If It’s Worth Doing, It’s Worth Doing Right

My sisters and I were raised on fatherly aphorisms, the same ones he had been raised on: The best grease is elbow grease; If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right; Know what you’re going to do before you do it; Never say I can’t do it.  There were more, but you get the theme.

I was thinking about dad’s aphorisms while pondering the city road debates that have raged for decades in the community I lived in for twenty years.

The long running complaint was their poor condition. Today’s city leaders were held accountable for poor decisions, made long ago, to overlay as cheaply as possible deteriorating streets and unused streetcar rails on the grounds that cost conscious conservative leadership was saving the people from higher taxation.  As the decades rolled on, the cheap solution began to fail, aided by city councils that kept maintenance overhead as low as possible.  Huffing with disgust, morning coffee conversations and letters to the editor blasted incompetent city leaders and staff, demanding to know why it was allowed to happen, and asserting that, had they been in charge, it would have been done right the first time.  

About ten years ago the public discontent with road conditions rose high enough for the city to implement a decade long plan to repair and replace aging infrastructure: water and sewer mains, bridge and streets, doing it right this time.  It was widely supported and very popular – for a while.   As predictable as fog in December, public voices began to complain about road construction all the time everywhere.  It was inconvenient, hurt some businesses, and costs were “out of control” – they weren’t.  The usual voices began to sing a new tune: “Our streets are good enough. We don’t need the best in the west.  Good enough is good enough.  A few bumps and potholes are OK.  We don’t want to pay for infrastructure we may not live to use.”  

In other words, some portion of the current tax paying public was willing to repeat the short-sighted, do it on the cheap mistakes of the past, laying the burden of doing it right on some future generation.

It’s one small example from one small city, but it exemplifies the attitudes of members of Congress who think spending as little as possible to patch together a deteriorating national infrastructure is good enough.  To them, new ways of understanding what infrastructure is, along with the technologies that define it, is an unaffordable boondoggle.  While not in the majority, they have the ability to stop more ambitious plans for doing it right.  Their patch it up to be good enough mentality heralds the predictable decline of the nation’s ability to compete in world markets, provide citizens with greater economic opportunity, and erode overall quality of life, all in the name of conservative fiscal responsibility.  

They seem unable to comprehend the idea that it’s a guaranteed high return investment to spend generously repairing and replacing old infrastructure, while building new infrastructure to meet new needs of the nation.  

The do it on the cheap crowd has been aided by answers to an annual Gallup Poll question: Is the government doing too much or not enough?  Fifty-two percent of respondents say the government is doing too much, which is about what they say every year.  Which government?  What is too much?  What is not enough?  Those are not questions that get answered in the media, and for good reason. They’re difficult to dig out of the data, if they’re there at all. 

I’m a tad pessimistic about the outcome.  Biden’s infrastructure plans are much needed and almost too late in coming.  Initial popularity is too easily undermined by scary stories about debt and taxes that have little merit.  The nation has struggled since Reagan  and the Silent Majority (that was neither silent nor the majority) with two incompatible ideas.  One is that small government and low taxes are the most important  protections of American individualism, defense spending excluded.  The other is that the United States is and must remain the strongest, most advanced nation on earth.  

The two ideas cannot both be right any more than cheap street repairs in small cities can serve the needs of a thriving economic and cultural future for generations to come.

Once upon a time America claimed it had a continent spanning manifest destiny to become One Nation with liberty and justice for all.  Fingers were crossed behind the back to reserve to  states the right to act as independent countries as much as possible (as in Texas, A Whole Other Country). It never worked well, and works not at all today if we want to have a strong United States of America.  In the 21st century we are either going to be One Nation in which national needs are met with a federal response, or we begin the slow decline of every preceding empire until we go down in history, not as Rome, but as the Ottomans: too decadent, too cheap, too politically corrupt.  Trump set us on that path.  His enduring presence and faithful followers suggest  the process may be accelerating, aided by McConnell, Manchin and the like who put lust for personal power above the good of the nation.

Dumping Throw Away Society

We live in two kinds of throw away societies.  One began in earnest around 1950, but the other is thousands of years old.  The more recent version began with the advent of single use convenience items advertised as “use it and toss it” combined with aggressive advertising for each year’s new car model, and social pressure for the newest of new fashions.  It was quite the thing for a while.   Television ads featured the time saving convenience of using and tossing in favor of the new and improved.  That was sixty or seventy years ago.  We didn’t give much thought to what it meant to dirty our own nests.  Our hands and houses were clean and neat, our lives renewed with new cars and trendy clothes.  The trash just disappeared.  What seemed like a marvelous convenience became a tidal wave of environmental destruction threatening lands, waters, and air.

There is more awareness now of our foolishness, although awareness has not seemed to have been translated into different behavior by much.   

