Tuesday, June 26, 2007

I've Heard of Water Hazards, but This is Ridiculous...

Not that I need a good reason not to golf - golf is a good reason not to golf. Just ask Mark Twain, who famously called it a good walk spoiled. But, this is the best reason I've ever seen not to golf.

[Note: I'm working on a couple of more serious posts, including a sermon that I'm going to give in the chapel on July 7, tentatively titled "Nursed at the Breast of God." But, at the moment I've temporarily misplaced my mojo. So please humbly accept this goofy link as my meager contribution to the blogosphere for the moment.]

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Some Words From Heraclitus

Some of you may remember my paper on Xenophanes' Critique of Religion. While I am not a huge fan of the ancient Greeks, I have studied them a bit, and have found some of them to be remarkable insightful - especially on the subject of religion. It seems that - despite the vast differences between the ancient world and our own, and the similarly vast differences between the many varied expressions of religion - not too much has changed in the last few thousand years, at least as far as the human search for meaning and the divine is concerned.

Recently my friend Aaron reminded me of Heraclitus. Not, of course, that I had forgotten that Heraclitus existed. But, it had been a long time since I had read anything on Heraclitus, and Aaron gave me the chance to crack open my ancient Greek philosophy texts and do a little reading.

Heraclitus is most famous for the comment that Aaron remembered,

It is not possible to step twice in the same river.

He was a contemporary of Pythagoras (roughly 571 - 497 BCE) and my beloved Xenophanes (roughly 570 - 478 BCE) about whom very little is known. He lived in Ephesus in the late sixth and/or early fifth century BCE, and was called by the ancients the "dark philosopher" as much for the mystery of his life as for any darkness in his thought.

In most college philosophy courses all of the pre-Socratic philosophers are lumped into a single group, and given a single problem: What is the underlying substance of the universe? They are then allowed a sentence or two, before they are swept under the primordial rug by Socrates and all that followed. In this paradigm, just as Thales (early sixth century BCE) is seen as the guy who said that everything is water and Anaximenes (mid sixth century BCE) is seen as the guy who said that everything is air, Heraclitus - along with being the "you can't step in the same river twice" dude - is seen as the guy who said that everything is fire.

If these kinds of metaphysical statements are taken literally, they appear quite absurd, even a little bit stupid. But they are not offered as scientific descriptions of the natural world. Rather, they are metaphors used to come to terms with the metaphysical make-up of the world. So, for Heraclitus to say that everything is fire, he is saying something much more subtle. He is pointing to the ever-changing nature of reality. His concept of fire, as such, is almost mystical, a metaphoric way to speak of some quasi-divine power in the universe, at work in all things, behind all activity and all matter.

But aside from saying that everything is fire, and that you can't step into the same river twice (two related claims, by the way, as they both point to a universe characterized by ceaseless change) he also had some good one-liners that survive to this day. He spoke brutally of both Homer and Hesiod, the twin giants of Greek mythology, saying things like:

Homer deserves to be thrown out of the contests and whipped...


The most popular teacher is Hesoid. Of him people think he knew most - he who did not even know day and night...

What is more interesting than these insults, however, is why he offers them. He said that Hesiod "did not even know day and night," but Hesiod, in Heraclitus' view, is by no means alone in that. Anyone who distinguishes between day and night, in Heraclitus' view, does not know them, for "they are one."

What is in opposition is in concert, and from what differs comes the most beautiful harmony.

Like the Taoists, then, he looks for what bridges dichotomies:

Immortals are mortal, mortals immortal, living each other's death, dying each other's life.

He also finds dichotomies where others might see a unity:

Sea is most pure and polluted water: for fishes, it is drinkable and salutary, but for [humans] undrinkable and deleterious.

He also shares in common with the Taoists a desire to redeem the "dark" things, that which has been identified as immoral, or scandalous:

To god all things are beautiful and good and just, but [humans] have supposed some things to be unjust, others just.

Similarly, he heaps scorn on what is revered:

The consecrations of the mysteries, as practiced among [humans], are unholy.

He can be seen as inverting the values of Greek culture and religion, seeing the value in that which has been stigmatized, while calling into question the value of that which has been revered. At the heart of this, perhaps, is a healthy appreciation of divine mystery and human foolishness:

[Humanity] is called childish compared with divinity, just as a [child] compared with a[n adult].

There is a great deal not to like in what remains of Heraclitus' thought. He despised commoners, and strove for (like many Greeks) a kind of excellence characterized by self-exalting fame. His thought not only justifies but even glorifies violence. But in both his inversion of conventional wisdom and in his appreciation for divine mystery - a mystery that transcends the conventional religion of his and any other day - there is much here that edifies.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Wonder What Stan Lee Thinks of This

The University of Kentucky just revised its domestic partner policy. Here is the news release. I'm sure I'll offer some comentary later, after I've had more time to study the new plan. It is billed as a way to provide domestic partner benefits in a way that will comply with the Attorney General's interpretation of the state constitution. I'll also let you know if and when the University of Louisville follows suit.

You can find all of my previous posts on the subject of domestic partner benefits here.

An Apology Given, and An Apology Owed

I have what could be most charitably described as a tenuous relationship with law enforcement.

On the one hand, I appreciate that police officers work difficult and dangerous jobs, for often criminally low wages. The combination of such a difficult work environment with such paltry tangible compensation means that many in law enforcement are there because they have an at least semi-divine calling, a strong desire to ensure a safe community.

On the other hand, I also understand that while police officers are not well compensated in tangible ways, there are certain intangible perks. Police officers carry with them a great deal of power (along with a sidearm), and so many people who work in law enforcement do so because they are attracted to guns and power. Many lord that power over the rest of us.

My few personal minor scrapes with law enforcement have done little to improve my opinion. I remember being pulled over one night, on my way to pickup one of Sami's prescriptions before the pharmacy closed. I knew why I'd been pulled over. I changed lanes without a turn signal. A moving violation, and for good reason. Turn signals are, I understand, vital safety devices, and should be used before any turn. I was careless, and I merited a citation. So I patiently waited to be handed one.

