Monday, September 30, 2013

Urban Ministry Faces a De Blasio Paradigm

Who ever said urban ministry is easy?

Certainly not the Rev. Tim Keller, founder of both Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, and a whole new emphasis on "reclaiming" urban America.

For over twenty years, the perceived success of Keller's Manhattan church has helped attract evangelicals of diverse affiliations to not only the skinny sliver of land between the Hudson and East rivers, but city centers across North America.  In New York City, however, an upcoming election for mayor may indicate that, for all of Redeemer Presbyterian's success, a lot of work remains.

Conventional conservative theology holds that the more Bible-believing people there are in a city, the more righteous and morally-focused it becomes.  And generally, according to not only logic, but the Bible itself, the corollary should work.  Although salvation and sanctification are not dependent upon any sort of democratic majority to be effectual, God promises to honor the prayers of His people for the communities in which they live, and prayers can have a cumulative effect.

In New York City's case, the push for change has been a heady ride, with Keller and Redeemer becoming for evangelicalism in the post-seeker era what Bill Hybels and Willow Creek Community Church were to the seeker movement:  A prodigious network of relatively new urban congregations has sprung up across urban America's inner cities that Willow Creek's suburban matrix effectively marginalized.

Instead of Willow Creek's boomer families, Redeemer's target audience is young urban professionals:  generally affluent, career-driven, and if married, usually with few or no kids.  Some are black, but most congregants in Redeemer's model are white or, increasingly, Asian.  They're the kids of boomers, which means they've grown up in suburbia, and see a return to urban America as a fresh new social and economic opportunity.

Nevertheless, on November 5, a political landscape that helped re-shape New York City into a desirable place for affluent ex-suburbanites to live, work, and worship may be upended.  The larger community in which Redeemer's urban ministry model flourished appears to be tiring of fiscal restraint at the hands of mayors who welcomed construction activity at the expense of traditional welfare programming.  In other words, Gotham's old-fashioned social liberalism may be gearing up for a comeback.

At first, it appeared that Christine Quinn, a lesbian, was going to walk away with the Democratic nomination for this fall's contest to replace billionaire Michael Bloomberg.  Some conservatives were worried about the precedent her win would set, having a gay married woman at the helm of America's largest city.

Now, they wish that was all they had to worry about!

A Liberal's Liberal

This past summer, as the Democratic primary unfolded, Quinn's campaign unexpectedly began to flatline, and a heterosexual white male named Bill de Blasio came from behind to win.  And not only did de Blasio win the primary, but he appears to be rolling inexorably towards a decisive win in November's general election, creating a scenario New Yorkers haven't seen in almost a generation.

You see, de Blasio isn't just a Democrat.  Quinn is a Democrat, too, but she's considered more of a conventional party operative, willing to balance the needs of the city's profit-focused business elite against those of average voters.  As a city councilwoman, she and Bloomberg developed an unexpectedly cordial working relationship.  De Blasio, on the other hand, sits way over on the far outer edge of the Democrats' left-wing platform.  He's as liberal as a liberal can get, which, among other things, means he believes the only way people get rich is by taking advantage of the poor.

The prospect of a de Blasio win has the city's fiscal conservatives wringing their hands in apoplexy.  For twenty years, New York's business community has enjoyed mayoral administrations that, despite all of their social liberalism, have been as fiercely pro-capitalism as New York's union-dominated, bureaucracy-choked municipal government would allow.  With de Blasio as mayor, the happy days could fizzle back into the city's more traditional tax-and-spend gloom, because even though plenty of rich people have flowed into New York during its recent boom years, even more New Yorkers are poorer today.

A couple of reasons exist for this income disparity, such as the city never having been able to staunch the exodus of middle-income earners that began after World War II.  Sure, it's a more livable city today, but it's an even more frightfully expensive livability.

In addition, many middle-income blacks whose parents had moved up to New York from the South a generation or two ago for the city's once-robust manufacturing industry are moving back to their extended families in the South.  They're frustrated with the cost-of-living disparity between New York and warmer places like Georgia and North Carolina, and encouraged by advances in civil rights in the birthplace of the struggle for racial equality.

Another reason for New York's economic disparity is the blatant wealth that a relative few are building for themselves on Wall Street.  It doesn't take a lot of people pulling down $500 million or more to skew the data wildly against the city's welfare recipients.  But it makes for great political theater, even if it is inaccurate to pit economic classes against each other without taking into account other variables like education, family dynamics, and personal responsibility.

One of the ways de Blasio wants to wage a new type of class warfare is by taxing wealthy New Yorkers - which to him, means anybody earning over half a million a year - even more than they're already taxed by the city's punitive municipal income tax code.  He wants those extra taxes to fund a city-wide pre-kindergarten program and after-school activities for disadvantaged children, without encouraging the people having those children to wait until they're married before being sexually active, or completing their education so they can get jobs to pay for those glorified babysitting programs themselves.

Another of his admittedly bleeding-heart aspirations is for the city to provide lawyers for tenants when they face their landlord in Housing Court.  In other words, he wants taxpayers to defend renters regardless of whether they're being abused by an unscrupulous landlord.  Not that the city doesn't have a bad history with slumlords, but conservatives validly question whether taxpayer-funded legal representation is a right the city's apartment renters should expect.

The New New York

Keller started Redeemer back during the weak, racially-divisive administration of David Dinkins, an elegant scion of Harlem's civil rights movement who's been the city's only black mayor.  Yet Keller's timing was extraordinary; we evangelicals would call it divinely appointed.

For five mayoral terms after Dinkins, fiscal conservatives have been in control of Gracie Mansion, the city's official mayoral residence.  First came two terms with Rudy Giulianni, and then three with Bloomberg.  During these twenty years, the city underwent profound changes in the way basic quality-of-life issues were addressed, from crime to graffiti to transportation issues.

Perhaps most important has been what some statistics indicate has been a whopping seventy percent drop in the city's violent crime rate.  First Giulianni and then Bloomberg embraced a tough new form of policing that has helped make both residents and visitors safer than those in some smaller cities.  Some of this new crime-fighting came in the form of a racist tactic called "stop-and-frisk" that was recently ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge.  Nevertheless, some of the other components to this crime reduction strategy, most falling under the "broken window theory," have been unqualified successes, making the New York its new residents know today markedly different than the one Dinkins left behind.

Both Giulianni and Bloomberg courted the business community aggressively, redrawing zoning maps and encouraging high-density development to attract new companies and residents.  Scores of glassy new apartment and office buildings stand as testament to this market-driven real estate boom not just in Manhattan, but Brooklyn and Queens as well. 

In the initial aftermath of 9-11, the city bent over backwards, spending tax dollars like a drunken sailor to keep its financial industry from leaving.  While those efforts have produced mixed results, that's partly due to unprecedented consolidation within the industry itself, plus the stunning implosion of some key companies at the height of the mortgage meltdown, both of which wiped out thousands of mostly mid-level and low-level jobs.  New York's prestigious law firms, too, have taken a beating from not only the Great Recession, but advancements in technology that have created a new off-shoring trend in the legal industry.

So far, nothing in de Blasio's campaign for mayor suggests he's terribly concerned about the troubles New York's businesspeople are facing, or the factors that continue to exacerbate the city's ability to wage even a modest campaign to woo new businesses in our fiercely competitive global marketplace.  Like all of the fiscal liberals who've come before him, and who've contributed to the city's once-abysmal finances, de Blasio assumes that New York itself is a self-sustaining money machine; a never-run-dry well from which taxpayer money can be pumped for whatever needs the disenfranchised poor may have.  It's a narrative older generations of voters in the Big Apple used to hear constantly, and appears quite comforting as they've seen all of the new construction being erected around them at rents only the city's rich new residents from suburbia - and increasingly, Russia, China, and South America - can afford.  Now, new generations of New Yorkers born into the vast underclass of mostly minority, mostly outer-borough ghettos that never went away during all of this economic prosperity are joining with their elders in deciding enough is enough.  Twenty years of supposedly trickle-down economics seems to have trickled down to the folks who can only afford a $1 million condo, instead of an $80 million penthouse.  This is the resentment and frustration de Blasio has been able to exploit in his improbable trek towards Gracie Mansion.

By now, you might be wondering who de Blasio's main challenger is.  And he does have a good challenger; a man who'd likely make a far more balanced and adept mayor.  Republican Joe Lhota most recently ran the city's transportation network, and while he's just about as socially liberal as de Blasio is on things like gay marriage and abortion, Lhota is quite conservative when it comes to money and how governments are to raise and spend it.  Alas, Lhota has the same Achilles heel as Quinn, and that is a tie to one of the two former conservative mayoral administrations.  You see, Lhota served in a high-ranking position under Giulianni, which has turned out to be not quite the qualification for which New York's fickle voters are looking this year.

Remember, this election would never have been about such suburban hot-button topics as gay marriage or abortion.  Those issues were decided long ago in the overwhelmingly "progressive" city, even if they're not widely embraced by many immigrants and ethnic subcultures in the outer boroughs.  What it's about today is whether or not New Yorkers want to return to a political environment in which old-time social welfare programming takes center stage, instead of the past twenty years of economic development that is widely perceived as having been unevenly distributed.

Money is Power

If you've visited the city recently, or even lived there temporarily, you may not have been struck by the searing poverty that continues to plague New York.  Twenty years ago, poverty could strike you in the face no matter the neighborhood, but it doesn't do so today, even though it still exists.

