Liberals, Special Interests, and Gestapo Tactics

A recent letter writer in our local paper asserted that “Oregon is a state run by liberal special interests who bully and use Gestapo tactics to get their way.”  The issue had to do with a defeated Nestle plan to open a water bottling plant near the city of Cascade Locks on the Columbia River about three hours west of us.  It’s a controversial issue around here because Nestle simply moved east a few hundred miles and is trying again in a rural town not far from us.  In this case, the letter writer was in favor of the Nestle plan, and bitterly disappointed that it was repulsed by opponents whom he accused of being liberals with special interest allies using Gestapo tactics.  Water, water rights, and bottled water are important issues everywhere, but especially important to our area because we live in the high desert where water is dear, and no new water rights are being issued.  As important as the water issue is, I want to focus this essay on something else: the language of labeling liberals, special interests, and Gestapo tactics.
My guess is that the letter writer has only a limited idea of what liberal might mean, but at its core it’s about big government, socialism, and limits on individual freedom.  A few weeks ago, another letter writer submitted a list of all the characteristics of liberal she could come up with.  It was long and colorful, but it all boiled down to liberals being the worst of freedom stealing big government socialists who want nothing more than to turn America into a communist waste land.  I suspect water plan letter writer would agree.  
How is it that those who favor the ideals of our liberal democracy have became such a threat?  Some part of it may have to do with the belief that liberals are in cahoots with Wall Street to enslave what used to be the blue collar middle class, and the proof is the outsourcing of all the best jobs to other countries.  You can roll out all the data you want to show that those jobs came to a predictable end through a combination of a growing world economy and  technological changes in manufacturing.  It won’t help because you won’t be believed.  Why not?  Because experts who know about things are not to be trusted, or so says Paul Ryan, in one of his fund raising letters where he writes that “Democrats and their special interest allies – that so often provide…experts and ideas – have only added to our problems.”  Yes indeed, there is nothing worse than an expert who knows something about a problem to make the problem worse.  
It isn’t that liberals are liberal, it’s that they are seen as elitist.  Those who aspire to acquire as much political power as possible know how to use that image to mobilize grass roots discontent against the elite, especially the intellectual elite, as a means to get it.  Never mind that they, Paul Ryan in this case, are among the economic and political elite.  It’s a charade, they know its a charade, but if they can pull it off the power will be theirs.  In a curious twist, Ryan even asserts that, thanks to liberals, “Big Government and Big Business aren’t fighting each other, they’re feeding off each other.”  There is some truth in that, but seeds of the arrangement were planted and nurtured by the politics and politicians of his party acting in the name of conservative free market principles.  Like I said, it’s a charade.  
The repeated accusation at the national level that liberals and special interests are allied in malevolent ways is, I suspect, the reason why local letter writers use the the same language.  I doubt that many give any thought to what a special interest is, or who they are.  If I recall, Democrats used similar language in their propaganda when Reagan and the Bushes were in office.  Special interest is a useful catchall bugaboo precisely because it can mean anything or nothing.  Special interests, like ogres and the Grinch, are bad, and in the current environment they are claimed to be allied with liberals.  
So what about Gestapo tactics?  What are Gestapo tactics?  The record is pretty clear, and whatever the opponents of the Nestle plan in Oregon might have done, they bore no similarity to that record.  Why use such an outlandishly inappropriate term?  Probably because the opponents were an unpleasant nuisance through a variety of protests with yelling, badgering, placard waving, obstructing behavior that easily gets under most anyone’s skin.  Gestapo like it isn’t.  Nuisance it is.  The guy’s letter would have been more effective if he had simply catalogued the behaviors he didn’t like.  On the other hand, maybe he was thinking about how the Gestapo was proficient at fostering divisions among people, herding them into groups labeled as enemies of the state until the only safe place to be was in party’s own group, and even there one had to be alert to traitors.  If that is what he was thinking, he was parroting a consistent line from Republican campaign material that accuses Democrats of using lofty rhetoric of hope and change to divide people against each other.  That could be it. 
In the end I find this kind of propagandizing morally and emotionally discouraging.  Labels are slapped on with little understanding of what they mean.  Words like liberal and conservative are narrowed down to their most extreme manifestations.  Ignorance of political history abounds, as do conspiracy fantasies more suited to super market tabloids.   For some, like the letter writer, it is utterly irresponsible, juvenile behavior that prevents important issues from being worked out in common sense ways.  For more sophisticated political operators it is crass manipulation having no intent other than the acquisition of power and position with little concern for the well being of those whom they are manipulating.