However, after ten or fifteen minutes had passed without an officer emerging from the cruiser that stopped me, I started to get nervous. Finally another cruiser pulled along beside the one that stopped me, and three officers emerged from the two cars.

Having blinding lights blare in on me for the last ten or fifteen minutes, I couldn't see anything, and was a little annoyed, but tried to stay calm.

Tap, tap, tap, went the butt of a flashlight on the driver's side window. I rolled it down.

Do you know why I pulled you over?, the female officer asked, accusingly.

I think so. I changed lanes back there without using me turn signal.

That is NOT why I pulled you over. I pulled you over under suspicious of DUI. I saw you swerving back there. Have you been drinking?

I always hate answering that question. I don't drink, so it’s an easy question to answer. But it’s hard to answer that question without sounding condescending. Most people drink, and I don't see anything wrong with that. When I drink, however, I turn into an insufferable asshole. So, I don't drink. It keeps my wife from hating me.

No ma'am, I haven't.

She and the two male officers, who searched my car, detained me (and my wife, who sat patiently next to me, seething) for over an hour. Most of the time they did nothing at all. Occasionally they insulted us. I'm not sure if they were bored, or if they were looking for drugs, or what. I am sure that when it was all over, I'd been cited for reckless driving for changing lanes without a turn signal. That charge was later amended to "faulty equipment." The encounter did little to improve my opinion of law enforcement.

And imagine, Sami sometimes says, How do you think it would have gone if we were black, or hispanic?!?

But that experience must be balanced against the time in high school when one of my best friends was mugged. We'd put together a sort of posse to go retaliate, when we realized that

1.) we were stupid, because

2.) we couldn't fight.

So, with the option of revenge closed to us (another example of prevenient grace!) we decided to go to the police. The detectives we talked to were nothing but compassionate and respectful. And, my adult opinion of them is even better than my childhood one, because they showed compassion not just for my friend, the victim of apparently random violence; they also showed compassion to the perpetrators of that violence, understanding that they too were victims of a cycle of violence.

As a kid I wanted blood, so I was disappointed when I found out that, upon finding the guys who mugged my buddy, and finding that they were just teenagers themselves, with no priors, they sat the down in the station for a while, scared the hell out of them, and let them go. I don't know how those kids turned out, but I suspect that they ended up better off for not going to jail for their foolishness.

What troubles me most about law enforcement, however, is a philosophic consideration. When those charged with enforcing the laws of a society are not bound to obey those laws that they enforce, society is not ruled by law, but rather by raw power. And, at least here in Louisville, far too many police officers appear far too willing to violate the laws that they enforce on the public.

We've had a few highly publicized deaths resulting from cruisers flying through stoplights or stop signs at high speeds, without lights or sirens, and careening into cars or pedestrians. Every time I travel on expressway, I see police cruisers fly through the left hand lane at 90 or more miles per hour; apparently oblivious to the danger such behavior puts the rest of us in.

Of course, not all police officers violate the laws that they are charged with enforcing, and I understand that traffic laws are, at least from an enforcement perspective, a fairly flexible thing. I've gone 70 in a 55, seen a cop, and yet not been ticketed. So I'm hardly in a position to complain too loudly that speed limits are not always strictly enforced. But it seems to me that when those who are supposed to enforce the laws break those laws they are charged with enforcing, there should be a stiffer penalty because of the inherent violation of the public trust. Far too often, however, instead of being held to a higher standard, many police officers benefit from a good-ole-boy system that turns a blind eye.

My neighborhood has narrow streets, putting parking at a premium. Consequently, cars often park on the sidewalks. From the perspective of motorized traffic, this is a simple solution to a persistent problem. From a pedestrian perspective, however, this is a nuisance in the first degree.

Adam, Pepper (the dog), and I go for a three-mile walk every morning, before it gets too hot. You don't know awkward until you've tried to negotiate a sidewalk doubling as a parking lot with an eighty-pound dog and a stroller. You can either push the stroller in the grass - which this stroller, to put it mildly, isn't designed to do - or you can risk walking with a toddler in the narrow road, with limited visibility. One is difficult, the other risky. Life would be much simpler if the cars would park in the grass, leaving the sidewalk for us pedestrians.

Along with the nuisance of it, there are a couple other considerations. First off, the sidewalk is public land. You don't own the sidewalk in front of your house; the city does. As such, it is meant for public use, and is not to be permanently claimed by your automobile. Additionally, there is a law against parking on the sidewalk.

Saturday, Sami joined Pepper, Adam and me for our morning walk - the weekends are a treat! During the walk, my brother Tom called, so I decided to complain to him about all the cars parked on the sidewalk, interfering with our walk.

Do cars ever park on the sidewalk in your neighborhood? I asked, as we passed yet another car butting into what should have been a relaxing morning stroll.

Hell no, man! They'd be towed if they did that!

Just then we passed what I thought was an unoccupied police car, true to form, parked in the middle of the sidewalk.

Not much chance of that, I said, glaring at what I assumed was an empty cruiser. Here even the police park on the sidewalk.

We walked for a few more steps before a loud voice exploded behind us.


Oh crap, I thought. There was a cop in that car. Well, I guess I'd better keep walking and pretend I can't hear him. Sami and I looked at each other a little nervously, but kept walking.

SIR! the booming voice called out again. COME HERE PLEASE!

No use pretending I can't hear him. I guess I'd better go see what he wants.

Yes, officer, I said, as calmly and politely as I could, trying to keep my heart from jumping out of my throat, my hands trembling with the palsy of fear.

Sir, I heard what you said.


I heard what you said, and I just wanted to say... I'm sorry. I'll move my car at once. I'm really sorry about that.

What just happened? I'd been prepared for conflict. I'd been prepared to have my ass summarily handed to me for daring to criticize the actions of a police officer. I didn't know what he would do to me, but I sure didn't expect an apology. I'd never seen any police officer apologize under any circumstances for anything.

I walked off stunned, my limbs still quivering from the adrenaline flowing through my body, triggered by my quite confused "fight or flight" reflex.

