Friday, April 30, 2010

GUEST POST - Conservatism: Morally Driven but Politically Fragmented

By Jasmine Koehn - Guest Contributor

Through the course of American political history, two competing ideologies have emerged. These two ideologies form the bases of the two leading political parties. Most politically active members of American society self-designate as belonging to one of the two ideologies, conservatism (in the Republican Party) and progressivism (in the Democratic Party). The amount of party influence found in the differing ideologies leads to critiques of the two worldviews. In order to achieve a powerful critique it is imperative to simultaneously understand and destroy the opposing ideology. From the progressive viewpoint, this means recognizing conservative arguments and then intelligently deconstructing their logic. The basic approach is to determine the basic beliefs behind conservatism, acknowledge how these differ from progressive beliefs, and analyze why said beliefs are ultimately incongruent with reality.

Another way to describe conservatism is reactionary. The goal, therefore, is not growth but rather preservation. Modernity is often seen as the foe of conservatism, and the hope among conservatives becomes a fusion of the positives of modernity with the values of pre-modern beliefs (Bottum, 37). While social conservatives hold most strongly to this outlook, the more moderate sects tend to deviate and cause divisions within the ideology. Yet the overarching goal is to protect and preserve some element of society that is under unwarranted attack. Social conservatives see these attacks ripping apart the fabric of society, tearing into the basic family structure and leaving a morally depraved society. Libertarians fear attacks against social liberties and against the ability to act without government intervention. Neoconservatives and most other moderate conservatives sense attacks against the national integrity, specifically through terrorism. Although the different bastions of conservatism are all reactionary, their different foci have allowed inconsistencies and divisions to arise.

The overarching struggle within the conservative ideology is the attempt to gain consensus. The conservative coalition acts as an umbrella ideology for several different beliefs. Everyone from libertarians to the Christian Coalition claims the label of conservative. This level of discordance creates rifts within the ideology that lead to disillusion within the Republican Party that may serve to destroy the party’s ability to remain viable. Not only do different opinions exist, they define their conservatism in juxtaposition with the other beliefs. Joseph Bottum clarifies this by identifying a need within conservatism to not be the “most rightist” group (Varieties of Conservatism, 39). Such discordance does not encourage unity, nor does it allow for growth in the overall beliefs of conservatism.

A large cause of the disunity comes from the belief as Henrie argues that progressives lack a moral life, while the conservatives have not created a viable political life (Varieties of Conservatism, 14). It seems counterintuitive to follow a political ideology that is not based on politics but rather on morals. Moral foundations are important for ethicality, but they lack value in a political sense. This is especially true in an ideology as fragmented as conservatism, since one group of conservatives may hold different moral beliefs than those supported by another faction. This is most clearly explained in terms of abortion. The pro-life outlook has become almost synonymous with conservatism, yet members of the Republican Party and self-avowed conservatives have been known to hold the opposing position. A moral outlook has been applied to politics to the point that it defines conservatism in America.

Bottum takes the moral implications a step further by arguing that the founders based the Constitution on their Christian beliefs; therefore, conservatism is founded on Christianity. This argument led him to believe that the core of conservatism is an anti-abortion stand that also defines the differences between conservatives and progressives for all other “culture-war” issues (Varieties of Conservatism… 43). A belief in morals as the foundation for a political movement thus leads to further fragmentation and requires divisions both internally and between conservatism and progressivism.

Libertarians, who claim conservatism as their leading ideology, do not follow a moral prescriptive in their political approach. Randall Barnett makes this abundantly clear in his essay in which he argues for the protection of natural rights. The libertarian approach looks to allow individuals the liberties to live without continual government involvement. The goal is to create social order that protects against destructive actions but does not coerce constructive actions (Barnett, 70). This approach struggles to work in conjunction with the moral precepts of social conservatives. As a result, libertarians follow a separate political party, which only adds to the divisions within conservatism.

Neoconservatives act as another moderate wing of the conservative ideology. Unlike libertarians, neoconservatives do desire government involvement, but they do not base their views strictly on moral obligations. Their outlook tends to be foreign policy-orientated, and the actions taken by the Bush Administration fall under a neoconservative approach. That administration believed strongly in national security-motivated activities and disagreed with excessive social welfare programs as discussed by Jacob Heilbrunn. It was the Bush Administration’s desire for national security that created problems. Team Bush believed in exporting democracy, yet for fiscal conservatives this modus operandi comes at an enormous cost, and when foreign policy gains primacy, domestic issues including abortion tend to be overlooked. Another internal danger for conservatives generally accompanies an increase in government control, which alienates the libertarians.

Another danger in following morally-motivated political movements is the emergence of apparent hypocrisies. Conservatives believe in a pro-life approach and desire to maintain family values. Yet, they fail to care for people who struggle to survive from day to day. Conservatives of all approaches believe that by providing aid for negative life choices, these choices are reinforced and the result in a victim mentality. Richard Epstein argued extensively along these lines in his essay on libertarianism. Yet, morally speaking, it seems backwards to passionately care for the unborn but ignore the living. Conservative foreign policy decisions also appear hypocritical when compared to a moral standard. Conservatives willfully take part in interventionist strategies when it appears in the best interest of the nation but not when it involves a moral obligation to protect the oppressed and endangered. Heilbrunn addresses this irony when he looks at the changes in policy from the Cold War to the current War on Terrorism (122-124). Conservatives ran the gamut of interventionist to isolationist and back around based on the external threats involved, not on moral imperatives.

The large inconsistencies within conservatism beg the observer to search for other options. The opposing view of progressivism allows for growth in thought, adaptability and – ultimately - consensus. Progressives believe in tolerance and change, a posture which is most clearly illustrated in the base of the Democratic Party. The Democrats originally catered to middle-class workers, but over time, the intellectual elites gravitated towards the forward-looking approach. This swing in the base led to a change in the party outlook and increased the level of open-mindedness in response to the revolutions and upheavals of the 1960s (Thomas Byrne Edsall, 34).

The Democratic Party also enjoys large support from the lower classes and minority groups. This comes from the willingness of progressives to aid hurting people. Progressives champion the causes of the oppressed and suffering, from welfare to desegregation. Progressives openly support social freedoms such as the right to reproductive freedom and same-sex marriage. The current progressive attitude towards social and economic issues comes from the shift of the base to two sets of people actively campaigning for equality and policy changes (Edell, 343-44). Progressives deal strongly with domestic social and economic issues, and in terms of foreign policy, they agree to intervention based on moral imperatives. Progressivism embraces the changes that take place in society and adapts to best maintain viability and congruency with said changes.

Ultimately, conservatism’s largest struggle is the inability to create a powerful consensus amongst its own adherents. Although differing opinions lead to new thoughts and allow for change, conservatives fail to use their differences for development of the ideology and the Republican Party. There are constant arguments amongst conservatives about being too right wing or jumping party lines by appearing overly moderate (an ironic phrasing, to be sure). The level of inconsistency within the ideology has led to struggles to find acceptable leadership; such infighting has ultimately left the basic conservative confused and frustrated. The leading cause for all this disunity comes from the inability to create a political movement and instead to focus on morally justifiable causes. Conservatives cannot agree on the moral imperatives and thus splinter into different groups focused on differing moral issues.



Berkowitz, Peter. Varieties of Progressivism in America. Hoover Institution Press. Stanford University, Stanford CA. 2004
Berkowitz, Peter. Varieties of Conservatism in America. Hoover Institution Press. Stanford University, Stanford CA. 2004

Building Understanding, Part Three: Religion, Government, and the Top-Bottom Problem

The other name for this post - if I didn't want to be formal about continuing the "Building Understanding" series - would have been: "Every Bottom Has A Top." That's because, in so many ways and on so many levels, we've arrived at a point that can be very illuminating in the attempt to achieve some sense of understanding between the Left and the Right in America (and maybe other places in the world, too).

Twitter poster Nathan Wurtzel made me stop and take notice this past Sunday when he tweeted that liberals think from the top down and never look at life starting from the position of the individual. Growing up in an anti-Reagan household and being raised by a parent who worked for George McGovern's campaign in 1972, I had only heard of top-down-ism as a Republican (not necessarily conservative, mind you - there's often a big difference!) flaw. But as I rolled the tweet around in my mind, the truth was really rather unassailable on a larger level.

Why did I not arrive at this precise and generally accurate realization earlier in life? Because I'm a Catholic progressive, not a secular one.

The Catholic tradition and the social teachings which flow from it promote a number of core values and principles. One such principle is subsidiarity, the idea that services should be given on the smallest and most localized level possible. The more direct the aid, the less of a chance for corruption or the distortion of the aid's intended purpose. That's a sound political and operational reason for subsidiarity, a reason that libertarians and conservatives have rightly and nobly championed. A specifically Christian teaching values direct aid because of the responsibility Christians have to help their neighbors in need, to feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty. The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats - my favorite parable from the Gospels (Matthew 25:31-46) - makes this call quite clear.

