Monday, December 31, 2012

Essays in Review


Everybody's doing them this time of year.  Right after Christmas, we start pondering the notable people who died this year, or the year's worst tragedies, or the year's most exciting celebrity gossip stories.

Part of it, of course, is our Western instinct to track things, like time.  Part of it is a genuine sobriety regarding the memories we have of deceased famous people, and how their lives touched ours in the past.  And some of it is plain and simple media filler while editors and writers take their Christmas vacations.  Annual lists are things that have already happened, so you don't need to wait until December 31 to do the work of chronicling them.  The only people who wait until days like today to get any work done are members of Congress and occupants of the Oval Office.

For what it's worth, I decided to check and see what the top most-viewed articles on my blog have been this year.  It's not a statistically perfect list, since Google's Blogger software can't track the number of times my home page's headliner article has been read.  Indeed, even though I can count the number of visits visitors to my blog have made to each article, it's impossible to tell how many people have actually read any of them.

That's something for all of us to keep in mind when we hear of these "Top 10 Most-Read" lists.  All most of us website editors can go by is the view count, which is not an entirely reliable metric, as I've just explained.  For example, we've heard that South Korean pop singer Psy's Gangnam Style is the first video to hit one billion views on YouTube, but how do we know that means one billion individual residents of our planet have watched it?  Spammers and hackers may have hijacked YouTube's video counter, either for their own jollies, or at the behest of Korean publicists working on Psy's behalf.  Hey - I used to work in the Internet technology business, and even though I've never been a techie, nobody at my firm - or any other firm - trusts website counters.  They're so easy to manipulate.

In fact, one of the top-viewed essays on my blog this year has been so bombarded by spam, I left it off this list.  Almost every other day, I've gotten some sort of spam response to this particular essay with a link to the same suspicious website.  This happened to a couple of my other essays that didn't come close to making my Top Ten, too.  I don't know what search engine words are attracting all of these spammers - none of whom can string a coherent sentence together with English words - but I understand from researching the problem, in the hope of discouraging these spammers, that it's a fairly common issue for bloggers.  I'm actually fortunate that they haven't figured out how to hack my blog.

So anyway, without further ado, here are the Top Ten Most Read Essays on my blog this year, listed along with the date each was published:
Right off the bat, you can see that only one of this year's essays was a top-read winner.  All of the rest were written in 2010 or 2011.  I guess that makes sense, since my achieved essays have been online longer, and, therefore, more searchable by the bots and programs that look for content.

I was not surprised to learn that this past year's most popular essay was a re-cap of responses to an article I wrote for  The topic dealt with modest feminine attire in church, which generated a tidal wave of interest on Crosswalk, and was the top-read article on their site for several days this past summer.  While I had an idea that it could be a provocative subject, I have to admit that I had no idea it would elicit the emotions that it did.  And not from men, who I thought would be the ones defending a woman's right to dress provocatively at church, but women!  Apparently, a lot of churched women have bought into the male dominance of our society that encourages demeaning displays of sexual equipment by calling it "empowerment."

Frankly, I'm pleased to look over this list and see that no particular genre of essay topic dominates it.  There's the Number One essay, dealing with people on welfare who keep on having babies, and then there are two relatively benign pieces on architecture in Europe and the Middle East.  There's a favorable recap of my weekend spent judging a homeschooling debate contest, and a rant about church marketing campaigns gone awry.  About the only truly controversial piece is one exploring whether America's problems have come about because we've outgrown our current economic system.

Tomorrow, a new year begins, as does another year of this blog.  To those of you who faithfully plod through my essays regularly, I am deeply thankful to you for your continued interest.  Yes, I'm still hopeful that this blog can land me an honest writing gig for real money someday, but I'm glad you're along for the ride.

But to you spammers who keep trying to link your sordid websites to this blog, please go bother somebody else.  And learn some English.

Then again, if the grammar you spammers use is what you've learned from my blog, no wonder these essays haven't been more profitable for me!

Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Gun Blame Game Misses Target

Like a dog with a bone.

Gun control advocates have seized upon the burst of gun violence ricocheting across America, and are bent on stopping it.

With more laws.

Now, I don't own a gun, don't want to own a gun, and am not convinced the Second Amendment guarantees citizens the right to bear semiautomatic machine guns.  But neither do I believe gun control is the answer to violence committed with guns.

I mean, talk about closing the barn door after the horse has bolted!  Right now, today, there are over 270 million registered guns in the United States.  Compare that number with the approximately 650 million civilian-owned guns in the entire world.  Every year, Americans purchase more than half of all guns manufactured.  And new laws will curtail this demand for weaponry?  How?

Remember, we can't legislate morality.  Murder by gun is already illegal, but it still happens.  How many would-be murderers suddenly hesitate, worried less about what wanting to kill somebody says about their moral compass, and worried more about not committing a crime?  They're willing to take a life, but not willing to break a law to do so.  As often as that type of scenario doesn't happen, a would-be murderer's legal incentive to put down a gun is just as nil.

Isn't it obvious that sensationalism surrounding massacres like Newtown, Connecticut and Aurora, Colorado is what's driving anti-gun paranoia?  Meanwhile, more people are killed every day by drunk drivers on America's highways, and our society's not up in arms over that fact.

New Benchmark for Corporate Complicity?

Former Wall Street financier John MacIntosh wrote an op-ed for today's calling for a group of wealthy liberals to buy-out gun manufacturing company Freedom Group, makers of the gun used in the Newtown tragedy, and run it "ethically."

As if whomever's running Freedom Group right now intends for its customers to slaughter human beings.  Granted, guns have only one purpose, and that's to kill.  They're not designed to simply wound; being wounded by gunfire usually means the shooter missed.  If guns were supposed to just fire "warning shots," the velocity which which they project bullets would be sufficient to maybe break the skin, and temporarily cripple one's target.  But not ruin bodily organs.

Why do gun manufacturers make guns?  Because there's market demand for them, duh!  Even if it can mostly be summed-up as testosterone-fueled hubris.  After all, how many guns does a person need to hunt?  Or to protect themself when walking the grim streets of East Harlem?  To the extent that guns represent a twisted sense of empowerment, the willingness of Americans to keep buying them probably reflects more poorly on the lack of security people feel in this country, and not a secret desire to blast everybody else off of the planet.  But Freedom Group doesn't delve too deeply into the psychology of its customers, and if it's unethical for them not to, plenty of other manufacturers would be far more unethical.

For example, if we're going to start blaming the manufacturers of products used to kill people for those deaths, then why aren't we going after alcohol distilleries, whose products are used to kill far more people.  While technically, killing with a gun is murder, whereas drunk driving is "only" manslaughter, isn't the end result still the same?  Our courts give leeway when it comes to motive, but in God's eyes, taking a life by either commission or omission isn't as nuanced, particularly since drinking and driving is such an avoidable crime.

The difference between alcohol violence and gun violence?  Not the end result, of course, which is the death of another human being.  The difference is that far more people drink and drive than use a gun to murder someone.  Try blaming a popular beer company for the deaths in which its products are complicit, and see how far you get.

For example, where was the self-righteous Bob Costas with his half-time diatribe against drunken driving after intoxicated Dallas Cowboys nose tackle Josh Brent wrecked his Mercedes, killing his passenger and fellow teammate, Jerry Brown, early in December?  Remember, after Jovan Belcher of the Kansas City Chiefs shot his girlfriend to death in November, Costas harangued the nation on gun control from his network sportscaster's desk the next day.

Beer companies rule professional sports.  Costas knows who to pick fights with, and it can't be with his bread and butter.

With gun violence, however, the enemy seems far more vulnerable.  And the enemy of choice isn't as much our society's lust for violence, since it's as popular as alcoholic beverages, but guns.  Unfortunately for America's gun owners, their most powerful political ally is the National Rifle Association, run by a bunch of older white guys who think good PR is staging an embarrassingly calloused press conference a week after Newtown, and calling for big-government programs for cops in schools and a national mental patient database.

Thing is, the NRA knows it's got significant firepower behind itself, so they don't need to project a slick image, or sound any more rational than gun control advocates.  The NRA has the nation's stockpile of civilian-owned weaponry on its side, all 270 million pieces of it.  Roughly nine guns for every ten Americans.  That's where the logic of gun control advocates completely falls apart.

