The end of the year always produces a flock of articles listing the most important events of the year.  After reading a few, it seemed to me the best move would be to one of those rare countries that is civilized, peaceful, and satisfied with what they have.  However, 2022 is only a day away, and maybe it will be a better year.

Isn’t that what is said every year?  What makes January 1 the start of anything, much less anything new?  Absolutely nothing. Nevertheless, the cultural power of believing something new is happening can make a difference. There is always the possibility of an intentional reset in the minds of enough people to make a real difference.  What would such a reset look like for 2022?

It would mean a general recognition that Trump is a whining loser whose lifetime of narcissistic lying and betrayal has finally come to its end.  It would mean the Q Anon phenomenon has passed the way of pet rocks  and Cabbage Patch dolls.  It would mean that thirty years of determined effort to destroy the heritage of The New Deal has been revealed as the corrosive, anti democratic movement that it has always been.  It would mean that a revitalized responsible conservative movement will emerge to replace today’s ultra right wing GOP.  What of the Democratic Party?  If it survives the midterms, it may enjoy enough of a majority to permit vigorous debate and still reach a conclusion that can be sent to the president for signature.  

With luck,  the economy will settle down to a more robust growth rate than it’s seen in decades, inflation will even out, lowest tier wages will continue to rise, with retail jobs still hard to fill.  

Who can know for sure?  What will climate change mean for floods, storms, drought, and wild fires?  What will be the trajectory of the Chinese juggernaut? Will Putin rattle his saber and back off?  Will Britain and the EU reconcile?  Will anyone figure out how to better manage the world wide flow of refugees and immigrants fleeing the worst of all possible conditions for the slightly less worse?

What’s the value of guessing about the year ahead?  None really.  Think about the hopes we had just a year ago for 2021.  Before we got to the end of the first week, Trump had inspired an insurrection, and the year stumbled on, lurching between hope and despair. 

This new year will stumble forward too.  We cannot predict, but we can be better prepared.  Prepared for what?  It’s not what, but how.  We can’t know what will happen, in spite of best guesses.  Random guesses might even be better.  We can be prepared for how.  What does that mean?

It means reserving judgment about unfolding events until they can be verified, and not by sources that simply echo each other with unproven allegations. It means to seek the so called golden mean tilted toward restorative justice favoring the poor and disadvantaged.   It means being honest about who the poor and disadvantaged are, and not hiding them behind questionable social values. It means a high level of skepticism about anticipatory, speculative opinionated reporting about what may happen tomorrow or next week.  There is a big difference between reporting on what is known about a future event and what is speculative guesswork filling airtime and feeding “the core”, whoever they are.

It also means a revitalized discipline of continuing education about history and current events.  It should not need to be said that continuing education is not the same as consulting social media and websites trafficking in unverifiable fantasies.  Those who do often claim they are probing new understandings rejected by the calcified establishment.  It’s true that the new is often contrary to established ways, but it doesn’t retreat into a mythical past of old disproven norms.

As a Christian, it means following where Christ has led, and leads still.  That’s hard.  It means a willingness to question social standards mistaken for God’s standards.  It means rejecting  vengeance, violence and grudges.  It means giving first loyalty to God, as we know God in Christ Jesus, before all other loyalties.  To put it bluntly, patriotism is a fine virtue, but it ranks well belowLoyalty to God.   

America’s Future: Two Paths

I was 20 years old when I began a career that engaged me in politics and public policy at the local, state, regional and national levels, with a few forays into international matters. I am 78 now.  In those 58 years I witnessed legislative processes ranging from battlefield chaos to near harmonious cooperation. One way or the other, they worked because legislators understood they were called to legislate for what they considered the good of the city, state or nation.

2008 marked an unexpected, unprecedented turn.  Maybe it was the election of a Black president.  It certainly had something to do with right wing populism, not spontaneously grassroots, but taking root just the same.  The four years following Obama’s term were filled with fantastical promises never fulfilled, and policy failures damaging the nation proclaimed as successes like no one has ever seen before.  Oddly enough, a great many of the voting public  believed it all. Biden’s election suggested a move toward responsible government, but it’s been a move confronted by many obstacles.