When what is convenient to the individual becomes so important that it subsumes individual responsibility for the good of the community, what makes community possible itself becomes a case of use it and toss it.  That’s what extreme libertarianism, exemplified by Trumpism, has come to.  It isn’t simply a threat to American democracy, it’s a threat to community itself.  

The older form of throw way mentality is more entrenched; it’s been with us for thousands of years. It’s our willingness to throw away other people with little moral compunction.  Humans in every age and culture have used others and thrown them away.  It’s barbaric.  Surely, our modern minds protest, that was a long time ago; we’re not like that anymore.  I wonder.  Our nation was founded in part in the belief that exterminating and subjugating its indigenous people was morally acceptable.  They were throw away people.  Chattel slavery was ended not even two hundred years ago.  Slavery is the ultimate use it and toss it scheme in which slaves are disposable commodities.  In the absence of slaves, we’ve done much the same with immigrant and wage labor.  Truth be told, we’ve done the same with newly minted professionals, perhaps most obviously in higher education.  In our own time we face the problem of throw away children bounced from one foster home to another until they reach eighteen when they are thrown away. 

Too much of what is acceptable in contemporary American society is an offense against our most cherished American ideals, but the throw away infection is not ours alone.  There is no country, nation or culture that isn’t affected in the same way.  The human capacity to inflict inhuman violence on one another knows no limits and respects no borders.

It’s hard to understand how something so obviously and morally wrong can endure with the complicity of those who know it’s wrong. 

What I know is this: it’s inconsistent with everything Jesus proclaimed, and incompatible with what it means to follow Jesus in the company of the body of Christ, the Church. 

If following Jesus is something Christians want to take seriously, their words and deeds must show some degree of discipline in respecting the dignity of every human being and the sacredness of creation.  What could that mean for Christians in the United States in these times?  I suggest it means moving toward more simple and sustainable life styles. It doesn’t mean giving up convenience or living like monks.  It does mean making responsible use of possessions as stewards who try to balance the good provided to them with the good the same possessions might provide to others.   As a simple example: less buying online and more shopping locally while remembering the wisdom of Lake Wobegone’s Pretty Good Grocery Store where “if they don’t have it you probably don’t need it.”

Frankly, that’s the easy part.  The harder part is separating one’s self from thousands of years in which throwing away other human beings has been tolerated, even by self-proclaimed Christians.  To proclaim the dignity of every human being is to reject all that demeans other persons. Today, that means not only children and the usual menu of racial prejudices, but also refugees, immigrants, and undocumented residents.  It will invite the raging ire of caterwauling voices obsessed with secure borders as an excuse to fortify America against any further diversification of the population.  So be it.  Following Jesus always involves the way of the cross, which is none other than the way of life and peace. 

The Eyes have It: Part II

My first trip as a person with impaired vision was a success, albeit not without some anxiety.  Being able to see but not see is surreal .  It’s not that I couldn’t see the highway and traffic on the way to the airport, but not clearly, and certainly not able to help navigate as Dianna drove. At the airport I wasn’t able to check myself in and being unable to see clearly, needed a paper boarding pass, rather than using my airline app with an electronic pass. The more crowded the airport got, the more difficult it became for me to discern where I was, or where I was going.  My scope of vision changes with the amount of ambient lighting and background colors.  Outside on a clear day, I can see most everything, if not anything in particular.  Inside the airport concourse, my scope or field of near blindness expanded to cover all but peripheral edges. As long as I followed Dianna, all was well.  

The first leg went well.   Richmond’s airport is laid out in simple straight lines.  COVID has limited the number of flights, and our early morning departure was one of the first.  We flew to Newark for a change of planes.  There is nothing simple or uncrowded about Newark, especially in one of the old concourses that end in tight circles of gates and waiting areas, with commercial kiosks in the middle.  The airport’s interior is not well lighted.  Gate numbers in black letters on large yellow background were all but invisible to me.  We picked out a place to sit, and with a little instruction on where to look, I went off to the toilet.  I found it OK by following the line of men walking into it.  Finding Dianna on the return was more difficult.  It began with the wrong gate number followed by moving along looking for the familiar landmark of silver hair. It wasn’t quite like a little kid having lost his mom in the super market, but not that different either.  Anyway, there she was, right where I left her.    

We made it.  I don’t think I could do it on my own yet, but I’ve seen completely blind persons traveling on their own, and I’m not completely blind, just a bit impaired, so why not?  Time with family was a delight. The return trip was not as anxiety producing as I knew, more or less, what to expect.  Dianna led the way, checked us in, and we were off. Transferring again in Newark, I once more made it to the men’s room and back without mishap…

Traveling and moving about in unfamiliar locations, I have learned a bit more about the limits of my vision.  After a long day of intense effort to “see” things, my eyes tire out.  They refuse to do the hard work and beg for rest, after which they are willing and able to give it another go.  So what’s next?  In December, we are taking a train trip to New York and in January, the long flight to Maui.  As long as it’s the two of us with Dianna in the lead, it should be a snap.