Motive Doesn't Depend on Method

So let's get back to this thing call "motive."  The thing that keeps drunk drivers who kill from being tagged as murderers in our society.  What is the motive of folks who take a gun and kill innocent people?  Ferocious anger?  An inability to cope with stress?  Inexplicable mental confusion?  Sexual perversion?  Greed?  An inferiority complex?  Being teased in school?  A deviant desire for attention?  Religious extremism?

In Nigeria, a group of bloodthirsty killers called Boko Haram is terrorizing cultural Christians, but they're not shooting their victims.  They're slitting their throats, setting fire to them, and bombing them.  We Americans don't hear much about the atrocities taking place in Nigeria because the slaughter of white, wealthy schoolchildren in Currier and Ives country trumps dark-skinned savagery in a part of the world where we think it's customary.

It's unlikely that gun control legislation in Nigeria is forcing Boko Haram to resort to knives and bombs, especially since crisis experts believe they're now being supplied and financed by al Qaeda.  But the killing is still taking place with impunity.  The evil of hatred is both plain and complex, which poses the most significant challenge not just to international aid groups seeking an end to the violence against Nigeria's Christians, but to Americans angry with our gun violence here at home.

One thing's for sure:  advocates for peace in Nigeria aren't crafting any anti-knife laws.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, elitists like John MacIntosh have begun to rhapsodize about taking over gun companies and running them ethically.  MacIntosh claims that executives at Freedom Group perpetuate a "banality of evil" in their corporate groupthink, although away from the office, he says they may be "decent enough" folks.  Leave it to a Wall Street alumnus to think he knows how to save other people from themselves!  Or, for that matter, how to run a business ethically.

The ethics we need to be talking about are not those of the gun manufacturer, but the gun user.

Otherwise, free enterprise as we know it could be held liable for the sins many people don't want to acknowledge.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Virtual Concert for Christmastide

Last year, I created a virtual Christmas concert featuring YouTube videos, and from what I heard from friends who "attended," it was a hit.  So I'm reprising the concept again this Christmas, with just about all of the same music from last year.

Perhaps because it's my favorite Christmas carol, I'm not satisfied with any of the videos available online for "Of the Father's Love Begotten," so I'm simply omitting it from this year's "concert."  Otherwise, I know it's bad form to have the same music year after year for one's Christmas program, but I think you'll find that these selections set an appropriately God-honoring tone and focus for pondering Christ's nativity.

Basically, just flow through the "order of worship" below, clicking on each link to open the videos in a new window, and if you want to skip certain selections, that's up to you.  Just be forewarned: you might find yourself enjoying some truly great musical masterpieces you may have never heard before!

Indeed, I invite you to consider this a worshipful experience and take about an hour of your day sometime this week and work your way through this playlist in a contemplative, yet celebratory fashion.

So, without any further ado, let us proceed with our virtual concert.

Bidding Prayer

"Oh great God, Whose divine providence has granted us salvation through Your holy Son, Whose birth we commemorate this season, we Your people bid Your help so as to worship You in spirit and truth, not just as we join in these praises to You, but as we continue throughout this week of celebration for Your many good gifts to us, not the least of which is our very reason to be joyful, our incarnate Savior.  On behalf of those who mourn, who are destitute, or who otherwise need our ministry of compassion, please be merciful during this festival season, even as You direct us to be Your hands and feet of compassion to our neighbors.  Help us to be peaceable, and to hope, and to share with others Your best Gift to us, the holy Babe of Bethlehem, even our Lord, Jesus Christ: Amen."

Opening Fanfare
J. S. Bach, "For the First Day of Christmas (Part 1)" from the Christmas Oratorio

"Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence"

"Once in Royal David's City"

The Narrative
"From the Squalor of a Borrowed Stable" by Stuart Townend

Despite its sub-par audio quality and quaint aesthetics, I chose this video because the girls who are singing come from an African orphanage, helping to represent the global breadth of God's salvific plans through the incarnation of His Son.

The Invitation
"O Come, All Ye Faithful"

Hector Berlioz, "The Shepherd's Farewell" from L'enfance du Christ

Thou must leave thy lowly dwelling, The humble crib, the stable bare. Babe, all mortal babes excelling, Content our earthly lot to share. Loving father, Loving mother, Shelter thee with tender care!

Blessed Jesus, we implore thee With humble love and holy fear. In the land that lies before thee, Forget not us who linger here! May the shepherd's lowly calling, Ever to thy heart be dear!

Blest are ye beyond all measure, Thou happy father, mother mild! Guard ye well your heav'nly treasure, The Prince of Peace, The Holy Child! God go with you, God protect you, Guide you safely through the wild!

"O Magnum Mysterium" from the ancient Matins for Christmas; this version composed in 1994 by Morten Lauridsen of Los Angeles, California

Latin text:  O magnum mysterium, et admirabile sacramentum, ut animalia viderent Dominum natum, jacentem in praesepio!  Beata Virgo, cujus viscera meruerunt portare Dominum Christum. Alleluia.

English translation:  O great mystery, and wonderful sacrament, that animals should see the new-born Lord, lying in a manger!  Blessed is the Virgin whose womb was worthy to bear Christ the Lord. Alleluia!

The abrupt ending of this video cuts out the concluding prayer, so I took the liberty of crafting the last sentence:

"Eternal God, Who made this most holy night to shine with the brightness of Thy one true Light, bring us who have known the revelation of that Light on Earth to see the radiance of Thy heavenly glory through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever, Amen.

"Christ, Who by His incarnation gathered into one things earthly and heavenly fill you with peace and goodwill, and make you partakers in the joy of His love; and the blessing of God almighty, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, be upon you and remain with you always. Amen."

J. S. Bach, "Gloria in Excelsis Deo" and "Et in Terra Pax" from the Mass in B Minor

Yes, we have South Koreans singing in Latin!  The Gospel isn't just for English speakers, is it?  I hope I don't need to translate, but just in case, "gloria in excelsis Deo" means "Glory to God in the highest," and "et in terra pax" means "and peace on earth."

G. F. Handel, "Hallelujah Chorus" from Messiah

(And yes, tradition dictates that you now rise to stand in honor of the King of Kings.)

I've chosen our new friends in South Korea to lead us in Handel's penultimate worship song as I rejoice with saints around our world who are celebrating the birth of our Savior this week along with us!  They sing the famous text from the Hallelujah Chorus in their native language, yet we don't need a translator to join along with them in joyous proclamation that He whose incarnation we commemorate will truly reign forever and ever!


Friday, December 21, 2012

Validating a Christmas Paradox


Some attention.  Confirmation that we're really worth something.

If you think about it, our news media is brimming with stories of people all seeking the same thing, even if they're seeking the same thing in different ways:

"Will somebody please validate my existence?!"

Yesterday afternoon, former three-time Olympian Suzy Favor-Hamilton, a wife and mother, admitted that an article on outing her as a $600-an-hour Las Vegas call girl is accurate.  She tweeted that selling herself seemed to give her the attention she craved.

"I was drawn to escorting in large part because it provided many coping mechanisms for me when I was going through a very challenging time with my marriage and my life."

Here in north central Texas, baseball fans are still seething over MVP Josh Hamilton's unexpected bolt from the Rangers clubhouse to the team's division rival, the Los Angeles Angels.  During his introductory press conference in California, Hamilton offered a simple explanation of what - in addition to the big-money contract - convinced him to leave Texas:

"I'm excited to be with people who want me to be here."

And speaking of sports, the unexpected deflation of Tim Tebow's football career, which just seemed to be getting started only a year ago, must be as dejecting to the popular star as it is puzzling to his legions of fans.  He was paid by the Jets, but hardly ever played.  Played on the field, anyway.  Meanwhile, the Jets' front office played his PR value royally, to his detriment.

Even Sandy Hook mass-murderer Adam Lanza almost certainly acted out of some twisted desire for validation in his life.

Usually, like Lanza and Favor-Hamilton, the only time you become famous is when you take your search for validation into areas which our society has decreed is wrong.  Killing people is obviously wrong.  And, even though plenty of people engage in it, sexual prostitution is wrong, too.  Lanza will be rightly vilified for his merciless attempts at personal satisfaction, while Favor-Hamilton, since her violation of society's rules titillates us more than anything, will face vastly less acrimony.

Yet, speaking of prostitution, how many people seek validation in areas where our society says it's OK - and even expected - for you to prostitute yourself?  Areas like corporate careers, the path Lanza's father took, in which disentangling one's self from complications that divert attention to earning money and position may be frowned upon by some people, but is generally accepted as a necessary part of playing the corporate game.

