Australia.

Some pundits have taken Rhinehart's statements to imply that she thinks Australian workers should be able to make do on far less than what they're earning now.  And although she probably would love to pay her fellow countrymen $2 per day, she's likely savvy enough to realize that low of a figure isn't realistic.  But that hasn't stopped critics from figuring she'd like to get down as close to that pay scale as possible.

Rhinehart has made quite a reputation for herself as an irascible, egotistical, and heavy-handed autocrat.  For 14 years, she battled her stepmother in Australia's courts for control of her late father's estate, and three of her own children have been forced to sue her over control of a trust fund her father set up for them before his death.

Yes, her father was a mining tycoon who created the prosperous company his only child inherited, so Rhinehart's incessant defense of her wealth, and rich people in general, tends to ring hollow among her many skeptics.  She seems to enjoy fomenting the discord, publicly claiming last month that "there is no monopoly on becoming a millionaire," and waxed rhetorical about class warfare she blames on the poor.

"If you're jealous of those with more money, don't just sit there and complain," chided Rhinehart.  "Do something to make more money yourself - spend less time drinking or smoking and socialising, and more time working."

Of course, that last bit of advice isn't bad at all, since even in the Bible, lazy people aren't entitled to much more than the recriminations they receive from those who aren't.  But like so many capitalists, Rhinehart fails to understand basic economics when she assumes the free market has unlimited room at the top.  By its very nature, the free market cannot possibly reward a disproportionate number of people with extraordinary wealth because only so many people can own what a society's economy needs to function properly.  Otherwise, you'd end up with lots of people being equally wealthy in an unsustainable fiction we normally call communism.

Her complaints about governmental red tape and "green tape" - which is a clever description of many onerous ecology-centered rules - likely have merit, if that red tape and green tape is anything like what American industry is facing these days.  But if you watch her video, doesn't her thinly-veiled contempt for workers who expect to be paid in proportion to the value of their labor look suspiciously similar to the contempt displayed by the owners of Karachi's textile factory that caught fire this week?

A Biblical Balance to Pay Scales

To the extent that wages in Majority World countries are depressing wages in First World countries as globalization spreads, it's likely that workers in the United States, Australia, and elsewhere are in for a rude awakening as the actual value of their labor does slide relative to what desperate people in impoverished countries are willing to work for.  Only as wages rise in the Majority World will wages in the First World stop falling.  Rhinehart is correct in pointing out that equity cannot exist when stark disparities persist between workers in different countries.  For better or worse, capitalism always seeks the lowest common denominator.

However, when companies realize profits because workers are marginalized and production is shifted to other parts of the world where workers can be treated with less dignity, should that enhancement in the value of that company be acceptable to followers of Christ?  Paying people what they're worth is a Biblical concept based on what workers are worth to an enterprise.  But if your worth rises based on how many people you deprive of a living wage, even if you're giving somebody else what passes for a living wage in another country, are you still honoring God?

Remember, it's the love of money that's the root of evil, not money itself.

The Bible was probably history's first global document.  You and I have brothers and sisters in Christ all over this planet.  May God guide His people around the world as we seek to honor Him in the way we treat our fellow workers.

No matter where we live, or what each of us earns.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Where Are the Islamic Peacemakers?

Where are they?

Of all the things I don't understand about Islamist violence, one thing really bothers me:  where are all of the pacifist Muslims who are supposed to be out there?

When news erupted late Tuesday evening that Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was assassinated in Benghazi, Libya, I waited for them.  I waited for the moderate Muslims to walk across the world's political stage and condemn the killing of a man who appears to have been the best friend Libya could have hoped for in the United States diplomatic corps.

Apparently, a group of local Benghazi residents tried to get medical care for Stevens, and upon his death, widespread grief washed over the country.  But where is the moderate Islamic voice condemning Stevens' death, and those who perpetrated it?

Why was a non-Muslim white guy from California even considered to be America's best advocate for beleaguered Libya?  How many Muslim ambassadors does the United States have, anyway?  M. Osman Siddique served the backwater outposts of Fiji and Tonga for several years ending in 2001.  President Ronald Reagan appointed Robert Crane ambassador to the United Arab Emirates.  Apparently, these two men are the only Muslim ambassadors we've ever had.  Considering the disproportionate amount of sociopolitical violence and upheaval our planet experiences because of Islamic regimes, don't you think American Muslims would be anxious to help be part of the solution?

