Archive for October, 2008

Responding to a Polarized America

Posted: October 30, 2008 in Current Events
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In the previous post I rather quickly dismissed the potential of John McCain to unite a very divided country. Kindra correctly points out that McCain has often worked effectively with Democrats in the Senate and has shown more ability to attract the votes of independent voters in primaries than any other GOP candidate in recent elections. (Kindra, I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on the election when you have time!)

This has lead me to reflect on why I’m so pessimistic that a McCain presidency wouldn’t be able to move us toward a united country. Or put another way, what do I think we need to address the polarization of our country. Here are my thoughts.

1. I think you need to have a positive vision for the future that frames where we are going as a nation in language that moves away from the partisan language of the past 20 years. I believe if we are to find common ground it will start with engaging and reshaping the political ideas that have allowed us to think in red/blue; either/or categories. It has been troubling to me that the McCain/Palin ticket has tried to paint Obama as a “socialist” and “terrorist” rather than make a case for where our country will go. You may win political points for vilifying the opponent but you won’t unite the country doing that. To be fair Obama hasn’t been great on this point either since he regularly blames problems on GW Bush rather than stick to his early primary message of hope.

2. I think you need to have a compelling message but I think it will also take a gifted communicator to break through and convince those outside of their party to listen. I think there is great power in rhetoric to mobilize people and challenge them to think outside of their preconceived notions. This is where Obama clearly outshines McCain in my opinion. McCain might be able to work both sides of the Senate but I see little evidence (at least during this election) that he can get the masses outside of the Republican party to support his initiatives. These are probably two different skills.

3. I think you need to be honest about the mistakes of the past starting with your own party if you are going to unite the country. For Republicans in 2008 this means admitting that basing the war in Iraq over weapons of mass destruction was wrong. That torture is wrong. That Guantanamo is wrong. I really admired McCain’s anti-torture stance in the primaries but saying the tactics in Iraq were wrong is not enough. I think McCain’s view on the Iraq war will prevent him from uniting this country. I should say that I also don’t think Obama has done enough to accept the Democrats role in our current problems to effectively unite the country. If he continues to blame our foreign policy or economic woes solely on Republicans we will stay divided.

So in conclusion, I think that Obama has at times painted a foreword looking picture of an America that can move past the current polarization. I think he has also demonstrated a unique ability to communicate to different kinds of people. Unfortunately, I think he remains too quick to appeal to his base and blame the problems in our country on Republicans.

But the McCain campaign has been even quicker (perhaps b/c he is trailing) to appeal to people’s fear rather then their hopes. He has not shown the ability to rally people of different backgrounds to his cause and I think has failed to account satisfactorily for the Iraq war.

I definitely could be wrong. As an American, I really hope whoever the president is we start to move beyond the red/blue divide. I look forward to reading your thoughts on how we can unite as a country.

photo by barkingmoose

photo by barkingmoose

I think I’m going to vote for Barack Obama in the upcoming election. Here is why.

First, America is a different nation having had a minority president I believe that the story of a mixed race child with an immigrant parent becoming the President is a compelling one. It is in fact a story that engenders hope and suggest that America can be more than what it has been. I know this is not traditionally the first reason someone would cite for a vote for President but I think Barack as a symbol is important and helpful for our country and the world.

Second, Barack Obama is a thoughtful person and a gifted orator. The first trait is important in a country facing complicated and likely dark times. One of the major problems in our country is the extreme divide between the parties. It is my hope that the oratory of Barack can help unite and possibly inspire the country. He has shown flashes of this in the past and it is very hard for me to imagine his opponent (even with his Senate record) helpfully addressing the polarization of our nation.

Let me add here that I don’t think that Barack Obama is a Marxist or a terrorist. In fact, I struggle to see much difference between Obama and McCain on most of the issues.

Economically, I believe both candidates are essentially pro-trade (ie globalization) and pro-big business. Both are talking tax cuts though that seems ridiculous to me. While I would prefer a candidate to take on the credit culture of our country, neither of these two seem willing to have that fight. Ultimately McCain’s record of being for deregulation convinces me that he would be the least likely to address the rot in the financial industry.