Generational poverty remains the biggest problem, since virtually all welfare programs have built-in mechanisms to perpetuate, instead of eliminate, dependence upon them.  Manufacturing jobs that require minimal education yet pay relatively well have virtually vanished from the city, and while new employment sectors have been created in the meantime, they've mostly been in technology and financial sectors, which require a different skills set. 

Meanwhile, New York's high cost of living means that the less money you make, the greater the need for both spouses to work.  Unfortunately, low-wage jobs are truly low-wage, while welfare payments are notorious for actually providing a combined value greater than a low-wage job.  Then there's the city's deep-rooted enabler complex, in which its wealthier residents encourage the city's spending in welfare programs to assuage their own guilt over how much money they make, and how they make it.

Ironically, as the city has become a more popular place to live, more and more people who can't afford to live there move there anyway, paying increasingly outrageous rents because their parents back in suburbia are helping them out financially.  This false impetus behind the strong demand for housing pushes rents for even decrepit housing out of the reach of New York's poor residents who genuinely need the lower rents to survive.

It's been interesting to watch, over the past couple of decades, how the evangelical population at Redeemer and it's assorted copy-cat congregations has exploded, particularly in Manhattan and Brooklyn's chic brownstone districts.  Relatively affluent churchgoers have rediscovered New York, enthralled with the excitement of its urban pulse, and affirmed by finding churches specifically designed for their tastes in worship and socializing.  These new arrivals to the city consider themselves socially aware, and dive into their church's welfare initiatives, volunteering in homeless shelters and food pantries.  They like to think they're helping combat New York's incessant poverty, when in fact, one of the most tangible ways they could help the city's poor would be to leave, decreasing the demand on housing, so rents could dip down a bit.

As long as these strivers from suburbia insist on crowding into the city, infiltrating even its working-class neighborhoods with gentrification, there's going to be an economic disparity in its demographics.  Politicians like de Blasio look at that disparity and presume they can rig the tax code to pay for entitlement programs to try and balance things out, which is what many of the city's wealthy power brokers are afraid of.  After all, New York voters aren't the most discerning group of people.  If they were, do you think Antony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer would have bothered running for elected office there after their public foibles?  Sometimes, you can think you're part of the solution without realizing you're also part of the problem.

All Things Being Equal

So, what does all of this have to do with evangelicals and the model of urban ministry popularized by Keller and Redeemer Presbyterian?

For one thing, Keller focused his church plant on the city's urban professionals, a class of people who, by definition, don't necessarily mesh well with either the city's dwindling stock of middle-class earners, or its increasing number of people of even lowlier social standing.  If de Blasio is going to start playing class warfare, Redeemer's target demographic may tire of being perceived as an economic liability.

For another, ministry in urban markets already struggles with the intense impermanence of career-chasing members who transition into and out of cities at the behest of job opportunities.  Should de Blasio give New York's corporate citizens a cold shoulder, there's little keeping many companies in the city other than the recruiting edge they get from Gotham's hedonistic urban allure.  Such intangibles could become prohibitive quickly if companies are forced to re-evaluate their balance sheets.

Plus, socially liberal urban politicians are not known for embracing quality-of-life issues as much as their suburban counterparts are, or for their crime-fighting discipline, or their concern for traditional, proven educational practices in public schools.  As it is, private schools in New York can cost more than $40,000 per year per pupil, demand is so great.

Indeed, you'd have to be an exceptionally devoted - and brazenly idealistic - New Yorker to not be concerned that the Big Apple's rewards risk renewed marginalization under de Blasio's management.

Although it's not exactly a sin to increase taxes to pay for pre-K programs, or lawyers for renters going to Housing Court, such tactics do not represent a mindset of thrift, expediency, and personal responsibility when a city's budget already requires astoundingly high tax rates.  Such proposals by de Blasio indicate that just as Giulianni and Bloomberg might have given too much leeway to certain business leaders, a renewed emphasis on social liberalism may undermine the city's economic vitality and endorse certain lifestyles that pose an economic liability for taxpayers.

There's little in de Blasio's manifesto that doesn't presume individual citizens to be more righteous than those they may be accusing of wrongdoing.  If equity is something voters thought was missing in the way Giulianni and Bloomberg governed, de Blasio is simply turning the tables towards a different sort of inequity.  An inequity that likely will be much more expensive to maintain.

It's an inequity that could also validate the suspicions that New York's native poor have towards interloping rich whites, the type of people attending Keller's various congregations throughout Manhattan.  It's also an inequity that banks on charity not as an opportunity for advancement, but as simply another enabler for attitudes and lifestyles that perpetuate poverty cycles instead of break them.

For his part, Keller professes to see charity as simply one of many mechanisms the church should provide society, so the Redeemer model probably won't see much to bemoan in a de Blasio victory.  Keller has preached that since Christ says the poor will always be with us, our duty is to hand out aid regardless of the circumstances.  While such an interpretation seems to fly in the face of other Biblical passages talking about sluggards not eating, a de Blasio win could help sustain Redeemer's philosophy, as their new mayor influences public policy.

Meanwhile... the mandate for urban ministry remains the same.  If God is calling you to the central city to serve Him in some capacity, then of course, you need to go.

However, if you're moving to the central city to have fun, profit from a rewarding career, and otherwise experience a challenging new world from the one in which you grew up, and only view your church attendance as simply what you ordinarily do on any given Sunday you're not going to the beach or Vermont, then maybe Mayor de Blasio will help change your mind.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Cruzing at Windmills

Here's the thing about windmills:  They're a stationary target.

When Don Quixote went forth to do battle with them, they couldn't leap out of his way, or run down the street.

Windmills do have large blades that can inflict some damage, no matter how polished one's suit of armor may be.  But it's not that windmills themselves are an appropriate object for conquest.  They may be bigger than you, and have appendages more powerful than you, but they neither attack nor retreat.

How can a conquistador judge his merits and legitimacy against a foe like that?

It's the same way with Ted Cruz, the junior senator from Texas, who's been compared by some in the media to the hapless Quixote.  Cruz's latest crusade ended this morning, when he finished a talking marathon at the Capitol against Obamacare.  Some people inaccurately describe his rambling 21-hour soliloquy on the Senate floor as a "filibuster," when in fact, parliamentary rules had already set a deadline for when he needed to finish talking, if he made it that far.  A real filibuster has no pre-set time limit, and is usually a last-gasp attempt at crippling some piece of legislation.  All Cruz did was whittle away at the time his fellow Republican senators might have had to propose changes or alternatives to the legislation funding the much-maligned healthcare program.

Granted, Cruz has said that he holds some of his fellow Republicans in contempt for being part of the problem in our do-nothing Congress.  Traditional conservative politicians, according to Cruz and his caucus of pugnacious, neo-con legislators, have thrown the Republican party under the bus because some of their old guard persist with the damnable notion that they should be striking compromises with heathen, evil Democrats.

For their part, some of the long-tenured Republicans in both the Senate and the House now publicly bristle at Cruz's cocky tactics, blaming him for derailing any chances the GOP might have had in forcing substantive change on not only Obamacare, but yet another debt ceiling debate that is running on parallel tracks in D.C. towards a brick wall.  They accuse Cruz of grandstanding for his own political ambitions, too arrogant to respectfully sit in silent tutelage of the ways of Washington, and biding one's time while building alliances.

Cruz, on the other hand, bluntly asserts that he wasn't sent to Washington to play the same old game that has helped get America into the state it's in.  And he's right about that.  Word on the street is that the Koch brothers, who have thrown a large chuck of their personal fortunes behind a renewed Libertarian push across the country, helped put Cruz in the Senate, and they expect a quick return on their investment.  A champion Ivy League debater and a seasoned litigator before the Supreme Court, Cruz is one of the most confident people to swagger into the Capital District in years, and even his wary opponents in his own party begrudge him this fact:  a lot of what he says and believes isn't explicitly wrong.

Government has gotten too big and too expensive.  There is too much red tape, too much bureaucratic intrusion into the lives and businesses of everyday Americans.  And when it comes to Obamacare, it really is a monster that needs to be vanquished.

Nevertheless, it's not so much what Cruz says, but how he says it.  Staging a mock filibuster, for example, can be a great way to solidify your admirers, attract attention, and stage a provocative mechanism for your own self-aggrandizement, but you achieve very little actual political advantage.  Cruz has succeeded in entertaining his fan base, but how does that lend legitimacy to what he said?  Cruz captured the media's attention for nearly 24 hours, but what was the media saying about him?  Cruz talked about his dreams for America, but he also incorporated Dr. Seuss and Duck Dynasty into his ramblings, which, again, appeals to his fans, but detracts from his overall message.

Meanwhile, Cruz antagonized his political enemies, gave his critics in the media plenty of fodder with which to mock him, won no new allies in the Senate, secured no changes in Obamacare, changed nobody's mind about Obamacare, and generally portrayed Washington as being the self-righteous hotbed of bickering, self-promotion, and political posturing that Americans on both sides of the aisle already know it to be, and that Cruz himself claims to oppose.

Might Cruz be part of the problem, instead of the solution?  He thinks one person can burst onto the Washington scene and change the course of history by taunting his opponents, waxing nostalgic over his version of America's history, bragging about his immigrant father, and playing Man of La Mancha to Patrick Henry's "united we stand, divided we fall" ultimatum.