By their obvious reticence to get involved, aren't they being part of the problem instead?

We have physicians, professors, engineers, and scientists who are Muslim, so it's not like our pool of qualified candidates for the rigors of international diplomacy is inherently limited by any educational or intellectual defects within our Muslim citizenry.  Is it the money?  Medical doctors and computer programmers obviously earn more than diplomats, but if Islam is supposed to be a religion of peace, shouldn't Muslims be anxious to set aside financial concerns to focus on the greater good advocating for peaceful resolutions to conflicts can achieve?

Frankly, the chances of any type of lasting peace between militant Muslims and the rest of the world will be nil because of ancient historical factors that are Biblical in their proportions and practically codified in the DNA of Islam's radical adherents.  But how much of the violence in our world could be mitigated or diffused if adherents to the purportedly peaceful side of Islam took public stands against the aggressors within their own religion?

Wouldn't it at least be better than having people like Mitt Romney, Barak Obama, and Hillary Clinton - all prominent non-Muslims (yes, even Obama) - tripping over each other in exasperation?  Technically, aren't all of us who aren't Muslims infidels?  And how smart has it been for both Democratic and Republican presidents to appoint non-Muslim women as three of the last four Secretaries of State (Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice, and Hillary Clinton)?  It's no secret that across the world, women are second-class citizens in the Islamic mindset.

Is there some rule in the Koran against trying to broker good will between people groups?  Is the fact that America can't seem to find enough Muslims willing to serve both their religion and their country through diplomacy an indication of something sinister, or does our State Department have some secret program in which they refuse to hire Muslims?

Why should it be a complicated question, asking why the people who say theirs is a religion of peace don't step up to the plate?

And if it's not the question, but the answer, that is complicated, and requires knowledge of Islamic culture that would commonly be found in a highly educated Muslim, then... doesn't it prove the point of my question?

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

D'Souza: Just Another Spin Doctor?

His may not be a household name.

Yet, anyway.

But if you'd never heard of Dinesh D'Souza before last month, chances are, you have by now.  D'Souza is the driving force behind what's shaping up as this fall's sleeper Hollywood hit, a documentary movie harshly critical of President Barak Obama.  Although he may not have a doctorate or have "M.D." after his name, D'Souza is coming into his own as one of the right wing's best spin doctors.

Entitled "2016: Obama's America," D'Souza's movie has been branded as "an insidious attempt to dishonestly smear the President" by Obama's re-election campaign.  Meanwhile, conservatives have generally lauded it as an eye-opening account of how the President's upbringing may be negatively shaping his policymaking.

Of course, what conservatives really want to trumpet is the overt claim D'Souza himself says he's trying to make about the harm Obama is doing to America and our future viability as a world power.  In one of the trailers for his movie, D'Souza says Obama wants to see "the sins of colonialism be set right, and America be downsized."

D'Souza also says that our Founding Fathers, contrary to Obama's misguided birth father, believed that "America must grow, so liberty grows."

This is a relatively free country, and D'Souza is free to draw whatever correlations he wishes between Obama's musings in a puffy autobiographical book, the failures D'Souza sees in Obama's policies and methodologies, and D'Souza's own aspirations for his adopted homeland.  To the extent that D'Souza and Obama likely share few common political philosophies, there's bound to be a certain amount of friction between the two in the public square.

But D'Souza claims to be a born-again Christian, has written books testifying to his credibility as one, and presides over a small Christian college.  So even though he has a right to his opinions and perspectives, doesn't he also have the obligation to be careful with how he shares them?  After all, he's not the first evangelical to drape the cross of Christ with the American flag.  Nor is he the first conservative to complain about the way Obama seems to pander to other world leaders, and marginalize the country of which he's president in the eyes of the Majority World in general, and Islamic states in particular.

