Elected from the States for the Nation: Manchin & AOC

A democratic republic such as ours depends on a legislative assembly in which the collective ethos assumes, and is committed to, making legislative decisions for the good of the country.  Parochial interests are expected to be represented and reflected to some degree in the final product.  They are not expected to establish the rule by which the final product succeeds or fails. 

Legislators are elected from their individual states to serve for the nation.  As such, our government is not a loose confederation of autonomous states where each negotiates for their own exclusive wants in competition with the exclusive wants of other states.  That was tried once with the Articles of Confederation and it didn’t work.  Europe tried it for several centuries.  It took two world wars to convince them there had to be a better way to avoid internecine war and cooperate for the greater good.

I expect most readers to wonder why such an obvious and well known fact needed to begin this essay.  Well, it seems the obvious and well known is hidden from stiff necked legislators who should know better.

Throughout our history members of the legislative assembly were sufficiently committed to their duty and diverse enough to tolerate oddball outliers, and even well organized efforts of subversion, but times have changed. 

Long running organizing to move the nation toward autocracy with a democratic veneer has been successful enough to create the hard core polarized legislative politics characterizing the last thirteen years. Into this new legislative ethos, the outliers gained power.

As an outlier, Senator Joe Manchin, in his stiff necked way, insists he was elected from West Virginia not for the nation, but for West Virginia only. In an evenly divided Senate with Republicans dedicated to stopping everything, regardless of its value to the nation, Manchin has become a dictator of one by making the interests of West Virginia, and only West Virginia, determine his willingness to vote for or against anything.  Curiously, his take on what is good for West Virginia is seriously flawed, but that’s for another time.  

Manchin is not an ideologue. Ideologues are inflexibly wedded to a rigidly narrow world view.  Castro was an ideologue and in his shadow, so are the adherents of Trumpism.

Manchin is no ideologue, but he gives the ideologues everything they want with his unwillingness to work that which is good for West Virginia into what is good for the nation.  He seems unable to comprehend how important it is for a final decision to integrate some portion of what his state needs with portions of what other states need to produce legislation that puts the good of the nation first.

Manchin would do well to learn from Bernie Sanders.  Gadfly social democrat that Sanders is, he’s learned to fight hard for what he believes right and good for the nation, and to negotiate for what he can get.

As long as I’m taking a shot at Manchin, why not fire one over the bow of House progressives led by Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (AOC).  Unlike Manchin, she is reported to be something of an ideologue willing to sabotage negotiated compromises that fall short of her ideological ideals.  That’s fine with the GOP opposition who are happy to cheer her on.

House progressives desire to be the voice of the working class too long subject  to the whims of Republican policies that treat them like disposable, cheap labor commodities.  They mean well, but Trumpists, using old fashioned fascist propaganda, have beaten them to the punch.  Trump may no longer be able to command 74 million voters, but Trumpism has a solid hold on many millions who have been convinced that, in the name of protecting their rights and freedoms, they should surrender them with unquestioned loyalty to autocratic rule.

House progressives will lose unless they learn two things.  One, how to negotiate in good faith with less liberal members.  Two, how to speak to working and middle class voters in plain language that addresses their deepest fears and desires. 

Patience and Anxiety

About a month ago, I had a sub retinal hemorrhage in my one good eye which created a blind spot in the part of my vision that focuses on reading and writing.  Peripheral vision remains OK most of the time, although changes in light and numbers of moving objects in my field of vision can severely effect what I can and can’t see. 

Thanks to my doctor, wife, and a handy neighbor, I now have a handheld device that allows me to read and a large computer monitor that allows me to write in an exaggerated font that can later be adjusted  down to an ordinary size for printing or publishing.   

Open space outdoors has become my favorite place to feel like sight is more or less normal.  I can take in the panorama without having to focus on a particular spot. 

Whether my condition is temporary or permanent is yet to be known, but the likelihood tends toward permanency.    As a result, these last few weeks have forced lessons on me about patience and anxiety.  

Patience may be the hardest.  Before this incident, like others who go about with mobile phones, tablets and laptops, I filled vacant time with whatever diversion the electronic world had to offer.  Keeping up with the news, reading long articles, or wasting time with Facebook and Twitter could fill hours.  Now I find so-called vacant time consumed with sitting and thinking.  Time dedicated to tasks is greater than it used to be.  Hurrying is not an option. It takes a long time to do the things that have been my daily routine. Morning Prayer cannot be skimmed through.  Reading the news from a dozen or more sites is out of the question.  I have to choose two or three articles and skim the rest by listening to radio.  Reading email has become a matter of deleting anything to which I’m unwilling to devote five or ten minutes.  The usual assortment of everyday household tasks has been pared back to the essentials that can be done well enough without seeing details.