A police officer apologized to me, and now I need to apologize to him. Not, of course, for criticizing his behavior. He was wrong, and he knew it. But rather for assuming the worst about him, based on my own prejudice. So I, too, am sorry. And I, too, was wrong. And, at least once, I've seen a cop admit to being wrong, and apologize for it.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Anonymous Comments, the Trouble with Ipods, and the Glorious Return of Lost on Twin Earth

I've been offline since Tuesday, and so missed the relative flurry of activity brought about by an anonymous comment.

After long lamentations about the rise of the MP3 killing the long lost art of making an album (you know, a collection of songs that fit nicely together, occasionally even strung together by some unifying concept), I finally bit the technological bullet and got an Ipod. I'm always a little late to jump on a bandwagon, but now that I'm on it, I'm on, baby!

I've been copying all of my cds into ITunes on my Mac, and synching them onto my Ipod. This has been delirious fun. Adam and I have carefully perused my music library looking for the best cds for the maiden voyage. The first selections span our favorites in pop, rock, indie, punk, metal, jazz, world, and classical, according to the "genre" guide on the Ipod - though I've got to say that the best music transcends any handy label you might affix to it.

Anyway, we've been picking the cds together, and then putting them onto the Mac together, giving me a great chance to teach him a little bit about music. The problem is, evidently we got a bit too excited and did too much at once. Right in the middle of loading Lyle Lovett's Joshua Judges Ruth, the optical drive gave out - the first problem our Mac's had. So I took it into our local Mac store for them to replace the optical drive - still under warranty, thank God. Problem is, they don't have any in stock, but they should get one tomorrow. That was Tuesday.

Wednesday, no word from them yet, I gave them a call. Drive still isn't in, but they should have my computer back to me safe by Thursday afternoon at the latest.

Thursday evening, still no word, so I call them again. Sorry, the drive still hasn't shown up. They don't know what the delay is, but it should be in any moment, and they're convinced my computer will be back in my hands, good as new, by mid-day Friday.

A couple hours ago I just couldn't wait any longer. I called again. Still no optical drive. So they finally suggest that I take my computer back, and they'll call as soon as the drive comes in. When it comes in, I can bring the machine back to them, and they'll install the new optical drive. Great idea, so now I'm finally back.

Now I've got something like 52 (OK, not quite that many, but you the idea) new emails in my inbox, including the relative flurry of activity from this blog. I'll get to that in a minute. First, however, I have to announce the glorious return of Lost on Twin Earth, my friend Brian's prodigal blog. I know that there was great lamentation (and one hell of a reader contest) when Brian shut it down last November. Evidently Brian's had a change of heart. So give him a visit and crap in his cereal.

Speaking of crapping in cereal, we've had a few anonymous comments lately, including two real gems. The first, an attack on my verbosity, isn't worth responding to. Style is a subjective thing. Some people don't like mine. I've got no problem with that, though I've got to wonder why people waste precious time reading bad writing. Life's too short for that.

The second comment, however, merits some mention. For those who haven't seen it, it reads:

You are obsessed with homosexuality. You have written about it a lot. Is this revealing? Are you gay? Tell the truth.

While I was offline, Tom, my musical twin (and comment pit bull, it turns out) called to tell me about it, and about his response. Since then, the anonymous commenter has apparently apologized. I say "apparently" because the trouble with anonymous comments is you can't tell who left them. It may be that the apology has come from the same person who left the offending comment, but there is no way to know that.

I'm less interested in the comment or the apology than I am in how the comment informs our ethical reflection. In connecting my concern that gays and lesbians receive fair treatment and equal rights with my own sexual orientation, the comment implies that our moral concern is reflexively self-interested. That is, that we assume that we have moral obligations only to those with whom we have some connection, or who remind us of ourselves. That we are interested only in the rights of groups to which we can claim some membership.

While the comment made this claim both starkly and crudely, it is a claim made in various subtle forms. The cynics among us operate with this basic assumption. What's in it for me? Where do I fit in? As Tom so aptly put it, this kind of thinking leads to certain absurdities, like - parroting the questioning of my sexual orientation - "asking white people who marched in the civil rights movement if they're black."

What would make a white person campaign for the rights of blacks? What would make a straight person campaign for the rights of gays? What motivates some of us to step beyond the categories that define us, to fight for groups in which we will never participate?

There are several possible answers to these questions. Ultimately, I believe that we are all interconnected and interrelated, and that the fate of any of us impacts us all. I am never truly free until all people are free, and so I work hard for the freedom of all oppressed people. As I wrote in my as-yet-unpublished paper "Resistance as Reconciliation: A Critique of Cone's Theology of Black Liberation" (yes, I turned my blog-posts on Cone into an academic paper!):

White racism is... "antimoral," not just because it harms the direct victims (blacks, and other ethnic minorities), but also because it literally disintegrates the racist, separating their essential nature from their actual or existential nature. Motivated by fear of the other and a craving to cling to the privilege of power, the racist... contradicts, as Tillich would say, their own self-realization. To put it more plainly, God does not will for any of us to be oppressors, and so oppression is not a part of our essential nature. As such, oppressors themselves are victims of their oppressing, because in oppressing others they deny themselves the opportunity to be properly grounded in God.

That applies to the oppression of gays and lesbians as well. As so, desiring to be grounded in God, and realizing that my own fate is connected to the fate of all others, I resist homophobia in myself, and call others to resist it as well.

But I'm glad that the comment was left, because it gave me a great chance to laugh. I'm secure enough in my sexuality not to be offended by someone who implies that I might be gay. And, it gave my wife a good laugh, too. She was with me when I finally got around to checking me email, and - to use my grandmother's phrase - "got tickled" when she saw that.

However, these anonymous comments are forcing me to reconsider my comment policy. I've allowed anonymous comments for the entire lifetime of this blog, because I don't want people to have to sign up for Blogger accounts just to leave comments here. However, most of my non-Blogger commenters have the good sense to identify themselves in the comments they leave. This latest batch, however, have been entirely anonymous. Total anonymity removes many social checks on anti-social behavior. If this continues, I'll have to stop allowing anonymous comments.

If you are an anonymous commenter on this blog, please have the decency to identify yourself somehow in your comment, so that when people wish to respond to you they'll be able to call you something other than just "anonymous," and so that we will be able to distinguish between the various persons commenting under the name "anonymous."