In Catholicism, the emphasis on helping the poor, the least among us - the anawim of the Hebrew Scriptures - is encapsulated in what is called the "preferential option for the poor." That component of Catholic social teaching is often misconstrued as meaning a higher valuation of the poor than the rich, as though some lives are more important than others (hence, some souls are more important than others). What the "preferential option" really means is that Catholics, according to their means, should structure their lifestyles so that they can regularly tend to the needs of the poor. In other words, build as much charity and service into your lifestyle as is reasonably allowable; don't burn yourself out, don't overstretch, but give to your reasonable maximum, extending a fair share of time/talent/treasure to the needy.

Digging even deeper, some Christian communities - including the Catholic Worker movement, of which I am a member (the Seattle chapter of the Catholic Worker, dormant since May 11, 2007, is re-organizing and will protest the presence of nuclear weapons at a Seattle rally this upcoming Sunday) - practice subsidiarity and a preferential option for the poor by establishing houses of hospitality among the poor. (The Open Door Movement is a Protestant organization with many similarities to the Catholic Worker.)

These and (I'm sure) many other organizations reflect a deep and abiding passion for the poor among progressive Christians in multiple denominations. For many progressive Christians - some of which are community organizers - the whole point of political speech and action is to give voice to the people at the bottom of various social, economic and political power structures, enabling them to act as citizens and function as contributing members of society. I'm sure there are also some atheists and agnostics who strongly identify with the need to help the poor on a local level and in an intimate way.

So let it be known: There are considerable numbers of people in America who walk under the progressive banner and yet identify with the bottom... not just in terms of political preference, but as a way of life and as an extension of faith and practice.

It makes it all the more lamentable that, on a wider national level, liberalism writ large is guilty of having - as a reflexive default stance - an outlook on politics in which the federal government is seen and looked to as the best and foremost answer to people's problems. It is virtually impossible to look at our national polity and not conclude that the Left, taken as a whole, views government as a central part of the solution to social ills.

Here's what needs to be unpacked... and what needs to (consequently) be said about the ultimate failing of the political Left in the United States:

I'll let people on the Right try to address the similar tensions they face, but since I have grown up on the political Left and will always be more fundamentally Left than Right, it's necessary for me to own up to the Left's weaknesses and explain them... not just for my own sake, but for other people who self-identify as liberals or progressives (I prefer progressive over liberal myself).

All of us - no matter our ideology or our political leaning - must confront a number of challenges in our ongoing evolution as citizens and as students of the world around us. One core challenge, which is particularly broad in its scope and reach, is the need to be able to confront and acknowledge the weaknesses and limitations in our own worldviews, and to realize that the formation of sound policy usually doesn't emerge from the extremes, but from the collective wisdom of people who, over time, learn to live in balance with competing tensions. This theme of balance (not between Left and Right, but between/among aspects of everyday life) needs to be kept constant in our observations of the political landscape.

When we carefully consider what ought to hold sway in the realm of governance, the point is not to enshrine certain methods, but to safeguard principles and - ideally - outcomes that are worth fighting for. It's not the growth of government that progressives should seek; instead, the Left must prioritize the improvement of people's lives in a manner that doesn't unduly impose on the citizenry. This emphasis on the true goal, and not a methodology, has been lost in contemporary liberalism to the detriment of the country.

One can say that liberalism and progressivism have not been practiced much in recent years, but when the cry for government action is articulated - I've joined the chorus quite often over the years - a liberal must then become accountable for that position. It's not enough to say that the government should do something; much as the moral case against war demands that a war be conducted fairly (in addition to the initial decision to wage war itself), so it also stands that government has to conduct its affairs fairly and exercise due proportion, restraint and wisdom in its daily operations. To then insist on government action when government has not proved itself to be terribly competent or honest is the misstep that liberals - and I will include myself in this group of guilty people - have consistently made. It was not until 2007 - when the newly-elected Democratic Congress continued to approve war budgets and pass corrosive "free trade" agreements, especially in Latin America - that my last shred of hope in government fully and finally evaporated.


Previous blog posts have lightly touched on this topic, but it now deserves a more substantial examination: One of the great challenges of our time (a challenge that is likely to remain for future generations long after we're all gone) is to meet the needs of the "unchosen suffering" - those at the bottom - within a framework of fiscal responsibility and systemic integrity. As the recent economic downturn has shown (and this is not a liberal or conservative point; it should be seen as plainly empirical, a natural outgrowth of observing reality detached from polity or ideology), many lives - in America and throughout the world - are affected by forces beyond their control.

What happened in the governmental chambers of Washington, D.C., and the boardrooms of New York - not to mention offices of firms like Washington Mutual in Seattle and Countrywide in Los Angeles - hammered a lot of middle-income families in the gut. Some people in lower-income brackets got rightly slammed for treating homes as commodities and for playing fast and loose, but many other families who played by the rules and trusted in the expertise of mortgage companies and banks got taken to the cleaners. When these kinds of events take place, the importance of a safety net for wronged individuals becomes substantial. The innocents who saw their holdings get wiped out by the economic downturn deserve and need a helping hand, and the charity of private citizens - many of them with shrunken wallets in their own right - can't be expected to do ALL the heavy lifting. This is the enduring progressive worry: That people will continue to suffer, without choice, because larger structures aren't there to help them in times of need.

With that having been said, though, one must return to the problem facing liberalism today: government's manifest lack of both competence and honesty.

As much as I and other members of the Left want (and have long wanted) our government to respond to acute needs, that wish won't change the brokenness of our systems, mechanisms and institutions. Government debt is skyrocketing. China and other foreign entities propped up the likes of Citigroup and continue to funnel money into the innards of our financial sector. Goldman Sachs's cozy relationship with each of the last two White Houses and their Treasury Departments is a profound moral and ethical scandal of our age. Congressional worship of Alan Greenspan and a collective belief that the Masters of the Universe on Wall Street could do no wrong in the middle of the past decade ("the aughts," as many called them) revealed a tight and intimate fusion of government and high finance. Government and corporations - aided and abetted by both parties to an overwhelming degree, with Democrats being just as bad as Republicans (again, don't keep score; both parties are guilty as sin - it does little good to claim who's worse, even if one has the ammunition) - aren't just in bed together, to use that metaphor. They're making out (like obsessed lovers in the throes of passion)... and they're also making out (like bandits!).

In the face of these realities, liberals simply have to confront the fact - and it is a fact - that government isn't working. It's not working the way it was supposed to work; it's not serving the people it's supposed to serve; it's not maintaining appropriate distance from special and outside interests; it's not being a watchdog and advocate which looks out for ordinary people just trying to live their lives; it's not facilitating an easier and more manageable existence for anyone outside its doors; and last but certainly not least, it's not delivering results to the populace.

Liberalism can't continue to reflexively and automatically invoke government as a savior. Yes, private charity - the embodiment of the ideal of subsidiarity and, moreover, of personal action in response to local problems - is not entirely enough, but the moral agency connected to private charity offers a purity and clarity which need to be promoted in American life. When human persons, of their own free will and with their own sweat, create better outcomes on the ground, that's highly preferable to the cold and distant machinations of an aloof government giving a handout to a person with whom it has no intimate emotional relationship. The limitations of the conservative or libertarian perspective (which I'll allow others to elaborate on at greater length) are not limitations of argumentative quality; they're limitations of scope and scale.

In Seattle, I've personally seen how government - as broken and dysfunctional as it is - still plugs in gaps and keeps already-frayed lives from falling even further into disrepair. I've also listened to stories and read accounts of how government's deficiencies wind up increasing the pressure on citizens to deliver charitable services to the needy.

At the Seattle Catholic Worker - founded in 1975 - the soup kitchen program it initiated served roughly 80-100 people per day, five days a week, through 1980. Logs and record books in the Seattle Catholic Worker archives - corroborated by the accounts of the people who ran that soup kitchen at the time - indicate that from 1981 through the rest of the 1980s, soup kitchen attendance swelled to 225-260 people per day.

Why did that happen? Don't ask me. Ask the longtime Seattle Catholics who regularly practice subsidiarity and have spent their lives offering localized, direct help to the people at the bottom of society. Ask these progressive people of faith if Ronald Reagan's mental health and social service cuts created that surge in soup kitchen attendance. "Yes" will be the almost uniform answer.

It's a somewhat cruel irony, when you think about it: While secular liberals, for the most part (I'm sure there are some principled exceptions), automatically trumpet the virtues of government and promote the need for government intervention on so many levels, a great many Catholic liberals (and other progressive Christians) have already been living with and working for the people at the bottom. Yet, any government movement away from increased social service expenditures will almost certainly make it harder for progressive Christians and many other private individuals to - of their own accord and initiative - meet the rising needs they see in their communities. This was true in the Seattle of the 1980s, and it's just as true now if not more so. The average monthly rent for a 1-bedroom apartment in Seattle is valued between $1,000 and $1,100, making affordable housing a very scarce commodity in this city. Government is awful, and yet without its funds, local needs would be even more acute.

It's a damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don't situation, an awful mess with no easy solutions or answers - not, at least, in the realm of hard choices and bewilderingly complex realities facing anyone who works in or with the federal government of the United States.

I'll close, then, with this thought, which will be unpacked in the near future: Government does not deserve to be - and has not proven itself worthy of being - the primary mover or central agent in people's lives. Government cannot be the first response or the immediate and complete answer to the problems faced by the "unchosen suffering" in our land. Yet, with all that having been said, it does keep a great number of people from falling completely off the radar screen of society, something that - at least in Seattle - has been apparent for the past three decades (if not more so).