I’ve become dependent on my wife for a lot things that have to be worked into her schedule, which is already filled with the important matters of her own life.  A feeling of greater dependence and less contribution is frustrating, requiring a more robust discipline of patience than I’ve been known to possess; it means learning to be more patient.  Patience, for me, has to do with time management and the illusion that I am its master.   I am no longer that master.  I have to wait for the time it takes for things to happen.  Being punctual and not wasting time was a sign to myself that I was a more effective user of time than the average person. Now I have less control over my time.  The use I want to make of it has to be accommodated by time being managed by others, and by the tasks themselves.  For instance, my new electronic reading device makes it possible to read, albeit slowly, but not to read all things.  It takes more time to find things in plain sight.  Putting toothpaste on a toothbrush takes extra time. Preparing a meal from a recipe takes a lot of time.  The god of time is being deposed as the ruler of my life.  That’s not said as an excuse for sloth, or disrespect for intruding on the time of others.  It’s recognition that patience is not one of the virtues of which I can be proud, but I’m learning.

For me, patience is related to anxiety.  Not having control over time makes the near future less predictable, and raises anxiety over what will happen next.  There’s anxiety about whether I’ll lose yet more of my sight.  Familiar things have become strange, even unavailable, and that creates more anxiety.  A few days ago I was dropped off at a restaurant for my first “unsupervised” outing with a group of retired men from church.  It was a little like a first day of school.  Would I recognize anyone?  How would I order lunch?  Would someone give me a ride home?  It went well, no need to have wasted energy on anxiety.

Being visually impaired is not blindness, but the distorted and somewhat veiled field of vision creates an odd new reality for me. Too many moving images competing for attention feels like an assault on my senses and gives me a tinge of vertigo – its own sort of anxiety.

So the cure for vision induced anxiety is for me to spend time in quiet reflective prayer, mentally composing new things to write, and rehearsing lectures I may or may not ever give.  

Well, this isn’t what I started out to write, but it’s what has come out. Leaving it here, I plan to return to more normal subjects next week.

Breaking Out and Breaking In

We’re often urged to get out of our comfort zones as a way to learn and experience something new.  But let’s face it, comfort zones are, well, comfortable, safe places to be in an unpredictable and sometimes dangerous world.  Besides, not all things new are worth learning or experiencing.  Relating to comfort zones is personal space.  It’s the physical and emotional space that sets boundaries for intimacy or distance that we’re willing to allow others into our lives. 

In Mark’s gospel, heard in many churches a few weeks ago, Jesus taught some important lessons about comfort zones and personal space.

The stories had to do with a Syrophoenician woman in the region of Sidon on the Mediterranean Sea and a deaf man in the region of the Decapolis east of the Sea of Galilee.  As the story goes, Jesus decided to take a few days off by traveling from his home area of Galilee to the seaside area near Sidon.  There his solitude was interrupted by the Syrophoenician woman who pestered him to cure her daughter, which eventually he did.  Within a few sentences, the narrative has Jesus through Galilee into Decapolis, a good ten days’ walk from Sidon, where he encountered a deaf man and restored his hearing.

A great deal has been said and written about what Jesus said and did in those two linked episodes, but I think it’s equally important to pay attention to the context of his location, because it offers opportunities for insight on the question of comfort zones and personal space.

The way the gospel is written, it’s easy to assume the Syrophoenician woman was a foreigner, an alien intruding on Jesus’ personal space.  In fact, it was Jesus who was the alien foreigner and in a very peculiar place at that.  She was at home in her own territory, a native of the place.  As a Syrophoenician, she was a descendent of Israel’s sometimes ally but most often enemy.  For Jesus to go into her land for a brief getaway was to break out of his comfort zone, leaving the sanctity of his personal space behind to enter a potentially hostile place.  In like manner, when Jesus had crossed back over his own land into the region of the Decapolis, he entered gentile territory that had seldom been friendly with Israel. 

We often talk about the importance of breaking down walls that separate us from one another with the expectation that we will welcome the stranger into our midst.  But in the case of these stories, Jesus broke out of the walls defining his comfort zone to enter the zones of the other, meeting them as they were, in the place where they were.  He brought the kingdom of God near to them, but never pressured them to convert in the usual way of understanding conversion, or to leave their home territories to follow him into the strangeness of his home territory. Moreover, he allowed his personal space to be invaded by the demands of strangers to whom he was a foreigner.         

We have no idea what the woman did after her daughter had been healed.  I imagine she joyfully proclaimed what Jesus had done for her to anyone who would listen, and many who had no interest one way or the other.   

The deaf man, we’re told, went off to proclaim throughout the Decapolis what God had done for him. 

If we are to be followers of Jesus, we must certainly do what we can to break down barriers of separation and welcome the stranger into our midst.  But we must also be willing to break out of our comfort zones to enter places where we are the alien foreigner with no ulterior purpose but to meet the other on their own terms.  Bearing the presence of God’s grace, we are to have no other motive than to be a blessing as blessings are needed. We are not in another’s place to change them into our likeness or to demand that they follow our ways.  We are simply to allow God’s presence to accompany us in whatever way it will.  That means being willing to let our own personal space become more permeable than is likely to be comfortable for us.

