Course Correction

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File this under “Advice that is more depressing than good”:

Mass shootings can happen anywhere, at any time. When you’re out in public, before settling into your seat or spot, ask yourself, if there’s an attack, what will I do? At theaters and concerts, consider choosing seats on the aisle and close to the exits. At restaurants, sit with your back to the wall and face the entrance. Before you relax, identify your escape routes and exit points, including turnstiles, doors, scalable fences, and accessible windows. Get out of the kill zone. It’s your best option.” (from Security expert Ed Hinman in WashingtonPost.com)

Okay, then you can relax and have fun, when you’ve taken care to be out of the “kill zone” and you’ve reconnoitered the entire restaurant/bar/train station for doors/exits/turnstiles. Who knew relaxing could be so exhausting?

Welcome to the New Normal, people, where mass shootings are no longer the exceptional event but have become a regular segment in the daily news rotation; where certain people are worth over 100 billion dollars and culture somehow thinks this is something (and someone) to admire (and aspire to); where a President was voted into office who had bragged about grabbing women’s pussies just a few weeks before the election; where a well-respected and well-loved, tenured professor at a graduate school in California was put on administrative leave for reading a passage out of Huck Finn to his class which included the word “nigger”; where there is a dramatic uptick in suicides of children under the age of 12. There is nothing good about any of this. Nothing.

The sorry truth is that we live in a schizophrenic country made up of self-styled moralists on both sides of the political spectrum whose morals just happen to run, point for point, along the lines of their particular party’s platform. We’ve politicized morality and adjusted our better instincts to keep us from offending any of our own. We regulate the use of prescription drugs but fight for the deregulation of factories that pollute our air and water. We punish someone who reads a distasteful word from a classic novel but reward someone who is a serial misogynist with the most prestigious job in the world. We demonize abortions because they kill but pass legislation to allow us to carry guns to grade schools. Or, conversely, we allow a 14 year-old girl to get an abortion but disallow a 20 year-old woman from drinking alcohol.

The madness does not end, and I suspect it won’t end any time soon, at least not until it’s run its course. And when that course correction comes, it will be unpleasant, because there will be hell to pay on both sides, and neither side will take responsibility for their contribution to that hell. We are a profoundly confused people who are morally unfit, ethically illiterate, and spiritually vacuous. We are sheep without a shepherd, both unwilling and unable to change ourselves for the better. And so we keep moving the goal posts of culture to reflect, as opposed to challenge, the ways we are denizens of our own iniquity. We celebrate the very things that are tearing our moral fabric apart and denigrate those things that stand a chance of helping us build it back up.

Depressing? Yes. Hopeless? Practically speaking, yes. But as a Christian, this is, for me, where God enters the picture, not as some Cosmic Knight in Shining Armor with a moral battle axe to grind and save us from our enemies, but as the still small voice of reason and tolerance, of hope and love, into a shattered world in order to save us from ourselves. We are the problem, which means that any solutions we invent are necessarily contingent because we are contingent. The doctor cannot heal himself. The emperor has no clothes. Culture is gluttonous, and it is feeding on itself.

The course correction, in other words, has to come from outside ourselves, from a God who is passionately committed to our welfare but equally committed to our essential freedom to choose the paths that lie before us. As retrograde and provincial as this sounds to many, the world needs Jesus to speak into the chaos we have created, as he does in many churches around the world each day, to give us the means to be the agents of change and transformation he intended us to be all along. That was always the plan. But tragically, an equal number of churches have forfeited the message of the gospel by distorting it to their own ends and, as a result, have put the power to change things in the hands of the devil–that is, into their own hands.

Maybe the end-times began right around the time we invented fire, an invention that lit up not only our caves, but a spark in our capacious minds that introduced the idea that maybe–just maybe–we are the gods, the masters of our own destiny. At which point, God became the great Other, to whom we first paid our allegiance, but to whom we would eventually just pay our respects, and then, inevitably, pay off in the form of self-governance and practical industry. And so perhaps we find ourselves in the throes of that final breach, when we will have deliberately and consciously severed our connection to God in order to coronate ourselves.

But where is this Garden from whence we will be expelled (again), as we will invariably be, when that times comes? I have a guess.