This is a discussion which needs to develop and continue in our homes, at our water coolers, and in our churches, but let this idea begin to take root in our minds: The basic way to confront the government-power problem, and to get liberals to focus more on the people at the bottom of American life, is for government - especially at the federal level - to be seen not as a "first responder" but as a LAST responder; not as a first outlet but as a LAST resort, when all other options for help have been reasonably exhausted.

People on the ground know the needs of their community best, and it's much more nourishing to the whole of society for individuals to choose charity instead of having a lot of dollars - often wastefully - thrown around at taxpayer expense without delivering results. Yet, there will be occasions when government does need to intervene. Such is the tension of crafting policies and responses to problems: One side might have the better theoretical approach or the more idealistic vision, but both sides ultimately need to shape and constantly refine the ways we deal with problems.

The following idea is easy enough to articulate, but it must now be enfleshed in progressive efforts within the hardball worlds of politics and governance: The shift in our larger thought process as progressives doesn't have to abandon government, but it definitely has to downgrade government and regard it as the last solution, not the first, in response to people's crushing problems and dire needs.

So many religious progressives have always identified with the people at the bottom over many years of ministry and service; for me, other Catholic Workers, and other lefty Christians, the Gospel and the life of Jesus are all about outreach to the poor, the lowly, the disenfranchised, the oppressed, and the voiceless. However, for all the times when we progressives have reflexively looked to the government - a broken and disordered government - we have not viewed life from the bottom up.

May this enduring and substantial weakness within the architecture of liberalism - indeed, the greatest flaw of the American Left in the course of its entire existence - be addressed in the 21st century. We progressives need to reshape our fundamental posture to the government we've trusted far too naively for far too long a time.

Monday, April 26, 2010


PUBLISHER'S NOTE: In the attempt to foster sincere and productive Left-Right dialogue, readers of this blog were invited to share their stories of political and religious awakening. The purpose of this kind of storytelling is to enable all of us to understand the pains and joys of self-discovery within contexts of faith and citizenship. This form of personal sharing is designed to help us realize that we have all experienced pain caused by political opponents, but also affirmation and encouragement from mentors. Other readers of this blog are encouraged to submit their stories for future publication.

Today, I'm thrilled to be able to publish this first installment, a poignant and profound perspective offered by Jasmine Koehn, a dedicated activist in Colorado who is working hard to combat sexual trafficking and other forms of human slavery. Ms. Koehn has worked frequently with the Not For Sale Campaign, which you are encouraged to learn more about. Jasmine will gladly field questions in the comments section... not just about Not For Sale, but this marvelous essay she's crafted. I'm sure she'd welcome contributions you could make to NFS, which has numerous chapters in the United States. -M.Z.


Jasmine Koehn, Guest Contributor

Firstly I want to thank Matt for always being a gracious host of discussions and a wonderful example of a listener and a person who walks his talk. For one such as myself, a self-proclaimed moderate with conservative tendencies it is incredibly refreshing to have interactions and discussions with Matt, we do not always agree on our approaches to issues political or otherwise, but we can have civil conversations and walk away from said conversations with a better understanding of where the other person stands, but for me at least, also where I stand and why. I do not say all this simply to offer praise, though such praise is deserved, it also serves to build the base of the theme of this post. Matt is the antithesis to most of the people I have interacted with in the political realm.

It is important to understand my background because it explains my current worldview and why I place such an emphasis on conversation and seeing both sides of any argument. I was raised in a loving Christian household in the great state of Colorado. My Protestant faith has shaped me both as a spiritual person, but also the interactions with and within the Church have had a profound impact on my growth as a person.

As a child I participated in all the Church events, AWANAs (AWANA is a national evangelical Christian organization) and children’s choir. I went to Sunday School, and because I was homeschooled, I also attended a weekly Christian based “school” to try and keep me from turning into a weird reclusive homeschool child. Throughout my early years, life was simple fun and I had a wonderful group of friends. Middle school occurred and like the story of many children in America EVERYTHING went belly-side up. In case you aren’t aware girls are TERRIBLE creatures (sub-human really) during middle school and my friends (and myself as well I’m sure) were no different. I also started attending a charter school in my hometown in seventh grade. Between sixth and eleventh grades I changed churches several times, had several of my friends abandon me and became politically active.

On the surface these three events seem unconnected but for me they were related. I learned the pain of betrayal (something that is central to politics, sadly) and I learned firsthand what it meant to be an outsider. I spent several years as an outcast both at school and church, events which only furthered my heart for “those without a voice.” These years taught me the need to recognize the pain of others because none of my friends saw or cared about my pain. It was also during this time that I learned the art of seeing things from the other perspective. I have always been empathetic and a people pleaser – I hate to blame others for their faults and I will blame myself first in order to defuse an uncomfortable situation. I never justified the actions of my friends, but I understood at times why they made the choices they did and decided not to hate them for those decisions. It took a greater amount of time to forgive those choices, but I could understand.

Fast forward to my senior year and you will see me at my high school as the founder and president of the Young
Republicans Club. I was also one of three conservatives in my AP Human Geography class (my teacher constituted one of the other two). I was in this class during the Bush-Kerry election and I will never forget the day after Bush was re-elected. The anger and hate that filled the room was palpable and at one point that anger boiled over and was directed at me. The reason why I will never forget that day or that class is not because of the attack, but rather because of the president of the Young Democrats Club. He stood up for me and told the others that I had a right to my opinion.

A different day in that same class saw a heated discussion pit myself and my fellow conservative against everyone else and again things got heated; invectives were hurled, and I could not speak because of the overlapping yells coming from my classmates. Again I remember this day because the President of the Young Dems never treated me like that and at the end of the day he wrote me a little note apologizing for not standing up for me more in class, and to be honest I was surprised not because he apologized but because he had nothing to apologize for. This young man gave me hope for my future, he encouraged me to stand by my political beliefs and NEVER treated me as an inferior for having a different opinion. He gave me the strength to be vocal in college and to believe that perhaps I would have the pleasure of meeting another person who would not agree with me but would be willing to accept me anyway.

In college that person came in the form my wonderful history professor. I miss him terribly: He could be trusted to care for me when I was having a rough day while also being willing to challenge me and discuss everything from politics to religion without ever judging my answers. I thrive in such a situation, I love being challenged because it only further solidifies my base when I realize I am right and it helps me correct my wrong assumptions. His classes were phenomenal, but I will ALWAYS remember him for the conversations we had and for his open-minded acceptance of my strong and unwavering stand regarding my faith.

As an aside, my faith defines me as a person, but I can and do separate my faith and politics. I understand the difference between what is morally black and white and what is feasible in the realm of politics. This has on a fair number of occasions gotten me in trouble with my more conservative-minded friends, but like everything else in my life I stand by my convictions and respect my friends for standing by theirs.

Matt has been the most recent acquaintance who listens and strives to understand and find the common ground between all our differing views. He, as well as the others, continues to give me the strength to face those who ridicule both my faith and my politics. I bite my tongue and try to find the common ground because I know I am not alone in that endeavor, that not all liberals think and act like some of my classmates at graduate school, that not all professors spew hate against neo-cons and use their position of power to attack and brainwash, and that even high school boys can recognize the value of friends across the aisle. I would much rather discuss these positive interactions than dwell on all the negatives that have occurred even since starting graduate school. *gets on soap box*

It is easier and more acceptable in society to dwell on the hurt, to hold grudges and to look for revenge opportunities. We love to tell stories about the pain that has been inflicted on us by friends, family, even strangers – and at times, it is incredibly necessary to share one’s pain – but in the long run focusing only on the differences, only on the pain, the anger, the invectives, only serves to cause more pain. We lose patience with an entire segment of society – right, left, the church – simply because of the stupid actions of a few. The culture war that is tearing this nation apart is fueled by the constant generalization of groups based on their radical elements, blaming the whole for the sins of a few.

I am not an idealist; I will not pretend to believe that one day we can all get along, I believe that mankind will continue to fight with itself because mankind is selfish, but that does not mean that I will fall into that trap. I will hold myself to a higher standard and I will encourage my friends to hold themselves to a higher standard, and although it won’t change the world, it might change my school, and more importantly it WILL change one life. The people that I have mentioned in this post changed my life; I will strive to provide a similar hope for the people I interact with, because that is what I can do.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Building Toward Understanding, Part Two: Stop Keeping Score

The mindset currently gripping America's political psyche can be explained by sports metaphors. This notion provides a really good way to understand why our public debate has become so bitter and impoverished.

First, we want to score points. I've long wanted to score points, and it took a long time for me to mentally and emotionally detach from the need to score points. We, as human beings, possess egos which crave competition and, perhaps even more powerfully, validation within the framework of said competition. We want to win the battle and see our beliefs prevail in the public square. Yes, we want to make the world a better place, but since our experiences shape us and give rise to a strong emotional center deep within our being, a healthy and proper sense of ambition leads us to connect desirable outcomes with the policy positions we've come to see as being superior to others.

This is not wrong or disordered, one hastens to add.