On foreign affairs I again struggle to see much difference. Both talk tough about Russia and Afghanistan. Obama might pull our troops out of Iraq slightly faster than McCain but I don’t think he is going to rashly withdraw them nor do I forsee McCain keeping them there without the blessing of the Iraqi government – who seem less and less likely to extend it. Ultimately I think Barack Obama gives America a new face and a new footing from which to interact with the world and we need the cooperation and good will of as many nations as we can get – esp. given the hard economic times. I also think Obama is less likely to get us caught up in another foreign war – especially a potentially disastrous war with Russia. Obama seems to have a slightly more nuanced view of the world and it seems to me a more realistic understanding of our need to partner with other nations. I think this is very important given that difficult economic times are likely to make our world a much more dangerous place.

Why am I unhappy about voting for Obama? Abortion. I think this is a very important issue and I think Obama is wrong. I’m especially troubled by his view that Roe v Wade was rightly decided. That is the main reason, although I’m also unsatisfied with his response to the economic problems of our country and his seeming propensity to spend lots of money.

But McCain has given me absolutely no reason to vote for him other than his pro-life stance. Where I’m disappointed that Obama hasn’t called for more drastic action in face of our economic problems, I’m sick of the Republican position that what is best for large corporations is best for America and the GOP’s stance that we can fight multiple wars and still give sweeping tax cuts and stimulus checks. This is a dangerous fantasy that results in foreign country’s have increasing control over our currency. I hear no new ideas from McCain. No vision for the future. I believe that Republicans need to articulate a positive ideology for the purpose of government, indeed the purpose of America. Until they do, I can not give them my vote.

So to conclude. I’m not real crazy about the specific proposals of either candidate. However, I think that Barack’s story is inspiring, he is our best chance to move past the partisan polarization in this country, and he has a greater chance to build and maintain an international coalition that can address both terrorism and our faltering economy. So I’m prepared to grit my teeth and vote Democrat this year.

photo by Akash K

photo by Akash K

The goals of community development plan 1.0 are:

1. To build community.
2. To free people from debt.

The order is important but I’ve been thinking about the money recently. We currently pay about $1,000 per month on our 30 year fixed rate mortgage. So paying according to schedule we’d owe about $40,000 after 26 years. If the CDP was operating at 100 members for the next 26 years I think it is likely that they would be able to finish this mortgage at that point. Which means I would have paid:

    $26,000 in yearly dues
    $12,000 in extra mortgage payments
    For a total of $38,000

Thus we’d actually come out ahead $2,000. Now this assumes we’ll stay in our place for the next 26 years which is a big assumption given our culture of moving from home to home but part of the CDP idea is to encourage people to live in one place.

Of course there are no guarantees and I don’t think in the short run the CDP can be recommended mainly from the perspective of maximizing personal wealth. I think that although $84 a month is not cheap, living in a world where neighbors help each other and fewer people are in debt is worth that price.

Finally, the other factor that really effects the math is the ability of the community, following the CDP, to build an endowment to augment the member dues. Over time this can really change the math and make membership more attractive. If the idea were to prove viable, I wonder if we could attract capitol to build the endowment more quickly. For example a loan of five million dollars for 5 or 10 years of which we’d use the interest and return the principal should allow the 100 member CDA to more than double it’s ability to redeem mortgages. This in turn would greatly speed up the growth of the CDA endowment.

The small school I work is finishing a $20M capital campaign so even though $5M sounds huge to me it may not be (or perhaps wasn’t before the crash).

Last night I talked to some friends about starting a project like the CDA on a smaller scale which might offer a way to test the concept. I hope to write on that soon!

Meet Mr. Berry

Posted: October 24, 2008 in Culture
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From Wikipedia

From Wikipedia

The root of our collective crisis is as old as humanity itself: We’ve been overcome by a colossal sense of pride, which entails the Luciferian belief that we can be as gods. “The problem with us is not only prodigal extravagance,” [Wendell Berry] writes. “but also an assumed limitlessness. We have obscured the issue by refusing to see that limitlessness is a godly trait.”

In the months and years to come, we all will have to learn the meaning of limits. Wendell Berry is no dour scold who preaches a joyless austerity. To the contrary, he tells us that what we truly seek in life is not comfort, but meaning – and that you don’t have to live a life of rigorous asceticism to find it. Rather, we only need to order our lives around the ancient idea that happiness depends on virtue – virtue lived in community. We can only be fulfilled by living within the bounds prescribed by our nature, and in fidelity not to our selfish desires but to the greater good of our families, friends and communities.

I’ve mentioned Wendell Berry a few times in this blog. I don’t find him an easy man to explain. Fortunately Rod Dreher just wrote this summary of his thoughts. If you are not familiar with the venerable Kentucky writer, I encourage you to read it.