Many of us see politics as a sleazy business because good politics involves building coalitions, striking compromises, and collaborating with people who may share similar views on some issues, while on others, remain ideological opposites.  Whether it be in a federal government, a company's governing board, or a non-profit committee, politics that achieves a common good is politics that engages in an intricate dance between shared losses and gains that somehow balance out into overall progress for the whole organization.  The trick is to maintain your dignity while knowing those areas in which concessions you make won't corrupt it.  You've got to know what your absolute, stake-your-claim positions are (which, for the self-professing evangelical Cruz, consists pretty much of only Christ and His Gospel), and where you can afford to cede a bit of  ground.  Simply walking into a political chamber and throwing your opinions out onto a table, saying "take it or leave it," is not politics.  Yes, doing so is very appealing to people who don't like politics, but it's not an effective way of getting anything done in a democratic republic.

The thing is, what you may want for our country is not going to be what everybody else wants for our country.  And ours is not - at least, not yet - an oligarchy, or an autocracy, or a monarchy, in which an insular few control everybody else.

If Ted Cruz was a really good politician, he wouldn't be grandstanding for the television cameras.  He'd be buttonholing his opponents, beseeching them with facts and figures about the reality of Obamacare, listening to why - in the face of all reason - they still support it, and strategizing ways of bridging whatever gaps remain between them.  It's time-consuming, patience-testing, fame-delaying, behind-the-scenes grunt work, but it's how effective politics works.  Both for those who want to work for good policies, and bad ones.

Admire Senator Cruz if you like.  It's a relatively free country, after all.

Just don't expect his tactics to win him - or you - much political success.

And getting back to Patrick Henry, the Founding Father famous for crying both "give me liberty, or give me death," and "united we stand, divided we fall:"  Are you aware of the context in which he paraphrased what is actually a quote from the Bible ("a house divided against itself cannot stand;" Mark 3:25)?

The year was 1799, and Henry, in what would be his last speech, was trying to strike a - gasp! - compromise between Federalists like George Washington and states-rights advocates like Thomas Jefferson.  Cruz may not be aware that, among our Founding Fathers, contentious divisions were viewed by people like Henry as perilous to their fragile new experiment with democracy.  So he implored his colleagues with an impassioned plea to sacrifice personal preferences - however valid they might be in principle - on the altar of unity.

Do you think Cruz would embrace such a concept?  Perhaps the author of Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, has already put Cruz's mindset into prose:

“Destiny guides our fortunes more favorably than we could have expected.  Look there, Sancho Panza, my friend, and see those thirty or so wild giants, with whom I intend to do battle and kill each and all of them, so with their stolen booty we can begin to enrich ourselves.  This is noble, righteous warfare, for it is wonderfully useful to God to have such an evil race wiped from the face of the earth."

"What giants?" asked Sancho Panza.

"The ones you can see over there," answered his master, "with the huge arms, some of which are very nearly two leagues long."

"Now look, your grace," said Sancho, "what you see over there aren't giants, but windmills, and what seems to be arms are just their sails, that go around in the wind and turn the millstone."

"Obviously," replied Don Quixote, "you don't know much about adventures.”

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

TxDOT's Messing With Prada Marfa

If the devil wears Prada, he must be one-legged.

Right-legged, in fact, if he wants to shop at Prada's elite shop in Marfa, Texas.

Which isn't, actually, open for business.

Confused yet?  Good, because that's kinda what the Prada family, along with pop culture artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, want you to be.  Elmgreen and Dragset are European purveyors of the ironic and socially-conscious, and they talked the Prada family, purveyors of extravagantly-priced leather goods, into letting them make a point about the transitory nature of conspicuous consumption.

Complicating matters further is that Prada Marfa isn't in Marfa, Texas, but the even smaller, dustier two-bit outpost of Valentine, a half-hour's drive northwest of Marfa.

If you're really into the arts scene, you may have heard of Marfa, a small town which, compared to Valentine, may nevertheless seem like a metropolis.  Built as a railroad stop on the high desert, Marfa, with less than two thousand full-time residents, rivals some of New Mexico's quaint, remote Postmodern artist colonies in terms of its non-classical cultural expressionism.  Eclectic, with a decidedly left-wing bias, Marfa has experienced a resurgence since the 1970's as an outpost of avant-garde East Coast minimalism, replete with surprisingly high real estate prices, and a snobbery liberals like to pretend only Republicans display.

But still:  shopping for Prada?  Who'd go so far out of their way to spend that kind of money at such a store, you might ask?  Do they build any sort of outlet mall that far removed from civilization?  Even at their prices, how can Prada manage the customer volume to stay profitable?

At the Prada Marfa, there is no handle on the door.  In fact, the door is part of the art.  From the street, which actually is a plain ol' country highway, with two lanes of blacktop running straight and flat, the Prada Marfa sits off to the side, by itself.  A small, square box in the middle of scrubland, with a life-sized and lifelike facade, complete with awnings and four Prada logos.  Two plate-glass windows frame the non-existent glass "door," revealing a monotone showroom with chic purses and racks of shoes on display, lit by custom lighting in the evening.  Except all of the products on display are from Prada's fall/winter 2005 collection, like a time capsule from when the store "opened" in October of that year.

And it's not as if the products are even sellable.  The purses have had their bottoms removed, and all of the shoes are rights, with none of their matching lefts languishing in some stockroom in the back.  In fact, there is no stockroom; that's why the devil who'd wear these Pradas is right-footed.

Not only is there no stockroom, but there's no back door.  There's no cash register, no sales people, and no customers, either.  But there is plenty of advertising, and almost all of it is free.  Like the free advertising the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) is giving Prada Marfa this week with its decision rendering the so-called art installation as unlicensed advertising, akin to a billboard for the famous Prada brand.

And TxDOT (say: "tex-dot") is scrambling to corral unlicensed billboards across the Lone Star State.  Pesky varmints.

For its part, Prada Marfa is situated on private, unzoned land with the consent of its landowner, so what's the big deal?  The reason it's unlicensed is because it's neither an advertisement nor a commercial establishment; it is, in the words of Marfa's culturally sophisticated denizens, "art."  It's sculpture made of glass, concrete, leather, all-weather awning material, and electronic illumination that happens to include elements that look suspiciously like a floor and a roof.

"So," demands TxDOT, "what about the 'Prada' name and logo in four places on the awnings, hmm?"

Well, for one thing, the signs are parallel with the roadway, which means they're not exactly legible to passing motorists traveling at 80 mph.  Their lettering is also relatively small, at approximately one foot in height for the largest logo.  Granted, the - ahem! - "sculpture" sits pretty close to the road, but that doesn't make the word "Prada" any easier to read.  And since the products in the artwork are now eight years old - a lifetime in fashion retailing - it's not like they're advertising anything, either.

Several months ago, a similar complaint from TxDOT was raised not far away from Prada Marfa, on the same desolate stretch of roadway, only it involved a towering neon Playboy bunny.  Playboy erected its logo atop a 40-foot pole by the side of the road, next to a concrete pedestal upon which a battered 1972 Dodge Charger had been mounted.  Maybe the iconic smut purveyor was hoping to conjure images of Cadillac Ranch, yet another roadside oddity in west Texas, to dispel the far more overt advertising aspects of its sculpture.  Hey, Postmodern art can be interpreted so many different ways!  But no, TxDOT isn't buying it, and is making Playboy remove their logo, even if they're letting the vintage Charger remain.

Elmgreen and Dragset built Prada Marfa out of conventional construction materials, but aside from some petty vandalism over the years, they've pretty much left it to decompose on its own.  Their theme, remember, involves a mixture of status, conspicuousness, superfluousness, and decay, but since they chose the arid climes of Marfa for their project, like the planes our aviation industry stores in the desert, Prada Marfa will take a while to disintegrate.  If TxDOT wanted to complain about it being an unsafe structure, like any number of far older buildings which have been left to disintegrate along plenty of Texas highways with their vintage Texaco and Champion signs still affixed to them - which might make a more compelling argument against Prada Marfa on their part - then they're going to have to wait.  By no practical interpretation can Prada Marfa be considered advertisement, so their current objection towards it is a bit silly.

Of course, since it wasn't cheap to build Prada Marfa, perhaps the same art connoisseurs who paid for the original sculpture should fork over some extra bucks to secure whatever permits TxDOT wants it to have just to get the bureaucracy off of its back.

But then again, maybe TxDOT is unwittingly playing into Elmgreen and Dragset's hands.  By badgering the project with governmental rules and regulations, TxDOT could be adding yet another angle to the artwork - that of the struggles private enterprise encounters as it deals with tax-collecting, fee-taking, and red-tape-creating authorities.

Leave it to Texas, and the bare-bones, supposedly business-oriented state government over which Governor Rick Perry so proudly rules, to be making such a case against privately-funded art.

Ironically, a number of years ago, TxDOT created the marketing slogan, "Don't Mess With Texas," for its anti-littering campaign.  Recently, as the slogan has become more widely known, the state has been quietly ramping up its efforts at protecting it as a licensed brand, wresting monetary legal settlements from the mostly innocent parties who try to use it without authorization.  TxDOT likes to claim that the phrase is popularly known as an anti-littering message, and should stay that way, but whether the general population knows that is debatable.

Prada Marfa may not have sought to mess with Texas and its deceptively aggressive TxDOT, and after eight years, it's a little ignominious for it to take a neon bunny for officials to discover the clever bit of sculptural social commentary out in the middle of nowhere.