Ambition is not a value-negative word, but a value-neutral word. Human persons are supposed to be ambitious; it's a way of referring to the life force we carry as biological creatures. The key element of ambition is that, like so many other qualities we possess, it must be channeled in the right direction and used with great care. We should fight for our ideals and beliefs as we seek to improve our country and its constituent communities. Otherwise, we wouldn't have any intellectual or personal integrity. No great struggles are won without vigorous effort and considerable struggle. We should be passionate about winning fights that we sincerely believe will benefit our neighbors.

The key emphasis, though, is that last part: What we do needs to benefit the common good, our neighbors in the sense that Jesus used the word "neighbors": as the rest of the world, not just like-minded people we're naturally drawn to and congregate with. The Parable of the Good Samaritan in the Gospel according to Luke makes that point clear.

The president of Gonzaga University gave a talk in 2001 at the Western Region meeting of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (referred to in an earlier blog post about my personal journey) in which he stressed the need to discern between competition and contribution, between a mindset which values climbing up a ladder over other people and - on the other hand - giving to others in a spirit which seeks mutual benefit and edification.

Don't get me wrong: Competition - similar to ambition - is not value-negative. However, whereas ambition is a little bit more general in scope and application, competition is more connected to the notion of outdoing someone else. Competition is not inherently geared toward the diminishment of others (again, it's not value-negative; it's value neutral, just like ambition), but it risks doing so and must therefore be carefully calibrated by each and every person.

Safe to say, Americans have a hard time learning when to shut off their competitive instincts in favor of a solely contributive mindset and model.

This is where sports metaphors re-enter our discussion.

Election Night in America (I can't speak for international readers here) is so much like a sporting event: The multiple panelists, the avalanche of graphics, the parade of stats, the special sets built just for the occasion. Our press - as both the Left and Right know quite well - is obsessed with what is called "the horse race" (sports metaphor) and likes to talk of an electoral sweep (sports metaphor) as the fruition of a game plan or strategy (sports metaphor).

[I'll spare you the other sports metaphors used amidst election talk in this country. Point proven, I trust.]

So much of American political culture - and this country's mainstream media programs perpetuate this - is dominated by a competitive mindset which, like America's legal system, owns an entirely adversarial flavor.

The McLaughlin Group started this trend in the late 1980s. Crossfire continued it on CNN in the 1990s. Hardball has perpetuated it in this decade on MSNBC, as has Fox News' collection of programs. Talk radio - Left and Right - has increased the reach of combat politics, as have the not-so-civil sections of a very diverse blogosphere (and now Twitterverse as well).

The basic formula for a political TV show these days is simple: either have an adversarial host with an opposite-minded guest, or a host with two guests who are adversarial toward each other and appear on a split screen. Instead of performing real journalism (which costs, but also enriches the public), cable news directors are instead running programs on the cheap by filling vast stretches of air time with yakkers.

Yak, yak, yak, 24-7-365.

No wonder our so-called "debates" in America generate far more heat than light.

No wonder our public discourse is so tired and worn.

No wonder each cable network (and talk radio station) only furthers a mindset of mortal combat in our political culture.

No wonder the same debates - with all their familiar attendant talking points - get embedded deeper and deeper into the minds of the general populace, thereby entrenching viewpoints and creating a bunker mentality on all sides.

No wonder people on the Left and the Right feel so beaten-down, misrepresented and generally unheard in our public commons. No wonder this deep-set sense of fatigue prevents each of us (progressives and conservatives, Green Party members and Tea Party members) from being able to hear the wisdom in a divergent or opposing viewpoint.

Combat politics - what I like to call the "food fight" model - has been hammered so deeply into the American psyche that we can't imagine what a different model would look like. (Bill Moyers, who is retiring from broadcast journalism on April 30, owns views that my friends on the Right might virulently disagree with, but one thing that has to be said is that Moyers has always created an environment conducive to extended adult conversation with people from all corners of the political arena.) I would venture to say that we, as Americans, have a yearning for a better way of communicating, but the commercial landscape of broadcast media makes it all too apparent that Americans aren't about to be better served by the generators of mainstream broadcast content.

In many ways, the purpose of this blog is to call all of us - Left and Right and all places in between (or even beyond!) - to the idea that not only CAN this happen; it MUST happen.

Will it be easy? Of course not. One by one, though, we need to spread the idea that we can produce dialogue which both respects our positions yet creates possibilities of reform in mainstream media, journalistic research, academic integrity, governmental competence, and corporate accountability (among other important realms).

One by one, we need to create the idea that our two-party system - which can't possibly contain the full spectrum of viewpoints on both the Left and the Right and is therefore corroding American politics to a degree which can't be overstated - must give way to a four-party model. That's a long-term project, though, so for the time being, we need to find a way to debate within the (impoverished, ineffective, combat-conducive, systemically adversarial) Democrat-Republican model we have.

To focus this essay a little more precisely on the nature of the problem in front of us, I'll emphasize one particular point about the nature of debate between the Left and the Right in America.

Naturally, it goes back to keeping score.

So much of commentary - on TV, radio, blogs, Twitter, and other formats - is geared toward saying how X politician or party is worse than Y.

Obama got more corporate cash than Bush. Bush did worse on foreign policy.

Bush couldn't use proper syntax, says the Left. Obama bows to other leaders, says the Right.

Bush got us into this economic mess, says the Left. (Not without reason or cause.) Obama's making things worse, says the Right. (Not without reason or cause.)

We're so conditioned to defend our turf and our positions to the extent that we (and I've been part of this dynamic for many years) try to say that if we're bad, well, the other side is worse. If "we" have been ineffective, "they" have been disastrous. If "we" have been inconsistent, "they" have been hypocritical.

In many ways, our political climate - and its hostility to edifying, respectful (but still vigorous and rigorous) public debate - can be characterized by a saying which captures the Republican-Democrat model:

"When you do something, it's an abuse of power. When I do that same thing, it's inspired leadership."

Indeed: the Bush and Obama administrations are guilty of many of the same sins and the same abuses of power, but our media climate leads us to compete with each other and emphasize how one camp is worse than the other.

Let me level with all of you, but especially my friends on the Right (since I lean Left): I'm sure there are aspects in which Obama has been definitively worse than Bush. All I'm saying is that it does little good to get into a pissing contest where we spend our time on image-based minutiae and competitive measures of who did more to ruin our country.

Did Party A or Politician B unleash more unhealthy effects than a counterpart? Perhaps... but not enough that the well-being of our Republic depends on the answer.

Both parties - and presidential administrations representing them - have presided over a political culture that has steadily eroded American power, influence and economic health.

Yes, one Texan president (Bush) got us into an ill-conceived war against a savvy and elusive insurgent opposition, but Lyndon Johnson wrote that same narrative some 40 years earlier. Yes, Richard Nixon is a magnet for hate among liberals of my mother's age, but it's important to note that LBJ - with the Gulf of Tonkin debacle - truly began the decade (1964-1974) during which Americans' trust in government rightfully and appropriately plummeted.

Income inequality increased under Bush (43), but it was Bill Clinton who - while enjoying the fruits of a situationally convenient but short-lived and speculation-based tech boom in the late 1990s - made many decisions (in cahoots with vultures like Bob Rubin and Larry Summers) that perpetuated income inequality and also undercut our nation's economic footing.

Both parties - Republican and Democrat - are and have been in thrall to the military-industrial complex and so many other odious extensions of what friend and regular commenter John Cary rightly terms "the federal leviathan." It does us precious little good to waste our time figuring out who's worse. What we should be doing is figuring out how we get better as a nation, as a people, and as a morally-oriented and socially just collection of subcultures in the different corners of these (not-so-United) States.

Simply stated, we need all voices and political perspectives to show us a way out of this mess. The culture of cutthroat political competition must give way to a culture of contribution which seeks mutual benefit, growth and improvement.

The era of political scorekeeping must end... even if it means that I (and you) can't score any more cheap points in this contact sport called politics. Sports metaphors and the hunger for electoral victory need to take a backseat toward the service of the common good.

After all, it's easy to criticize the opposition or proclaim what won't work. It's much harder - but infinitely more rewarding and beneficial - to work with the opposition and craft something that will succeed.

Part Three of this "Building Understanding" series will come out early next week, after the weekend is over.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Building Toward Understanding, Part One: Clean Your Own House First

NOTE: This essay will be longer than usual, but still nothing approaching a novel.


In the comments section following Monday's self-revelatory post, the contours of what can potentially be a very productive discussion came into view. A libertarian from Florida made the point - and I agree with it - that government cannot be seen as a first responder or outlet with respect to various social ills in America. A progressive from Britain then made the point - and I agree with it - that there does have to be at least some balance between respect for private, individual charitable action and - on the other hand - built-in structural support for people who fall through the cracks.

As newcomers to this blog need to know, this and other essays won't try to argue for the superiority of one political or ideological position in comparison with another. As soon as one takes sides or makes a declaration of where s/he stands, perceptions begin to set in. The purpose of today's commentary is precisely to wean Americans of all persuasions away from either-or, one-or-the-other-type thought processes.

What we instead need in our society (and this would also apply for Brits and Germans and Japanese friends and Filipinos and Australians) is a both-and approach. Even the quickest and most simplified survey of human life should enable people with different mindsets to come to such a conclusion.

Human beings need to be nurtured by loving and morally-centered parents, but they then need to be allowed to grow and think for themselves.