Damned if that wasn't the longest bit of rambling I've written. Guess I'd better end it now!

Check out Lost on Twin Earth!!!

Monday, June 11, 2007

Some Questions for Dr. Holsinger

It looks like I'm beginning to share Frank Lockwood's undying obsession with the Bush administration's nominee for Surgeon General, having posted twice on the subject in the last two days. This, then, is the last post on the subject, I promise.

In my last two posts I expressed some concern for Dr. Holsinger's views on homosexuality, and also for the way that he has thus far been treated. I also expressed my own conflict over his nomination. What I didn't do was arrive at any conclusions or give any suggestions. In this last post I'll do my best to do that.

Having now rather thoroughly (but by no means exhaustively) explored what the issues are with Dr. Holsinger's nomination to be U.S. Surgeon General, what do I think? What should happen next? Of course, no one with any power whatsoever will ever ask me questions like that, but I'll answer them here anyway.

I think that, as always happens unless a nomination is withdrawn, Dr. Holsinger should appear before the Senate for confirmation hearings. And, I think the Senate should do its job. That is, the Senate - and especially the Democrat leadership in the Senate - should address concerns and ask questions, without deciding in advance whether Dr. Holsinger should be confirmed. That does not mean that I think Dr. Holsinger should be confirmed. I have serious doubts about that. But I think that he should go through the confirmation process as he would through a trial (a trial by ordeal, perhaps?), without being prejudged.

I think he should be asked tough questions (questions like the ones I'll offer in a moment), and that he'd damn well better have some good answers. And, I think that in the (unlikely?) event that he answers those questions thoroughly and satisfactorily, I think that he should be confirmed.

What questions would I ask him? Questions like these:

Dr. Holsinger, in 1991 you wrote a paper titled the Pathophysiology of Male Homosexuality. Do you stand by what you wrote in that paper concerning homosexuality, or have your views changed? If your views have changed, then how have they changed and why have they changed? (And, if not, thank you and goodbye!)

Dr. Holsinger, you helped found a church that "ministers" to those who no longer wish to be gay. What is your medical opinion of attempts to change someone's sexual orientation? Have you ever been directly involved in any attempt to alter someone's sexual orientation? If so, what exactly was your involvement, and are you still involved in such attempts? If you have been involved in such attempts in the past and are no longer involved, why are you no longer involved in such attempts? What changed?

Dr. Holsinger, do you think that homosexuality is a disease? Can it be treated? What is the basis for your opinion?

From what little I know personally of James Holsinger - and especially from what I know of him by his reputation in the United Methodist church and in the state of Kentucky - I highly doubt that he would lie to Congress. Like most who seek to navigate the treacherous waters of the confirmation process, he may evade some questions (I certainly would). It is that evasion, more than outright dishonesty, that I fear. If he answers a question, and answers it completely, then I'd trust his answer. And, if he can honestly answer questions like the ones above in a way that removes justified concern about his position on homosexuality, then I see no reason why he shouldn't be confirmed.

But I strongly doubt that he could answer those questions the way that I think he ought to. And if not, what then? Then he should not be confirmed. If he can't honestly say that homosexuality is not a disease, and if he cannot honestly distance himself from attempts to alter persons' sexual orientation, then he has no business being Surgeon General. But he is at least entitled to - assuming his nomination is not withdrawn - a fair hearing in the confirmation process, before he is tossed aside.

The Problem With Group-Think

Yesterday I waded into the controversy surrounding Dr. James Holsinger's nomination to be U.S. Surgeon General. In that post I expressed both my disagreement with Holsinger's views on homosexuality and gay sex, and my deep conflict over his nomination. While I used to attend worship with him, I could never be mistaken for a big fan of his.

However, reading Max Blumenthal's views at the Huffington Post and the reader comments that followed it, I was reminded of what, far more than a kind of blind religious ideology, is wrong with the nature of public discourse in this country. Simply put, we so rarely really speak collegially with people who fundamentally disagree with us and our cherished values, that we have forgotten how to be charitable toward our "enemies."

While Blumenthal made some excellent points (especially in his criticism of Holsinger's involvement with a church that supports gay conversion therapy) he never considered any of the readily available evidence that Dr. Holsinger might not be the slave to a conservative evangelical ideology that his critics would have him be. As noted in my previous post on the subject (and in a Louisville Courier Journal article) in his previous positions of secular leadership Dr. Holsinger has supported expanding the public funding available for stem cell research and developed a reputation for treating people fairly without regard for sexual orientation. As the Courier Journal notes, "as chancellor [of the University of Kentucky's Chandler Medical Center], he once faced down two conservative state senators who threatened to withhold funding from a lesbian health-care seminar at UK in 2002."

I certainly have many reservations about James Holsinger. I am deeply concerned about his views on homosexuality, and have long lamented his (in my view) negative and reactionary impact on my denomination. But when his critics refuse to engage - even for a fleeting moment - any evidence that might paint a more complicated picture of him, they do neither their cause nor the broader cause of decent and reasonable public discourse any good.

I wonder if people like Blumenthal refuse to consider Holsinger's behavior in his previous positions of secular leadership (at the University of Kentucky and with Kentucky's state Cabinet for Health and Family Services because of some biased caricature of my home state. Perhaps it is simply assumed that everyone in Kentucky is a conservative evangelical homophobe, so Holsinger's ability to comport himself well in secular leadership in the state of Kentucky has no bearing on his ability to serve a national position. I don't know. And, perhaps I'm defending Holsinger - whom I've never seen fit to defend before, having vigorously opposed his influence on my denomination - out of some need to defend what remains of the dignity of my home state.

In any event, regardless of Holsinger's opponents motives in overlooking evidence that complicates their caricature of him, or of my own motives in defending a person whom I neither like nor support, this simple fact remains: when we only dialogue with people who already agree with us, we lose our ability to engage our ideological opponents with charity. That impoverishes our public discourse, and keeps us from being able to reason together.