The corporate game of professional sports is awash in stories where players jump from team to team chasing the almighty dollar, instead of fan loyalty.  We shrug our shoulders and resign ourselves to the reality that sports is a business these days.  Even when deserving players like Tebow unwittingly get caught between an owner's greed for media attention and a coach's apparent ambivalence towards one's potential.

To some degree, we all seek a measure of validation for our lives.  Most of us seek that validation in socially-acceptable ways, even if they're not sinless ways.  And to the degree that the validation we seek is some sort of juice for our ego, or a balm on our bruised self-centeredness, couldn't our search itself be considered sinful?  Think about it.  We evangelical Christians like to talk about what each of us has been placed on this planet to do, and among all the good answers we usually give, we rarely mention that we're supposed to "die to self."

Wow.  Ouch.  Just saying it sounds so counter-cultural, doesn't it?  After all, America is about achievement, self-sufficiency, and individualism.  Not dying to self.

Yet consider these Bible passages:

- I [Paul] have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. - Galatians 2:20

- And he [Christ] said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. - Luke 9:23-24

- So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. - Romans 8:12-13

- "He [Christ] must increase, but I [John] must decrease.” - John 3:30

As you can see, "death to self" isn't my idea.  But it's what believers in Christ are to do.

This year's Advent season is almost over, and we're preparing to celebrate the incarnation of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, Who came to Earth as both a King, but also a helpless baby. He was born into a royal lineage, but that lineage included a prostitute, Rahab, and a murderer, David.  Not exactly a flawless family tree, huh?

Unfortunately, the correlations with the other people in my essay today end there, since I rather doubt Christ has any football or baseball genes in Him, considering neither sport had been invented then.  But you get my point, don't you?  And don't think I'm preaching exclusively to you, because I'm really preaching mostly to myself here.  I can drift into a good old-fashioned pity party during Christmastime as well as anybody else can, and I need to be reminded that my worth isn't ultimately in who I am, or what I do, or who anybody else thinks I am.  My worth is validated by Christ, not by what attention I can get from society.

By dying to self during this season of so much gluttony and materialism, I can paradoxically find life in the birth of the One Who gave His for mine.

And you can, too.

Infant Holy, Infant Lowly
Tra­di­tion­al carol in Spiewni­czek Pies­ni Ko­sciel­ne, 1908;
trans­lat­ed from Po­lish to Eng­lish by Edith M. Reed, 1921.

Infant holy, Infant lowly, for His bed a cattle stall;
Oxen lowing, little knowing, Christ the Babe is Lord of all.
Swift are winging angels singing, noels ringing, tidings bringing:
Christ the Babe is Lord of all.

Flocks were sleeping, shepherds keeping vigil till the morning new
Saw the glory, heard the story, tidings of a Gospel true.
Thus rejoicing, free from sorrow, praises voicing, greet the morrow:
Christ the Babe was born for you.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Learning Continues from Sandy Hook

Did you notice?

Tomorrow will mark the one-week anniversary of the second-deadliest mass shooting in American history.  And aside from commenting on it on last Friday, more out of sadness than anything, I've let everybody else across the World Wide Web do all of the talking about it.

Talking, and blaming, of course; and consoling, and introspecting, and hypothesizing, and advocating.  People have been doing a lot of advocating this week, for everything from gun control, to arming teachers, to better mental healthcare.

And yes, even last Friday, in my abbreviated comments, I pointed out that motor vehicle accidents and drunk driving kill far more people per year than mass shootings, so in a way, I was advocating, too.  Advocating for a moratorium on gun control laws.  It's obvious that public opinion might be as open now as it's ever been for additional laws controlling guns, but isn't that a knee-jerk, emotional response to the tragedy in Newtown?  Plenty of laws already exist on the books controlling access to guns, and none of them worked in this case, because the shooter's mother didn't use common sense when it came to the known emotional problems her son had demonstrated all his life.

Even her divorce documents contain references to the care she would have to provide the disturbed product of her lucrative, temporary marriage to a highly-paid executive at General Electric.  A man I feel no shame in describing as a coward for, first, conveniently dumping his son off on his wife, and then going into hiding with his new wife after news of the shooting ricocheted throughout the media.  Somebody retrieved his son's body from the morgue this past Tuesday, which says that even the killer's own father was in no hurry to do so.

A few bloggers have risen to Peter Lanza's defense, saying we don't know enough about the marriage or his relationship with his two sons to cast aspersions.  And it's true that the hyper-speculation in which we Americans are so premature to engage is short on facts and heavy on circumstantial evidence.  But quite frankly, if there's anybody I'm angry towards in this horrible tale besides the shooter, it's his father.

Biblically speaking, there's little justification in the first place for divorce because of "irreconcilable differences," as was the case with the Lanzas.  Especially when a developmentally-challenged child is involved.  The shooter had been diagnosed with Asperger's, a condition with profound implications for its victim's ability to socialize normally, although direct links between Asperger's and gun violence don't exist.  At any rate, the type of career in which Peter Lanza was excelling - climbing a prestigious corporate ladder - likely left little time for Lanza to substantially invest relationships with his children.  Or his wife, for that matter.

Granted, hindsight always brings a lot of things into focus, but it's no secret that executives earning a reputed half-million a year - and who are able to afford an annual quarter-million-dollar alimony payment - aren't paid to lavish quantity time on their families.  But might quantity time have been what the shooter needed to have lavished on him?  Not just by his mother - who reportedly worried to her friends about how effective a parent she was being - but by his father.  The father he cut off from his life when he married the woman he started dating almost immediately after his divorce was finalized.  The woman with whom he's now in hiding.

Sure, he released a short statement of shock and sympathy, but how much is his seclusion just another calculated stunt to preserve his career?  Fortune 100 companies don't look highly on their staffers whose offspring kill 27 people.  It's up to Lanza to prove that his broken family life - including his son's emotional and mental problems - wasn't a casualty of his career.  Yes, there's another son gainfully employed in the financial industry in New York City, and we know even less about him than we do the father he shared with the shooter.  But at least the brother didn't slink into hiding when he learned what his brother had done.

And yes, at the end of the day, Adam Lanza is ultimately the one responsible for the murders he brutally committed last Friday.  All of the speculation we do, and the contributing factors which may exist, can't erase from the shooter's life and eternity his sole culpability in denying life to 27 people.  Twenty-eight, if you count himself.

At this moment, it bears pointing out that, again from a Biblical perspective, there's no "special place in Hell for people like Adam Lanza."  The sins he committed don't make him any worse in God's eyes than how He sees you and me apart from His grace through Christ.  It's scary to realize how heinous our sins are before our almighty, all-righteous Heavenly Father.  Our speeding down the freeway, our "white" lies, our greediness, our gluttony - they're all on par with the Sandy Hook shooter's sins.  Our society may stratify sins, and categorize Lanza's to a degree far more punitive than speeding, but in God's eternal and holy justice, we're all as guilty as Lanza without the blood of Christ purchasing our salvation for us.

You can't sell newspapers and Internet banner advertising with truth like that, so many people across the world look at the Lanza family with disgust, while maintaining a measure of purity for Adam's victims, and sanctimony for ourselves, since we've never shot-up a school full of kids before.

Of all the lessons we'll have to learn from this atrocity in Connecticut, however, the lesson about sins and consequences will likely be the least popular.  Even less popular than gun control with NRA members!  Although, still, isn't it obvious that all any new gun control legislation would do is help society avoid the issue of sin by creating a false panacea centered on inanimate objects?

Another unpopular lesson will be the impact that absentee dads and broken marriages have on the children of these failed relationships.  And the role our careers play in taking our focus off of our children and spouse.  And, yes, how we address the delicate issue of caring for people amongst us dealing with mental and emotional challenges. 

Before all of that, however, comes tomorrow, the first of what will undoubtedly be numerous anniversaries of Newtown's wholly sad event.

A friend pointed out to me that the media seems to be making an extraordinarily superficial fuss over the fact that this horror took place in such an affluent, manicured, "Currier and Ives" community, as he put it.  As if it would make more sense in the South Bronx, or South Central Los Angeles, where there aren't as many rich white folks living such perfect-looking lives.