Human beings need to be disciplined, restrained and judicious in the ways we carry ourselves throughout life, but we also need to be expressive, tender and caring as well.

We need to be generous, but we also need to protect our interests and be willing to say no at times.

We need to conserve resources, but there are times when we need to splurge or enjoy something pleasurable in order to alleviate stress or keep a marriage fun.

There are times when one has to play things by the book, and there are times when one has to break the rules (once in a while but surely not often, a big one) in order to make a larger point or achieve a greater good.

There are times to assert a masculine sense of strength and fortitude, and there are times meant for a feminine understanding of situations.

There are times when one must insist on a certain route or path, and there are times when one must step aside and not fight every battle, allowing certain skirmishes to be carried on by others (if at all).

One could make many more similar statements. You get the point: We are multi-dimensional organisms who need to attain certain degrees of balance, lest we lose the sense of equilibrium that's so essential to a healthy existence. (I'm aware of what's imbalanced in my life; I'm not that great about solving those imbalances, however. A work in progress.)

For every instinct we have, there usually - if not always - needs to be a tempering and countervailing inclination which prevents us from going too far down the other road. This realization comes not from the realms of politics or ideology, but from the larger experience of being human and navigating the choppy waters of a day-to-day challenge that always acquires new dimensions (albeit within old forms). This is all a way of saying that living a balanced life - and establishing good foundations for a healthy, integrated journey on this planet - should not be perceived as belonging more to one political philosophy than another.

This is where things get really tricky.

I would like to think that people of (almost!) any political leaning or ideological mindset want the best for society. There will always be fringe elements of various groups, or aberrant individuals who try to hijack or distort a given movement, but in the bigger picture, liberals and conservatives, progressives and libertarians, centrists and radicals, reactionaries and socialists, want their country to thrive.

Do we have different ways of conceptualizing and articulating the well-chosen path or the virtuous school of thought? Of course. Should that mean, though, that we doubt the sincerity of a person with diametrically-opposed views on the specifics of policy, law, the Constitution, and electoral competition?

It's always instructive and telling when a person on one side of the political divide makes a statement which doesn't fit with a larger mainstream perception. Bruce Fein, a conservative constitutional lawyer, had much to say about the Bush Administration's abuses of power. Noam Chomsky, an iconic liberal intellectual, very recently condemned the Obama Administration for its practices while talking about the legitimacy of the Tea Party perspective. When events like these take place, it's almost always the bloggers or tweeters on the other side who point it out:

"Look, fellow conservatives! Even Noam CHOMSKY agrees with us!"

"Here, fellow liberals! Even BRUCE FEIN sees the light!"

We know why we love to tweet about such occurrences: It's so rare when one of "them" understands "us" that the moment has to be marked and remembered. The conversion or the sympathetic presence of a long-perceived adversary (regardless of whether that person really was or is or should be viewed as an adversary) provides immense validation to our own political and intellectual architectures. It's powerful stuff, and I've participated in this process enough to know how intoxicating a feeling it really is. My massive ego drinks this stuff up. Darn straight it feels good.

But you know what? I'm 34. I've lived through lots of battles, and they've all left me profoundly unsatisfied, if not outright miserable. This necessitates further sharing of my own life story.

I shook Paul Wellstone's hand at the University of Washington in February of 2000 while working for Bill Bradley's campaign against Al Gore for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. That moment was great, but it was about the only enjoyable moment from that Bradley-Gore fight. I was interviewed during that campaign by Mike Allen of POLITICO, the same Mike Allen who just got profiled in the New York Times Magazine yesterday (April 21, 2010). Allen phrased his questions like a man who knew the answers he wanted beforehand; that was a telling look inside the mindset of a Beltway journalist.

I voted for Ralph Nader in the 2000 general presidential election and - not knowing 9/11 would happen - hoped that George Bush would take the presidency to teach the Democratic Party a lesson and make it much more liberal in the years ahead.

I watched MSNBC in 2004 as Chris Matthews laughed Howard Dean off the stage of American presidential politics following Dean's perfectly innocent attempt to rally the hearts of student volunteers who had just suffered a crushing and disillusioning disappointment in the snow-covered plains of Iowa.

I watched the 2006 election night results and realized that the Democrats would control the House for the first time since 1994. I hoped - one last time - that maybe, just maybe, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid would turn the Dems into a party I could actually admire and fight for.

I watched in 2007 and 2008 as Pelosi and Reid kowtowed to the Bush Administration on matters of civil liberties, war and peace, and (unfettered) free trade. My belief in the Democratic Party - which had been whittled down to virtually nothing - fully and finally died during the final years of the Bush (43) Administration.

Now, I've watched Barack Obama - who, for all his openly-stated centrist positions, was still a community organizer - erode our country to an even greater extent. Community organizers are people I've spent a lot of time with in my work, be it volunteer or paid, in Catholic Seattle. My mother knows many community organizers in Phoenix, and our shared experience of these people is that they have the interests of commoners in mind. They might not always produce the best outcomes, but they're trying to inspire involvement and create empowerment among the citizenry, the people at or near the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.

Say what you want about Obama; he's been a thoroughly horrible president. The only point I wish to make is that Obama's betrayal of the ethos and mission of a community organizer - namely, to give a voice to those at the bottom of a power structure - represents just the latest in a series of events which have affirmed the Democratic Party as anything but the friend of the poor and the vulnerable. I have, for many years, touted one political viewpoint over another, but all the while, I've never really had a political party or organization which has housed my views with sufficient amounts of legislative clout, real-world heft, or - most importantly - bracingly courageous honesty.

I would dare to suggest that my friends on the other side of the political and/or philosophical divide(s) would say the same thing.

The Republican Party is much less the prime mover in the realm of conservative and libertarian activism than is the Tea Party movement. The Republican National Committee's resistance to Ron Paul is as much of an indictment of the GOP as the Democratic National Committee's opposition to Ralph Nader is an indictment of the Dems. Alternative voices, anti-establishment voices - voices which basically threaten to overturn an enduring and deeply entrenched power structure in Washington, D.C. - are regularly muffled and marginalized by the Republican and Democratic parties.

What does this all mean? It's more material than this one essay can contain. (A "part two" will be absolutely necessary.) For now, though, just absorb what the following statement must mean to me: At age 34, I've seen the Democratic Party - which was always supposed to be "on MY side" - act in ways that have run counter to many if not all of my values, hopes and desires. I'm not enchanted with much of anything the Republicans have done, but the people and politicians who claimed to represent me and speak for me have not earned my trust.

What good is it, then, for me - a progressive - to tout all the instances in which a conservative criticizes a Republican or a libertarian criticizes a conservative?

What good is it, then, for me - a progressive - to identify acts of hypocrisy, excess, bluster, arrogance, greed, narrow-mindedness (etc., etc., etc.) among Republicans when the Democrats own all those same black marks in relatively equal abundance?

I'm tired of tweeting about how the so-called "other side" is bad. I want my values to be represented, which means that people who agree with me need to be pushed out of their comfort zones and into a posture where we - as progressives - tweet more about Democrats' failures than Republicans' missteps.

I'm tired of comparisons between Democrats and Republicans, between liberals and conservatives, and trying to defend "my side" against the opposition when "my side" really isn't on "my side" in the first place.

Richard Rohr - my favorite Catholic priest and the spiritual teacher I admire the most in contemporary American Christianity - said at a 2006 lecture in Albuquerque that "liberals think they can convince conservatives by giving them enough information." Rohr has stressed that liberals all too frequently try to overwhelm ideological opponents with enough statistics and "facts" that the other side will give way, an approach he viewed as hopelessly futile and doomed to failure.

He's right.

I have my information, you have yours. I have my media outlets and trusted sources, you have yours. A liberal will have his or her preferred TV programs, magazines and blogs. A conservative will occupy separate corners of the multimedia and journalism universes. A progressive will tout one study, a libertarian the next. A socialist will trumpet one set of economic indicators, a Chamber of Commerce Republican another.

Enough. I'm tired of it, and what's more, our country is groaning and creaking under the weight of the hyperpartisanship that is generated, multiplied, and further entrenched whenever competing sides launch their own stacks of information and their own exposes at the opponent across the way.

Government is in such a sorry state - and our country finds itself in a generally unfavorable position - because both parties have kicked the can down the road and failed to make responsible adult choices about budgetary restraint, federal overreach, and the plight of the poor. We all have our own spins or slants on the matter; we all have our own studies, assemblages of information, and panels of experts to cite in all of this. Yet, in a country that's rather polarized - look at the results of our last three presidential elections - does any one of us really think that we'll be able to secure such an overwhelming national mandate that we don't have to debate or reckon with others in an attempt to pass meaningful legislation and create substantial positive change?

The Democrats - with a 59-41 advantage in the U.S. Senate - have been extremely impotent and ineffective. Should we think that the Republicans will move the needle even further in the other direction? Moreover, should any of us view it as a primary goal to either work for or against such a goal?

We have to dialogue and come off our respective perches at some point. We have to emerge from our separate cocoons of thought and hash out some hard-won but legitimate compromise, the way adults do in the workplace and the way married people do in the home. Give a little, get a little; protect what is non-negotiable but give up the things that are optional.