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Here’s an Idea…

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How about, from now on, or at least until the specter of the Trump presidency ends (and we throw in a couple of extra years for our national psyche to recover from the short-term effects of his dark and cartoonish tenure), we just fly all flags at half-mast all the time. This won’t only save us time (as public massacres by gun violence continue unabated from sea to shining sea), but it’ll allow us to “man up” and collectively face the obvious fact that we are currently living through the lowest ebb in American life since public lynchings and racial segregation. And we agree not to raise the flags to full-mast until we pass sensible and effective gun laws that actually might put a dent in the epidemic of gun shootings we’ve improbably grown accustomed to.

And since I’m wishing for the improbable, how about I wish for the impossible? That we actually have a serious national conversation about repealing the 2nd Amendment since, after all, we don’t live in the 19th fucking century anymore. We don’t take away the guns you already have, god forbid (don’t worry, the helicopters overhead aren’t coming for you, they’re responding to another violent altercation involving guns down the street), but we stop selling guns to anyone who doesn’t have a license, who hasn’t passed an extensive back-ground check, and who can’t produce a signed note from Mommy that says it’s okay for little Billy to own a gun.

But you and I know that’s never going to happen. Not in this god-forsaken former United States. So settle in and get used to it, ladies and gents, because this is the Brave New World of a post-liberal America that bleeds in red, white, and blue all over the place.

And we thought the insane logic of “M.A.D.” was limited to nuclear weapons.

My Improbable Defense of Donald Trump

upload In the wake of last week’s tragedy in Charlottesville, Donald Trump, in his inimitable style, showed just what a ridiculously fragile grasp he has on the moral temperature of America, the country he ostensibly leads. With a 5 year-old’s understanding of moral conundrums, Trump could only see in terms of black and white (literally), and so this “binary-for-all-seasons” approach led him to very predictable places: equating the counter-protestors with the protestors, invoking the slippery-slope argument against the removal of Confederate statues from public places, and saying that there were “good people on both sides” of the protests. How can one defend such statements in the current context — indeed, in any context — and especially given the history of racial inequality in our country?

Well, I’m going to try defend at least some of what he said, but with this important caveat: Trump’s grasp of issues is so infantile as to be morally repugnant, but the point he was trying to make (if one gives him the benefit of the doubt) is not totally devoid of merit.

First, it would have been more accurate for him to have said that there were bad people on both sides of the protests (more on this in a minute). The alt-left (yes, there is such a thing) was wrong to incite violent attack against the alt-right during the march. We are, after all, to love not only our neighbor but our enemy, and largely because they’re often the same person. The French philosopher and agent provocateur Voltaire once said, “I may not agree with a word you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Voltaire, as the New World Encyclopedia so tersely puts it, “emphasized reason, despised democracy as the rule of the mob, and believed that an enlightened monarchy, informed by the counsels of the wise, was best suited to govern.” He may have been wrong about monarchies, but he was right about this: democracy, at its worst, is the rule of the mob, so that whatever the mob (read majority) thinks is right must be right, regardless of whether the defense of its position is vacuous, hypocritical, or internally inconsistent. At its best, democracy is the fragile balance between allowing speech, even if it is hateful, while protecting the rights and safety of those being hated. Our country has correctly erred on the side of allowing fringe groups and the venomous speech they espouse a wide berth. As long as they were peaceful, they had the right to express their views. But the minute we narrow that berth and begin to clamp down on such exhibits of free speech, however hateful their message might be (the Westboro Baptist Church is a case in point here), we begin to devolve into the mob mentality that Voltaire warned against, and then we’re no better than those regimes that extol “might is right” philosophies. Ironically, it’s precisely by allowing such fringe groups to peaceably assemble that we protect the rights of all of us to peacefully assemble. To deny the KKK and White Supremacists the right to march is to deny all our rights to march. Freedom can’t be a pick-and-choose proposition. Either we’re all free to speak, or none of us is free to speak.

As for bad people on both sides of the protests, this fact was widely reported. There were anarchists and hoodlums among the ranks of counter-protestors, and violence in any form is morally repugnant. The Christian faith affirms the essential brokenness of all humanity. Why do you call me good? asks Jesus. Only my Father in heaven is good. We all pretend, when vermin like the KKK show up, to be morally superior to them, but really, given the right circumstances, not a one of us is immune to hatred and prejudice. This isn’t to excuse such things, but simply to warn against assumptions of moral superiority on the part of those of us who don’t espouse such hateful beliefs. Our moral repugnance often takes the form of more subtle, passive evils like ignorance, apathy, and sentimentality.