Not that we can't complain about Obama just because we're evangelicals.  Just the other day, I complained about the President's Obamacare myself, and felt, both despite and because of my evangelical beliefs, that I was justified in doing so.  I don't think the government always acts mercifully to America's healthcare patients.  However, I didn't base my complaints on perceived ideological differences or wide-reaching conclusion-jumping based on unconfirmed suspicions.  I wrote from the facts of the case.  I did not have a personal vendetta against the President; I merely showed how flawed one of the policies he helped ordain proved to be.

In "2016," D'Souza doesn't do that.  Yes, he takes quotes from the President and fabricates a plausible scenario of anti-colonialist deprecations on Obama's part.  But if somebody stitched together a limited selection of quotes from your past, couldn't they create a wholly unrealistic farce of who you really are, and how you really think?  President Obama has already proven himself to be an ineffectual communicator, so it's not like he intentionally loads all of his quotes with hidden meaning.  If all D'Souza wanted to do was create a movie about why Obama doesn't deserve a second term, plenty of incontrovertible facts supporting such a claim would have been readily available.  Including, yes, the President bowing to King Abdulla of Saudi Arabia, and other disturbing vignettes from Obama's sloppy foreign policy.

Alternatively, he could have crafted a fictional movie based on his assumptions about the President, and marketed it without all of the pseudo-scholarly documentary vibe that he obviously hopes lends an air of credibility to his project.  The satirical "Wag the Dog," a movie poking fun at the Clinton administration's incessant spin-doctoring and diversionary tactics, comes to mind as a clever way of making a point without making an unqualified accusation.

At the end of the day, it's not even whether D'Souza is perfectly accurate or even 100% wrong in his fears of Obama's desire to reduce the United States to a third-rate world power has-been.  The issue is whether D'Souza is honoring God by making such subjective, overtly partisan, unkind, and reckless accusations as he does with his movie.  Especially when we really don't know all of the evil skeletons in Republican candidate Mitt Romney's closets.  As a Mormon, Romney isn't even a Christian!  At least Obama claims - however unconvincingly - to be one.  If somebody wanted to surmise how a cult leader like Romney would ideally desire to guide our country during his presidency, would what they hypothesize and postulate be something D'Souza would embrace?  Why not, do you suppose?  Because it'd be mostly hypotheses and postulations, perhaps?

Christians are not called by God to preserve America's capitalistic might.  We were not called to establish American as a world power in the first place, and certainly not the world's only superpower.  So what real, eternal difference does it make if America sinks in the rankings?  And whether Obama causes that sinking or not?  And on those occasions when America does make mistakes or needlessly offends our international neighbors, what's wrong with apologizing?  Does apologizing when you do something wrong betray weakness, or convey strength?  Is political gamesmanship more important to God than treating people with dignity?

Today, America can still claim military and economic supremacy, which of course, are indeed significant areas in which to be dominant.  But China is breathing down our backs on both the military and economic fronts, and Republicans as well as Democrats have sold mind-boggling amounts of our debt to the Chinese, so who knows how long we can stay ahead of them.  In terms of quality-of-life indices, the United States doesn't even rank in the top 2, or even the top 10.  And we all know our educational rankings are tanking.  Yes, I still think that overall, America remains the best place to live on the planet, considering our large population and its diversity, but isn't D'Souza giving Obama's politics a bit too much credit for being able to single-handedly sink our international prestige?  Don't our economy and our ability to innovate deserve any credit for America's prominence on the world stage?

America is an exceptional country, but is it the only exceptional country on the globe?  I happen to agree with D'Souza when he says not all cultures are equal, but I'm not threatened if other countries manage to be as successful as we are.  In fact, doesn't our economy somewhat depend on that?  Otherwise, where would our customers come from in this era of globalization?  If D'Souza can prove that Obama's policies will hinder future growth, can't he do that without implying we have a God-given right to be Numero Uno?

Actually, I was planning on seeing "2016," at least before I started doing some research on the movie and D'Souza.  At this point, however, I don't think I have a civic duty to support any self-appointed fear monger  fomenting more rhetoric in this already-nasty campaign season.

And I'm not talking about Obama here.

If D'Souza can't prove why, based on facts instead of supposition, Romney deserves to be elected over Obama, then maybe I can understand why D'Souza seems so scared.