The fusion between good libertarianism and good progressivism, which was mentioned at the beginning of this essay, requires a separate post in the coming days. For now - and in conclusion - just realize that whether government is big or small, the most important thing is that government be made BETTER. That's a goal which transcends political labels and ideologies. We all need to improve ourselves in order to create a better and more thriving America (and world). Therefore, since we know our own political philosophy better than others', why don't we develop the habit of identifying the weaknesses, hypocrisies and outrages in our own party or among our own crowd? I can't reform a conservative nearly as well or as powerfully as I can reform a liberal. I can't understand the nuances of libertarian thought nearly as well as I can identify a progressive sensibility and then pronounce what I so clearly and fervently advocate.

A certain man named Jesus - yeah, that one - said something about removing the plank from one's own eye before focusing on the speck in the eye of another. This idea is found in the expression "Clean up your own house first!"

Americans have to learn to do this, and pull ourselves away from the "food fight" political model in which we spend our time trying to justify how bad the "other side" is, how much worse "THEY" are than "WE" are.

Once we take this important and essential first step, we can then move forward and attain the balance our political and intellectual (and spiritual) lives so desperately require.

Please, friends, no matter where you lie on the political spectrum, you need to tend to your own party or movement first. Understand the tensions and conflicts with your own "in-group," and then the debate across party lines and ideological barriers can take place in earnest.

In part two, we'll look at how that cross-party debate can happen in a meaningful way.

Monday, April 19, 2010

My Story - The Sharing Begins Here

I've been talking about the need to share personal stories of how we - as individuals - have arrived at certain sets of views. Before we debate, Americans - Left, Right and Center - must understand where we've come from. Otherwise, the bridge-building that is so necessary to a healthy country cannot take place.

There's nothing wrong with standing one's ground in fidelity to principles one holds to be supremely important. There is something wrong, though, with hyperpartisanship. This is not the fault of individuals, but more a national contagion which must be confronted from all sides.

In the effort to initiate storytelling, I can only try to set a positive example. This blog post, then, will hit the high (or low!) points of my journey as a political, ideological, religious and moral creature living in turn-of-the-millennium America.


In 1989, when I was 13, my mother joined the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul from her Catholic parish in Phoenix, Arizona. St. Vincent de Paul (SVDP) initiates its services from individual Catholic parishes but has some central offices and locations in Phoenix and other cities where SVDP exists. My mother took me on trips to the main cafeteria, clothing bank, and counseling center located south of Downtown Phoenix, but our main work on behalf of SVDP took the form of the most central Vincentian ministry: home visits.

The Vincentian home visit requires that at least two Vincentians come to the door of a needy neighbor and deliver either in-kind or financial assistance. The arrangements for a home visit involve a few steps: First, the person (household) in need calls the city's main SVDP office/hub; the hub re-routes the request to the specific Catholic parish. The parish chapter, which meets at least once every two weeks (and is supposed to meet weekly), discusses its ability and/or capacity to serve the various clients that call in. Then, clients are called back and home visit times are arranged.

Until I graduated from high school in 1994, I accompanied my mom on SVDP home visits, usually during weekends. We visited dozens of dumpy apartment complexes, at least four or five trailer parks, and many homes with barren, dusty (non-)yards and cracked sidewalks. We served African-Americans and Hispanics; individuals and families; people with TVs and VCRs and clean floors, and people without them. My mom and I served some people who were clearly hiding some of the more intimate details of their lives and tried to fast-talk their way through; we also served many families who were crushed by strings of hardships that came in rapid-fire fashion and put parents near the breaking point.

After graduating from Seattle University in 1998, I would join my parish's SVDP chapter in Seattle and performed home visits for four more years (2000-2003). In many ways, the subculture of the SVDP chapter (and of SVDP in Seattle at large) was very different from what I experienced in Phoenix, but in other ways, it was quite similar.

One of the scandals of the SVDP chapter at my Seattle parish was that it did (and still does) keep about $65,000 in the bank, for a "rainy day." This runs counter to the Vincentian mandate as laid out by founder Frederic Ozanam, the Parisian student who gave life to this ministry in the 1830s, modeled after Vincent de Paul, a 17th-century saint. I had to leave SVDP due to health problems in 2003, but I've had no desire to return to my Seattle parish chapter precisely because of its shameful practice. A lot of Seattle families could use the $65,000 being held onto in the parish SVDP treasury. A longstanding battle between conservative-minded Vincentians and progressive-minded Vincentians has focused on the interpretation of "stewardship." For the conservatives, who skew toward an older age demographic, "stewardship" means keeping money in the bank as a safeguard. For progressives (like my mom), it means spending whatever money comes in and giving it to the poor in the form of rent help or purchased groceries. I will always stand with my mom on this issue.

Now, what were/are the takeaways of my Vincentian experiences, which - at least in some ways - have been replicated in subsequent stints as a soup kitchen assistant manager and a case manager (now grant writer) at an eviction-prevention agency?

One realization about my experiences is that service to the needy acquires all sorts of dimensions. There are people who are lazy and who have become poor as a result of bad personal decisions. There are also people who are poor in spite of their best efforts, people who have truly not chosen or brought about their own suffering. There are people who are all too prepared to tell specific stories that have been rehearsed after many hours of internal practice, and are savvy enough to pull off the trick in public. There are other people who can't pull off the con, and there are others who humbly ask for service and are often quite embarrassed that they must do so.

Serving the poor is not different from any other endeavor in the sense that people are different in any socioeconomic stratum of society. No two poor people or rich people or middle-income people are alike. Each person demands specific attention on a case-by-case basis. "The poor" are not one monolithic group, but should instead be seen as a collection of diverse stories that offer different snapshots of a larger problem.

Flowing from this realization about the diversity of biographies presented by "the poor," it also follows that giving to the poor inevitably involves being taken advantage of, at least to some extent. Yes, one's skills of discernment - otherwise known as a "bullshit detector" - need to improve with age, but helping out people with disordered lives is a messy enterprise and an art more than a science. It always helps to create and facilitate accountability mechanisms, but sometimes, that's not entirely possible; or at least, the accountability mechanisms might occasionally lack the ability to verify every aspect of a person's sob story. This certainly holds true for interactions at a soup kitchen, where a group of 25-40 people might become intimately known over the course of four years as a worker (I worked at a soup kitchen in Seattle from 2004-2007) or 14 years (1994-2007) all told.

At certain points along the way, urgent requests for extra assistance - which sometimes transcend the boundaries of a specific ministry or job description (serving a hot meal) - will require a certain amount of trust. If other avenues have been pursued to no avail - shelters quickly fill up in Seattle, and there are no nighttime food banks in the city, despite its considerable offering of food programs - I and the people I've worked with in faith-based ministries have tried to offer a helping hand to others. Some successes were achieved, but other stories turned into portraits of frustration. Still other people, it was learned, played a con job... but only after years (in some cases) of subsequent revelations that simply couldn't have been foreseen at the time.


What does all this say (and keep in mind that this just scratches the surface of years spent amidst at-risk/homeless/low-income/mentally ill populations)?

Well, for one thing - and this will sound like Yogi Berra - my experiences can't say everything that really needs to be said. I'm only one life with one story in one pair of cities. I'm only one person who has been inspired by one mother and one set of other role models in the Catholic Church, SVDP, and at the Seattle Catholic Worker (which takes its cues from the Christian example of Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin, and other Catholics with a life story different from that of many others).

I will make two very general conclusions about my work and my evolving views:

1) If a family or individual has undergone certain unchosen hardships, and the Catholic parish (or SVDP center) in that person's (blighted, underdeveloped, underserved) neighborhood is underfunded, and the shelters are full at night, and the county government lacks funding, and the city is similarly hamstrung, society has a moral obligation to help that particular kind of family or person. To not do so would be immoral.

2) The progressive model of stewardship that should prevail in a Vincentian or other faith-based context - the model I long thought should apply to the federal government - should indeed NOT apply to the United States government. When other people's money is on the line, full-scale accountability must exist, without question. The track record of persistent poverty in America, plus widening income inequality (among many other lingering social ills), reflects a landscape in which the public can't know where or how its dollars are being spent. A model of subsidiarity - a core Catholic principle in which services are delivered by the most localized outlet possible - does need to be promoted in American governance.

How to reconcile points 1 and 2? Tough question. In many ways, this challenge - the challenge which has emerged from my story - is one of the three greatest tests facing human beings (not just Americans) in the 21st century and beyond.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Abortion: An Historico-Cultural Explanation

Real life keeps getting in the way, but I've finally been able to set aside time for a post explaining why abortion has come to be accepted, even favored, by a large chunk of the American populace.

The first thing which needs to be said, before going any further, is that all but a few Americans (this is said unscientifically but with an appreciation for the basic decency of people) agree that abortions are sad events, events that need to be rare and become rarer still in the future. Yes, you'll find some people for whom "abortions of convenience" are perfectly acceptable, but that's not a mainstream position, and it's not what's going to be addressed in this essay.

The second thing which needs to be said - this will be a constant theme of the blog for those just joining the discussion - is that abortion (like other policy positions or viewpoints) will not be justified or defended.

The purpose of this blog is merely to explain how a given set of viewpoints came to exist, for it is only in understanding the evolution of perspectives that one can improve or correct them. No honest debate can take place unless there is at least some mutual awareness of the pillars being used by competing sides. Every contentious issue in American life (or in any other society, for that matter) demands such an historico-cultural analysis.