Take the recent uproar over Confederate statues and monuments. Where were all these moralists a week ago? Were these statues and memorials just erected last Monday? Why the sudden outcry against these reminders of our racist past? Why complain now? Because it has become politically fashionable to do so, but the same folks who went around vandalizing these Confederate statues this past weekend were walking past them without a second thought on their cell phones the previous week. Where were all the morally outraged politicians and righteously indignant media personalities a week ago (a month ago? a year ago?) when they could have–and probably should have–been protesting these monuments and statues all along? They were nowhere to be seen or heard because it wasn’t politically expedient nor socially fashionable at that point to raise such concerns. Indeed, for the vast majority of Americans, it wasn’t even a distant thought. But now, of course, the entire electorate (well, those on the left and the middle) are up in arms over such an egregious blight on our national character. Talk about moral opportunism.

And finally, the slippery slope argument that Trump proffered forth is precisely appropriate in cases such as this one. The destruction of monuments around the country raise the honest question: why stop there? Shouldn’t we start renaming highways in our nation’s capital because they bear the name of Confederate soldiers and politicians? We renamed streets after Martin Luther King (and rightly so, in my opinion). Why can’t we do the opposite: un-name some streets? And shouldn’t we start renaming schools because they bear the moniker of former slave owners, because not to do so would send the wrong message? Perhaps we should even rename our nation’s capital and the state I call home because George Washington owned slaves, and while we’re at it, maybe we should toss out the Declaration of Independence because it was penned by a slave owner.  Welcome to our Brave New World, where everything is writ in black and white and all questions of social ethics can be reduced to a slogan on a picket sign, and any who oppose you can be justifiably demonized, and once demonized, beaten into submission.

As for Trump, he’s no brave and principled opposer of the politically-correct juggernaut in this country. But what he said this past week was not entirely misguided. Poorly timed? Yes. Badly delivered. Absolutely. But for the reasons I’ve cited above, he wasn’t completely wrong. That said, the man is loathsome, an ethical and moral opportunist without a moral compass and no sense of decorum. He has about as much substance as an inert statue, and if we’re going to topple any monuments, we could do worse than begin with his presidency.

America, Inc.

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Where do you start? The Republican Mafia and the elevation of “family” over country might be a good place. Or Trump’s cozy relationship with Russian Intelligence. Maybe the obstruction of justice with the firing of Comey is where we should begin. Trumpgate.

And that’s just the news of the last seven days. Any one of these items would qualify as worthy of serious investigation, if not the institution of the articles of impeachment. Trouble is, news items of that magnitude are coming at us so fast and furiously that we’re actually becoming inured to them. Remember the Women’s March and the Pussy Hats (see my post below)? How about the overnight deregulation of most of the anti-pollution safeguards put into place by the last three administrations? France has people in the streets every single day protesting something, and thus keeping their government in check. Us? We’re too busy glued to our Facebook updates to care, and that’s perhaps the biggest news of all that’s not really getting reported (Bill Maher did make it one of his New Rules, that social media oligarchs and their companies are this century’s equivalent of the tobacco industry by virtue of their commitment to make an entire population addicted to the next “Like”): we’ve all but given up on caring about anything else because our worlds have been diminished to the screens in our palms.

Our democratic system is crumbling right under our noses and we don’t give a damn because we’ve been conditioned only to care about those things that raise our heart rate above 120 beats a minute. We don’t care about the news, about the things that actually make a difference in our lives, about the suffering of the lives of others. We just want our next fix.

Democratic Capitalism is fraying at the edges, and the saddest irony of this is that the people who can least afford it are the ones propping it up: us… the other 99%. The 1% are as happy as larks about this massive and wildly successful social conditioning that has gotten most of us to believe in Reagan’s “trickle-down economics.” Too many of us assume that if some rich white guys at the top can just get enough power and money, the rest of us in the middle and at the bottom will somehow, magically, get some, too. Trouble with trickle-down economics, though, is that the only thing that trickles down are the crumbs from the table of the oligarchs and plutocrats. Oops… guess we forgot to account for this thing called greed–called “survival of the fittest”–which has been hardwired into our brains from the days we were walking around barefoot and living in caves. A few hundred millennia of natural selection has left us with this. President Trump? Welcome to the nightmare. Yay for us.