Perhaps the easiest lesson for us to learn even before tomorrow should be that maybe the harder people try to cover up and compensate for how perfect their lives aren't, the harder their fall from society's graces can be.

This tragedy may have occurred in a place called Newtown, but its story is that of every tarnished community that's ever existed.  Maybe this one's just particularly shocking not only because it involves painfully young children, but because it hits closer to that for which we all aspire: the good life here on Earth.

Sin is everywhere, and is unavoidable.

It just that oftentimes, it doesn't look nearly as grim.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Media Privacy Twists Engel's Latest Angle

We've known it all along.

They're arrogant, with a swagger that says they're better than the rest of us.  And once again, they've proven it.

Who are they?  News networks and their personalities.

NBC's irrepressible foreign affairs correspondent Richard Engel was kidnapped along with his crew last Thursday when they were traveling from Turkey into war-torn Syria.  But the network kept the news quiet - and asked other networks to do the same - until yesterday, when Engel and his crew were freed by their captors, who are believed to have been rogue fighters loyal to the Syrian government.

Fearful for the safety of all their personnel, and unsure of how publicity surrounding the capture of a legacy American network's staffers would affect their kidnappers, the news media brotherhood closed wagons around the story of Engel's kidnapping, protecting their own in a luxurious double-standard they never afford other victims of crimes.

Fortunately for Engel and his five co-workers, they were bounced around from safehouse to safehouse for five days, and never physically harmed, although the mind games their captors played on them were harrowing.  Engel says they were told to decide which of them should be executed first, but they refused to do so.  He said they were blindfolded the whole time, and that the sound of gunfire becomes far more scary when you can't see what's going on.

What a scoop!

For years, we've watched the handsome, tousled Engel cruise the world's hot spots, mostly in the Middle East, wading through violent mobs in Tahrir Square, flashing his cocky smirks from the bombed streets of Baghdad, and generally fashioning himself into NBC's poster boy of swashbuckling reporter-cum-Indiana-Jones, all in journalism's grand tradition of alpha-male war correspondents.  Indeed, he's straight out of central casting, but with a fluency in Arabic that allows him to coolly move about and communicate in communities whose violence any sane American would be fleeing.

And those locks!  Bald guys like me can't help but admire the 39-year-old's thick head of wavy hair, which looks impossibly good no matter the crisis. 

He's obviously an adrenaline junkie, and no doubt, this latest exploit of his - even though he didn't seek it - will only add to his staggering dossier of bona-fide "world's most fascinating man" credibility.  He's one of the few people who reported the entirety of the Iraq war, he's an expert on the conflicts in Libya and Afghanistan, he's won a couple of prestigious awards for his prolific reporting, and he's already written two memoirs.

NBC knows it has pure TV gold in Engle, and keeping him alive during his captivity - he simply vanished from everybody's radar screens for five days - was their paramount concern.

Yet how often to the networks rush in to scenarios where they jeopardize the lives of us mere mortals?  Those of us whose only worth to network news is the publicity we can bring them despite whatever misery of ours they think is newsworthy?  Sure, the networks love to trumpet the private travails of celebrities like the future queen of England's trip to the hospital, and we all saw how disastrous their coverage of that event turned out.  But they pick over every lunch date every presidential candidate has ever had, particularly if the candidate is a black Republican, like Herman Cain.  They pick and choose which celebrities they're going to use the flimsiest rumors to excoriate, particularly if their hapless victim has a trail of weird activities in their personal life, like former Syracuse University assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine.

And what about all of that unnecessary fuss by they news media over the White House leaks earlier this year that could have jeopardized our national security?  Just because some eager beaver in the shadows of the West Wing wants to tempt reporters with news we don't need to know, why do the networks feel it's their duty to jump all over such ill-gotten, potentially harmful dirt?  Are slow news days that unprofitable to media outlets, that they're willing to sell out America's security to tattle-tailers?

To be fair, when it comes to your own people, it's understandable that NBC would want to squelch the news about one of their star reporters and his team being kidnapped, as it's understandable that other professionals in the same industry would want to reciprocate to protect everybody out in the field, at risk of capture themselves.  To the extent that news of Engel's disappearance does not impact daily life for you and me, and the general public did not need to know he was missing, it made sense for the news media to keep the story under wraps.  It would be pretty calloused of me to demand that NBC risk the safety of one of its employees just so I could know that he might be in mortal danger.

But hopefully, NBC and its media brethren will take a hint from the smatterings public disapproval of the obvious double-standard here.  Just as most of us respect the sensitivity of Engel's disappearance, we expect the media to apply the same level of care and vigilance when they report other stories that don't directly impact their employees.  In other words, networks should use the metrics they used to evaluate the implications of covering Engel's kidnapping when other stories break.  After all, the people whose privacy they violate are probably just as loved and cared about by somebody as Engel is by journalism's fraternity.

Is that too much to expect from the "fourth estate," as our media is considered to be?

And as far as Engel and his team are concerned, considering that most Americans had no idea you had been off the air for five days, why don't you take that into consideration the next time you want to push the safety envelope for a story?

There's a fine balance between understanding the news will happen whether you're there to report it or not, and being the news yourself.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Mulligan Stew on Course for Dallas

Do you golf?

Apparently, fewer of us do.  Despite the Tiger Woods phenomenon of the past decade, the golf industry has found it harder and harder to compete against other demands for our time and money.  There's even an organization called the "Golf Preservation Foundation" exploring ways of making the game more popular and accessible to more Americans.

One of the Golf Preservation Foundation's claims is that modern golfing has become too complex, with courses that are too big and demand too much time from modern schedules.  Golfing's prime was during the 1960's, they say, when fans of the sport golfed at smaller, less glitzy facilities, where people could more easily fit nine casual rounds into their day and not feel like they'd played hooky from the back nine.  Smaller courses also cost less, which means the sport was more affordable for more people.  Sure, there were exclusive clubs back then, but plenty of room existed in the sport for municipal and mom-and-pop courses.

It wasn't until developers started master-planning golfing communities, and hiring celebrity golfers to design dazzling courses, that golf's demands on players' time and wallets started weeding out the people who just wanted a little fun and exercise.

This probably won't surprise you, but I've never golfed.  I can appreciate the aesthetic beauty of manicured lawns, and imagine spending an afternoon enjoying a golf course's scenery - without having to worry about mowing all that grass - could be fun.  But the reason I've never been lured onto a course is because golf has always struck me as a contrived pastime.

As contrived as all that customized landscaping.

Sure, there's admirable skill involved in being able to hit a little white ball into a little hole you can't really even see.  And when it's a nice day, being outside, and walking around amidst landscaping you can only dream about for your own house, it might get a bit boring if you didn't have something else to stress about... like hitting little white balls into little holes.

And plenty of golfers stress about their game, don't they?  Maybe it's a good stress, but I doubt it.  Some people thrive on competition, but seeing who's best at hitting little balls into little holes you can barely see only trivializes competition, doesn't it?

Trying to hit little white balls into obscure little holes doesn't come cheap, either.  All that wonderful landscaping doesn't manicure itself, after all.  And not everybody can walk around an entire 18 holes without some sort of mechanized transport.  The apparatus used to hit those little white balls can be costly, and there isn't just one style of those stick-like clubs, but a plethora.  Throw in the requisite plaid pants, spiked shoes, and those hats with the pom-poms on them, and you're talking some serious cash.

Indeed, for a variety of reasons, most of them financial, golf is a sport for the affluent.  Or at least, those who are rich enough to not worry about anybody laughing at their peculiar wardrobe.

Talk About a Downhill Lie

Which brings us to the peculiar news out of Dallas, Texas, recently that AT&T wants to build a championship-caliber golf course on a scrubby patch of urban forest in a crime-saturated part of the city.  AT&T currently has its corporate headquarters in Dallas, but is rumored to be quietly planning a new corporate campus in suburban Irving.  If and when the corporation leaves Big D, as a parting gift, AT&T wants to give the city the prestigious Byron Nelson Championship golf tournament that's been hosted by Irving for the past 30 years.

It would make for an odd swap, but then again, the Byron Nelson is not chump change, being worth $40 million annually to Irving's economy.  But AT&T is positioning itself as the tournament's new corporate sponsor in 2015, and they say the event's current venue, at Irving's grand Four Seasons resort, no less, isn't posh enough.

