Monday, January 9, 2012

Looking Back . . .

Reading this, and being so moved by it, makes me realize that there may be a quality that all suffering shares. It's written by a woman, and I'm a man. It's written by someone much younger than I am. By someone who fell into an affliction that has never been a problem for me. Someone much younger than me, looking back and reflecting on herself when she was even younger, and beginning to die inside.

Despite all these differences, the post still speaks to me. I often wish I could have spoken to myself at the age of 12, just like the author of that post did. And while the particulars of the advise would be far different, the desperate urgency would be the same. As would the compassion.

You dream of romance; of being loved and loving somebody back. Only, you don’t speak of this desire because it seems ridiculous. Who would ever love you?

Ahh - How well I remember feeling like that!

Sometimes I look back on my life and I try to determine the exact instant when the downward spiral stopped, and I began - ever so slowly - to come alive again. We suppose that all great turnings are dramatic, seismic shifts. But in my life I've never been able to trace the thread back to the one moment, the one action, that started my climb from the grave.

This piece makes me wonder if the turning point was hearing an inner call from an older self: me. Now.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A Bliss Rediscovered

I remember the very first time I heard this.

It was three decades ago, and I was watching a PBS drama: John Le Carre's Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy. I wasn't impressed with the show at all -- it was just another of those murky, confusing spy stories with plants and double agents. I struggled through it, and resolved not to bother with it in the future.

As the show ended, I got up and started to walk to the kitchen for a snack. With my back turned, I heard . . . this. And I just stood there, unable to move, because the the simple sound of it sent shivers down my spine. I turned back and watched the closing credits of the show roll over a simple English dusk, and listened to a voice that seemed to call me to heaven.

In those days, before VCRs and Tivo, the only way I got to hear that voice again was by tuning into the show. I looked in vain for some note about the music, or the singer.

Apparently, I wasn't the only person so moved. Yesterday, three decades after I last heard this, I suddenly recalled that feeling. A simple Google search found it It was not the first time that an Internet search led to the discovery that other people have shared some inner experience that I thought was uniquely mine. The Youtube comments told me who the singer was - a Saint Paul's choirboy named Paul Phoenix. He was nine years old when he sang this!

It is an English hymn called Nunc Dimittas, and the words are from the Gospel of Luke:

Lord, now you let your servant depart in peace according to your word.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared before the face of all people,
a light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel.

For those that like it, you can buy it here

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Empire Falls Back

For several years I worked with a group of Indians on a complex engineering project. We spoke on the phone almost every day, often for many hours. In many ways this was one of those classic globalization projects that Thomas Friedman wrote about - a complex distributed endeavor involving participants from all over the world.

I grew to know many of them quite well, not because I could see them in the flesh, but rather because I could hear their voices, and I could understand their very individual approach to solving engineering problems. We worked as peers, but our situations were very, very different. I remember one occasion when we were arranging a teleconference, when the project manager spoke about the constraints they worked under. Her staff had to come into the office, they could not phone or work from home, and many of them had one-way commutes of 2 ½ hours!

So here I am, an American born into the middle class, working together with people who, by virtue of study and exhausting commutes like that, had pulled themselves up into the Indian middle class. They were still making far less in purchasing terms than I did. While their prices for daily food and shelter were far less then mine, there was absolutely no comparison between lifestyles. And so I wondered – if we are all doing the same work, on the same project, as part of the same team – why is it that I live better than they do?

This - in a nutshell - is the nature of the American Empire. Living at the center of an empire conveys enormous, disproportionate advantages that rely on the ability to draw dollars at the center vs. rupees on the margins. And I drew those dollars not because of base engineering ability, or natural talent, but rather because of one thing only: long-term relationships with other people at the center.

Things are changing very rapidly, and I believe the current economic crisis is the tipping point that will accelerate our economic decline, and ultimately unravel our empire.

On one of my trips in India I was driving along a highway out in the country, and I saw something extraordinary. Every twenty miles or so I saw a small, relatively new, school building, and these didn’t promote themselves as general schools, but rather schools of engineering. Quite often I could see the Indian students outside in their bright school uniforms. India and China now educate far more engineers than we do.

It is easy to be dismissive of new schools like this and the quality of their graduates but there is no getting around one, simple point. The best and most talented 1% out of a population of a billion will be more talented than the best 1% out of a population 1/3 that size.

We like to tell ourselves that we somehow deserve the wealth we’ve acquired, and the extraordinary ease of our lives compared with the rest of the world. Some say we have these things because of our freedom, or the ability of our economy to adapt to new circumstances, or our ability to assimilate immigrants, or a stable political structure. Or sometimes just some unique “can-do” American spirit. I’m sure these have been factors in creating our empire, but we are, in my view, an empire built on war and industry. First it was the slow drive West as we took the continent from its original inhabitants. Then it was the growth of Malthusian industry. Then it was two world wars where we used our industry to destroy the powers of the Old World.