Trumpgate indeed. He’s just the tip of the iceberg, the poster child of all that’s wrong with a capitalistic democracy in the 21st century. Maybe if we managed to cut off the head of the serpent we might actually learn something about ourselves. Chances are, though, we’d just default to the extreme on the left, which is no better. It’s why we swung to the right in the first place. Impeach Trump? Hell yes! Then lock him up! But unless we all do some deep self-examination of the sorry state of all of our souls in the meantime, we’ll end up with something else, maybe not as bad, maybe worse (hard to imagine that… President Pence?). But then, it was hard to imagine anyone worse than George Bush, remember? Now he seems like a sober-minded centrist compared to the current CEO of America, Inc.

We have seen the enemy, and the enemy is us.

Duck, Donald!

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Welcome to the first day of the rest of your life, Mr. Trump. Well over a million people from all over the world protesting, if not the legitimacy of your presidency, then certainly the essence of it. I take some comfort in the fact that maybe the fates allowed you this privilege only so that your demise could be more public, more historical, and more resounding. Those who rise higher fall from greater heights.

Mr. Trump feels compelled to make up facts as he goes along, and then expects everyone else to believe those facts because somehow, some way, he believes them himself. He shreds the intelligence community and ridicules its professionalism for months, then tells the CIA today, “There is nobody that feels stronger about the intelligence community and CIA than Donald Trump.” So there you have it. Because he just said it, it must be true. Technically, of course, Trump does feel stronger about the CIA than anyone else, it’s just not the kind of strong feelings they’re looking for.

The man suffers from an as-yet undiagnosed deep distrust of his own opinions, which is why he’s constantly changing them. You can see it in his face when he speaks: he’s riffing, improvising, making deals with existence like it’s a nervous twitch, and half the time his face is puckered up into this false bravado because he simply doesn’t believe what he’s saying himself. In church? He must be a Christian. In red-neck-ville? He must be a Confederate. In Mexico? He must be a Caballero. It’s truly fascinating to watch. It’s also no wonder no one knows what he’s gonna do next. He doesn’t know what he’s gonna do next.

I think Donald Trump’s presidency is the last gasp of the Old West (ironically, I think Obama’s presidency was the first gasp of the New West). And by “Old West” I mean the predominantly white, there’s-a-new-sherrif-in-town, country hillbilly, let’s-settle-this-with-a-gun, God-is-my-redeemer Old West, where women obey their husbands, children obey their parents, and Injuns are the bad guys. Trump swaggers like John Wayne with none of the good looks and even fewer good lines. Wayne you believed because he believed himself. Trump you doubt because, honestly, Trump doubts himself. That’s the secret giant elephant in the room. The guy can’t believe he actually got this far, and his over-confidence in accomplishing such a feat is the tell-tale sign of his shock at its incredulity. But then again, the Mr. Hyde part of Trump (is there a Dr. Jekyll?) thinks everything is a deal, including the truth, so who actually knows what lurks behind that clinical narcissism of his? Self-doubt, sure. But true narcissism has always covered self-doubt with a healthy dose of delusional grandeur.

As I was on the train with my son this morning witnessing the crowds flowing out of every quantum wormhole in and around the environs of L.A. for the Women’s March, I said to one guy standing next to me, “Well, this pretty much was the kick in the pants that the Democrats needed to get organized and solidified. A Hillary presidency would never have garnered this kind of intense solidarity.” He agreed. Trump’s presidency is the last major tantrum of the Old Order. This was the rich white guy’s final chance to claim supremacy in numbers and power. After this, no one will ever have the stomach to vote in someone even resembling the Trump brand–namely, a rich white guy–for at least the next few election cycles. A pretty crazy prediction, I know, but after watching the improbable happen over the last few months, nothing is out of the question anymore.

One by one, I also predict that his supporters will realize that the only thing Donald Trump truly cares about is himself and his legacy (which, purely by accident, includes his family). Trump has never given a rat’s ass about the average American… he doesn’t even know what the average American looks like. He still thinks the average American is a middle-class white guy from Michigan who used to work in a factory. In other words, a poorer version of himself.

So you better duck, Donald, because a lot of excrement in the form on an intractable Congress, angry mobs of your own citizens, and a weary world will be throwing anything it can your way just to keep you at bay. You asked for it. Well, now you have it.