Walla Walla Woolley Reporting

We travel a bit, and wherever we go people we meet want to know about the small city with the silly name where we live.  So this is an article for readers who live far away from Walla Walla.  If you’re a local you can ignore it.  I’ve thought about writing it before, but never did.  It came up again the other night when we were at a picnic sitting on the grass lawn of a local vineyard listening to exquisite chamber music performed by nationally known musicians who had donated their talents to help raise some money for the local free clinic serving those most in need.  There we were, out in the rural west looking up at the mountains, eating out of picnic baskets and listening to Mozart while sipping fine wines.  Maybe I should finally write that article.
The place has been occupied for thousands of years for good reason.  It lies in a broad valley up against a range of small mountains, and is surrounded by the high desert of the intermountain west.  Crisscrossed by dozens of creeks seeking their way to the Columbia River, it’s an oasis in otherwise dry country.  When Europeans began to show up, it became a frontier fort and settlement for pioneers who had arrived on the Oregon Trail to farm land from which the resident Indians had been brutally removed.  It prospered as a staging area for prospectors on their way to the gold fields in Idaho and Montana, selling them all the supplies they would need on their way out.  An abundance of saloons and prostitutes relieved them of their take on the way back.  By the late 19th century the main lines of the transcontinental railroad bypassed Walla Walla in favor of other routes, and the city’s growth came to a halt.  
In the meantime, farmers had discovered the valley to be perfect for every kind of produce.  Wheat grew with ease on the slopes of the mountains and surrounding hills.  The introduction of hardy winter wheat proved that the high desert could also produce bountiful crops.  There was plenty of timber in the mountains for all the building supplies one could want.  Seventh Day Adventists started a college (Walla Walla College), so did the Congregational Church (Whitman College), and Catholic nuns established a hospital.  Civilization had arrived.  Twentieth century world wars revived the fort, and the local airport became an Army Air Force base, launching the town in new directions.  About thirty years ago local vineyards and wineries, mostly home hobby operations, began to be noticed for producing some of the best in the Pacific Northwest.   Today there are over 150 wineries producing the nation’s finest premier wines.  Wine tourism arrived.
The little colleges matured into one of the region’s top private universities and one of the nation’s top liberal arts colleges.  They were joined by a community college twice named best in the nation.  Two hospitals offering every specialty serve the region.  Downtown is flourishing.  Fine dining abounds.  So do beer and burger joints, and everything in between.  The Walla Walla Symphony, the oldest symphony west of the Mississippi, is widely recognized for the quality of its work.  The Walla Walla Chamber Music Festival brings in nationally known artists each year, as do the dance festival, guitar festival, jazz festival and more.  It’s an odd place.  Cosmopolitan, literate and sophisticated Walla Walla mixes comfortably with rodeos, pickups, farming, ranching, and rural western life Walla Walla.  It’s still off the beaten track.  It isn’t on the way to anywhere else.  The closest Interstate is thirty miles away.  There are three flights a day between here and Seattle.  If you come here it’s because you want to come here.  Well, except for the residents of the state pen just north of town, but that’s another story.
It’s not that we don’t have problems, we do, just like any other place.  Average income tends to be on the low side, and it’s not easy for those at the bottom to find a decent place to live.  The dominant white culture is giving way to a richer diversity in which the Hispanic community plays a major role.  Old time conservatives are making way, reluctantly, for younger more liberal voters. Remnants of wild west behavior are reflected in the occasional dispute resolution with guns between hot tempered youth, often members of local gangs.  The town’s reputation for generosity has begun to attract more homeless transients.  They are issues common to many cities these days, but in Walla Walla the community is working through public and private means to address each of them.  I’ve been impressed by younger generations of leadership taking over from the old boys network, and doing a good job of it.
Not everyone who comes likes it.  It’s the rural west.  The mountain are yours to enjoy, but the roads into them are rough forest service roads.  The wild life up there is not tame.  The high desert is dry.  The sky is big.  The horizon is many miles away.  Whole Foods and Trader Joe are not here.  The Snake and Columbia rivers are, but the marinas and parks along their banks cater to locals, not tourists.  Gated communities exist, but we don’t like them.  Although neighborhoods can seem segregated, the city is too small for integration not to dominate.  Farm and ranch supply operations adorn the highways in and out of town.  Some farmsteads have a lot of junk around them.  If you come to stay, come to live into our way of life.  It’s not the big city. 
We came here sixteen years ago.  I think we’ll stay.