The industry is leaving now. While American workers are still the most productive in the world, the risks of hiring the next worker here is considerable. Hire here and you have to hire HR people to position you against lawsuits, and every employee you hire is a roll of the dice. Just one employee and their lawyer can take the productivity of a thousand other workers. That is why we now graduate far more lawyers than engineers. Why make things when you can make more money by taking things? No American business can survive without the overhead of a team of lawyers and lobbyists on retainer. We’ve returned to feudalism, where the knights are lawyers, and the Dark Ages was no innovative time.

But the wealth to be plundered is drying up. We don’t make things anymore; we buy things from the rest of the world. We don’t tax ourselves for all the costs off our social programs, we borrow it. And with the recession, the stimulus bill, the new spending bill, and what we’ll spend to “reform” health care, we’ll be borrowing a lot more.

We can’t sustain this. I know lots of pundits claim that America is the indispensable nation, that the rest of the world has no choice but to ship us phones, TVs, cars, refrigerators air conditioners – all for . . . well just bookkeeping entries. Just promises to pay more at some later time. Maybe the rest of the world will loan us money to educate more and more lawyers, school administrators, accountants, and social workers – but I doubt it. I know of no historian that doubts that the British Empire lost its hegemony over the world because they became a debtor nation, and needed us to pay their bills. I see no reason why the Chinese and the Indians – productive, still-growing economies, won’t do to us what we did to the British.

I suppose it is in the nature of empires to seem immortal, because they suffuse themselves into every aspect of the world. At their height, it just doesn’t seem as if the world could be ordered any other way. While empires can last for centuries, they do, eventually, die. Perhaps our decline won’t be driven by war, but the historical record doesn’t offer much reason for hope.

The financial crisis seems pretty bad now, but the time may come when we'll look back fondly at a time when we only needed to worry about money.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

It's Morning in Obama's America

Octomom beams with pride as she takes us all on a tour of her brand new house. "I earned it," she says. Not with a job mind you - those are becoming pretty scarce nowadays, especially when you are "disabled."

So if you're struggling through this financial crisis, know that the fast track to success in modern America is to do something outrageous. Something notorious enough to attract attention from those willing to pay for a front-row seat at the train wreck.

Keep your credit card handy. At 5:20 she says she is "hoping for donations."

She says in the video that she is leasing the house, but this article claims the home was bought by her father. Her father said in his Oprah interview that he has $100 in the bank.

Thank God the Bush years are over, and we can return once again to an era of responsible home ownership.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Red Meat for the Pro-Choice Crowd

The lack of consensus on abortion shows no sign of easing. Each side points to their favorite outrages. Pro-life people point to this case, where a living infant was tossed in the garbage. Pro-choice advocates point to this story. A nine-year old child, raped by her step-father was given an abortion. The Brazil Catholic Church has excommunicated the child's mother and the doctors that performed the abortion.

I won't comment on the former case, since I am generally pro-life. I will comment on the latter, in order to correct some of the distortions and hate I see on the pro-choice side.

I agree with the Church's stance in this manner. In the Church's view, performing an abortion or assisting in the procuring of abortion warrants excommunication, because it is clearly and unequivocally the deliberate taking of an innocent human life.

I think in this case, the Church has correctly described the father's crime as heinous. The Church's position is that a later C-section would have allowed both the children and the mother to live. The left wants the mothers health to be a justification for abortion, but any anxiety or discomfort can be always be characterized as a health issue. This effectively means support for all abortions at any time. The Church's position is that killing a child is only justified if it is a true, unintended side effect of efforts to save the mother's life.

Some on the left even believe the nonsense that the child herself was excommunicated, which justifies even more hatred.

There is a paradox in the reaction to this.

By excommunication, all the Church is saying is that from the perspective of Church offices these people are to be shunned. They are not asking that they be burned at the stake. They are not saying that they should be personally be shunned by Catholics. They are not asking that they be denied love, empathy and support from other Christians. They are just saying that in the absence of repentance they should be denied the only real benifit of formal Church membership: the sacraments. Excommunication is not permanent. Excommunication can be lifted, and access to the sacraments can be achieved by repentance.

What I find paradoxical in the reactions to this is the claim that it is somehow brutal and draconian, while at the same time claiming that there is no value in the sacraments, because they are merely anachronistic religious drivel.

Most people seize on the seeming unfairness of not excommunicating the step-father. It isn't at all clear that he is even a Catholic, hence excommunication may not even be relevant. Even if he is a Catholic, excommunication is not intended as a remedy against all sinners - otherwise the Church would be empty. It should not be supposed that the Church approves of all people and their acts who are not excommunicated.

This is clearly a hard and extreme case, as this little girl's life has been a true horror. From my perspective as a Christian, evil acts like these call for Christian love as a response, not death.