John 5:44

Posted: October 23, 2008 in Bible, church
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On Wednesdays I’m attending a Bible study on John. The verse that really stuck out to me tonight is John 5:44 in which Jesus says…

How can you believe if you accept praise from one another, yet make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God?

Andy Crouch is hopeful. He wrote an essay to explain why. Before he gets to the hope here is his sobering take on our society:

I am not hopeful because I think we are well prepared for what is ahead of us. We are not. We are a terrifyingly unserious people, our heads buzzing with trivia and noise. This is more true, if anything, of American Christians than the rest of our country. The stark contrast between what I experience among Christians anywhere else in the world—and not just the “Third World,” because Canada and Germany and Britain and Singapore come to mind as quickly as Uganda and India—and American Christians is astonishing. We are preoccupied with fads intellectual, theological, technological, and sartorial. Vanishingly few of us have any serious discipline of silence, solitude, study, and fasting. We have, in the short run, very little to offer our culture, because we live in the short run.

I’ve been worried that this blog is a little too earnest and too serious. It might be. However the above quote makes a very valid point. We often float along, happy to hear ourselves talk but not spending much time thinking deeply.

photo by Mr. Tea

photo by Mr. Tea

One more quote from Crouch on his take of our response to culture:

I believe the first step in culture making is not creating (let alone condemning, critiquing, or consuming) but cultivating: keeping what is already good in culture, good. American Christians, on the right and the left, have been painfully bad at cultivating. We want to jump to “transformation” and “impact” (words generally used on the right) or to “resistance” and “revolution” (favored words of the left). We often seem incapable of seeing ourselves first as gardeners: people whose first cultural calling is to keep good what is, by the common grace of God, already good. A gardener does not pull out weeds because she hates weeds; she pulls out weeds because she loves the garden, and because (hopefully) there are more vegetables or flowers in it than weeds. This kind of love of the garden—loving our broken, beautiful cultures for what they are at their best—is the precondition, I am coming to believe, for any serious cultural creativity or influence. When weeds infest the garden, the gardener does not take the opportunity to decry the corruption of the garden as a whole. She gets patiently, discerningly, to work keeping the garden good.

So why the hope? He thinks the coming hard economic times will help us more clearly discern the weeds in our culture from flowers and in so doing my help us recover our dignity and our joy. But of course you can read it for yourselves

This blog started with a post about freeing people from debt as a way to develop community. “Community” is one of those words that everyone intuitively likes but we don’t always explore exactly what it means. I offered a definition below and then asked, “how do we evaluate community?”

Sometimes we judge a community by how it responds to a member in crisis. I think having a community you can turn to when things go bad is important. However I want to suggest a couple of additional ways to measure community. First is how it supports members with long term issues (discussed below) and the second is the community’s ability to provide a compelling moral framework* for its members.

By moral framework, I mean answers to questions like, “what does it mean to be a man?”; “what are the responsibilities of a husband or father?”; “How should we spend our free time?”; “What are our obligations to our neighbor?”; “What is the good life?”.

The law may eliminate some of our more extreme options but ultimately provides little help with these questions. The Bible provides a little more help but still can leave us struggling with the practical day to day decisions that we all need to make. I think the strong desire many of us have for “community” arises from our (possibly unconscious and unrecognized) frustration at trying to answer these questions on our own.

How does a community provide a moral framework? First, it provided role models that we can look to for inspiration. Second, it provides shared stories that communicate communal norms and values. Third, it provides a peer pressure to keep us in line, often by shaming us for trespassing community expectations.

Our world is not lacking for these type of communities, in fact there are many different communities each with their own moral framework competing for our allegiance. There are communities organized around music, movies, television channels, sports, political causes, etc. that each offer guidance on what it means to be cool and how we should live. While some may find a home in these communities, many of us find them unsatisfying. Their role models and stories fail to hold our admiration and their attempts to impose their standards on us prove un-compelling.

Thus we are left adrift looking for some community that can help us navigate this sea of life. The more comprehensively a community can do this the better.

However there is one big caveat – although I think we desire (and need) a community to help us understand life, in 3M America we also desire to be free. We eventually chafe against all attempts by community to exercise authority over us. If the community has no authority to set and enforce standards it will remain weak. This conundrum is why I believe we talk a lot about wanting more community but fail to realize it. One example where this comes into play is how we spend our time. Ultimately a community is going to ask its members to spend time a certain way and that is really hard for many of us to accept.

There is a lot more that could be said about this, including if/how churches provide moral frameworks for their members but that will have to wait.

*Much of this comes from reading Wendell Berry this summer.