Hosea, quit messing with us. It’s not nice.

I don’t know what happened in your congregations this morning.  In my tiny rural congregation there was some difficulty grasping the lessons from Hosea, especially considering they had just spent a few weeks struggling with Amos.  For one thing, there was a general distaste for a bible story about marrying a prostitute.  It just didn’t seem, well, in good taste.  It’s just not, you know, biblical. 
I tried to connect Hosea with Amos by reminding them that while Amos was a prophet who spoke to the leadership of Israel about their unethical behavior that thad oppressed and impoverished the common people of the land, and about their elaborate but meaningless religious rituals, Hosea, doing his work at about the same time, prophesied more about their personal relationship with God, and he did it in a strange way; he acted it out.
We talked about Hosea’s marriage to Gomer as an allegory acted out like a stage play.  Hosea played the part of God while Gomer played the part of the people of Israel.  As God had chosen the Israelites, so Hosea chose Gomer.  As God blessed Israel with a land of milk and honey, so Hosea provided Gomer with all she needed.  As Israel betrayed the covenant with God by going after other gods, so Gomer betrayed Hosea by having sex with other men.  Hosea and Gomer acted out their parts as a demonstration of how Israel had treated God.  Throughout the book God shows anger, frustration, lament because God loves the Israelites even though they have betrayed him.  In the end, God declares that by God’s grace the day will come when, in spite of their sin, they will be restored and returned to him, their sins forgiven.  God’s love will never die even as our love proves undependable.  You’ll notice I switched from past tense to present tense because I think it’s what God is still doing in our own time.  
So, did he really do it?  Hosea did what God told him to do, but did he really marry a prostitute and have children by her, or did he simply write about it as if he had?  It’s an allegory to be sure, but I suggested that their guess is as good as anyone else’s as to whether he wrote about it or actually did it.  Whichever, there are some important lessons for us that we tried to get to.
Through Hosea, God reveals that God is affected by what we do.  God is not only engaged in our lives, but because God is love, and because love, whatever else it might be, is emotional, God can and does feel the emotions you and I feel about those we love.  It’s easy to say that we love God, but how many other gods do we love?  More than a few if we’re honest about it.  Like disobedient children, how often have we told God we would do something, but never took it seriously, never did it, and never intended to do it?  Hosea messes with our ideas about God in very uncomfortable ways, doesn’t he?
Like the people of Israel, how can we expect to live into the fullness of life in abundance that God desires for us, while behaving individually and in community in ways that lead in the opposite direction?  It can’t be done.  That doesn’t keep us from trying.  
Can we believe, as Amos, Hosea, and all the prophets said, that in the end God will still be there for us, creating new life for us, no mater what we are going through now?  Isn’t that what the gospel writers, especially Matthew, meant when they said that Jesus is the fulfillment of all that the prophets had said?  If so, how does it affect the way you live?  Hopefully, it allows you to be bolder in your lives of adventure.  We are children growing toward adulthood.  Go with boldness, grow with boldness.  That’s what nineteen elderly folks in a tiny rural congregation are working on.
How’d it go at your end?