This is most evident in the comments that follow Blumenthal's lopsided opinion-piece. Calling into question Holsinger's impeccable medical credentials, calling him names like "batsh*t crazy a$$hole" and "freakazoid;" these don't do anyone any good. They only mirror that which I hate about most neo-cons and conservative evangelicals, a willingness to believe the worst about their opponents, and to dismiss them with the wave of an unsupported ad hominem.

I don't know that Dr. Holsinger is fit to serve as U.S. Surgeon General. I have some serious misgivings about that. But I do know that as a human being, a doctor, and as a professor and administrator, he is worthy of some respect. And, as a nominee, he is worthy of reasonable consideration. It may well be that such reasonable consideration would find that he has no business being Surgeon General. But if our decision making process is so fraught with such unreasonable discourse as is coming from bloggers and others trying to apply pressure to Senators to dump a nominee for Surgeon General before they've even met with him, we will never be able to make reasonable decisions that benefit the public. We will simply have the same sort of government we've had for the duration of the Bush administration, with the only change being the name of the party controlling the House and Senate, and the content of the ideology being imposed on the public without a concern for well-reasoned public discourse.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

What's Up, Mama?

This is Sami, guest blogging for Chris, who has been having trouble with his asthma today. Adam did some cute stuff this evening, and we want to dote on him a bit even though Chris is out of commission.

Adam's new phrase for today was What's up, Mama?

I was standing in the kitchen looking in the fridge for something for dinner. Adam walked in and said,

What's up, Mama?

I said,

Adam, I'm trying to find something to make for dinner.

He said,

Dat's OK, Mama!

and walked out of the room. He came back a few minutes later and said again,

What's up, Mama?

So I said,

I'm still trying to find something to make for dinner.

He looked at me with a very concerned look on his face, shook his head a little, and said,

Don't worry about it, Mama.

and walked out of the room again.

I've noticed he often notices when I get stressed. He noticed that I was seeing that there weren't many options to make for dinner. His "What's up?" was more than just "What are you doing?" It was "How are you doing? You seem a little stressed." His "Don't worry about it" was more insightful than I'd expect from a two-year-old.

Later, we were sitting at the table during dinner, and while I was yawning he said,

What's up, Mama?

I replied,

Adam, I'm tired.

Then I said,

What's up, Adam?

He said,

Ummm.... Idunnowe. (which means, "I don't know.")
Uhhh... I hear airplane!

Finally, to end the evening, Chris had tried to work out for us while we were finishing up our meal. He had not been feeling well and usually exercising helps him feel better. He was having trouble breathing, and was trying to prove to us and to himself that he could still do some movement with his body. He doesn't give up well. He doesn't take a break well. He doesn't allow himself to be sick. He must always be strong, and always show that strength - particularly to Adam.

So exercising in front of Adam this evening was partially to show him, "Look at Daddy. Look at what Daddy can do. Daddy is a giant." (One of Adam's favorite books is My Daddy is a Giant.) But, Chris wasn't able to get through his first exercise in the series of exercises, and was pained, downtrodden, saddened by this. So Adam asked,

What wrong with Daddy?

And I explained to him that Daddy was sad. And I mentioned that Daddy might need a hug. So Adam immediately jumped up from the table, ran to find Chris, and wrapped himself around his thighs - as high as he can reach on him - and said,

Daddy don't feel well. My take care of Daddy.

Sami =)

Wading in on the Holsinger Controversy

By now most people interested in religion and politics know that Lexington, KY doctor and United Methodist James Holsinger has been nominated by President Bush to be the next Surgeon General of the United States. What you probably don't know is that I grew up in the same church as Dr. Holsinger, before he left to be part of a start-up congregation and I moved to Louisville. Because of our connection - though we are by no means close - I have been following his controversial nomination with great interest.

Frank Lockwood, the Bible Belt Blogger, religion editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, formerly of the Lexington Herald Leader has been fanning the flames of this controversy for some time. His blog is the best place to quickly catch up on what all of the fuss is about.

To briefly sum up the situation, Dr. Holsinger is, in addition to being a professor at the University of Kentucky's medical school, a prominent figure in the United Methodist church. It is his church work that has drawn the criticism to his nomination. He served on a church committee that studied homosexuality before withdrawing from that committee when he thought that it might change church teachings on homosexuality. In 1991 he published a paper for that committee titled the Pathophysiology of Male Homosexuality, in which he argued that gay sex was pathological, both unnatural and unhealthy. You can find the text of that paper here, at Frank Lockwood's Bible Belt Blogger blog.

Additionally, as a member of the United Methodist Judicial Council, he was involved in two decisions which, while in accordance with the Book of Discipline, pained me and other advocates for full acceptance of gays and lesbians. As part of the Confessing Movement, he has consistently pushed the church in a more conservative direction. He may or may not be involved with a group called Good News which, based out of Wilmore, KY, has pushed for the United Methodist church to split over the issue of homosexuality.

What is not in doubt is that Dr. Holsinger is a conservative evangelical Christian, part of a movement to reform the United Methodist church (in a way that I wholeheartedly disagree with), who feels that the Bible unequivocally condemns same-sex sexual relationships. The question is whether or not these positions should disqualify him from serving as U.S. Surgeon General.

Focus on the Family has supported Dr. Holsinger's nomination, rightly arguing that there should be no religious test for office. However, I fear that it is not Holsinger's critics (a long list of prominent Democrats, including Barack Obama, Ted Kennedy, John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, and Christopher Dodd, along with the Log Cabin Republicans), but rather the Bush administration that has in this case applied a religious test. While James Holsinger may be a talented physician of some renown and distinction, I suspect that he came to the Bush administration's attention not primarily because of his medical work, but because of his religious and political views. For that reason it seems to me that his views are fair game.

However, as this article from the Louisville Courier Journal notes, Holsinger's religious views only tell part of the story. In it you find this passage which challenges the notion that his moral and theological views of homosexuality will impact his positions on public policy:

But more than a dozen Kentuckians who have worked with the former secretary of the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services and chancellor of UK's Chandler Medical Center say he is not bigoted and is deeply committed to providing health care for all.

"He never expressed anything but acceptance and fairness in the workplace," said Maria Kemplin, a lesbian who worked as a budget and policy analyst for Holsinger when he was chancellor.