So, maybe an "Open from 9am until 9pm" sign should get included on the window.

That way, Governor Perry could use Prada Marfa as a prop for his "open for business" bragging rights.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Who's Your God, Westgate Shoppers?

Westgate Mall.

Sounds suburban, doesn't it?  Suburban America, straddling any freeway interchange on the western flanks of any metropolitan area in the Lower 48.

Except that this Westgate Mall isn't in suburban America, but Nairobi, Kenya.  Half a world away from the chain stores, tiled walkways, and potted palm trees of our indoor shopping meccas.  Yet, by most appearances, it looks every bit like an American mall, despite being located on one of the world's most impoverished continents.  Nairobi's Westgate is considered the country's most luxurious shopping center, which to Americans may not mean much, since we normally don't expect "luxury" in countries like Kenya to match our definition of it.  Looking at photos of the multi-storied, marble-floored, wrought-iron-railed, escalator-equipped, glass-atriumed Westgate, however, the place appears more chic than many of our own aging enclosed shopping centers here in the States.

Or rather, it did.  Last Saturday morning, before the attack began.  An attack by Al-Shabaab, a militant Islamic group based in Somalia, which killed at least 62 people in the mall, injured at least 170 others, and prompted a government assault today meant to rescue an undetermined number of hostages.  Loud explosions were heard from inside the four-story shopping center today, with black plumes of smoke billowing from inside what had been a popular gathering place for both affluent Kenyans and the many expatriates from around the globe who live in Nairobi, Kenya's capital city.  Kenya is one of Africa's most stable countries, and a headquarters for many Western relief agencies with humanitarian programs on the continent.

Indeed, from the photos released by the press of the siege, an international potpourri of skin tones can be seen in the evacuees.

It is this cross-cultural flavor attracted by a place like Westgate that apparently also attracted Al-Shabaab.  This was an intentionally international strike.  And it was also a religious one.  Multiple witnesses report that as militants entered the mall, and began rounding up their victims, they were asking shoppers about their religion.  Muslims were being allowed to leave immediately, while everybody else, who hadn't already been able to flee, was detained.  Shoppers hiding within stores could hear other victims being asked if they were Muslim or not, because the Al-Shabaab killers obviously had no interest in harming adherents of their own faith.  On the other hand, one victim, when asked the name of Muhammad's mother, was shot dead when he didn't know.

Knowing Westerners wouldn't really care as much about native Africans being killed while shopping, Al-Shabaab chose a merchandising venue they knew Westerners could relate to, and envision for themselves.  And indeed, we can see ourselves shopping at Westgate, can't we?  On a certain level, this is not so foreign an attack as its geography tells us it is.

So, at the risk of playing along in their evil little game:  what about it?

Put yourself in your local mall, even if, thanks to e-commerce, you haven't had to be inside it in ages.  Gunmen burst in, brandishing machine guns, and waving pistols about.  They corral you with a bunch of shoppers at the Starbucks near the main doors, or a counter inside Macy's, and start asking people in your group questions about religion.  If you're not dressed in a hijab, or a burqa, or a thobe, they bark trivia questions at you about Islam, to see how well you know their religion, which might provide proof that your life may at least be worth sparing.

You see in front of your face people being shot to death who obviously are not Muslim, or who have begun screaming something in Arabic out of pure fright, desperate to be allowed to run to safety.

This isn't a women-and-children-first scenario.  This isn't old versus young, or the captain remaining on his ship.  This is life or death based on whether or not you're Muslim.

If you are a Muslim, how do you react?  Do you recoil at the senseless barbarism of it all?  Reviled by the bloodshed inflicted purely on the basis of religion?  Does one person have a right to murder somebody else just because they don't share the same faith?  Do you vehemently demand a stop to the horror?  Do you offer to stay and be shot so somebody else who's not a Muslim can flee to safety?

Or do you run away yourself?

And, if you flee, how do you defend yours as being a religion of peace?

If you are anything other than a Muslim, how do you react?  Do you panic, faced with the instantaneous realization that whatever your faith may be, it hasn't prepared you for such a time as this?  Does your brain scramble in a blurry muddle, trying to remember one of the phrases you've heard other Muslim terrorists utter as they slaughtered innocent people?  Do you simply collapse in utter incredulity, begging for your life to be spared?  Do you recklessly promise to convert to their religion, a religion that is forcing them to threaten you with murder?

Or do you, weak knees and all, with a dizzy sensation in your head, and your heart practically pounding out of your chest, declare yourself to be a child of God?  A believer in Jesus Christ, the One true Son of God, Who has saved you from your sins and eternal damnation?  Perspiration has broken out all over your body, from head to toe, and whether you're a man or a woman, your eyes are filling with tears as you confront the reality of what it means to literally stand for your faith, and trust Christ with your very soul.  Or, maybe your eyes aren't filling with tears, and you're looking clearly and confidently at your tormentors, perhaps more with shock than stoic resolve, but still, unwavering.

This is no time to play heroics.  But it is a time to show others Who loves you, Who made you, and for Whom you will not equivocate.  Sure, your faith has not been perfect, but that hasn't been because God isn't perfect.  As much as you don't want to die right now, right here, like this, death itself is not what you fear most.

You fear what will happen if you deny God.  If you deny your faith in Him through His Son.  Because you know He is true.

And it clicks.  It clicks inside your heart, and your mind, and your soul, as surely and securely as it's ever clicked.  Yes!  I truly believe!  Dear God, glorify Yourself even now, right this very second.

Whether that's the last click you hear or not.

For everybody else, on the other hand, ask yourself this:  in what is your confidence?  If you're a Muslim, how do you live with yourself, knowing that you were let off the hook - and let others die - because of religion?

If you're not willing to face death for what you believe, how can you live?

Friday, September 20, 2013

Driven to Consideration Despite Complacency

If it's been raining really, really hard.

I mean, lots of rain.  And you drive up to a street with water running over it, and you try to drive through the flooded roadway, be practicing what you'd say if a TV news crew was nearby, filming your foolishness.

"Um, yeah, I saw the water flowing across the street, but I thought I could drive through it" won't cut it anymore.

How many times have you heard that interview on the news after a storm?

Or, if you're driving in the rain on a freeway, and you tailgate somebody, and then have to slam on your brakes, which makes you skid into their vehicle, starting a chain-reaction wreck, saying "man, I didn't realize the roadway was that slippery" won't cut it anymore.

The same thing applies for people pulling up to stoplights and stop signs.

If you own a silver or gray vehicle, and you like driving in the rain without your headlights on, saying "why didn't you see me?" when somebody hits you - even though technically, the wreck may have been their fault - won't cut it anymore.

Just because it's raining doesn't mean the close-in parking spots for handicapped people are suddenly opened to anybody who doesn't want to get wet walking through a parking lot.  Those handicapped people aren't suddenly healed just because it's raining.

Complaining because other drivers are navigating more cautiously on the roadways in a rain storm isn't cool, either, or hip, or macho, or indicative of your superior driving skills.  Chances are, those people are driving the way they are because of drivers like you.

In those parts of the country where rain is a normal part of life, these little reminders may be barely worth mentioning.  But here in arid north Texas, however, where rain is rarely cursed, it's almost as though radio stations and those electronic billboards should run these reminders repeatedly whenever storm clouds begin gathering overhead.

There used to be a slogan here that went, "drive friendly, the Texas way."  Which invariably led to the joke, "well, which way do you want?  The friendly way, or the Texas way?"

Natives here blame years of in-migration from them infernal Yankees for bringin' their rude, big-city driving tactics down to God's country.  But it's just as likely that the typical rainlessness of Texas can turn the hardiest Seattle native into a teenager with a learner's permit at the first few drops of rainwater on our dry, oily roadway surfaces.  It's easy to get lulled into a false sense of complacency whenever we're deprived of something for any length of time.

And especially when we enjoy something else for a long period of time. 

Granted, complacency is what keeps auto repair shops in business.  That's one industry that's probably recession-proof.

No, I'm not grumbling because I got into an accident in the rain today.  It just that sometimes, some of the most innocuous things can make me realize just how selfish, self-centered, distracted, detached, unrealistic, unnecessarily risky, and stubborn some people can be when they're out interacting with the general public.  And not just other people - the other drivers I criticize, and about whom I vent; but me.  Me, myself, and I.  I can say with complete honesty that I've never caused an accident in my life, although I've had two cars hit - and one totaled - without me or anyone else even being in them!  But my history with speeding tickets bears testament to a pesky exasperation I have with slow drivers.

Except when it's raining.

When I drive, I try to remember that just as I'm going about my own private business, I'm sharing the roadways with other people going about their own private business.  And it's highly unlikely that I'm the only driver on the road who really needs to get to his destination in the shortest amount of time.

But one thing I do know:  we all want to get to wherever that destination is in one piece, with no accidents.  Profound, right?  But it's the people who really take for granted that we will who seem most likely to deny that reality for the rest of us.

And that's really no accident, is it?

Drahv frendlee, y'all!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

McCain and Cornyn Need a Reality Check

People say I'm a traditionalist.

Like being a traditionalist is a bad thing!

Actually, although I may be a traditionalist in some things, I'm not necessarily a traditionalist when it comes to politics.  Take, for example, the stodgy warrior traditionalism of Republican senators John McCain and John Cornyn.  Despite the 16-year difference in their ages, both Johns are white-haired white men whose blind allegiance to Washington's conventional Republican playbook is beginning to make me wonder if they can think for themselves or not.