Thucydides speaks to the nation – our nation

Jimmy Carter was famously pilloried for saying that America suffered from national malaise.  What!?  American’s suffering from malaise?  Nonsense!  And so began our experiment with Reaganism, which, by itself, was not much, but it opened the door to so called neocons and neo-liberals (I never have understood the difference between them) who championed the devices of real malaise.
That hadn’t occurred to me until I ran across a citation from Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian Wars about the deep cultural malaise that affected the Hellenistic world at that time.  With very little adjustment, it seems to capture our own time.  So with apologies to philosophers and scholars of Greek history who may take justifiable umbrage, here is my interpretation of what he wrote as applied to our own nation in our own time. 
The whole of American society was convulsed with the sufferings inflicted on it through decades of unceasing war and civil unrest.  Words began to change their ordinary meaning.  Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal citizen.  Prudent hesitation became specious cowardice.  Moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness.  Willingness to consider all points of view became unwillingness to act.  Frantic violence became a sign of manliness.  Cautious planning became a target for attack.  Glib platitudes became means to unethical ends.  Thus every form of iniquity took root in the land.  Any thought to working across the aisle was laughed down, and our society was divided into camps in which no person trusted another.
However malaise is understood, the mood of the nation is not a good one.  Public longing for return to better times is always about a time that never existed.  It’s a romanticized ideal, but it is a true longing.  The subtext for many people has to do with a 1950ish time in which social and racial classes were stabilized with white people at the top, and access to the middle class, at least for white males, was almost assured.  Leaving it at that with a smug dismissal would be a mistake.  It also harkens to a time in which representatives of conflicting interests intended to hammer out workable agreements between them.  Not that fringe groups specializing in irrational fear mongering didn’t exist. There were many, and sometimes, like the John Birch Society, they had enough public support to gain a modicum of power.  Nevertheless, those in control of our legislative processes found ways to work out their differences in acceptable ways.  That time began to unravel under Reagan through an intentional movement toward polarized politics engineered by neocon/neo-liberal apparatchiks who were fed up with compromises, and wanted to keep all the marbles for themselves.

Now, I think, we have entered fully into the Hellenistic time of which Thucydides wrote.  The Republican Convention now underway is prime example number one.  I don’t know what this election cycle will bring, but I hope that it is the nadir of our descent, and that at every level of government more rational minds, faithful to the highest values of our national myth, will begin to prevail.  

As Western bars go, it was OK

The writing workshop I attended recently had one unexpected turn.  We were invited to take about forty minutes to write a short, short story.  I don’t write fiction.  I am not interested in writing fiction, in spite of what some critics say about my essays.  The muse of blank minds reminded me that Garrison Keillor was about to retire, that I, like him, grew up in Minnesota, and that some places in the inter mountain West, where I live, are not unlike Lake Wobegon.  With plagiarizing political speech writers as my guide, this is what I came up with.  Enjoy; it is my only contribution to the world of fiction.  Like Schubert’s 8th, it’s unfinished, ever to remain so.

Ralph had little to show for his life, and was satisfied with it.  He had a small place about ten miles out of town, and owned a bar at the end of Main Street, Ralph’s Pretty Good Bar, where the beer was not bad and there was nothing on the top shelf.  It was the only bar in town so it was good enough.  His pride possession was his old, somewhat temperamental, Bentley convertible with the top permanently stuck in the down position, which he’d bought years ago at an estate sale.  For companionship he had Olga, his St. Bernard, who was a neutered male but he didn’t know that when he got “her” from friends who no longer wanted to pick up after him.  Anyway, it was near time to open the bar, and he was running late.  Olga was trundled into the back seat, not without difficulty, and the two of them headed to town.  There would be the usual gathering of old ranchers waiting for their beer and a bump, but they could wait.  They always did.  Besides, it gave them time to spit their Skoal into the gutter instead of on his floor.  Then it began to rain the kind of straight down and sideways at the same time rain that can happen only in western towns.  The car did not like rain on it’s cracked red leather, nor did it care for soggy dog odors mixed with dog slobber and whatever detritus hung under her tail.  Being English, it did not like running in the rain under any circumstance, so it quit, deciding to stay put until better weather came along.