A deal’s a deal.

House of Cards: The Reality Show

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And you thought the House of Cards was unrealistic. Welcome to the new reality. Rumor has it that Season 5 of the Netflix hit series will be cancelled. But that’s alright. Season 1 of the new reality show is just beginning. Watch in real time as Trump (née Underwood) upsets the apple cart with backdoor diplomacy, blackmailed press, blackwater military tactics, and backhanded ethics. No telling how this will end.

Or, for that matter, how it will begin. But the previews are tantalizing! The Trump Cabinet looks like a Who’s Who of alt-right conservatives who share a disdain for common sense, the proletariat, and the truth (thought not necessarily in that order). This is the Theater of the Absurd, and it’s running on all channels. And it’s free! Check your local listings.

And check back here from time to time for running commentary on how this whole experiment with American fascism is going. It promises to be quite a thrill.

PresidenTrumPresidenTrumPresidenT…

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Did you hear that loud bang? That was democracy backfiring. In a democracy, of course, you may not necessarily get what you deserve, but you certainly get what you had coming. An openly misogynist, racist, narcissistic xenophobe reality star was just voted in by a misogynist, racist, narcissistic, xenophobe, reality-star obsessed portion of the electorate.  And in this sense, the election was rigged–we got what we deserved and not simply what we had coming to us.

This election has strained the credulity of democracy. Of course, it was never the perfect option (Plato offered it up as the lesser of a few evils), largely because any democracy is only as strong as the body politic. Ergo, American democracy is not–really hasn’t been for a long time and certainly no longer should be–lifted up as an example of what a strong democracy should look like. And this is due to so many factors, not least among them that we’ve had our heads in our technological devices for so long that we no longer know how to reach out in the tradition of a robust commonwealth. Indeed, is a commonwealth even possible in a system where there is no common wealth, where there is no common narrative, where there is no common identity? What does it even mean to be an American anymore? Hell, if we can’t decide what it means to be a human being, how can we have a helpful conversation about what it means to be an American?

Did you hear the echo? That’s history repeating itself. A lone ranger managed to bully his way to the top spot in the country by sheer force of will and bombast. Again, in a culture that deifies both (individual will and bombast), it’s hardly surprising that this strategy won him the election, all the political pundits’ “expert” predictions notwithstanding. So now we have our own version of a charismatic leader who peddles in hate-mongering and appeals to the disenfranchised nationalist. History repeating itself, only this time it’s repeating itself in what we thought was the impenetrable wall of American democracy. We just never actually believed that a Joseph McCarthy could ever actually get elected.

The only other time I remember feeling this kind of punch in the stomach was when O.J. Simpson was found innocent. I remember remarking to myself that the system worked as it was designed, but it was a miscarriage of justice all the same. And so the electoral process worked like it was supposed to yesterday, but a miscarriage of justice was the result. Democracy is imperfect, and sometimes it’s downright flawed–even dangerous. Just like with the O.J. Simpson trial in which the jury got snowed, so the American electorate got similarly snowed (or should I say “Snowdenened”?).

Trump’s ardent supporters said they wanted “change.” Well, that’s all good and fine, but hurricanes represent change, and so did Pearl Harbor, and so does the common cold, and so would fascism. Not all change, in other words, is good. But this incredibly obvious idea was completely lost on 50% of the electorate, so we got change all right, just not the change that will be any good for just about anybody but other billionaires like Trump. The poor, uneducated white male in the rust belt (Trump’s bread and butter) naively believed that he could bring manufacturing jobs back, this in spite of the fact that no one can bring manufacturing jobs back (that train left the station two decades ago), and Trump has never shown even a scintilla of evidence that he’s ever actually cared about the poor, white male worker. On the contrary… and yet they voted for “change.” The other demographic that did was the white, educated, evangelical male. Which calls to mind the adage, “Be careful what you pray for. It just might be answered.” Well, I say be careful who you vote for. You just might get him. And last night, you did. We all did. And I’ll tell you what. I’m angry, I’m depressed, I’m frightened. And I’m a white, evangelical male.

Welcome to the Brave New World of ideological “chaos-politics.” Trump will lead by his gut, and if his past is any indication of his–and now our–future, we’re in for a very bumpy ride.