As a cabinet secretary, Holsinger championed causes at odds with some conservative religious views, including stem cell research.

And as chancellor, he once faced down two conservative state senators who threatened to withhold funding from a lesbian health-care seminar at UK in 2002.

"He was unflinching in his support," said Phyllis Nash, who organized the conference and was then vice chancellor.

Personally I am deeply conflicted. While I disagree with Dr. Holsinger's position on homosexuality and many other cultural, ethical, and theological issues, and while I view him as having a decidedly negative impact on my denomination, making us a less welcoming and less compassionate church, I don't think that his religious views should automatically disqualify him from serving as Surgeon General. I am deeply concerned about his apparent view (at least as of 1991) that gay sex is pathological, and that homosexuality is a disease. That would call into question his ability to educate the American public on matters of health. But there is some reason for hope that, despite his religious views, he still values fairness, and is able to tolerate gays and lesbians despite his opposition to their lifestyle.

I wish that the Bush administration would base their nominations for important positions on ability rather than world-view. Then perhaps we would be able to fairly access whether or not James Holsinger has the ability - despite his world-view - to do the job of Surgeon General.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Love Poetry

"Love Poetry" is a hell of a thing for me to call a blog post. If my precious few readers are anything like me, the title alone should send them (you) into fits of saccharine induced nausea. Rest assured, then, dear reader, that this post will offer no actual love poems, nor a defense of much that passes for love poetry.

I don't much care for poetry at all, I hate to say. I think I simply don't understand it. A poem aims to distill some experience or some truth, or better still some experience of truth. But the poetry is in neither the experience nor the truth, but in the distillation. A poem, (if I have any idea what a poem is, a big "if" indeed) then starts with something grand and extracts its essence. I write essays, which bluntly put means I start with something small and just keep expanding it until that tiny kernel of a thought that started the whole mess has become an endless sea of words that hopefully some brave reader can navigate.

What I do is the opposite of poetry, and I like it a great deal more than poetry because it is what I do, what I understand.

When I was in college (the first time, when I flunked out in no small part because of my anxiety disorder, but also because I was immature and more than a little foolish) I used to pretend to write poetry. It was romantic, I suppose, in the most literal sense of the word. Romantic like my all black wardrobe and my relentless melancholy. Insufferably romantic. But, it was cool to write poetry. Especially the worst sort of free verse poetry, structured almost at random because God forbid a writer have any self-discipline.

But even then I didn't like love poems - with a few exceptions not worth mentioning here, because they only prove that a really good writer could even make the phone book interesting. I'm thinking of this because I just got off the phone with an old friend (who used to bravely suffer through my detestable poetry, having had the misfortune of attending a poetry class with me). We talked about, of all things, love poems.

Of course we talked about a good deal more than just love poems, mind you. But none of that was a surprise. We talked about our spouses and children. We talked about theology. We talked about environmental ethics. You know, generally the sort of things I'm inclined to talk about. But then somehow the conversation took a turn, and we started talking about love poetry. I'm not sure how it happened, and I suspect she isn't sure either. But the best conversations - like the best of almost anything - take you places you wouldn't dream of visiting if you had any say in the matter. So somehow, between God and potty training, we ended up talking about love poems, and why I don't like them.

Love is a tricky thing to try to understand, and a much trickier thing to write about. If you're honest, when discussing someone you love you’ll say a great many things that sound like insults, only you meant them as compliments. I'm forever rattling on to Sami about all the things she does that drive me crazy. She must think I'm complaining, and I'm afraid I don't often do much to change her impression. But when I talk about or write about something that she or Adam does that just drives me up a wall, I'm also talking about why I love them so much. That which makes me the craziest is that which I can live the least without. There's something endearing about bad habits. They remind me that my wife and my son - the two people on this earth that I adore above all others - are not who I wish them to be, and that is both a great blessing and no small miracle.

Too often love poetry takes the opposite track. Rather than loving someone furiously for being exactly who you wish they weren't, love poetry conjures up some beautiful image of someone who exists only in the mind of the poet. That isn't love. It's just idle fantasy. And fantasy is a dangerous thing in love. You can find out all too late that you loved not a person but simply an idea of a person, your vision of who you wished they were, only they're not.

If I'd have known exactly who Sami was when I met her, I may not have married her. If she'd have known who I was I have no doubt she'd have run screaming and never looked back. And if I'd have really known who Adam would become - and don't get me wrong, I think he's the most wonderful creature in God's creation - I suspect I wouldn't have been nearly so excited when Sami told me she was pregnant. But it turns out I love all those things I'd have said I would hate if I'd have known about them before I did (if that sentence makes any sense). And, to me, that's love.

Love isn't what you think you want when you're all alone, with only your dreams and fantasies to interact with. Love is the flawed and brilliant and beautiful and fallen creature in front of you. Love is a person as messed up as you are. And love is honestly saying you wouldn't change a thing, even though you know that the object of your love is far from perfect.

That kind of love, as best as I can tell, is hard to capture in a poem. Hard to capture in an essay, too. I'm looking back on these words thinking I haven't said a thing. And I haven't. Because love, like faith, is being able to look at the words you use to describe it and saying, On second thought, that isn't what I meant at all.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

A Messy Conversation

I'm typing this in my basement office (of course), listening to John Scofield with Adam. He's been big into jazz derivatives this week. Mostly the Flecktones, whom he adores. But now he's branching out a little from there. He loves music. He loves hearing sound upon sound layered on top of each other until you feel like you should explode. He's always saying

Daddy, what dat sound is?

Usually he'll answer his own question.



Dat DRUMS, Daddy!

Sometimes, if he knows the band, he'll even say who is playing what instrument.

Daddy, what dat sound is? Dat SAXOPHONE! Jeff Coffin play saxophone!

So, we're downstairs, in my basement office, grooving to John Scofield circa 1990, and I'm starting to remember why he's about my favorite person to ever live. Starting, mind you. Because today has been a tough day.