Judging by their intransigence over how they view the conflict in Syria, a view they're basing on misguided military dogma, they may be poster children for just how out-of-touch traditional politicians are in Washington.

Actually, whether they're Democrat or Republican, all of America's representatives and senators have become generally unpopular, as faith in Washington's ability to do what's best for our country continues to erode.  In terms of how President Barak Obama and Congress have handled our response to Syria, the American public has come out as being overwhelmingly disappointed in their rhetoric and posturing.

Some experts even blame the timing of Obama's desire to strike Syria - made during a Labor Day recess when politicians were in their home constituencies, and therefore more vulnerable to pesky voter feedback - as part of the reason for why we appear to have come out on the losing end of this international crisis.  What was the president thinking, Washington pundits scoff, asking Congress to make a decision when they weren't comfortably ensconced amongst pollsters and lobbyists, whose direction politicians trust more than their electorate's?

McCain Pain 

Things deteriorated to the point where Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times challenging Americans to let our longtime rival in international affairs broker a truce of sorts over the chemical weapons in Syria's arsenal.  Although dubious in its sincerity, and brittle in its tone, Putin's letter confused a lot of Americans because, frankly, parts of it made a lot of sense.

For his part, McCain reacted in fury to Putin's audacity.  In an apparent brain freeze that transported him back to the belly of the Cold War, McCain shot off an op-ed of his own and got Pravda, Russia's venerable media organization, to publish it.  Trouble is, not only is what he shared with the Russian people even less noteworthy than Putin's entreaty, it's straight from 1965, right down to his use of Pravda, an organization that is a shadow of its former self, and, according to the BBC, hardly ever read anymore.  The only one benefiting from this display of dated hubris has been the increasingly irrelevant mouthpiece of Soviet propaganda!

In his blistering response to Putin's populist diplomacy, McCain barks to whomever his Russian readership might be that he is "more pro-Russian than the regime that misrules you today."  He then spits out a laundry list of accusations, faults, and even some facts about the many deficiencies in Putin's governing style.  This is the way to win over the hearts and minds of people who've allowed Putin to acquire his power through overt manipulation?  McCain even blasts Putin for criminalizing homosexuality, when by some accounts, Putin is only responding to demands from his homophobic citizenry.

Shouldn't McCain have known all this?  How's he been a politician so long if this is his idea of appealing to voters?

His must be a uniquely Arizona charisma.  But Arizona is not Russia.  Trotting out a tired old political speech ploy, McCain tries to yell his Russian audience into believing he knows what they need.  He awkwardly lectures about how Putin treated Sergei Magnistky, who was purportedly killed for exposing corruption in Russia's government.  He sneers - almost enviously - at Russia's economic reliance on its abundant natural resources.  He belittles the "international stature" Russians think Putin has won for them.  And then he signs-off with a patronizing "I believe in you" mantra:  "I believe you deserve a government that believes in you and answers to you.  And, I long for the day when you have it."

Shucks, McCain!  Do even we Americans have that kind of government anymore?  We're the ones who told you before Putin did that we don't want to go to war with Syria!

Stormin' Cornyn

Not to be outdone, Cornyn has taken some pages from McCain's dated paradigm in a letter his office sent to me in reply to an e-mail I sent him regarding Syria.  And you think I just complain about politicians on my blog!  No, I send them e-mails regarding my concerns, and about ninety percent of the time, I never hear anything back.  This time, however, when I wrote my congressman and Senator Cornyn, I heard back from both of them.

My congressman, Representative Joe Barton, with whom I rarely agree, sent a glorified press release saying that until concrete proofs emerge verifying the culprit behind the chemical attack and America's vested interests in becoming involved militarily, he's against striking the Assad regime.  Which, I was surprised to learn, has been my position.

Cornyn, however, took the path most of Washington seems to be frolicking down (for your reference, a copy* of his e-mail is below).

He wants America to not only bomb Syria, but to topple the Assad regime, regardless of whether it was responsible for chemical warfare.  He acknowledges what we've all acknowledged:  that a chemical attack took place.  But Cornyn has automatically assumed that it was Assad who perpetrated it.  Cornyn worries about America's international credibility if we don't obliterate Assad, as if our international credibility has been strengthened in the wake of our obliteration of Saddam Hussein.  All of the violence Cornyn chronicles in his letter depicts the heinousness of Assad, without acknowledging the violence committed by the disparate rebel groups, whom Cornyn apparently considers implicitly worthy of receiving our support.  I guess Cornyn hasn't heard about the Muslim Brotherhood and several other rebel groups our State Department has already branded as terrorist organizations.

It all makes me extremely skeptical of the secret intelligence our elected representatives in Washington are being fed.  Are our politicians reading those briefings?  Do they believe those briefings?  Do they even understand what those briefings are telling them?  Because what we civilians out in the real world are learning in whatever free press we have seems to conflict a lot of times with the attitudes and actions being taken - or not taken - by our representatives, senators, and president.

Then Cornyn takes off on a bizarre rabbit trail alongside his hawkish stance on Syria.  He begins to complain about Rosoboronexport, the Russian arms broker that is providing weaponry to Assad's government.  Cornyn tells us that our own military is contracting with Rosoboronexport for Mi-17 attack helicopters to be used in Afghanistan, and he's been fighting in Congress to make President Obama stop the practice.

Wait!  What?  Hold it!  We're buying helicopters through a Russian arms broker for the war effort in Afghanistan?  Is that a red herring, to hide the fact that Cornyn really doesn't know what he's talking about regarding Syria, or is it some blockbuster scandal that even Drudge Report hasn't yet exploited?  Turns out, it's no secret that our defense department is spending over $1 billion on the multi-contract project, mostly because the Russian aircraft have pressurized cabins suitable for Afghanistan's high altitudes, and because, thanks to Russia's war in the country before ours, Afghan pilots have extensive experience with them.

But really!  Getting your knickers in a twist because a Russian contractor has helicopter contracts for Afghanistan instead of an American contractor?  And using Assad as the excuse for wanting to void the contracts?

Doesn't that sound like a good old traditional power play over money?  Concern over the plight of yet another besieged Middle Eastern country simply masks what an American contractor's lobbyists may be feeding him in private?

Combine that with McCain's dated rhetoric about American politicians wanting true freedom for Russia's oppressed people, and we've got a flag-draped parade of nostalgia oozing out of Capitol Hill.


Meanwhile, who's talking about all of the refugees needing food and shelter as they wait for Syria's mess to coagulate?  According to the United Nations, there are over two million "persons of concern" who are homeless because of Syria's civil war, and they're pushing neighboring countries who've offered them sanctuary to the breaking point.  So far, the United States has donated approximately $800 million for the relief effort, while the next most-generous country has been Canada, with $100 million.

China, by comparison, has donated a ridiculously paltry $200,000.

It certainly seems like America has already taken the lead when it comes to the humanitarian crisis emanating from Syria.  Perhaps instead of rattling sabers and swashbuckling for glory and dollars on the international stage, the McCains and Cornyns of Capitol Hill need to be out there, prodding our global neighbors to start coughing up for the cause.  Not for political reasons, but for the sake of our basic humanity.

Then again, I guess I'm one of those fundy traditionalists who expects everybody to do their fair share.

*This is the full text from Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn, dated today:

Thank you for contacting me regarding the United States’ policy toward Syria.  I appreciate having the benefit of your comments on this matter.

On March 18, 2011, the Syrian people commenced widespread and peaceful protests against President Bashar al-Assad and his regime.  President Assad and his government forces launched a violent response.  According to the United Nations, as of July 2013, the death toll in Syria exceeds 100,000.  U.S. intelligence reports have since confirmed that an August 21 chemical weapons attack perpetrated by the Assad regime resulted in almost 1,500 additional civilian deaths.  The violent oppression by the Assad regime continues unabated, utilizing devastating force against its own citizens. 

Since August 2011, President Obama has called for Assad’s resignation, supporting United Nations Security Council action to facilitate his removal.  Yet to date, the Security Council has been deadlocked due to obstruction by Russia and China.  As you know, President Obama has proposed a limited military strike against Syria in response to the regime’s use of chemical weapons.  In making their case for a brief, limited attack against Syria, Obama Administration officials have repeatedly said that U.S. missile strikes would not seek to topple the Assad regime.  Nor would the proposed attack secure the chemical weapons themselves, or seek to change the power dynamics in Syria’s ongoing civil war.

In my view, a U.S. attack that allows Assad to remain in power with a large stockpile of chemical weapons would not promote U.S. national security interests, and such an intervention could easily become a disaster.  While I find it concerning that President Obama would take a hard stance against the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons and then fail to back it up with concrete steps, I am also concerned that launching a half-hearted, ineffectual attack would do nothing to uphold America’s credibility. 

The President has failed to make the case that a short, limited military campaign would promote vital U.S. interests and national security.  He has failed to lay out clear, realistic objectives.  And he has failed to offer a compelling description of how his proposed intervention would advance America’s broader foreign policy strategy.  As a result, I cannot vote to authorize the use of military force at this time.