I, on the other hand, don't need D'Souza to tell me how to vote.  He may be a famous movie maker today, but God expects us to base our election day decisions on more than regurgitated partisan gossip.  If D'Souza had kept that in mind and crafted a movie based on facts instead of rhetoric and spin, he might have actually changed the mind of some voters.

As it is, D'Souza's tired reliance on fear mocks the exceptionalism he so fervently claims for America.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

9/11's Legacy is Ours to Lose

The original WTC plan at street level
It was a September Tuesday like today.

Both here in north Texas, and in New York City.

Bright sunshine, balmy weather.  Not to hot, not too cold.  Nothing particularly extraordinary.  Except today, we live in a drastically different world than the one that existed 11 years ago, before the start of the workday on the East Coast.

We're used to it now.  9/11 is not only a day on a calendar.  It has become one of the most well-known dates in human history.  It is a noun, whose very mention instantly conjures up images of two skyscrapers engulfed in flames and smoke.  Or maybe firefighters marching up staircases towards an unknown fate, while dazed office workers helped each other trudge down those same steps.  Or maybe a group of otherwise ordinary airline passengers who chose immediate death over allowing their plane to be turned into a weapon.

An entirely new federal agency was created in its aftermath to make us feel safer.  We endure embarrassing pat-downs at airports and other wacky protocols because of it.  Kids today willingly march into war because of it.  Our Defense Department is stewing over a newly-released book about how America killed 9/11's alleged mastermind.  Billions of dollars have been spent in New York City to clear the rubble and construct a vast new complex of memorial structures, office buildings, and mass transit facilities that could hopefully withstand any future attacks at the site of 9/11's most graphic carnage.

In the conventional American spirit of optimism, we generally like telling ourselves that we're more prepared now to deal with any future attacks that might match or exceed 9/11's wrath.  And maybe it's true.  To a certain degree, we've made a conscious decision to give up some of our perceived freedoms so our government can keep tighter tabs on us and, hopefully, minimize other opportunities for unfriendlies to take advantage of our remarkably open society.  To date, nothing on the scale of 9/11 has taken place in the United States, and maybe that's indeed because we're more vigilant, not simply because unfriendlies haven't thought up anything worse... yet.

Conspiracy theorists have had some fun exploiting the unprecedented scale of destruction inflicted on 9/11, trying to claim that our own government perpetrated the attacks.  But if you really think our government could have carried out 9/11, you actually have more faith in government than those of us who think conspiracy theorists are delusional.

Other 9/11 hangers-on include liberals who still harbor suspicions regarding whether the Bush administration could have avoided 9/11 altogether.  How much did the Bush administration know from the terroristic chatter before 9/11, they ask.  But how much does it matter how much they knew then, now that they're all out of office?

One thing Bush did get right:  9/11 represents a significant battle in what we finally realized was a war against jihadist terrorism.  Muslims, who had been making steady progress assimilating into American society, suddenly found themselves back where they started with the American people: ostracised, vilified, and misunderstood.  Granted, it hasn't helped that as the developed world's war against Islamic fundamentalists has ramped up, many American Muslim clerics have stood silently by, neither cheering their new country on to victory, nor forcefully denouncing the destructive proclivities of their radical religious brethren.  Individually, many American Muslims profess allegiance to the United States, but the court of public opinion generally likes to hear such allegiances affirmed by prominent religious leaders in the public square, and that hasn't happened.

Instead, Muslims proposed building what inaccurately became labeled a mosque within blocks of the ravaged World Trade Center site in Lower Manhattan, and then took offense when millions of Americans took offense.  To date, a fanciful tower that would house the controversial Islamic worship center remains on the drawing board, while the nondescript building Muslims want to demolish for their new project hosts community art exhibits.  Meanwhile, Park 51, the intentionally neutral name for the Islamic group operating the cultural center, has bumbled through leadership changes and lethargic fundraising.