We now have a McConnell Senate and McCarthy House that has no intention of engaging in the legislative process at all.  With a few exceptions, such as defense, the GOP sits on its haunches like a stubborn, ill tempered mule unwilling to do anything at all.  They’ve said so publicly.  If that wasn’t bad enough, the respective leaders have offered generous cover for extremists fully intent on overturning American democracy as we know it, and they’ve wallowed in a mudpie of lies and conspiracies as if it was nothing but sideshow entertainment.

Backing the selection of an obviously incompetent charlatan who attempted to rule as a unified executive, McConnell and McCarthy provided little more than toady obedience .  The Republican Party didn’t even have a platform, or any policy at all.  Reelecting the leader because he was the leader was their only plan.

The 2020 campaign threw a wrench in their plans, and they retaliated by throwing a wrench in the gears of the legislative process.  With thin Democratic majorities in both houses, Republicans sat and did nothing.  Whatever bipartisanship that existed, existed within the Democratic Party.

As we move toward the 2022 midterms, M&M have said once more that they intend to have no platform, no policy, no plans except to regain a majority that will allow them to shut down all but the bare life support necessities of the federal government. 

Somehow that’s supposed to be a good thing.  It will create a limited, impotent federal government awaiting the arrival of an autocratic libertarian president, their long term hope for a more efficient, business friendly government unhindered by messy democracy and the mewing needs of the underclass..  In the meantime,  fellow travelers at the state level, having effectively used the most atrocious forms of propaganda, have captured at least nineteen states where election systems have been rigged to maintain white hegemony, while relieving themselves of as much responsibility as possible for the social welfare of the poorest  and most in need of public services, all in the name of virtuous self reliance, school choice, and personal freedom to choose (except for women’s rights to choose).

Suppose their vision of America’s future comes to pass.  What will it look like? As authoritarian as some appear to want it, it’s  likely to be run by a small group of oligarchs working together to keep a reliable autocratic figure in the White House, one who will be their agent, so to speak.  Congress will offer advise and consent, but otherwise be fairly passive, except for a permanent minority of Democrats who will make noises of little consequence.  States on the right wing libertarian side will be happy to cooperate until they learn their states rights independence has been boxed in by an authoritarian federal government. By then it will be too late.  States of a more liberal, progressive persuasion will be dealt with by a heavy hand of federal suppression.  America’s standing in the community of nations will sink toward that of Argentina. The European Union, China, a commonwealth of S.E. Asian nations, and rising powers in Africa will determine the direction world affairs.  

Americans will enjoy a reasonably stable but declining standard of living, except for the wealthy, who will do just fine as long as they don’t trouble the rulers too much.

What are the forces that can prevent it from happening? As a center left liberal of the old fashioned sort, I think a responsible conservative party is needed.  It will have to be reborn from the remnants of the old Republican Party, and a coalition of conservative voices from the Hispanic, Asian and Islamic population.  That will take time. In the interim, the Democratic Party needs to learn how to speak with rural and mid America in their own language with absolute trustworthiness.  It’s the only way to erode autocratic libertarian propaganda that has so easily captured loyalty from so many.  It will help immensely if indictments, trials and convictions of major right wing figures can be well underway by the midterms.  The brighter and more convincing the light that can illuminate their felonious misdeeds, the better.  

One other thing might be possible, and could mitigate the pain of national catharsis that lies ahead. There remain in Congress, Republican members who know well that the so called Biden agenda is worthy of being passed in some form, as a national consensus.  They also know how close we’ve come to losing our democracy.  It would take only a few to create a responsible conservative bloc, unafraid of Trump and his minions, to engage in good faith negotiation to move the legislative process along.  That alone would go far to restoring public faith in our government and our democracy.  It would go even farther in deflating the power of those who have trafficked in lies and conspiracies for so long.

The Magic of Christmas. The Reality of Christ: keep your eyes on the baby

Christmas is said to be a magical season. Songs and sentimentally sappy t.v. movies proclaim it. And so it is. Fantasy becomes briefly real as millions of people rediscover the virtues of peace and good will among all peoples. They wish for it to last, knowing that without divine help it is beyond their grasp. Yet they cling to it, if only for a few days. What metaphor can we use? It’s like a commercial break amidst the 24 hour news cycle of violence, despair and betrayal: a VRBO commercial promising a beautiful vacation home to escape from reality for a few days for the blissful rest and relaxation you have dreamed of. It’s an enticing fantasy that can’t deliver, but a happy thought to hold for a moment or two. It illustrates how deep the hunger is for peace on earth and good will among all.