Furthermore, since the atrocities in Syria began, I have pressed the Obama Administration to end all U.S. government business dealings with Rosoboronexport—the Russian state-owned arms broker that facilitates the Russian Federation’s arms transfers to Syria.  I am deeply troubled that the U.S. Army continues to do business with Rosoboronexport, purchasing dozens of Mi-17 helicopters for the Afghan military, as the atrocities in Syria have continued.  It is unconscionable that U.S. taxpayers would be forced to pay for a contract with a Russian firm that is simultaneously enabling the Assad regime to murder its own people. 

Because the Obama Administration ignored my requests, I offered Senate Amendment 3260 to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013 (FY13 NDAA; P.L. 112-239), which prohibits the use of funding for the U.S. government to enter into any further contracts or business agreements with Rosoboronexport.  I am pleased that this provision was included in the final version of the FY13 NDAA, as signed into law on January 2, 2013.  However, I am deeply troubled that despite this law, reports indicate that the Army has entered into a new contract with Rosoboronexport to procure additional helicopters.  I will continue to press the Administration to end these business dealings.

You may be certain that I will keep your views in mind as the United States’ policy toward Syria is discussed.  For more information regarding my position on Syria, I encourage you to visit my website at:

I appreciate having the opportunity to represent Texas in the United States Senate.  Thank you for taking the time to contact me.

United States Senator

517 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510
Tel: (202) 224-2934
Fax: (202) 228-2856

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

More Than Skin Deep: India, Faith, and Looks

You learn something new every day.

At least, we should.

Take, for example, the story of a statuesque young woman with long hair and flawless skin from suburban Syracuse, New York, who won the Miss America beauty pageant this past Sunday evening.  Her win elicited a firestorm of sorts from American television viewers of the contest because... she is of Indian descent.

From practically the instant she won, Nina Davuluri was besieged with racist vitriol from complainers who thought she stole the crown by being some foreign Muslim.  For the record, Davuluri was born in upstate New York, of Hindu parents, and has lived in both Oklahoma and Michigan.  She spent some summers in India, where she has extended family, and she's participated in beauty pageants there, as well as, obviously, here in the United States.  But she's more of an American than right-wing Senator Ted Cruz, who was born in Canada, and since when has religion factored strongly in beauty pageants?

If you weren't aware that there even was a Miss America pageant this past weekend, you're not alone.  A lot of Americans haven't paid attention to beauty pageants in years, because their blatant sexism is hard to ignore, and practically impossible to justify.  In patriarchal and provincial India, however, beauty pageants have become all the rage.  And their country's popular press has been enraged at the bigotry emanating from those corners of America still deriving significance from them.  Media bookings for Davuluri in her ancestral homeland have been off the charts, according to the Miss America organization, which says she's in more demand than any previous winner - white, black, brown, or polka-dotted - has ever been.

Almost as an affirmation of Davuluri's win, even though they'd scheduled it long before, PBS began airing on Monday a documentary on its "Point of View" series entitled The World Before Her.  It follows two young women in India who've embraced worldviews that are the polar opposite of each other.  One is an aspiring fashion model, and the other is an activist in Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), an increasingly popular militant Hindu movement in India.

At first, Canadian filmmaker Nisha Pahuja intended to concentrate on India's pageant industry, but when she met the VHP activist, a new dimension was added to her project.  Pahuja has juxtaposed two college-age women in India who, although they appear to be economically close in terms of their lower-middle-class standards of living, have little in common when it comes to the future they want for themselves and their native land.  Neither appears destined for the college programs other women their age pursue to advance their lifestyles.  One, raised by a dominant mother and an easygoing father, seeks to leverage her beauty and poise on the catwalk, seeing fashion and materialism as the next grand evolution in India's role in world affairs.  The other, raised by an abusive father and a mother she never even acknowledges to us viewers, seeks to assert her neo-traditionalist upbringing in a country she's been taught is embracing too much foreign commercialism.

Told in their own words, mostly in English, it's an unexpectedly provocative film.  Pahuja interviews the mother of one of the other contestants in a Bombay beauty pageant (it's interesting that India's social climbers don't call it "Mumbai") who cried when recounting how she left the father of her daughter because it was his second daughter, and his parents wanted them to kill her, because it wasn't a boy.  Indeed, India's age-old devaluation of females, demonstrated so brazenly by the country's recent spate of highly-publicized gang rapes, runs unabated throughout Pahuja's entire documentary.  Even the young militant extremist explains her loyalty to her father, a man who boasts on camera of branding his daughter on her foot, by saying that at least he didn't kill her when she was born, and she is his only child.  She admits to being sexually confused, since she was raised both as a boy and a girl, but she considers her lot in life as being her god's ambassador of strict, nationalistic Hinduism.

Never mind that her domineering father still expects her to get married.  Of course, the pageant contestant expects to marry sometime, too, but only after she's gone as far as she can get in the fashion world.  Beauty can open doors for brown-skinned young women in places like the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Russia, and western Europe.  Oddly enough, however, when her mother lists countries in which her daughter could make a name for herself, the United States isn't among them.

For its part, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the sect to which Pahuja's militant interview subject belongs, has been working for nearly fifty years to claim an influential role in India's vast and complex political apparatus.  Like some elements of traditional, albeit unBiblical Christianity in the United States, VHP appeals mostly to poor people in India's countryside, although it has an American branch, probably as part of their fundraising appeals among Hindus here.  They claim not to be instigators of violence, but should Muslims, Christians, or foreign capitalists try to exert too much authority over India's true culture, that of its Hindus, they say they will fight.  For that reason, some elites in India are pushing for it to be banned.

It doesn't seem that will happen any time soon.

Perhaps more so than any other major world religion, Hinduism defies precise description, since today, the term "Hindu" is used mostly in reference to the amalgamation of India's historic religious traditions, an amalgamation encouraged by the British when it ruled India as a colonial power.  Hindus worship no particular deity, share no common rites, and have no core set of doctrines.  In a way, they sound a lot like many Americans in our post-Christian society!  Some scholars point to the Hindu nationalism of movements like VHP as expressions of civic pride among Indians that may be filling the void Hinduism otherwise creates in its adherents.  By making India itself the focal point of Hinduism, they posit, a form of religious patriotism may be developing.

All of that likely has no immediate application to Davuluri's Miss America win, particularly since she's placed no public emphasis on her faith, which one can only assume is the same as her parents'.  The beauty contestant in Pahuja's documentary also barely talks about her faith, aside from vague references to some "god."  Meanwhile, all three women display their captivity to the stereotypical subjugation of women that both modeling, with its emphasis on appearance over character, and militant religiosity, in a male-dominated society, perpetuate.

For those who displayed such racist stupidity at the crowning of our new Miss America, perhaps a better target of that emotion and displeasure would have been the social structures that objectify people rather than humanize them.

Then, too, classifying people by religion and country of origin, which is what militant Hindus are doing, is also a way to objectify rather than humanize.

And, um, not just militant Hindus or beauty pageant fans, either.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Perelmans $700M Daddy Daughter Dance

It's hard not to gawk.

And it's easy to mock.

At least, when it comes to the legal trials of America's rich and famous.  And not just any rich and famous Americans, either, but those for whom status and its obligatory accoutrements seem wholly untouchable by the masses.  We're talking about serious One Percenters here, folks, the likes of whom flamboyant New Yorker Ron Perelman has worked hard all his life to become.

And I'd say he's arrived, wouldn't you?  Not to be confused with the thick-lipped actor Ron Perlman, this Perelman is short, bald, and currently worth $14 billion, making him the 69th richest person in the world.  Owner of Revlon, the cosmetics company, he's churned through five wives - well, the fifth marriage appears to be holding, for the time being, at least.  Eight children have been produced from his serial monogamy, as well as plenty of salacious fodder for New York's tabloids between his marriage episodes.

One of those marriages was to New Jersey heiress and socialite Claudia Cohen, a one-percenter in her own right, and their marriage, which ended in 1994, produced a daughter, Samantha, who is now a 23-year-old business major at Columbia University.  Perelman's relationship with Cohen experienced a revival of sorts after their divorce, and when Cohen was dying of cancer, she made her ex-husband executor of her will.  A will that included approximately $700 million from the estate of her father, the man who started Hudson News, the airport concessionaire, which Cohen's brother now runs.

A guy who lives in a 25,000-square-foot house in New Jersey that Perelman thinks should be beyond his means.

Can you see where this is going?  

Suffice it to say that Perelman has never been one to shy away from a lawsuit.  He's waged a long-running battle against Morgan Stanley, and even sued his Chief Financial Officer over a $30 million salary dispute that accrued while the man was caring for his Alzheimer's-stricken wife.  So when, as he was settling his ex-wife's affairs, Perelman's legal team discovered suggestions of impropriety in the inheritance his daughter, Samantha, should have received from her grandfather, the Hudson News mogul, Perelman pounced on his late ex-wife's brother.

Five years, and upwards of sixty million dollars in legal fees later, there's no end in sight for the saga between Perelman the father, Perelman the Ivy League daughter, and James Cohen, Ron Perelman's ex-brother-in-law.  The Perelman's have already lost one round in court, and when the New York Times tracked her down for a quote explaining why she and her father are pressing forward with their claims, Samantha was luxuriating on her father's yacht anchored off of Greece.

She said that what her Uncle James had done regarding her inheritance "was greedy and not nice."  Which displays an eloquence that must make any parent paying for a Columbia U education proud.