Maybe all of this fear, anger, destruction, and animosity that led up to 9/11, was displayed on it, and has resulted from it has produced something of genuine humanitarian benefit.  But if so, it's hard to see, and its cost hardly seems worth it.  Judging by right-wing efforts to preserve our Defense Department's staggering budget, it's hard to prove that the world is safer for Americans today, and judging by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Taliban's wake, almost impossible to prove it's safer for most Muslims.  The more hindsight we acquire, we may grow to remember 9/11 not as the end of innocence, since in the context of terrorism's trajectory, 9/11 wasn't first.  Rather, we'll see 9/11 more as history's place holder for when our planet finally faced mankind's inhumanity to man head-on.

Some Muslims say they can understand how America's pop culture and foreign policy (which sometimes relies more on our pop culture than diplomacy) contributed to 9/11.  That's one reason why many non-Muslim Americans remain suspicious of adherents to Islam.  It's a two-way street that oftentimes seems to hold non-Muslims to higher standards, thereby perpetuating their skepticism.

Mostly, however, Americans simply can't understand how different cultural mindsets can fail to appreciate the things we tend to take for granted.  We'd prefer for people from other cultures and countries who are jealous of our way of life to work towards the same principles we enjoy:  capitalism, republican democracy, relative freedoms, and personal opportunity.  Only uber-patriotic goofballs think we Americans are perfect, but many of us understand how our distinctives contribute more good things than bad to our quality of life.

To the extent that those who hate America aren't rewarded by a growing hatred of them by us Americans, the equilibrium in this conflict can remain tilted in our favor.

Which means, then, that 9/11 remains ours to lose.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Long Life's Dear Cost

Living a long life used to be a good thing.

And if you're healthy, right up to the end, it may still be.

But for an increasing number of Americans, old age is not the good thing we've been led to believe.  The Lord has blessed our doctors, scientists, and other medical experts with incredible insight into how the bodies He created function, and that insight has led to some amazing advancements in healthcare, which have helped to lengthen lifespans.

Long life, remember, used to be considered a good thing worth striving towards.

In Biblical times, long life wasn't 80 years, or 100, but several hundred years.  We still don't know how the same human bones and flesh they had back then could last so much longer than ours does today.  Or, for that matter, what the quality of life was for those folks when they hit the 300-year mark.  Survival then was much tougher than it is today, which makes one wonder whether back-breaking labor might actually better for us than sitting at computer screens all day long.

We've just finished the last of our national political conventions, and today, the race for President of the United States goes into overdrive.  One of the key topics up for debate centers on how our country plans to care for its rapidly-aging population, including ideas for revising Medicare and, even more importantly, Medicaid.  Medicaid, after all, is what many middle-class families currently rely upon to fund the oftentimes exorbitant costs of long-term care for their loved ones.

Whether you're for vouchers, reducing the role of the federal government in healthcare generally and elder care specifically, or increasing Washington's role in determining and allocating funds for such care, we need to remember that funding elder care is not an abstract problem.  It's happening now.  Baby boomers pose a significant threat to the financial integrity of American families, charities, and the government, from the local to the state and federal levels.  And care isn't getting any cheaper.

Who Can Save Enough to Pay for Long Term Care?

It may be easy for all of the young fresh faces and voices of America's contemporary media, including blogs and political action groups, to view elder care as a cost-savings opportunity.  Letting policy shapers speak from lack of experience has become a dangerous trend in our country.  Speaking as a member of a family that has already begun the slow, expensive process of long-term elder care, however, I see this issue differently.  The loved ones in my family who need specialized attention have worked their entire lives in honorable yet modestly-paying jobs.  The kind of jobs most people have that, although ordinary, helped them afford decent homes and a few luxuries.  They've retired mortgage-free and credit-card-debt-free.  With savings.  So why should they worry about paying for their own care, right?

Sure, some right-wing Republicans might grouse that my family's loved ones should have striven to become independently wealthy, so they would know they could afford any healthcare contingency.  Meanwhile, any serious student of economics knows that not everybody can be a One Percenter.  Or even a Twenty Percenter.  My family's loved ones played the career and personal finance games as well as many other Americans have been able to.  Along the way, however, the retirement goalposts got moved.  And even if they'd earned twice what they did during their careers, it wouldn't be enough to pay for modern long-term care.