This story will surely be used as another another justification for Obama's Freedom of Choice Act. Like most bills, the name itself is a lie, because it may take away the choice of health care providers to refuse to perform abortion. The story will be cast as "look how shallow and brutal the Catholic conscience is!" So if you are a nurse or a doctor in any public health facility, any claim of conscience will be seen as bigotry, and so you will have no right to refuse to perform an abortion.

My pro-life position is this. I have no desire to outlaw abortion, and to jail mothers and doctors who perform them. At the same time I will not support any politician or party who advocates using the public purse to fund or subsidize abortion, and who uses the power of the state to promote it.

The left loves to cast such positions as patriarchal, as motivated by what they characterize as the need to control woman's bodies. But it is the left that seeks control over bodies, because they want to compel people to perform abortions and to pay for them against their will. While there is some disagreement on whether the language of the law will eliminate conscience exemptions, I have no faith in the legal system's respect for conscience in this matter. No one thought that the Civil Rights laws would result in favoritism, but they did.

To me the only possible response to the Freedom of Choice Act is for Church-owned hospitals to refuse to comply, refuse to perform abortions, and to allow the inevitable siege of lawsuits to put them all out of business.

Friday, February 20, 2009

On Obama

I’ve long had mixed feelings about Obama. I’m no Democrat, but during the primary campaign I was rooting for him. I have nothing but contempt for the Clintons, and it was gratifying to see someone defeat them and all their moral squalor.

But I realize that Obama was a lawyer that never won a significant case, and a law professor that never wrote a treatise. He was a community organizer that left no enduring legacy in his community. He is an orator who seems flat and uninspiring when talking about anything other than the meaning of his own personal story.

He is the perfect president for our age. We’ve long told ourselves that we can judge the quality of a person not by what they do, but rather by examining the strands of their ethnic and political genealogy. Like Germans measuring human skulls, we examine his past – half black, half white, both a Muslim and a Christian background, child of a single mother – and we convince ourselves that such a mix must be the sign of an extraordinary person.

Is he a radical, some secret socialist? I don’t think so. I don’t think he believes in anything. He has only ever been motivated by the search for praise he can believe in. He gravitated towards Ayers and Wright because they seemed to him like important people, they could set him up in politics, and they praised his wisdom as he sat at their feet. I have no doubt that if David Duke and Timothy McVeigh held the keys to Chicago politics and told him he had a mission for America he would have embraced them as well.

Being a Chicago pol is surely no mark against his character. Harry Truman allied himself with some pretty shady characters too. But Harry sought out politics as an avenue for success after a long and ignoble string of failures. He was looking for something to be good at. Obama was never allowed to fail - at anything. I think he’s spent all of his adult life around people that would never allow him to fail, because of what he represents. Oh, how much better I would feel about him if I could look in his past and see one, just one, failure! Some experience, some confrontation between the realities of the world and a personal limitation that would have taught him something.

So we’ve lifted him aloft, this person of no failure, of no success. He didn’t climb there. I’m convinced that he entered last year’s primaries in the hope he might establish a basis for a future run. Chicago politics teaches you to wait your turn. I think he was as surprised as anyone that his smug reliance on some Iraqi invasion position statement as his sole distinguishing asset from Hillary provided traction. I think he was as surprised as anyone at the way the strands of his identity captivated the media, and how the absence of any earthly accomplishment lent his identity a mystic, uncorrupted brilliance.

Nothing in his past suggests how he will handle criticism, or failure. There is nothing that suggests flexibility or determination or the ability to make an ally of a former enemy, and these are the key markers of a skilled politician. His rise was the rise of a balloon. He’s never fought a bill through a legislature, negotiated a compromise, cleaned up after a disaster, built a team (or anything else), or even dealt with a hostile audience.

So even if he is a socialist, like some Republicans claim, nothing in his background suggests that he has the skills or ability to realize a long-term political vision. So far all he is doing is pandering to the pent-up demands of Democrats, in the vain hope he can continue to live off their praise. We have a complex polity, and there is no telling how he will react when the inevitable fissures start appearing among Democrats. He’ll have to choose, and find some Republican allies at the same time as he prevents further Democratic erosion.

There is no reason to believe he’ll have the skill to do that. In fact there is no reason to believe he has the skill to do anything at all. Obama brings nothing to the office other that a thirst for reassuring praise.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Octomom Mortgage Rescue Plan

Obama's Mortgage Rescue plan is only going to make things worse. For every Octomom family that it rescues from greedy bankers, a dozen other families will find mortgages priced out of their reach. Since it imposes additional costs and risks on mortgage providers, fewer new mortgages will be offered.

Why would a bank - any bank - take the risk of offering a mortgage? Consider that our government provides finding for ACORN, which will now use civil disobedience tactics to prevent foreclosures. It is far safer to invest in Chinese coal plants. The Chinese economy is troubled too, but at least in China there is a government that is willing to support investors.