Okay, so that was a cheap shot.  But it's the only cheap thing about this entire story.  If you read the whole article about this lawsuit in the Times, there will likely be several points along the way where you'll have to stop and re-read what you've just read.  Yes, that's $60 million in legal fees so far.  Yes, Perelman has already had to pay a previous court nearly $2 million in fines for filing what that court claimed was a frivolous lawsuit.  Yes, Perelman willingly forked over millions of dollars for his ex-wife's cancer treatments.

At least there was some love there, right?  Or, at least, it looks that way.  By most accounts, Perelman is generous to his children, even if his relationships with their mothers weren't laudable.  He's an observant Jew who keeps the Sabbath, praying for three hours every Saturday, and running a strictly Kosher home.  Well, "homes," plural.  And yacht.

Still, with $14 billion, you'd think the curmudgeon wouldn't be so tight.  So what if you think a daughter of yours was cheated out of $700 million?  Yeah, it's a lot of money, but several million dollars ago, shouldn't you have realized that your lawyers can't find a case for you to make?  Is it the money that really bothers you, or might it be your own injured pride?  Pride injured by the possibility that the elderly grandfather might have honestly changed his mind about where he wanted his money to go, and not to the offspring of his daughter's marriage to you?  Might the ex-brother-in-law really have owned that much of the company selling newspapers, magazines, and breath mints in airports around the world, since he has been the one running it for years?

Actually, considering Perelman's stern upbringing in North Carolina, where his father was a successful businessman, and his own business tactics as a buyout king and corporate raider, taking umbrage when somebody else appears to cheat you wouldn't exactly be out of character.  Perhaps, having taken advantage of other people - and even financially abusing them - himself, Perelman may likely be well aware of how other people could do the same things to him.  If you can prove in a court of law that, at least if not morally, but legally, somebody else has defrauded you, why not make them pay?

Not to say that you should, but you can.  And what billionaire has gotten that way by shying away from opportunity?

As typically happens in these things, lawyers appear to be the only winners in this saga, even if Ron and Samantha may have forged closer ties to each other, having waged such a valiant battle together.  The ex-wife and ex-father-in-law are deceased, which, barring somebody's legal team uncovering a long-hidden silver bullet amongst the paperwork, seems to make this a "he said - he said" case.

It might be polite - and, indeed, expected - of us little people to simply let the Perelmans have their day in court without us drawing our own conclusions.  Predictably, free-market Republicans would likely support the Perelmans in their gutsy quest, even if the ex-brother-in-law, a legitimate businessman in his own right, should be able to defend his wealth, even if it isn't in the same league as his opponent's.  Democrats, on the other hand, would likely lament the waste of all this money by spoiled rich people on a lawsuit based mostly on ego than honor, even if people have the right to protect their assets, however enormous those assets may be.

Behold the irony:  people who've made money selling the news being the news because of news makers with even more money.  One way to sell more news is to make it yourself.

Meanwhile, if I was in any way related to any of Perelman's other ex-wives, I'd be so, so busy covering my tracks.  Wouldn't you?

Monday, September 16, 2013

Ironic Lessons From Today's Maritime Events

Ahh, mankind!

God has given us the ability to do so much.  Yet today is one of those days that perfectly illustrates two opposite ends of that accomplishment spectrum.  The good we can do, and the bad.

Over in Italy, early this morning, before most Americans were awake, an international salvage crew began lifting the stricken Costa Concordia luxury cruise ship off of the rocky shoreline upon it's been resting for the past twenty months.  The Concordia, you'll recall, ran ground in an environmental sanctuary off the island of Giglio in January, 2012.  Thirty two passengers died that fateful night, and the ship's captain is currently on trial for manslaughter and abandoning ship.

Practically since the shipwreck, efforts have been underway to figure out a way to remove the behemoth ocean liner off of its rocky bed, where it's been lying on its side at an angle the ship's steel infrastructure was not designed to sustain for a long period of time.  Walls were beginning to show signs of unnatural stress, and engineers were working against time to design and implement the most cost-effective, environmentally-sound rescue operation that had the best chance of success.  Leaving the ship to age and rust near Giglio's port was not an option.  Eventually, parts of the ship could crumble and tumble further down into the ocean, impeding port traffic in the relatively shallow waters.

The whole shipwreck, from the start, has been colossal and epic in its scope, from the carelessness and inhumanity of its captain, to the logistical challenges faced by rescuers, salvage engineers, divers, and the extraordinary team of specialists who've been working in rotating shifts, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, living in metal barracks floating on a barge near the luxury liner.  A vessel built for leisure has had welders, steel workers, plumbers, and electricians crawling over it and through it non-stop for months on end, attaching the cables and enormous multi-story metal boxes called "caissons" that should help lift it out of the water enough for it to be then floated to an industrial dockyard.

Not to mention the steel-tubed platforms that look like something out of a science-fiction movie.  They were custom-designed, built, and then sunk underneath the ship to provide a temporary floor upon which the Concordia is expected to rest while even more caissons are welded onto its wrecked side, the side upon which the ship has been sitting - and slowly collapsing - since the wreck.

Indeed, the current "lifting" of the Concordia, a process technically called "parbuckling," is only the most dramatic step so far in a multifaceted scheme to right the vessel, make it towable, and then tow it away from Giglio.  Righting the ship onto those massive underwater platforms has been considered by all involved to be the trickiest and most risky maneuver of the whole operation.  Such a procedure has never before been attempted in such a scale on so large an object.  So far, however, with work starting at daylight in Italy and continuing on into tonight, engineers are very pleased with the progress being made, and everything seems to be working according to plan.  At 951 feet in length, and weighing 114,000 gross tons - twice the weight of the Titanic, the Concordia represents an unprecedented challenge.  A challenge at which complex human engineering, inch by rusty inch, appears to be winning.

Which makes the attack by an undetermined number of shooters this morning at the Washington Navy Yard not only barbaric, but a disgusting bookend to the triumph engineers are cautiously eliciting over in Italy at the Concordia site.  Even if something malfunctions now in the luxury liner's salvage operation, the distinctly visible water line that emerged today from the Mediterranean as the ship was being right-sized testifies to the soundness of the procedure's fundamentals.  Experts don't have comprehensive information on what the crushed side of the vessel looks like, so unforeseen, uncontrollable complications may still sabotage the engineering that has gone into this effort.  But in Washington, however, all we have is despicable carnage in what appears to be yet another workplace mass shooting.

We still don't know a cause in the D.C. rampage, or even a final death count, but does it really matter?  Good grief - any angry person or nut case can take a gun and shoot up anyplace where there's a concentration of people trying to be productive, whether it's a school, an office, or even a movie theater, where at least people go to escape reality without killing somebody else.  Mass killings infest the underbelly of humanity and jade us against other acts of violence, making us, bit by bit, less sensitive to life.  Or they can whittle further away at our own sense of basic decency, and actually accentuate our sensitivity to life to the point where despair comes more easily.

It's easy for us to watch the amazing live video feed coming from coastal Italy and marvel at the ingenuity and stunningly hard work that can right an entire cruise ship.  It's also easy to watch the sobering coverage gushing out of our nation's capital and grieve for the senselessness of such slaughter.  One witness said he'd escaped his office building, and was monitoring an exit door in an alleyway with another man, when suddenly, they heard gunshots, and the other man crumpled to the ground, shot in the head.

Another worker described sheer pandemonium as he and his co-workers fled their building.  "They were pushing. They were shoving. People were falling down," he told a local news reporter of his self-centered office mates.

Yeah - humanity in all its finest, right?

Actually, we'll probably be hearing stories in the next few days about heroic actions by victims, first responders, and the 3,000 or so people who had to evacuate the Washington Navy Yard.  As they say, sometimes a person's finest moments happen under the strongest of duress.

The irony, meanwhile, is that so much accomplishment and so much violence can happen on the same day in two relatively sophisticated, safe, and civilized countries.

It's at this point where Christianity's skeptics will gleefully assert that these events illustrate both man's ability to be clever outside of God's authority, and man's ability to thwart the goodness of God.  We believers say that God provides the engineers of our world with bold ideas and the ability to see them through, whether those engineers believe in God or not.  But doesn't that pale in comparison to God's inability to stop people like the person - or persons - who shot up the Navy Yard?

The answer is that while, yes, God empowers us to good things, whether we give Him the credit or not, He's still good when we do bad things.  Who God is doesn't change based on what we do, or don't do.  In fact, the same God Who has given some people the ideas to make boats, float them, and raise them up off of the Italian shoreline is the same God Who could have kept the Concordia from sinking to begin with.  Then again, He could have kept secret the initial idea to ever build boats, back when mankind was still trying to figure out how to cross a lake without getting wet.

If God was revoking powers and capabilities and granting them pell-mell throughout history, what kind of disjointed world would we be living in?  He allows both good things and bad things to happen, and in some mysterious way, both of them can bring Him glory.  Indeed, the very fact that we value the lives that were lost today in Washington lends validity to God's gift of life.  The horror of murder proves the sanctity of life.

This may be a day of particularly ironic history.  Maritime history, in fact, since we're talking the Concordia and the Washington Navy Yard.  But it's also a day in which God has not been disproved, or shaken.

Even if whatever faith in mankind we may have previously held has been.

Update:  at approximately 9:10 Monday evening, Central Standard Time, the parbuckling operation was officially completed and deemed a success.  Now comes the task of inspecting the damaged side that has been submerged for nearly two years and affixing more caissons for the floating part of the project.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Crutch or Truth? Seeing God Despite Doubt

How do we know?