However, driving around the Byron Nelson's possible new home doesn't exactly impress anybody, either.  If at five diamonds on AAA's rating scale, the Four Seasons is too dowdy for AT&T, what makes the communications giant think marshland in a floodplain boarded by Section 8 apartment complexes, auto impound lots, and a rail yard will be any improvement?  There are reasons the city has ever been able to convince a rational developer to parlay a respectable enterprise on this nondescript 500 acres of city-owned land.  Its as if AT&T isn't aware of the neighborhood's deeply-rooted problems.

Or that golf probably isn't the best way to address those problems.

I spoke with a manager at one of those auto impound lots last week, a well-spoken, fit young man who had heard rumors of the proposed golf course but thought it was all a big joke.  This savvy business manager said he doesn't even walk outside the perimeter of his security fence around his sprawling lot for fear of his own safety.

"You'd be stupid to go play golf in this neighborhood," he scoffed, noting that the city already has a municipal course nearby, but everybody's too scared to play it.

"How you gonna keep the prostitutes and drug pushers off the greens?"

With a straight face, however, AT&T executives made a splash at their news conference with Dallas' mayor, members of the city council who overwhelmingly support the plan, and enthusiastic civic leaders from the city's southern black and Hispanic neighborhoods, all of whom heralded the proposed golf course as an economic savior for this often-overlooked part of Dallas.

Talk about your contrivances!  It all reeks of political grandstanding, back-room deals, and hopelessly ludicrous urban renewal hype.

We're not sure who's going to pay the purported $150,000 membership fee at this new facility, since even though the city of Dallas is going to pay $9 million to help clean up an existing landfill on this public land, it will not be a municipal course.  AT&T has magnanimously offered to cough up $2.5 million for a hike-and-bike trail near the course, but don't we all know that's going to be used by AT&T's private security force they'll inevitably have to hire?  After all, somebody's gonna have to hunt down all of the criminals plying their various illicit trades all over the property.  Dallas' police resources are already stretched thin across the city.

This Birdie Ain't Singin' No Sweet Song

About the only people who really score in this deal, aside from AT&T executives who harbor mysterious animosity towards the Four Seasons, are golfing students from none other than Southern Methodist University in Highland Park, a few miles and worlds away from Dallas' southern sector.  SMU is an official party school, where drug and alcohol abuse is common, as is - according to a friend who used to date an SMU student - rape and suicide.  You won't find statistics on the Internet to back any of this up, because the school fights mightily to protect its image.  Suffice it to say that locating the school's official golf course in one of Dallas' highest-resource 'hoods for prostitutes, drugs, and alcohol is like putting a chicken coop in a wolves' den.

Back in 2010, after Jerry Jones opened his splashy new football palace here in Arlington, Texas, AT&T was thought to be interested in purchasing naming rights to the widely-acclaimed venue.  But Randall Stephenson, AT&T's CEO, said in an interview with the Dallas Morning News that they decided not to put their corporate logo on the stadium because they didn't think it was a prudent marketing move.

"From my chair, it's all about return on investment," explained Stephenson, saying that purchasing the naming rights for the Cowboy's NFL home wasn't "the highest, best use of capital" for AT&T.

Yet apparently, this folly of a golf course is?  Even though no official decision on the new course's name has been made, it's pretty clear that AT&T wants its name someplace in it.  It's not like the company is joining with other local corporations in pushing for this new golf course. 

AT&T doesn't even expect it to be a profitable venture, which flies in the face of what its CEO said about naming rights.  “No one gets to make a profit out of this. That’s been our intent from the beginning in the way we thought about putting it all together,” claimed AT&T executive Ron Spears. “This is a not-for-profit in every way.”

A sixty-some-odd-million not-for-profit as a sensible driver for urban renewal in south Dallas?  Will caddy pay and dishwashing in the new club's kitchens help get people off of public assistance?

Maybe there are few alternative uses for this geographically-challenged patch of land, but if I owned shares of AT&T stock, I'd be a bit worried about the logic being displayed by the company's leadership.

Golfing may be on the decline across America, but one of the country's largest communications companies wants to build its own contrived estate where a privileged few can practice hitting little white balls into little holes.

Don't golfers yell "Fore!" when they've hit an errant ball?

Friday, December 14, 2012

A Time to Mourn

I had begun outlining my essay for today when a family member called with news about the mass killing of schoolchildren in Connecticut this morning.

Quite frankly, the topic on which I was writing pales so much in comparison to the story breaking out of suburban New York City, I don't feel there's any point in posting what I was going to post today.  It can wait until next week.

Allow me to digress for a moment, however, and acknowledge how incongruous it is for us to swoon over news of mass shootings, but never get all worked up about people who kill other people with cars.  An average of 100 people PER DAY are killed in automobile accidents in the United States.  That's more than three Connecticut school shootings a day.  How about alcohol abuse?  45 of those deaths from car wrecks are caused by drunk driving - 45 a day.  Might gun shootings be sensationalized because they're so rare, relative to the other ways we're accustomed to killing each other?

Our lack of respect for one another isn't just manifested when somebody shoots somebody else, is it? 

Meanwhile, don't think that I'm not aggrieved over this tragedy in Connecticut.  Indeed, I encourage you to please pray for all of those directly impacted by this horrific event, and that the Holy Spirit would somehow be glorified through it this Advent season.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Westward, Ho! for Hot Business Climate


Yet another list.

This being the season of Christmastide, perhaps lists are part of our culture's traditional observances, what with being naughty or nice, or informing loved ones of desired gifts - two lists having become immortalized in how we celebrate Christ's birth.

Like many business magazines, Forbes loves lists, and it's just published its latest list of America's "Best States for Business and Careers."  Actually, this list is a compilation of lists, such as business costs, growth prospects, and quality of life.  Forbes ranked each state by six metrics, and then combined the results of those rankings to create their listing of America's most business-friendly states.

At the top of the overall list this year is Utah, home to Mormons and lots of other ultra-conservative folks.  A friend of my aunt's from New York City works for a big, "too-big-to-fail" bank, and was promoted to a high-level job in Utah, which confounded his family.  Apparently, New York's legacy banks are relocating massive amounts of their operations out of the Big Apple to Utah, which must be a culture shock for not only the natives out West, but the former city dwellers.  Although this bank covered all the costs of moving my aunt's friends out there, and gives him a wonderful salary that affords them the equivalent of an estate back East, they feel like fish out of water.  One wonders what all those Mormons think about the transplanted New Yawkers in their previously pristine midst, too.

At the bottom of Forbes' list is Maine, my Mom's home state, and home to some of the most beautiful scenery on our planet.  How do I know that?  Because people who've traveled the world and lived all over the place tend to choose Maine as either their retirement home, or at least their summer home.  Even though all four of its seasons can hold nasty surprises, a beautiful day in Maine can more than make up for the state's many other foul-weather days.  Its air is tinged not with pollution, but either salt (near the ocean) or pine (inland).  The state has only one expressway, and most towns can still count their traffic lights on one hand.

Yet, most of what makes Maine a great place to visit and live also gives it its notoriously bad business climate.  Maine has never boasted a robust economy; mostly all its ever done is hobble along with Yankee ingenuity, back-breaking work, and just enough income for its hardy natives to survive, but not thrive.  All of the wealthy folks "from away" who can afford to choose to live in Maine drive up real estate values, but they don't bring their companies to set up shop in Maine and hire natives.  The state is plagued by high energy costs, rocky soils, brutal winter weather, remote geography, and crippling environmental laws enacted to combat some reckless business practices back when logging, farming, and fishing were decidedly non-sustainable pursuits.

It's not even like Maine's newer residents today want the state to be an economic powerhouse.  Many affluent retirees and summer residents don't want new development that risks changing the scenery and landscapes for which they've moved there to enjoy.  Rustic buildings, sleepy villages, tranquil shorelines, and winding roads also attract tourists, which is just about the only industry Maine has.  A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, as they say, and bringing in office parks, light industrial factories, and warehouses would make Maine look just like everyplace from which tourists come to Maine to escape.

Indeed, when it comes to "quality of life," although that's an ambiguous term if there ever was one, most people can agree that what makes Maine worth living in - if you can afford it - are the things that help make it remarkable.  Since we're doing lists, this one's easy:  stunning scenery, miles of ocean coastline, plenty of freshwater lakes, plenty of pristine woods, an absurdly low crime rate, relatively good public schools, remarkable access to world-class art and culture, and highly participatory small-town governance...  How's all that for some quality of life?