So it will be with abortion in the next several hundred words.

As a white male and as a Catholic Christian, I immediately realize that I'm not in the best position to speak to the development of American women's views on abortion, so I'll speak cautiously on this issue and try not to overstep my bounds. I'll also forthrightly declare that I will not mention every single cultural or historical nuance that has shaped this issue in the United States.

On a very simple and general level, a fervent belief in the right to have an abortion stems from at least a couple of factors. (Female readers and pro-choice readers - we'll save debates about terminology for later as well - are invited to post additional thoughts and context in the comments section to enhance a public debate.)

One factor is easy to identify but hard to limit to a particular window of time: The oppression and subjugation of women throughout history. Women were viewed as property for quite some time, and the development of marriage as an appreciably mutual love-based covenant is not all that old within the larger sweep and scope of human history. In some pockets of the world today, women are still treated as property, as commodities to be sold; much of this is enshrined in religious practices, with India and Sharia Law-governed pockets of the Islamic world. Polygamous Mormon sects treat women in a way few of us should be comfortable with, and - outside the realm of religion itself - women are still consistently objectified by Western popular culture. One could list many other examples of the dehumanization and oppression of women, but that would divert us from the focal point of this essay. The bottom line is that the oppression of women has been a constant in human existence.

Therefore, when Margaret Sanger, Betty Friedan, Simone de Beauvoir, and other mid-20th-century feminists generated momentum for the movement they kick-started, an understandable torrent of excitement, optimism and hope began to emerge.

It shouldn't be too hard to understand when one thinks about it in a larger context.

World War II had just ended. Domestic life re-entered the focus of American women (and women in Europe as well). Moreover, there was an eagerness to return to the home front and step away from the battlefields of Europe and Japan. Women in the West also wanted to peel themselves away from the unimaginable tensions they felt - as wives, girlfriends and mothers - while the men in their lives took up arms against Hitler and Mussolini.

The years during which the American baby boom took place were years in which men and women separated by war stepped into a new social context. I can't speak for Europeans here, but American life acquired pronounced new cultural and commercial dimensions from the late 1940s through the mid-1960s, when the United States economy existed at its zenith. The development of the interstate highway system, the construction of suburban housing units such as Levittown (throughout the Northeast), and a boom in post-war manufacturing created a world that was manifestly different from the pre-war environment so many American men and boys inhabited until December 7, 1941.

Americans were discovering the life-altering medium of television (my grandparents got their first television in 1947, and were the third household on their block in Chicago to get a TV). Women and men were catching up with each other after several years of lost time. The G.I. Bill was transforming the nature of America's workforce for the next few generations. Rapid change defined the American situation in the late 40s and for much of the 1950s. In that kind of context, it is always difficult for human beings in large communities to feel satisfied with their standing and - even more importantly - a given set of assumptions that had carried them for so long.

[Again, not a justification or a defense, but merely an explanation for why things unfolded the way they did.]

And then, if you thought the 1950s brought forth a lot of change, then came the 1960s, when the doors got blown off.

The pill.

The Civil Rights Movement.

The Second Vatican Council (a moment understood by Catholics, but underappreciated by non-Catholic Americans who don't realize the extent to which intra-Catholic transformations reshaped American polity in the past 50 years).

The Vietnam War.

The resistance to the Vietnam War.

The sex-drugs-rock-n-roll scene of Haight-Ashbury and Woodstock.

The free love movement.

These events and social forces carried overwhelming weight and unavoidably caused Americans to re-assess and re-calibrate how they lived and what they thought. Many Americans didn't feel the full force of these earth-shaking changes, and some didn't change their views all that much, but the point is that many U.S. citizens did, with women rethinking their basic approach to life, love, career, sexuality, divorce, family, and other considerations.

Once more, the matter of right or wrong is not what's at issue here. The matter at hand is this: how did a large number of American women come to feel that a right to an abortion was something that needed to be cherished and/or defended?

Old views of sexuality and relationships were questioned.

Old views of work, family and culture received fresh scrutiny and examination, perhaps for the first time in many American households once governed by ironclad rules and principles which endured through the 19th century and well into the 20th century as well.

The integrity of the United States government - thanks to the Gulf of Tonkin debacle in 1964 - caused many Americans to question authority figures, which most certainly included those people we call PARENTS. Again, right or wrong is not the issue; HOW THINGS CAME TO BE is the topic being discussed. (If you're tired of the repetition, I understand; I just want to emphasize it in these initial essays.)

The integrity of the Catholic Church was newly assessed back in the sixties as a result of Vatican II. Lay Catholics who, in prior decades, obeyed everything a parish priest or diocesan bishop said without question - at a time when the Mass was said in Latin, a dead language - now took a fresh look at their church and pondered the possibilities of lay leadership. Catholics attained new levels of affluence and post-secondary education, making them question various edicts and pronouncements levied by an institutional church that prides itself on thinking in terms of centuries, not days.

Against this kind of backdrop, new perspectives were gained, old perspectives were - if not lost - certainly forgotten. Abortions - conducted in the horror and crudeness of back alleys with primitive materials - were felt by many to be a necessary procedure which demanded advanced medical attention. With American culture radically re-defining matters of sexuality, and the pill then hastening a tectonic shift in bedrooms and college campuses throughout the country, the matter of abortion came to be seen in a very different light.

One more Catholic element merits mention here: The places where Catholicism flourished in America were the big cities of the Northeast and the Midwest, plus Los Angeles. Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Chicago all house American cardinals, along with L.A. and also Detroit. These are the metropolitan areas deemed by the institutional Catholic Church as meriting the centrality and primacy of Cardinal archbishops (as opposed to regular bishops who don't receive elevated cardinalatial status).

When attitudes among American Catholics shifted markedly in the 1960s and the reforms which accompanied that time period, many college-educated urbanite women began a slow but steady process of rethinking their religious identity. For many of these women (my mom grew up in Chicago in the 1950s), the Catholic Church is today a sign of disgrace and shame. The Catholic faith might still be lived out by these women and their daughters, but a confidence in the integrity of the institution has been wiped away. More specifically, Catholic women (and their even-more-skeptical daughters, some of whom don't go to Mass these days) are fully convinced that old white men in positions of ecclesial power have nothing (healthy or positive) to say to them about sexual conduct and moral behavior in the bedroom. Deteriorating attitudes among Catholic women toward Catholic leaders - in archbishop chairs here in the states, but also in Rome - cannot be underestimated as a main source of shifting attitudes toward abortion.

Does life begin at conception? That's a mighty fine question which can be debated in the comments section. This essay, though, was simply meant to show how views of abortion developed, established and became further entrenched in the minds of a good many American women over the past 40-65 years or so.

There is a time for dialogue about the science and ethics of abortion. The conversation that must first take place, however, is a dialogue about how our views of abortion ever came to exist at all.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Our Different Journeys: Common Good, Separate Roads

Today - Friday, April 9, 2010 - is a day that brought the issue of abortion back to the center of American political discussion. It's tempting to focus on abortion, but it was promised that this second post would focus on the different journeys human beings take. Perhaps some kind of synthesis can be achieved, but I intend to keep (most of) the focus on the differences in various human lives.

One event that (not immediately, but eventually) enabled me to transcend my one-minded, one-sided political worldviews came in my senior year at Seattle University. My English professor - whose views were quite liberal - showed our class a video on the history of the Civil Rights Movement. In a post-video discussion, the professor (Sharon Cumberland by name) made the oh-so-essential point that we should not look upon civil rights opponents from the 1950s as somehow inferior or inherently bad people. She went even further and said that we cannot use present-day lenses to view the appreciably distant past.

The principle at work in Professor Cumberland's remarks was this: What if I myself had been born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1940? What if I myself had been born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1938? Would I have been able to grow up and easily acquire a pro-civil rights set of viewpoints? Almost certainly not. This realization took many years to fully penetrate my consciousness, but over years of disagreement with others, the weight of Cumberland's guidance began to sink in.

The most difficult element of politics is simply this: People are different. More precisely, people's experiences are different. We know this, actually, but it gets lost in the heat of political combat. To be more exact, we are aware of differences, but find it hard (and understandably so) to wrap our minds around the extent to which we occupy separate sides (or corners) of various issues and identities.

It's not just a matter of when or where you're born, though those two facts certainly shape much of a person's existence right then and there.

What kinds of parents did a person have? Good parents? Ideologically fervent parents (in either direction)? What occupations did they have? How materialistic were they? What baggage or inspiration did parents carry with them in life? How did one's parents handle their own successes and shortcomings? How stable was the marriage of one's parents? Did the examples set by one's parents create divisions or affirm originally held views? Did parents exhibit hypocrisy or consistency? Did they nourish? Did they discipline? Did they coddle or enable? Did they fail to praise or communicate their love?

These and other questions capture only a small piece of the larger complexity that defines any person's upbringing, and the web of emotional relationships that colors it. We can ask numerous questions about every other aspect of a person's upbringing as well.

What kind of neighbors existed in the community?

What kind of teachers and non-parental role models - of both genders - existed?

What kind of churches and pastors/rabbis/imams existed in one's early years?