The frenetic Christmas season search for moments of Christmas magic, adorned with forced jollity, and the burden of making everyone happy with just the right gifts is not unlike a dog chasing its tail.  Yet at the center of vainly chasing after wind is the birth of the Messiah, the hinge on which history pivots, and the true hope for which humanity searches. 

As one friend said recently, keep your eyes on the baby.  Here lies the light that darkness cannot extinguish. This is the hope of the ages born into reality.  There is nothing magically sentimental about it.  It is rough, poor, scandalous, and ignored by all but a few shepherds.  What could be more scandalously improbable than the Word of God made flesh in a baby born of an unwed virgin in a borrowed stable during a cruel and violent time.  The Word of God nourished for nine months by the body and blood of a young woman.  The Word of God born as a helpless baby, utterly dependent on humanity for all its needs.  The power of the cosmos lying helplessly vulnerable.  

Here is the center that, contrary to Yeats, can and does hold. It is of a piece that forms the single event of Christ’s birth, life, teaching, death and resurrection. It is the event through which hope for peace and goodwill becomes a reality. If the redemption of the world from strife is not yet fully recognized, it is because, as the Christmas hymn proclaims, we are unwilling to “hush the noise and cease your strife, and hear the angels sing.” The light of Christ, however flickering when carried in our hands, illuminates the kingdom of God that is near,. Jesus commanded his followers to “let their lights so shine that others may see their good works and give glory to their Father in heaven.” Good works done in Christ’s name are the source of peace and good will so many hunger to

The Christmas season is a good time to rekindle the lights we are each called to bear. When New Year’s Day is over, and the blahs of January set in, it is time the church hs set aside to bear the light with even greater courage and determination into a world that has forgotten the magical sentimentality of the holidays, but hungers even more for the reality of hope, peace and good will. The world will be reluctant. Laying fantasy aside, the world will resume its usual course of violence, vengeance, and mistrust fueled by greed, vanity, and lust for power. It will fail them, as it always has. But the kingdom of God illuminated by the light of Christ will always be near in the presence of those who carry it. The darkness will never overcome it, and the hope it promises will be delivered to any willing to receive it.

I Just Don’t Know What To Believe: Help Me.

Most of my friends are keen newshounds, at least in their areas of interest, and keep up on general trends through critical reading.  Few of them complain that they don’t know what to believe.  As one might suspect, they test for verification and are comfortable taking things as provisionally true based on the information available.  They’re not easily misled by remote possibilities and elaborate conspiracies. 

Others of my acquaintance are certain about what they believe because they rely on sources feeding their ideological prejudices.  They label all other sources as fake.  When they claim to have done their research, it turns out  never to have left the echo chamber of likeminded voices.  Once having committed to something as true, it’s nearly impossible to convince them otherwise, no matter the evidence.  Some portion of the public has always been that way, but they had only a few friends and buddies at the local pub with whom to share their beliefs.  Now they have internet access to an entire cosmos of others to share with and be reinforced by. The idea that something might be provisionally true is anathema. 

The result is a cacophony of voices causing a great many to say they just don’t know what to believe.  What can be verified looks a lot like what is mere allegation, especially if the allegations appeal to present fears and anxieties.   I suspect that when forced to make a decision, as at the ballot box, they go with whatever recent message  most effectively played on their anxieties with promises that all would be resolved for the better if so and so gets elected.

The first group of friends, well informed critical thinkers, are not as easily swayed by such tactics, but they can come off as arrogant elitists, which does them no good in the realm of public opinion.  The second group of acquaintances, convinced of the rightness of their prejudices, are unpersuaded by whatever the first group says, just out of stubborn pride if nothing else.  Their minds are made up no matter what the evidence says.  What about the third group?

One would like to believe that better public education of the public, especially about history and civics, would make  a difference, but I have my doubts.  Consider that anti-democratic rumor mongers such as Cruz, Gaetz, and others have educational pedigrees from prestigious schools.  Education alone confers neither wisdom nor morality.  Yet better public education is a preferable path than the one we are on, and could make a difference in the macro sense. Is it possible? I have my doubts.

It would require the most popular forms of public media to be diligent in offering verifiable information, and labeling opinion as opinion.  Without wide spread adherence to voluntary standards, regulations might be necessary, and that runs into First Amendment issues. 