Hopefully, most rational conservatives can agree with many rational liberals, and recognize that personally funding retirement care these days requires much more than conventional savings and healthcare insurance, and experts differ as to whether long-term-care insurance is worth its steep cost.  Double the quandary when both spouses live into ripe old age.  Stories about running out of money, particularly because we're living longer than past generations, are incredibly frequent.  Even most long-term-care insurance policies cover only three years of care, while patients may live much longer.  Only an ignorant person would claim that any American worth their citizenship should be able to save up the money they'll need to pay for their own elder care, or hope three year's worth of expensive insurance provides enough protection.

Indeed, if there's one great equalizer in American society, it's elder care, because even if you've earned hundreds of thousands of dollars in retirement assets, you can burn through it quickly if you're not healthy.  And it strikes me as being a bit hypocritical of politicians - of all people - to be dictating how and what types of care should or shouldn't be funded anyway.  After all, many of them benefit from a federal healthcare program the rest of us Americans can only dream about.

Being Responsible for What God Expects of Us

People of faith, particularly those on the far-right side of the aisle who normally eschew anything that drains taxpayer dollars, need to remember that the Bible is explicit and repetitive on our mandate to care for the widows and needy among us.

If that means cutting back in other programs so that we can honor our elders by paying for the care they require, shouldn't we?

Of course, if that means cutting waste in the elder care programs we already have, shouldn't we?

Should it mean that family members currently working and trying to pay for their own retirement be forced to quit their jobs to perform the care for which our politicians don't want to pay?

Should it mean our pharmaceutical industry gets to set their prices for medications required to sustain life?  Or that nursing care providers and healthcare plan administrators get to inflate the costs of elder care by setting their own payment guidelines?

Where should the line be drawn between profit motive and pure greed when it comes to elder care?

Where should the line be drawn between our personal preference for low taxes and our ability to help out our fellow families grappling with elder care costs?  Granted, having the federal government administer elder care may not be the best approach.  The rules government bureaucrats and politicians concoct - particularly at the federal level - have a bad history of being woefully counterproductive.  Right now, Medicaid is run by individual states, and paid for by each state with matching funds from the federal government.  Technically, states can opt out of Medicaid, since their participation is voluntary.  So far, however, even though some states call their Medicaid program by a different name, all fifty states participate.

President Obama would like to expand Medicaid by broadening patient eligibility standards.  He says Obamacare will provide states more federal funds, but states will have to contribute more themselves, too, causing some to balk.  After all, whether we're talking state or federal funds, it's all still taxpayer dollars, so Obamacare doesn't really appear to be solving anything in terms of Medicaid.  Subtly expanding federal control over what has traditionally been a state-run program - which is what increasing federal participation would effectively do - doesn't sit well with conservatives, either.

Don't forget that Medicaid doesn't just pay for elder care.  It, along with Medicare, pays for a variety of healthcare costs for a variety of segments of our population.  When it comes to paying for elder care, however, it's usually Medicaid that taxpayers rely upon to cover the gaping cost gaps.  Unless somebody can come up with a better idea.

You've Aged Just Reading This

Fortunately, the recent trend towards home health care is helping to reduce some costs, and fast-paced advancements in the treatment of cancers and dementia may help provide cures to help senior citizens lead less dependent retirements.  But it's all still expensive.

A lot may hinge on what happens to Obamacare after this November's election.  Right now, depending on who you talk to, Obamacare is either lowering costs, or simply reducing the number of allowable medical procedures.  It's very difficult to parse the hype and rhetoric from reality.  Considering the resources required to provide the care you would expect for yourself or your parents, however, can we afford to spurn greater federal involvement in elder care?  If states opt out and lose federal funds, can our churches and community charities keep up with the growing demand?  Would you want your family to be one of the ones to find out?

Not that the government is the only hope for elder care.  But how realistic are we being by playing political gamesmanship with the needs of our aging population?  After all, even if we find ways to better manage elder care, and I hope we do, the demand for it won't go away.  None of us are getting any younger.

And we can't all hope to be the exception, and either earn enough or stay healthy enough to avoid the elder care cost crisis.

One of the blessings God offers His people in the Bible is long life.

How much of a blessing might long life really be?