How do we know the God of the Bible is the one, eternal God of the universe?

How do we know that Jesus is His Son, and that our belief in that relationship saves us from eternal damnation in Hell?

How do we know there's a literal Heaven and a literal Hell, anyway?

What makes Christianity as true and compelling as its adherents claim it to be?  Can't Christianity simply be seen as a comprehensive collection of folklore, fables, superstitions, and moral traditions contrived to explain the reality of life as we encounter it?  What makes Christianity fact, instead of mythology?

These are questions people have been asking since the time of Christ.  In fact, people have been disputing the existence of God since at least before the time of Noah.  And, um, that great flood, that many people think is simply a far-fetched allegory about true goodness being rare in the world.

I mean, really!  How did so few men build so great a seafaring craft that it could sustain the menagerie of God's animal kingdom for those mystical 40 days?  Noah's Ark may be a cute theme for a child's bedroom, but I'm too intelligent a person to peg my identity on a religion that expects me to take it as historical fact.

It's that kind of pride and self-confidence amongst unbelievers that stokes their incredulity.  And even among professing Christians.  Indeed, not everybody who claims to be a Christian believes they need to take the Bible literally.  Isn't interpreting the Bible's stories and narratives as metaphors, allegories, and literary poetry a far more rational approach to Christianity?  A belief system which, after all, is but one of many ways of pursuing universal truth?

How can some Christians defend "every jot and tittle" of the Bible as infallible?  Inerrant?  Considering all of the translations, transcriptions, and primitive documentation techniques throughout the history of interpersonal communication, how do we know this stuff hasn't acquired a fanciful level of embellishment?  Line up ten adults, whisper a sentence to the first one, and by the time that sentence gets repeated through all ten people, it rarely resembles the original.

Don't Christians expect their adherents to take so much on sheer faith?

And then they tell us that the peace they receive from their Sovereign Deity makes all of the uncertainty, lack of quantifiable proofs, and unreasonableness worth it.  They can't really describe that peace, except to say that it "passes understanding."  Awfully convenient, isn't it?  Saying that the rewards they get for believing what they can't verify can't be verified, either.

We've seen the sort of "peace" members of certain cults exhibit:  the blind trust in their leader, even in the face of obvious fallacies.  What separates Christianity from any other cult, except the fact that Christianity is so popular and conventional?

Indeed, the culture of Christianity evangelicals have historically enjoyed in North America has created a deceptively shallow environment in which we've been able to perpetuate our faith.  Even within communities of faith, a lot of people really don't know why they believe what they believe - if they even know what they believe!  Now, we're seeing how shallow that environment has been, as moral standards that were once unchallenged in our society are becoming imperiled by greater and greater numbers of people asking all of these same questions in ever-louder voices.

How can one group of people expect protections and exceptions simply by saying their holy book is better than another religion's holy book?  What makes the way I want to live my life more offensive than the way you want to live yours?  You say yours is the religion of freedom; well, I want my freedom!

Evangelicals have been taught that we should respond to these questions, criticisms, and complaints from society in the same fashion that Jesus responded to Satan when he tempted Him.  In other words, we should use Scripture as our defense.  And there's nothing wrong with that.  But it's not necessarily the only approach.

Consider the fact that the Devil believes God exists.  He used to be an angel himself.  Jesus could quote Scripture and drive Satan away because they were both communicating with a shared knowledge of the Author of their reality.  Mortals, however, who don't believe God exists, aren't necessarily going to give any credence to His Word.  Why should they, if they don't trust the Author of the Bible?

Perhaps, when our audience can appreciate its legitimacy, believers in Christ can rely on the Bible to provide answers for the hope that is inside of us, and we can offer narratives from our personal testimony when our audience doesn't consider the Bible legitimate.  Think of it as a matter of perspective.  The Bible teaches that only the Holy Spirit can illuminate God's Word, but we can't always recognize those people in whom the Holy Spirit is at work.  Besides, Christians should be able to put into our own words the reasons for why we believe what we believe, right?

For example, we evangelicals believe that all of Creation tells the glory of God.  In fact, if we don't give God glory, Creation will literally cry out instead.  So, although it sounds eerily like New Age pantheism, I have to admit that I cannot look at trees, or contemplate mathematics, or watch the tide, or look at a newborn animal without believing that some sort of "greater power" orchestrated all of it.  Wouldn't this "greater power" have to be all-knowing and all-powerful?  I mean:  Look around you!  Don't just take all of what you see for granted.  If the God of the Bible didn't create all of this, then another supreme being had to.  Had to!

It takes more faith to believe evolutionary theory than the Bible's literal account of Creation.

How about the Bible as literature?  Doesn't it strike you as amazing that, aside from some minor technical aberrations, there is not one significant discrepancy within the content of a book compiled of different manuscripts by different authors, writing in different languages, over a span of centuries?  Our world has known some pretty impressive writers, but no other holy book has stood the test of time and academic scrutiny like the Bible.  Isn't it too consistent not to trust?

Then there's the Christian Deity Himself:  God.  God isn't just one person, but He's three people!  God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  Bizarre, right?  Why complicate your religion with a concept humanity will never understand?  Christians call our tripartite Deity the "Trinity," but that word isn't even in the Bible!  Why intentionally make a faith concept that has to utterly depend on faith in the unseen and unexplainable?  The only explanation has to be that this is simply the way it is.  Things can exist whether we believe they exist or not.  God's three selves - as the Chinese government officially describes Christianity - is/are one/three of those Things.

Of course, the hardened skeptic will still be protesting the idea that only God's Holy Spirit can reveal His truth to humanity.  What a cop-out!  So, Christians can simply dismiss somebody's unbelief as a lack of something none of us can see or quantify?  Shouldn't we be working a little harder at trying to make this make sense?

Which, actually, brings us to the most bizarre part of Christianity:  you and I do nothing to get it.  We do nothing to earn it.  We can't work for it, study for it, take a test for it, pay for it, slave away for it, kill ourselves for it, meet quotas for it, or even believe in it hard enough, with our eyes squinched really, really tight!  Faith in Christ is a free gift from God.  Christ is the One Who paid for it through His death, burial, and resurrection.  All we do is believe, in faith, trusting what God says in His Word is true.

Now, some of us Christians part ways over the process by which this belief is applied to us.  Some Christians, such as many Baptists, say that we "choose" to believe.  Other Christians, such as Presbyterians, believe God chooses us.  The difference is that, for example, Baptists say we have to make a decision to believe in God, whereas Presbyterians say God has already decided, in His infinite sovereignty, those people throughout history who will believe in Him.

Is that getting too theological for you?  Yeah, it gets that way to me too, sometimes.  Not only that, but every single question I've written in this essay I've also asked myself, and not just years ago, when I became a Christian.  Faith would be so much simpler and easier if I had concrete proofs upon which I could base my trust.  Yet God's power and status in our world is so incomprehensible, He wants us to give up the things we can see, touch, and even feel, not relying on them for our faith, but on His Word instead.

God wants us so dependent upon Him that we're willing to live in faith even if you mock me for doing so.  Even if I can't prove what I believe to your satisfaction - or even, sometimes, when I'm languishing in my own doubt.  Why?  Because by trusting in Him, I demonstrate belief in His ability to care for me, which illustrates His supreme authority over every area of life, which confers glory to Him.

During those times when I struggle with unanswered questions and fears about whether this whole Christianity thing is one big mistake on my part, God promises not to reject me.  Having doubts amid faith is not a sin.  I can't be excommunicated for asking questions.  God is not challenged by my shaky grasp of His reality.  His authority is not based on numbers, or memberships, or some other measurement of a customer base.  His sovereignty doesn't depend on how many countries claim to be a "Christian" nation.  God is so supreme, He never instructs us to ridicule or kill people for refusing to believe in Him.  What other belief system is so secure?

Meanwhile, many of us Christians have bought into a market-centered approach to God.  We view our Christianized culture as an affirmation of God's truth, and view the evaporation of that culture with fear.  Perhaps having had that cushion of cultural Christianity did us more harm than good, if we're incapable of expressing to new generations the reasons for why we can't just go with the flow.  Why we're so committed to what you think are stodgy and increasingly unpopular ideas.  And why some of us will probably waiver little from what we claim to be truth, even if our Christianized culture fades completely from our continent.

Some might see that resoluteness as a strength, but unbelievers don't.  They see us as hypocritically hanging on to goofy legends and hollow promises like fussy kindergartners waiting for recess on the first day of school.

Are we weak-hearted and feeble-minded?  Do we need some sort of crutch to fortify our emotional stability?  Is all of this belief in God, Jesus, and the Bible simply another coping mechanism?  A coping mechanism that is infringing on your preferred coping mechanisms?

To the extent that God provides us with certain spiritual "comforts," then perhaps at least some of our faith could be classified as a coping mechanism.  Christians can't deny that they need God's help to sustain their faith, and even I, as I've already admitted, have doubts from time to time about God's claims regarding Himself.  But that's all part of giving up ourselves for God.  It's a concept that people who will never be saved likely will never understand.  And yes, if that sounds like a cop-out, then we'll have to agree that you are entitled to your version of reality.  God hasn't yet dragged anybody - Baptist, Presbyterian, atheist, or otherwise - kicking and screaming into His Kingdom.

God wants our devotion, but He doesn't need it.

Can you say that about your god, even if your god is yourself?