I'm proud of the fact that I'm a stay-at-home Dad. I've been with Adam most of his life. I was in ministry when he was born, so it was easy to take him to work with me. Church people love babies. And then, when I left ministry, we decided that I wouldn't work for a while because we couldn't find anything I could do that would make very much more than we'd pay out in child care. So I've been there for most of his big moments, and I'm proud of that.

But there are some moments that I'd almost like to miss. Like potty training.

Today is day 5. The first four days went fairly well. Day 5 has been hell. That hell can be summed up in a single conversation.

My need new diaper, Daddy!

Adam, you're not wearing a diaper, remember?

Oh... Sorry, Daddy. My pooped.


That's happened twice today!

But now we're grooving to John Scofield, so everything's going to be alright.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Overheard in the Bath Tub...

Adam's taking a bath right now. When he takes a bath, he's given to talking to himself. Sometimes he rattles on endlessly and you can't hardly understand a word that he's saying. He has a pretty goood vocabulary, especially for a two-year-old. But, he is just two, and his articulation is a little imprecise. The faster he talks, the harder he is to understand. The more excited he gets, the faster he talks. You get the idea.

Sometimes when he talks to himself he starts to recite his favorite books from memory. Sometimes he just makes stuff up. Sometimes he lists his favorite things. Tonight he was naming. He went through a list of some of his favorite things, and named them. He also named family members. Toward the end of his rant, Sami heard him say

Mama name Sami!
Daddy name Chris!
Bear name Bear!

Then he turned to Sami, and said,

Mama, what Bear name is?

To which Sami said something like, "Well... I know a bear named Winnie the Pooh."

Adam said, as proper as can be,

No Mama. Bear name Bear.

That was that. I have no idea who Bear is, but I know that "Bear name Bear."

Domestic Partner Benefits Deemed Unconstitutional

The quest for anything resembling equal rights in Kentucky was dealt a huge blow yesterday when the Attorney General's office ruled that the policies at our state's two flagship universities (the University of Kentucky and University of Louisville) that would have allowed unmarried domestic partners of university employees access to health care plans are unconstitutional. You can read the Lexington Herald Leader's article here and the Louisville Courier-Journal's article here.

Here are all of my previous posts on the subject:

More Fuel for the Culture War's Fire, posted on July 15, 2006

"I know Stan Lee, and you, sir, are no Stan Lee", posted on October 18, 2006


Update on Domestic Partner Benefits at Kentucky Universities, posted on January 1, 2007

While Attorney General Stumbo's declaration is a strong blow against the effort to both improve the quality of state universities by allowing them to have more competitive packages with which to attract highly coveted talent, and to in at least one small way recognize the equality of gays and lesbians, I seriously doubt that this is the final word on the subject. This may, however, make life a little more difficult for Jack Conway, the Democrat candidate for Attorney General. He is running against the infamous wingnut lambasted here more than once, Stan Lee, who has made is political career torching gays.

There are a few interesting points here, worth taking at least a second to consider. The first is that yesterday's decision does not expressly tie health benefits to marriage. While both UK and U of L's plans were declared unconstitutional, the Attorney General's office did say that if they changed their definition of "domestic partner" to include anyone who happens to be living with a university employee, then that might be constitutionally permissible. At issue in this case, then, is not the expanding of health care benefits to include non-married partners, but rather the definition of "domestic partner," which is seen as being enough like "marriage" to violate the politically-motivated and totally unnecessary 2004 amendment to our state's constitution banning "gay marriage" or any similarly recognized arrangement.

The second is that Stan Lee, now running as the Republican candidate for Attorney General, is still not above lying about the plans in question. Once again, Mr. Lee has mischaracterized the universities' policies, telling the Courier Journal, "[A]s elected officials, we have a duty to be good stewards. At a time when our college students are facing double-digit tuition increases, this could be a tremendous waste of resources." However, all either of these plans allowed anyone to do was to buy health coverage. There would have been no loss of state or university money, as any additional costs were to be paid for by the domestic partners buying into the plan.

Additionally, according to the Herald Leader, Lee - despite the fact that the Attorney General's office essentially has agreed with him - is still trying to use this as a political office, attacking Attorney General Stumbo, a Democrat, for moving too slowly. He's also antagonizing for a special legislative session to, in his own words (as quoted in the Herald Leader) "finish this issue once and for all."

Finally, Jack Conway, the Democrat candidate for Attorney General (and, I should add, prohibitive favorite to win the election) seems to be trying hard not to trip over this political landmine, telling the Herald Leader that he agrees with Stumbo's decision. It will be very hard for him to find a way to lose to a lunatic like Lee, but if this becomes a bigger issue, blinding people to Lee's incompetence, he just might.

'Gotta love politics in this backwards state!

Summer Reading Book Reviews: The Assault on Reason, by Al Gore

This summer I've not only been able to spend even more time with my family (we're potty-training Adam right now - just over two days, and so far only one "accident"!), but I've also been able to do more reading. Well, maybe not more volume reading - at the seminary we joke that if you want to read less, go to law school! But, at least more voluntary reading, and more less-overtly-religious reading.

For our religion to have any bearing at all on our lives or the lives of those around us - and thus for our religion to have any real life to it - it must be informed not only by the abstract teachings of our faith traditions and mystical reflections, but also by all of the events and situations around us. Simply put, faith that is not in contact with the broader world is poor and powerless faith indeed.

My own theology is to a great extent informed not only by my reading of scripture and theological texts, but also (I hope) by my reading of contemporary situations. It is a theology in constant dialogue with political and ethical concerns. That it dialogues with political concerns is on the surface more than a little bit dangerous. A sharp separation between church and state is vital to the interests of both state and church, and Barth correctly identified the idolatry inherent in the mingling of political and religious symbolism in the German national church.

But a broader understanding of politics as the arena in which ethical concerns play out in social situations means that if there is any ethical content to our religious views, then our religion does have a political component to it. And that political component matters. Of course, that political component need not be fiercely partisan. I still shudder when I recall, as an eighteen-year-old, a conversation with a friend of mine. We were discussing our fledgling political affiliations. When I told him I was thinking about registering as a Democrat, he said something like, "But I thought you were a Christian." In his church, as in so many Evangelical churches, the Christian faith had been confounded with the Republican political party.