Old ranchers will wait for a while, but the desire for a beer and a bump, and the lack of desire to get soaking wet, were inspirational moments for Karl who knew where Ralph hid the extra key, and figured maybe he was sick or something, so decided to open up on his own, which the others thought was a good idea, especially since Fred, retired  rancher and the town’s part time cop, was with them.  They did a pretty good job of it too.  Everyone knew how to run the taps, and where the whiskey and glasses were kept.  That part was easy.  No one knew how to run the cash register, so each one kept his own record on a piece of paper to be left on a spindle near the jars of peanuts and pickled eggs.  When, and if, Ralph ever showed up he could sort it out at his convenience.  The penciled receipts left something to be desired as the drinks continued to be poured in increasingly generous portions.

That’s as far as I got.  Here endeth the story.  Now it’s time to get back to politics, economics, theology, and the occasional nonsense.

Public Safety – Dallas – Baton Rouge

I deplore unjustifiable police violence, and I deplore those who use it as an excuse to vilify the police.  I’m an old man now, but once in my youth I was a sworn officer.  It didn’t last long.  It wasn’t my calling.  But it made an indelible impression on my life.  For the last fourteen years I have been the fire and police chaplain in our community. 
It was Noon today.  From across the region, fifty police officers, deputies, and fire fighters stood at attention in the plaza at First and Main to remember and honor those slain in Dallas and Baton Rouge.  I was asked to offer an invocation.  This is what I said.
We live in conflicted times in which we are too easily tempted to turn on each other, distrustful of each other, afraid to give of ourselves for the well being of others not like us.  It is not what the Almighty has called us to be.
St. Paul, having learned his own lesson as an agent of persecution, came to understand that in God there are no longer those who are privileged and those who are not, no longer those who are in bondage and those who are free, no longer male or female, but all are one in God’s presence.
We too often stand apart, making excuses for why we are entitled to make exceptions.  There are no excuses.  There are no exceptions.  It is time to put away falsehoods.  Let us speak truth in love, not to our neighbors, but with our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 
Today we pause in the busyness of our own lives to remember in our hearts, and before the Almighty, eight of our members who have become victims of the violent, hate filled distrust that has infected our world.  They were working peacefully among peaceful protesters, black, brown, and white, when violent hatred took their lives.  They were on routine patrol when an assassin took their lives:
  • Patrick Zamarripa
  • Brent Thompson
  • Michael Krol
  • Lorne Ahrens
  • Michael Smith
  • Montreal Jackson
  • Matthew Gerald
  • Brad Garafola
O God, you made us in your own image.  Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that the time may not be far off when all nations and races may serve each other in harmony.  And let all say,

Amen.

Distracted by too many things

“Martha, you are distracted by too many things.  Mary has chosen the better part.”  So said Jesus in the familiar story of Mary and Martha.  How can we not be distracted?  There are too many things going wrong in our world not to be.  Florida, Louisiana, Minnesota, Texas.  As I write it’s Nice, France.  Too many mass shootings.  Too many unnecessary deaths at the hands of those on whom we rely to protect and serve.  Too many assassinations of our finest and bravest at the hands of the vengeful.  In the background are the daily stories of refugees fleeing unspeakable terrors, willing to risk death at sea or life penned up in camps as the better choice.  How can we not be distracted?  In the midst of it, in our own communities, we are surrounded by voices of contempt, suspicion, conspiracy, and bigotry, each justifying itself on nothing more than rumor, hearsay, and the irresponsible trash talk that has become the source of “news” for many.  
We desperately need the better part chosen by Mary, but what is it?  The old hymn says it well, “This is my Father’s world.”  It is not ours.  We are merely the stewards of it, and each of us only for a short time at that.  For those of us who claim to be Christian, we have our instructions.  We have been told what stewardship entails.  Love God with all our being.  Love our neighbors as ourselves (remember the Good Samaritan?).  Love each other as Christ has loved us.  Everything comes after that.  It is the better part.  Amidst our distractions, let us strive to be agents of Christ’s love in a world so desperate for it.  No more dodging the question or making facile excuses.  These were commandments, not suggestions.  It isn’t just the better part, it’s the only part.