Jesus’ way was the opposite to the ways of a typical American missionary who sought to enter others’ comfort zones and personal spaces, as if they were the alien foreigners. Missionaries acted as enlightened purveyors of salvations according to the customs and standards of their own comfort and space, all the while assuming their own to be the universal standard against which all others were deemed alien. 

Following Jesus out of our comfort zones and personal spaces requires leaving hubris behind, carrying only the confident humility that, alien foreigner though we may be, we are also bearers of God’s presence.  It can be done only with humility and respect for the people and places into which we go.

With that thought in mind, consider that the stranger whom we welcome into our newly refortified spaces may be the one bearing God’s presence into our midst, rather than the other way round. 

Restoring American Credibility

The U.S. has a credibility problem made the more difficult as it learns how to deal with the new rulers of Afghanistan, who also have a credibility problem. American pundits whine that the Taliban know nothing of human rights and inflict barbarian social standards on women and children. That would be bad enough, but they also dislike music, entertainment, laughter, and other unseemly behavior. When you pause to think about it, they’re not much different from American Puritans of the early colonial era, but that’s for another time. The point is, the U.S. also has a credibility problem. We cannot rely on the Afghans’ word to be more tolerant and inclusive. But our creditability lies in our human rights record by operation of secret prisons, to torturing incarcerated prisoners, bombing funerals and weddings, and trying to force a new way of democratic life on the people through military force. That’s a part of the Afghan legacy most of us would prefer to ignore because it’s so antithetical to all that we say we believe in. Indeed it is, but there it is and we have to face it.

If that was our only credibility problem, it might not be so bad, but it isn’t. I can’t lay a finger on when our international credibility began to fray, but the big tear came with the Iraq War that was entered intro through lies and deliberately manufactured rumors about weapons of mass destruction and Iraq’s alleged involvement in 9/11. The blatant reality of those lies was soon made known to the entire world, which brought into the open the question of whether the word of the United States could be trusted. What saved us, at least in part, was the general feeling that President Bush was an affable nice guy who simply got in over his head. Contrary to Republican blather, the Obama years did much to restore America’s International standing, even if it was increasingly clear that the Afghan War needed to be ended.  All that changed with the advent of Trump’s administration that tromped over diplomatic  protocol, abused leaders of allied nations, cozied up to dictators of nations intent on doing America harm. Making it worse, Trump demonstrated that Americans were capable of electing to the presidency a functionally illiterate with a junior high grasp of history and an inability to communicate with anything more sophisticated than aggressive insults and fantastical promises he obviously had no intention or ability to deliver on. 

It’s a problem the Biden administration has to wrestle with. There’s no way around it. It can’t be wished away.

The first step to restoration of American credibility is recognition that good ends can’t be achieved through violent means. Violent means may be necessary to stop even more violent attacks, but they can’t do more than that. To achieve good ends requires something more. Consider one of the times in human history that that was understood, the end of World War II. Wise minds understood that the best hope for  enduring peace was to help Germany and Japan recover social stability and economic prosperity. The same went for other nations that suffered the inhuman destruction of war. It meant knowing and honoring the existing institutions and cultural practices that were central to each nation. As scripture commands, when one’s enemies are hungry, feed them; when they are thirsty, give them something to drink. Among our many failings in Afghanistan, we were unable to learn, understand, and honor the cultural way and institutions of the land, to use that knowledge and understanding to provide resources needed for them to rebuild their societies enabling them to participate in a 21st century world as authentic Afghans.

As a side note, having listened to a multitude of military experts and representatives opining about Afghanistan, it’s become clear that it’s hard for people well trained in military ways to envision other tools and means other than their own. 

Rebuilding diplomatic relationships with other nations is another much needed step. It means more than restoring a well trained and highly motivated foreign service. It means that national leadership has to adopt a public narrative that is less obscure and evasive. I know that’s the core of diplomatic speak, but it leads the pubic to be suspicious of hidden agendas not in their best interests, and therefore to be publicly opposed.  At the same time, it means avoiding ‘Trumpspeak’ that threatens like a schoolyard bully. Forthright honesty can be expressed without pandering or threatening. Mistakes can be honestly admitted without groveling.  Moreover, too often, I suspect, our diplomatic efforts have been harnessed to corporate trading opportunities that, however useful, are not always in the best interest of other pressing needs: environmental protection, labor conditions, public health, etc. The United States of America does not end in ‘Inc’.

My fear is that Trump’s bellicose blundering continues to be popular among too many voters and Members of Congress. It’s something I have a hard time grasping, but juvenile cowboy mentality is beneath our dignity, and a sure way to undermine whatever credibility we retain.