So, when I say that my theology is informed by my political and ethical concerns, I do not mean that my theology should be read as a mingling of political and religious symbolism, nor do I mean that my theology easily confuses my identity as a Christian with my standing as a Democrat. Jesus wasn't an American, much less a Democrat or a Republican. And, if I understand him at all, he would have serious issues with both parties.

When I say that my theology is informed by my political and ethical concerns, I simply mean that a theology that fails to speak to present social issues is a poor theology indeed. And, if a theology is to speak to present social issues, it must be well informed on those present social issues to which it seeks to speak. Which is a long, long way of saying that this summer instead of reading theology texts, so far I've been reading more overtly political texts. And, reading those texts is no less vital to my theological formation than reading the Tillich and James that I had planned to spend my summer reading.

In the past week or so I've read three books that I highly recommend to anyone who is concerned about the present state of American politics: Al Gore's The Assault on Reason, and Is Bill Cosby Right? (Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost its Mind?) and Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster (which I wrote about here) by Michael Eric Dyson.

In The Assault on Reason Al Gore builds a strong argument that the present state of American politics (which he views as a threat to the very fabric of our democracy) has been caused by the removal of the mediation of reason and logic in our political conversation. Simply put, public discourse is coarse, and decidedly one-sided. While infotainment programs like Crossfire and Hannity and Colmes and the like pay lip service to the value of opposing viewpoints meeting together and discussing reasonably, they only further aggravate our public discourse. This is due both to the nature of those programs - in which it is assumed that there are two relatively equal sides to any issue, and as such one's preference is essentially arbitrary - and (more in keeping with Gore's thesis) of the nature of television itself. Gore repeatedly emphasizes that television is a one-sided form of communication, in which the average American receives but never sends information.

This is a far cry from Gore's reading of the Enlightenment, which he argues (persuasively, I might add) shaped our system of government. The Enlightenment, Gore argues, favored a "marketplace of ideas" in which everyone's views competed with each other, with reason mediating between them. In his idealized reading of the Enlightenment, there was a meritocracy of ideas that led to much better decision-making structures in government.

To build his argument Gore uses a common device: the Myth of the Golden Past. This is, I suppose, a necessary evil, in that most public arguments appeal to some idealized reading of history, and then use that idealized reading to critique the present situation. As such we are perpetually in a state of falling from the ideals of our past, and as such constantly need to reclaim our lost heritage. Gore presents this myth in the best way, constantly checking against the tendency to create a past that never existed. And, of course, he is right that reason once played a role in public discourse, and that its role has been greatly diminished in a state in which money, rather than the free exchange of ideas, counts as speech.

Because of the role of money as speech, granting access not only to politicians but also to the television "airwaves" that comprise the bulk of public speech, fewer people can actively participate in public discourse. This diminished participation in conversation leads, Gore argues, to a diminished participation in democracy, and a frighteningly poorly informed public who is thus total unable to hold politicians accountable.

However, framing his argument this way allows Gore to sometimes overlook the extent to which the Enlightenment - and, as such, the Constitutional government of our Founders - similarly suppressed participation. While Gore argues that the Enlightenment favored a meritocracy of ideas, there were many factors preventing all persons from freely participating in this conversation. Gore rightly acknowledges that literacy was a barrier, but he glosses over the role that race and class played in literacy. That education was by no means universal means that just as money keeps most citizens from participating in public discourse today, so race and class - in determining who was literate and who was not - kept most citizens from participating in public discourse in the Glorious Past to which Gore's framing of this myth points. He in not entirely blind to this, but because it represents such a vital criticism of his thesis, he doesn't exactly dwell on it.

While Gore's book is replete with example of how the Bush-Cheney administration has destroyed the very fabric of our democracy, he ultimately sees the present regime as a symptom rather than an ultimate cause of the problem. Much like his work on global climate change, this book is full of disturbing (and compelling) statistics, arguments, and observations. But, perhaps the most disturbing section is found in the middle of Chapter Nine, in which (as he often does) he begins to move from a disturbing diagnosis of what he sees as the problem, to a compelling set of constructive solutions. However, before he get hope, we have to have a full accounting of the problem, and the despair which eventually shakes us from our collective slumber. That problem, Gore argues, is principally ignorance and indifference, which conspire to allow the powerful to accumulate ever more power, ruining the democratic element of our governance. He cites a litany of studies to show just how ignorant we Americans have become:

... if citizens are deprived of a meaningful opportunity to participate in the national conversation, they can scarcely be blamed for developing a lack of interest in the process. And, sure enough, numerous surveys and studies have documented the erosion of public knowledge of basic facts about our democracy.

For example, from the data compiled by the National Election Studies on one recent election, only 15 percent of respondents could name even one of the candidates in their election district. Less than 4 percent could name two candidates...

Similarly, according to a study conducted by FindLaw.com, only 24 percent of Americans could name a single Supreme Court justice. In the survey, respondents incorrectly identified George W. Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Supreme Court justices...

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute conducted a study in 2005 of what our nation's college students knew about the Constitution, American government, and American history that provoked the American Political Science Association Task Force on Civic Education to pronounce that it is "axiomatic that current levels of political knowledge, political engagement, and political enthusiasm are so low as to threaten the vitality and stability of democratic politics in the United States."

The study found that less than half of college students "recognized that the line 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal' is from the Declaration of Independence." They also found that "an overwhelming majority, 72.8 percent, could not correctly identify the source of the idea of 'a wall of separation' between church and state."

While the current political environment has labeled Democrats "Defeatocrats," this book should not be read as a bashing of the American people, or a having of a white flag to the forces that have rendered democracy all but obsolete in the face of the accumulation of executive power. Rather it should be read as a love letter to the American people, begging them to reclaim their heritage. While isolated texts from this book can be misrepresented as an attack on American dignity, the book is actually a great expression of hope. In fact, it is an almost dangerous hope that the damage done to our democracy, much like the damage done to our environment, can, in fact, be undone.

It is well worth a read for anyone who has the courage to read it.

In the near future I will also offer similar reviews of the two Michael Eric Dyson books that I read, both of which I enjoyed even more than I did Gore's manifesto on democracy and public discourse.