In fact, when it comes to quality of life, Forbes ranks Maine at #17, which is a pretty solid ranking, considering its business metrics are what's dragging the state down in its overall score.  For the record, Massachusetts ranks #1 for quality of life, while it ranks 49th (!) in the cost of doing business, and #17 overall.  Massachusetts, remember, has prodigious technology and healthcare sectors fueled by some of the best universities in the world.  Not surprisingly, Hawaii, way out there by itself in the vast Pacific, has the worst cost of doing business, while South Dakota is the cheapest place to run a business.

Probably because they can't pay people to move to there - even though it shares its low costs with frigid North Dakota, third in both Forbes' overall ranking, and in the cost of doing business.

Texas is only frigid in its northern counties, and even then, for only a few weeks out of the year.  The rest of the time, our Lone Star State can get blisteringly hot, and Forbes pegs the state's economic climate towards the top of its chart.  Another poll by Chief Executive magazine found that business leaders consider Texas to be the best place to run a business, but overall, Forbes is a bit less bullish, ranking it at #7.

For those of us who live here, it's no surprise to see that Texas' being still ranked in the top 10 comes entirely from its pro-business climate; it's no coincidence that Forbes thinks our quality of life only ranks at #33.  Spend any time here, and depending on what qualities you want for your life, you might think that ranking is being generous!  On the other hand, if you love swimming pools, professional sports, college sports, high school sports, driving, and fossil fuels, then you'll wonder what all this fuss is about.

Of course, our relatively low cost of living here in Texas is what sells most of us on the place, even if the scenery - cultural, and otherwise - is a bit parched.  Speaking of the cost of living, however, Texas' arch-rival in the corporate race, increasingly unaffordable New York State, fared far better in Forbes' ranking than it did in the tally of business executives earlier this year.  Chief Executive magazine put New York at #49 in its poll, but Forbes only went as low as #23.  One big factor helping out the Empire State with Forbes was, again, the quality of life index, which Forbes pegged at #11, three times higher than Texas'.

California was pretty much slammed by both magazines, with Chief Executive putting it dead last, and Forbes at #41, in its bottom ten.

So, what does all of this mean, if anything?

At least we can say beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.  Business folks don't see much economic value in places like California, New Mexico, Vermont, Hawaii, and Maine, since all these states are in the bottom ten of Forbes' list.  But plenty of the rest of us think these states hold some of the world's most iconic scenery, even if you can't get a job there.

And the top ten states Forbes finds best for business?  Not exactly beauty pageant winners, are they?  Utah and Colorado are probably the only ones most people would consider scenic or beautiful.  And that's only if you really like mountains and snow.

Surprisingly, some of the states that have been the most maligned in our pop culture for being overly taxed and regulated - "taxachusetts," anyone? - actually fall somewhere in the middle when Forbes crunches the numbers.  Massachusetts at #17, Minnesota at #20, New York at #23, Pennsylvania at #30, and Ohio at #33 manage to escape the ignominy of even being close to the bottom ten.  And if it helps New Jersey to think its ranking at #36 is better than being in that bottom ten, then go for it, you's guys.

Meanwhile, statistics that will comprise the data Forbes will use for their next, updated listing of business-friendly states have already started to be created.  Most lists are only current up until they've been made, aren't they?

Maine doesn't have much of a chance to leave their anchor berth at the bottom of the pile, especially considering how they've held that spot for three straight years.  It's a tough place to make money, even if it's an easy state in which to spend it.

California did manage to win a #1 ranking from Forbes in terms of its potential for economic growth, but maybe that's more because it has the worst record of lost opportunities, and a proven inability to capitalize on its ideal climate, burgeoning population, and globally dominant technology sector.

Maybe your family and your employer won't change where you live and work solely because of this ranking of our states.  In fact, since lists like these are in a constant state of flux, it's unwise to peg too much of the future on them.  This list mostly shows how states are trending, and which ones are "naughty" in terms of their business climate, or "nice."

But for Texas, Colorado, North Dakota, and Utah, according to the trends, their futures looks the brightest, since their current ranking and their economic growth prospects both score within the top ten.

Yee-haw, indeed.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Persecution's Newest Faith? (Updated!)

Important Update on Wednesday, December 12:  Below, I've written a rather light-hearted essay on the claim by some atheists that they are being persecuted for not believing in an immortal deity.  Well, as I was writing it yesterday, news was breaking out of Sri Lanka that Buddhist monks have incited about 50 physical attacks against Christian groups there in the past year, the latest as recently as Sunday.  Read more about it hereWhen atheists are willing to work against religious persecution of any kind, such as this urgent situation in Sri Lanka, that's when I'll take their claims of persecution seriously.

Many evangelicals think we're being persecuted.

Who'd have thought that atheists would feel our pain?

According to a report prepared for the United Nations, atheists consider themselves to be a persecuted lot, not just here in the United States, but around the world.  In seven countries, atheists can be murdered for their faith, since indeed, atheism is as much a belief system as any other religion.  Of course, in these same seven countries - where Islam rules - claiming the name of Christ can also be legal grounds for murder.

But atheists hate languishing in our shadow.  So in honor of the UN's Human Rights Day, which was yesterday (oops - here's a belated shout-out for human rights), a consortium of unconventional religious groups called the International Humanist and Ethical Union decided to remind the world that it's not just Christianity or Judaism that can claim all the attention when it comes to persecution.  Entitled "Freedom of Thought 2012: A Global Report on Discrimination Against Humanists, Atheists, and the Nonreligious," this report claims to be the world's first comprehensive analysis of the sufferings encountered by people who don't believe the normative religious traditions of the countries in which they live.

Although it sounds like a grand, sweeping condemnation of all religions, basically, you can take the problems Christians and Jews have in Islamic countries, and assume that atheists suffer the same problems, since atheism denies Muhammad's god as strongly as it does ours.  And it's pretty much only Muslim countries where atheists have encountered institutionalized, lethal animosity.

However, although atheists have a right to complain about how they're treated by Muslims, they tend to undermine their credibility with some of their other complaints.  Their report says that in Arkansas, for example, an atheist can't testify in a court of law.  But hey, we all have to give Arkansas a lot of grace, no matter your religious affiliation.

Atheists also don't like it that in some countries, like Greece, Russia, and England, state churches enjoy preferential treatment in halls of government.  Apparently it comes as small comfort that the official worship of God in these countries is considered by most evangelicals to be about as significant as how atheists view God.  In other words: nil.

Indeed, it seems that mostly what atheists don't like is that God's name gets so widely used in so many countries of the world.  Their religion's god is themselves, pretty much, since not believing in the God of the Bible or the Talmud - or the god of the Koran - usually means you're your own god.  Which means there's no standardized name for the gods of atheism.

And to the point which atheists make about the ubiquitousness of God, it's actually easy for evangelicals to agree:  so many of our culture's references to the sovereign Lord of the universe are too insincere as to be offensive to Him, and even blasphemous.  Politicians who demonstrate no faith in Christ invoke God's name like it's a mantra, or partisan talisman.  People incorporate God's name in their cursing and vulgar language without any thought to how irreverent they're being.

In a way, atheists may hear God's name used more frequently than many people who assume themselves to be Christians.  Of course, it irks atheists to hear God's name used so much, which is shameful to us who should probably be ashamed to hear our Heavenly Father's name used so improperly so often.

Shouldn't we be complaining along with atheists about how frivolously our society talks about God?

Frankly, I'm of the belief that anybody has the right to believe whatever faith they like, even if I think it's a goofy faith, like atheism.  So to the extent that laws like barring atheists from testifying in court need to be eradicated, I'm all for it.

But should we worry that atheists feel slighted when our broader community tends to look less skeptically upon people who name God's name?  In other words, should we strip all references to God from our national dialog because not doing so could be offensive to a particular group of people?

No, I don't think so.  Particularly since it's the God of the Bible Who tells His followers to love their enemies, even if they worship false gods.

The way our culture is going, anyway, it won't be long until atheists won't have much to feel ostracized for.

Unfortunately, this change in our culture will be as much our fault as theirs.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Ark or Arc?

Ahoy, mates!

It's the ship that has captivated the attention of people around the world.

No, not the Titanic.  This time, we're talking about Noah's Ark.  The world's first cruise liner, or cargo ship.  Or lifeboat.