What was the economic condition associated with one's childhood and adolescence?

How much of a chance did you have to play and run free as a child?

Was original, independent, critical thinking encouraged, or did your parents push a particular line of thought, and/or a specific line of work, and/or a specific field of study?

And then there are questions pertaining to a given time in human history.

One such question would be this: Did you grow up in a part of the United States or the world where one issue (or one subset of issues) acquired paramount importance at a given point in time?

Did your household and neighborhood face the need to confront a specific problem which did not exist five or 10 years earlier?

Did your church or synagogue or mosque have to deal with time-specific challenges, notable accidents, systemic wrongs, internal controversies, or other issues which attained a degree of centrality not found in many other cities, states, provinces, or regions?

Then consider the course of human events and how they would have affected a human life.

If you were 3 years old when a seminal, life-altering moment became part of human history (September 11, Pearl Harbor, The Six Day War, The JFK assassination, Watergate, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Martin Luther King assassination, the Great Depression), the intellectual and emotional impact of the event would have been quite different from the ways in which a 13-year-old would have been affected. A 13-year-old person would have felt such events differently from 23-year-olds, 33-year-olds, 43-year-olds, and so on.

These lists might seem tiresome, but again, they're laid out in full so that the immensity of human experiences - and more precisely, their variances - becomes that much more apparent.

If your mom stuffed envelopes for Margaret Sanger or Betty Friedan, or if you grew up in a liberal enclave in Greenwich Village in 1965, your outlook on life would be different from that of a rancher who grew up in Wyoming in 1982. The outlook of an 18-year-old boy in Haight-Ashbury in 1967 San Francisco would have been quite different from the outlook of an 18-year-old girl in a staunchly old-school Catholic family in 1951 Nebraska. Internationally, the worldview of my father - who lived in his native Czechoslovakia during the Nazi occupation - is irretrievably different from the outlook of a Czech who grew up after the fall of the Berlin Wall and knew nothing of Nazi or Communist oppression. The outlook of a 20-year-old girl in 1979 Sweden would differ greatly from the outlook of a 20-year-old girl - if she even got to live at all - in 1979 Cambodia.

And so on, and so on, and so on.

People are different, yes, but we are different not just because of our personalities. We are different because we are molded by millions and millions of different events, facts, circumstances and turning points that combined in just such a way that we forged certain viewpoints as a response. If the order of events had been altered - in other words, if we knew what we did at 17 when a traumatic event happened at age 13 - we might have been able to travel a different life path.

Alas (or fortunately!), we're only given one path.

Perhaps something will happen in the next six months that, due to our own awareness and education, we will understand in a way that a contemporary with a vastly different background would interpret in a manner foreign to us.

Such is the endless complexity of one human life as it unfolds. Magnify this by 6.4 billion (and growing), and my goodness, no wonder it's hard to forge a broad bipartisan consensus on almost any issue.

Profound differences on abortion are sad and lamentable, especially to the extent that the American Left - with so many good things to say on so many issues - has not been able to see how damaging and hurtful its position really is. I don't defend the Left on abortion, but what can be said is that it's not surprising that we have the culture-clash that we do.

For almost 50 years since The Feminine Mystique was printed, America has had to confront wrenching and not-easily-resolved issues of gender, work equality, child rearing, household stability, and human identity that - unfortunately but undeniably - have come to affect the issue of abortion as well.

Perhaps if women had been given the right to vote several decades earlier, the women's liberation movement - which has helped women attain some measure of workplace equality - would not have felt the need to agitate for abortion rights in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Heck, perhaps there wouldn't have been a women's liberation movement in that time period if Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had broken through barriers much earlier than they ultimately did.

The point of this is not to render a finite verdict on the issue of abortion or on the history of feminist political movements in America; the point is to show that various confluences of events, multiple convergences of people and passions, created a specific trajectory that encompassed various human lives. A free-living girl in Los Angeles in 1973 probably viewed Roe v. Wade differently from the way in which Anita Bryant's children viewed the matter at the time. (Those youngsters may well have switched their views in subsequent years due to different progressions of events; who knows?)

The only bottom line I wish to promote (I generally don't like to insist on one reading or one takeaway from a multifaceted and nuanced narrative) is this: Before perceiving a specific meaning in response to a political or ideological opponent, try to ask one fundamental question that can create a climate of mutual respect - not agreement, not synchronicity, but merely respect.

The question is: What's YOUR life story?

What's the life experience that led you to your own set of beliefs, and the points of emphasis which accentuate those beliefs?

If we all heard each other's stories, we wouldn't necessarily agree more, but we would find it easier to at least respect a political opponent... maybe not the opponents in Washington, D.C., but the opponents we work with, go to basketball games with, and go to concerts with. Perhaps the next-door neighbor, too.

We must continue to fight for our views and for the principles we hold dear. However, this should not lead us, in America or anywhere else in the world, to think that an opponent is deranged, disordered, dysfunctional, demonic, demented, or in some way intent on promoting evil.

There are some fanatics in the world (think Osama Bin Laden) who are removed from any and all reason. There are a few people (Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe) who cannot be bargained with or persuaded on pretty much anything.

But let's emphasize the key word there: FEW.

Most of us - if we sat down and talked with each other - would not agree with an opposing worldview, but could at least be made to see what an opponent or colleague is at least trying to achieve.

This has implications for how we see abortion; more importantly, it has implications for how we carry ourselves throughout our lives in the larger realm of politics.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Harmony of Mind and Heart: Linking Empathy and the Political Intellect

Life's various crosscurrents have taken me away from blogging since 2004, when I decided to step away from the necessarily consuming realm of daily political commentary. It's probably just as well.

While a fundamental attachment to a progressive sensibility still exists, the way in which I've carried my views has certainly changed. In 2003, I wrote a book about the need for liberal principles to be articulated in ways that Christian conservatives could not only understand, but embrace; however, my mind had not yet caught up with the heartfelt desire to forge some small measure of unity among Americans of different political persuasions. I would write of the need for reconciliation, but my instinctive reactions to an array of political controversies would still reflect a certain hostility toward "them," otherwise known as political opponents.

Republicans. Conservatives. Them. Really Christian and generous, eh?

That's how I held my beliefs through my twentysomething years. I don't look back on that period with any sense of admiration or satisfaction. Deep shame? No - not that, either. I view my twenties as a period I had to outgrow. It was necessary to shed the rough edges and uncharitable elements of my outlook; not the contents of my policy positions, mind you, but certainly the extent to which I held disagreements against political opponents and suspected their motives as well. Love and respect for other people needed to become a part of my political way of being, even as I maintained disagreements with various individuals, usually on the Internet.

My blogging period - from April of 2003 through June of 2004 - was characterized by a competing pair of gravitational forces. When responding to a libertarian, I would think of the kindest possible way to say "you're wrong," while feeling in my churning insides the turmoil of a person who was extremely agitated. The fusion between mind and heart, between intellect and emotions, that represents a well-grounded human person did not exist for me. I could create a phrasing that minimized tension - and there is a certain virtue in being diplomatic with one's public words! - but I fell far short of cultivating true peace in my heart.

Why did this lack of internal harmony exist? Well, for one thing, I still regarded political "food fight" shows such as the McLaughlin Group as fun. I wasn't raised by my mom to dislike Republicans, but her ire at opposing views wound up conveying that message. Political combat wasn't preached, but the absence of a fundamentally cautionary posture - with wise counsel from elders - essentially brought me to the same militant place.

Multiply this by millions of other Americans on both sides of the aisle, and you get what we have today. The 11 months I've spent on Twitter - wonderful though it is - have exposed me to new rosters of bloggers and commentators who each have something to say. Some of these voices originate from media outlets, others inside the homes of simple citizens. Many of them are locked in the frame of political combat. (Not all of them; in fact, the people who read this essay are the ones who possess a sincere desire to survey the entirety of the landscape rather than just certain regions of it.)

On the Left and on the Right, look at how many media watchdog groups and content monitors there are. Observe how many politically flavored tweets acquire the basic framework which says something to the effect of, "If this other group did this other thing, the media would be all over it. But with our group? Silence."

Or vice versa. You get the point.

I, for one, want to see something better, now that I've been able to grow - at least on certain levels (being human, I'm never a finished product or a person who has it all figured out) - past easy political polarities. I can't demand or insist that others grow past their views. What I can do is offer a conversation and a safe space in which to facilitate it.

During the spring and summer months - as I take at least a partial break from my college sportswriting responsibilities - it's time for me to breathe in the air of politics and the well-directed society here in America. However, I intend to talk about politics with others in a way that's different from the past, and different - I hasten to add - from what we see on television today.

I won't seek to convert people with a different political worldview.

I won't seek to win agreement among those with a markedly different ideological leaning.

What I will try to do is enable people to gain an appreciation of life's complexity, at least to the extent that our different journeys necessitate a more compassionate view of political opponents. By engaging in this process, we Americans can become more empathic toward the specific positions political opponents acquire in their divergent lives.

Here's to an evolving conversation which will hopefully bear some fruit. This conversation shouldn't evolve too quickly or be colored by an inclination to fill in various blanks. Let it breathe on its own terms and unfold in due time.

In the next blog post, I'll begin to talk a little more about the differences in our respective human journeys.