In Doredrecth, Netherlands, today, Dutch carpenter Johan Huibers officially opened for tours his hand-crafted version of the Biblical boat, a floating, life-sized, full-scale replica of what Noah originally built to save his family from God's wrath.  The book of Genesis, in the Old Testament, contains a narrative of an epic flood sent by God to punish mankind for their abominable evil.  A level of evil mankind had managed to foment against God in what was already a relatively short span of time; what has been chronicled in the Bible's first book, and in its early chapters, no less!

If God was so enraged by how His creation had turned against Him at that nascent stage in human history, what what His anger towards us be today?

You don't need to be a born-again evangelical Christian to have heard the story:  God saved the patriarch Noah because his family was the only one, out of all the people that had populated the Earth since the beginning with Adam and Eve, that still worshiped God.  God sent supernatural rains to flood His creation, and for 40 days and nights, it rained enough for water to completely cover our planet.  There was so much water, it took 150 days for the water to recede.

Some people consider this Biblical account more of a religious allegory than a historical fact.  Some believe it's a folk tale, since Christianity isn't the only religious tradition with such a story in it.  For evangelical Christians, however, Noah's Ark really was built by a guy named Noah.  The vessel really did serve as a sanctuary for representative samples of every living creature, and all life forms alive today can trace their roots back to those creatures - both human and otherwise - that exited that craft after the flood.

Dutchman Huibers is one of those believers.  For the past 20 years, he's been laboring over his replica as a way of testifying about his faith.  Back this past summer, Huibers officially completed its construction, and starting today, it's open for tours after receiving all of its necessary government certifications.  Huibers even plans on taking his ark on tour, since its water-tight hull floats on water.  However, it won't be making any trans-Atlantic crossings.  Huibers' vessel may have been constructed according to the dimensions and requirements God gave Noah that are recorded in the Bible, but the patriarch didn't have modern shipbuilding codes by which he had to abide.  No insurance company today would certify Huibers' replica as an ocean-going vessel.

With or without a cargo of lions, tigers, and bears!

Indeed, can you imagine how animal-rights groups would protest, even though all the animals roaming our planet today owe their existence to Noah's floating zoo?  Perhaps out of deference to animal lovers, as well as to control cleanliness and odor factors, Huibers has populated his vessel with stuffed animals and household pets.  And it's probably safe to assume he'll be spraying to prevent roaches, woodworm, and termites from taking up residence amongst all that wood.

Perhaps trying not to be outdone by Huibers' publicity, a small group of Pentecostals in the hills of western Maryland are also trying to remind the public that they've got their own ark project going on.  Their ark, though, being constructed by pastor Richard Greene and the church he founded, God's Ark of Safety Church in Frostburg, is being made of steel and concrete bolted into the ground.  Greene says God told him back in 1974 to build the ark, but apparently his faith didn't extend to water reaching that far west from Chesapeake Bay.  Instead, a segment of the project has been erected alongside Interstate 68, with its towering steel framework testifying to... well, folly, mostly.

At least they're anchoring this ark to the ground as a testament to God's promise that He'd never again flood the Earth.  Huibers' ark isn't designed as a "rescue" ship, either, although having it floating in water helps reduce the weirdness factor of which Greene's project helplessly reeks.  But like anything else, "weirdness" is relative.  Huibers' ark is available for weddings, parties, and corporate meetings, as well as tours.  Greene wants his ark to be a miniature pentecostal city, with a sanctuary, private school, and medical clinic all tucked inside.

While maybe it's easy to deride these spectacles as tawdry distractions from the Gospel message implicit in Noah's very need for an ark to begin with, perhaps they can help remind us that God may be slow to anger, but that doesn't mean He doesn't get angry.  Sin is abominable to Him, and while the highly-publicized sins of adultery and debauchery may be the targets of people like Huibers and Greene, the sin of self-aggrandizement might be haunting these arks in the Netherlands and western Maryland.  It's a fine line between reminding folks of the sinful world in which we live and being all holier-than-thou.

Having said that, it still would probably be cool to visit Huibers' newly-completed ark to get an in-person sense of its dimensions and how Noah must have felt being the admiral of the only ship left on our planet.

Then again, I prefer reminding myself of God's power and grace by simply spraying my garden hose into the air on a sunny day, and letting rays of light create a sparkling rainbow in the mist, God's eternal sign of His promise never to flood the Earth again.

The rainbow, after all, is an "arc," too!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Messy Issues Mean Messy Politics

Politics is messy business.

At least, in a democratic republic, politics is messy.

Consensus serves as the engine of a democratic republic, but consensus isn't always easy to achieve.  Most of the time, it has to be forged in fire that burns off other good things, but good things that stand in the way of an acceptable compromise.

And compromise is a dirty word in today's politics, both among hard-left-wingers, and right-wing hawks.  We seem to have forgotten that the trick to compromise is achieving shared goals without throwing your key convictions under the bus in the process.

Unfortunately, people who cling to either extreme of the political aisle tend to lump a lot of good ideas under their "key convictions" category, which obscures the goals they likely share with other people, and makes compromise appear vulgar.  Strip away the reasons why people hold to their "key convictions," though, and what's left?

I suspect what's left are a bunch of half-baked ideas hammered into contrived convictions by people like Rush Limbaugh and Maxine Waters, who then peddle them as alluring sound bites to wider audiences with predispositions to such messages.  In the process, rhetoric replaces reason, because winning legions of loyal fans requires the simplification of processes that resist simplification.  Politics is messy because the shared goals within a population can evolve like the colors and shapes in a kaleidoscope, depending on any number of variables.

Don't forget - none of us are perfect, none of our political platforms are perfect, none of the world's economic models are perfect, and not even our democratic republic is perfect.  If it was, we wouldn't have to spend as much time as we do messing about with how we keep the American experiment from crumbling around us.

Messy Politics and Illegal Immigration

As a self-professed moderate Republican, I talk a lot about how conservatives and liberals need to find common political ground, but maybe you're still not convinced.  Maybe you want to see how a moderate would approach, say, the increasingly visible discussions taking place among America's political elite regarding illegal immigration.  And I say "illegal immigration," even though these political elites prefer to ignore the "illegal" part and just label it "immigration."

Yesterday, in Washington, DC, a group called the National Immigration Forum wrapped-up a two-day "national strategy session" entitled "Forging a New Consensus."  They issued a report, "Voices of the New Consensus: Bibles, Badges, and Business," which represents the culmination of a year's worth of conferences they've been holding on this topic of immigration reform.

The National Immigration Forum counts among its participants a slate of political and religious figures as diverse as you can imagine.  Neo-hawk Grover Norquist, liberal congressmembers Sheila Jackson Lee and Charles Rangel, Southern Baptist leader Richard Land, controversial social justice activist Jim Wallis, and even a dairy farmer from Upstate New York are just some of the people lending their voices to this discussion, which while still short on specifics, seems to be zeroing in on several ideals.  These include creating solutions at the federal level instead of the state level, respecting law enforcement, respecting the family unit, recognizing our economy's need for migrant labor, and maintaining a free society.

Now, Richard Land, along with Willow Creek's Bill Hybels, is already a leader in a group of religious professionals called the Evangelical Immigration Table.  Land, Hybels, and other ministers have been trying for a couple of years to smooth over the rough edges of illegal immigration by saying that God told the Israelites to respect the sojourners in their midst.  In Exodus 22:21 and Leviticus 19:34, God instructs His people to love newcomers, foreigners, and strangers living with them in the land.

An incomplete and decontextualized reading of these passages appear to exonerate America's illegal immigrants, which provides people like Land, Hybels, and others with what they consider to be Biblical ammunition against people like me who say illegal immigration is, well, illegal.  Of course, Christians like Land and Hybels are also looking to grow their churches, and numerically, Hispanics provide a tempting demographic for proselytization.  But let's assume their motives are as pure as anybody else's.

I've explained before about how the illegal immigration debate is an economic debate, and that why granting amnesty to illegals already in the United States won't solve our illegal immigration dilemma.  Ronald Reagan tried it in the 1980's, and amnesty didn't end illegal immigration then, either.  As long as unscrupulous employers have a workforce that won't complain about being paid under the table, illegal immigration will continue to be profitable, both for the employers who can get away with paying artificially low wages and providing sub-standard working conditions, and the illegal workers who consider the immoral pay structure available here to illegals better than legitimate pay back home.

Giving illegals a legal voice in our economy would instantly deprive them of the sole reason they're valuable workers in the first place.  I believe that letting "organic repatriation" take place, in which we simply do a better job of enforcing the employment laws already on our books, will resolve our problems with illegal immigration.  Removing the reason people break our sovereignty laws would be humane, cost-effective, and efficient.  It wouldn't be politically popular, at least within the sectors of our economy that thrive from illegal labor.  And maybe we'll need to tweak portions of our immigration laws dealing with migrant, seasonal, and temporary workers.  That could pacify the dairy farmer from Upstate New York.  Other than that, doesn't organic repatriation sound like it's worth a try?

If You're Not Part of the Solution...?

To some ardent amnesty advocates, organic repatriation could still sound objectionable.  So this is where the moderate Republican in me would kick into gear.

If I were an American whose voice mattered, I would explain my rational position among my peers, and invite them to flesh out the reasons why they couldn't support it.  There would likely be some sordid political reasons why they might privately agree my idea would work, but publicly, they'd have to tow party lines.  Liberals have likely been counting on amnesty to provide Democrats with millions of fresh "minority" voters.  Of course, that's a purely racist assumption, but it's just as racist for Democrats to hope it, as it is for me to suspect it.  Conservatives likely won't want to wait to see how long something like organic repatriation would take to work, and some conservatives would be scared of what the business lobby would do to their campaign coffers if we deprived business owners of their easy way to scam their workers.

So, if I were an American whose voice mattered, I'd realize I have to compromise.  Politics does not like novel ideas.  It's a lot like me, really:  it doesn't do new well.  And just as Mitt Romney discovered with his "self deportation" talk, hard-line conservatives hate nuanced approaches like organic repatriation as much as left-wingers do.  So I'd have to barter.


Of course, it remains to be seen what the liberal and conservative sides of this National Immigration Forum will put on the table as negotiables, but I wouldn't make much of an impact by self-righteously assuming that simply my being willing to sit in the same room with them should be considered a good start.

Would I?

No, we'd need to talk about how we could protect the integrity of our immigration system and not simply completely capitulate to Hispanic illegals, while untold numbers of people in Africa and Asia obediently wait their turn to enter our country legally.  We could talk about how we need to manage the phenomenon of anchor babies while we can't even pay for all of the health care needs of children born to our legal residents.  We'd also need to talk about how letting employers get away with creating an under-class of undocumented workers in our country is any better than some other sordid parts of our history with civil rights.

These types of conversations aren't fun, and they won't win people lots of superficial friends.  But wouldn't refusing to enter the dialog actually contribute to the problem?  Even knowing you might have to give in on some things you won't like, expending the effort to explore all sides of an issue so you can find common ground should be worth at least the satisfaction of trying, shouldn't it?

If, at the end of the day, something like the National Immigration Forum degenerates into yet another fractious stew, I could still crow that my original plan for organic repatriation would have worked.  But how would that solve anything?

I may not agree with the premise upon which people like Dr. Land approach the illegal immigration debate, or the twisted democracy Representatives Jackson-Lee and Rangel hope to perpetuate as they join the discussion, but what's so wrong with hoping that somehow, mutual ground can be found between such otherwise disparate parties?

Maybe in my cynicism, I still doubt that I'll be 100% satisfied with any compromise they may manage to hammer out, but I do know one thing:  ignoring problems like this won't make them go away.

Sometimes, in politics, that's the messy reality we have to deal with.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Belcher, Costas, and Irresponsibility

Bob Costas had a good gig going.

At least, he did, up until Sunday night.

Last Saturday, Kansas City Chiefs player Jovan Belcher shot his girlfriend to death in the home they shared with their daughter.  Then Belcher went to Arrowhead Stadium, where he played, and shot himself to death after speaking with his coach.

Sunday night, during NBC's prime time coverage of the Philadelphia-Dallas game, Costas devoted part of his network's halftime show to a gun control rant, using the previous day's murder-suicide committed by an NFL player as his platform.  And football fans started howling in protest!

Costas may be 60 years old, but he still looks like the kid we've watched for years.  He's the Dick Clark of sports broadcasting, always perky, always erudite, always well-coiffed, always impeccably-dressed.  He never stammers, even when ad-libbing.  And his breadth of knowledge regarding sports, combined with his uncanny ability to recall precise details from decades of statistics, has earned him multiple stints as an Olympics host, along with other plum assignments across the athletic spectrum.

Of course, one of the reasons he's established himself as such a polished, professional announcer and personality involved his ability to project a neutral opinion on politics.  For the most part, he's kept his mouth shut on dicey topics, and he lets the sports he covers play themselves out in an arena devoid of partisanship.

At least, he did, up until Sunday night.

Granted, Belcher's actions caught many football fans by surprise, even if his team, as we've learned, was privately trying to assist Belcher and his girlfriend in resolving their domestic problems.  If Costas hadn't said what he said about gun control, the public debate regarding this tragedy might have been whether Kansas City should have played the next day, or whether the NFL should have allowed a re-schedule out of respect for the families involved.

But no, Costas took it upon himself to drag gun control into the broadcast booth with him Sunday night, and in the process, many football fans, who are also ardent advocates for our Second Amendment, view him in a whole different light today.

Perhaps not with enough anger to demand his resignation, since after all, sports audiences have grown comfortable with Costas, even if they haven't known his personal thoughts on a variety of non-athletic issues.  In addition, he's entitled to his opinions, although perhaps what's resounding more from grumbling fans isn't animosity, but disappointment, since Costas isn't as much one of their own as they'd heretofore let themselves believe.

To Costas' claim, however, that gun violence is responsible for Belcher's actions, isn't it even more disturbing that somebody with Coastas' pedigree still doesn't get it?  Yes, access to guns was obviously easy for Belcher, but if he was so enraged at his girlfriend, is the convenience of guns to blame?  What about Belcher's rage?  Personal responsibility for one's actions is crucial in any society, and the fact that a few people ignore their responsibilities with weapons of any kind doesn't mean the weapons themselves must be outlawed.

The argument is well-known:  do we outlaw cars, since people drive irresponsibly?  We don't say cars kill people, we say drivers kill people.  And besides, Belcher's guns were as legal as any car.  What additional laws would have prevented him from doing what he did?

News reports say that Belcher was out partying and got drunk on Friday night.  Might alcohol be a bigger culprit to this scenario than guns?  If so, there's no way Costas could go on a live televised diatribe against the alcohol industry, since beer money is what fuels professional sports.  Nor could Costas complain about the party attitude that's known to pervade many pro sports locker rooms.  Team owners, managers, and fans pamper athletes, wink at their escapades and debauchery, and only try to draw lines when too much bad publicity threatens to overwhelm their on-field performance.  If Belcher was still drunk when he killed the mother of his daughter and then himself, does it really matter if he used a gun, or a car, or anything else?

Personal irresponsibility.  That's what Belcher got wrong.

Not that I oppose laws against driving drunk.  In fact, I think that in our society, too many people still pooh-pooh the notion that they should rigidly monitor their alcohol intake before they drive home.  I've been to plenty of dinner parties where guests guzzle booze and joke about "this is probably one too many," which is about the time I head for the door and get in my car so I'm safe at home when they hit the streets.

Nor do I oppose some of our laws designed to regulate gun purchases and licensing.  Just because the Constitution guarantees a right to bear arms doesn't mean our government doesn't have the right to monitor those weapons.  But isn't it hard to see how any more gun laws will "control" anything?  Our country is awash in guns, and just like anything else, we can't legislate moral gun acquisitions and usage.  Especially since the vast majority of gun owners use them responsibly.

How many more ways can it be said?  Focusing on guns shifts the perspective off of individual citizens and onto inanimate objects that can't vote, or switch TV channels.  The gun-centric frustration expressed by Costas and other people reacting to gun violence is utterly useless because it avoids the true culprit:  personal sin.

Factor in the likelihood that Belcher abused alcohol, plus the fact that he was content to produce a daughter with a woman he hadn't married, which means Belcher had a low view of womanhood, and Costas wouldn't otherwise have anything else to vent his politically-correct reaction towards - other than Belcher himself.  The fact that Belcher used a gun to kill, instead of a car, only made it easier for Costas to stage his little rant.

Belcher's path to murder-suicide was longer than reaching for a firearm.

That's the truly unsettling part of this story.  And something no laws can fix.

The gig is up.