We’ve always made a place for crackpot opinions to be expressed.  More than toleration, they’ve been a source of entertainment. The steps of the public library and park corners have been occupied for centuries by speakers bellowing the weirdest of fantasies, conspiracies and end of the world prophecies.  Everyone within a few hundred feet could hear them. Now they have the internet and can bellow out to millions world wide.  The First Amendment protected them as long as they didn’t create a serious public nuisance. Can it tolerate them on the Internet?  If there is a boundary, where is it?  I don’t think there will be an answer in my lifetime. 

What is the alternative?  I think it has to be an overwhelming surge of responsible media, a tsunami of verifiable news and opinion washing over every form of social media.  And it has to be clever at discerning public anxieties, addressing them directly with information that injects them with reality and hope.  Anxieties are driven by fear of the unknown.  When the unknown is made less unknown, even if it’s bad news, there is less to be anxious about.   There is a psychological principle that when every other path is cut off, even the wishy-washy will make commitments they really believe in.  When responsible media illuminates dead-end alleys of falsehood, they move the herd toward verifiable, if provisional, truth. The weakness of the metaphor is that the responsible end is always one where open debate and negotiation for workable decisions takes place.  It’s a messy arena that lacks the artificial certainty authoritarian autocracy promises.

To preserve our democracy, that’s where we need to go.  There is no other place.

Breaking News: Who Do You Trust?

From what news sources do you find out what’s happening in the world, what it means, and what it leads you to believe about the direction things are going?  On what basis do you consider them to be reliable, trustworthy?  

I have mine but with a complaint.  Much news reporting has drifted from reporting on what has happened, or what is happening, to speculation about what might happen and what it might mean if if does happen.  I blame it on the influence of cable news that has to fill 24 hours with something, so it’s turned to panels of pundits to read tea leaves, gaze at crystal balls, and consult Ouija boards.   The practice of speculative reporting has infected main stream print media as well , I suppose as a way to compete with cable news, or maybe just because it seems trendy.  My own complaint aside, it’s escaped no one’s attention that news sources are instruments of polarization that have devolved into a civil war of words and ideas.  Who can make sense of it?

Government and private surveys try to measure public sentiment about whether  the nation is going in the right direction, whatever that means, and how confident they are about the near term future.  Curiously, the public generally thinks things are going OK for themselves, but not for the nation as a whole.  It appears, and I blame it on speculative reporting, that easily verifiable facts have only modest influence on how the public thinks things are going.  Why bother with facts when you’ve got gut level opinions to rely on, verified by your news source of choice that shares the same. 

Weird contradictions erupt from all of this.  The economy is booming but a sizable portion of the public believe it’s in the tank.  We’re told the supply chain of goods is stopped at ports while products are being shipped at a record pace.  Very few have to die from COVID, in its many forms, but around 1,000 do every day because they didn’t believe it was real.  Likeminded others refuse to get vaccinated or wear masks for reasons that defy reason. The list goes on to include climate change, prevalence of street crime, immigration, refugee settlement, education and more.

Cognitive dissonance exists between verifiable facts, beliefs, attitudes, and  opinions substantiated by rumors and conspiracies.  It causes many to seek refuge –  make the noisy cacophony go away.  Why not?  We hunger for a place of harmony that seems securely stable apart from the seas of change that threaten cherished ways of life.   One acquaintance has renounced all sources of news – it’s all too distressing.  If something important happens, someone will tell him about it.  More commonly, people latch onto one type of news source that appeals to their prejudices and rely on the echo chamber loop of affirmation to convince them of the certainty of what is said to be going on in the world. 

Are there core values of certain truth from which all other “news” can be evaluated, at least provisionally?  I think there are. In this season of Advent, as we prepare for the annual celebration of Christ’s birth, we might be reminded of the Breaking News Bulletin declared over two thousand years ago: An angel appeared to some shepherds and said, “Do not be afraid, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is the Messiah, the Lord…Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”

Amidst all the conflicting noise, turn first to this place and draw everything else from it.  Toward the climax of Jesus’ earthly ministry, when things were looking even more dire and dangerous, the disciple Peter confessed, “Lord to whom can we turn, you have the words of eternal life.”  From this center stand firm in the light of Christ, proclaim God’s redeeming love for every human and all of creation, resist any voice that demeans the dignity of every human being, call out oppression and subjugation, work for godly justice, and all out of love, even for enemies.

It isn’t romantic idealism. It’s the power of God to break the yoke of those who bear news that deceives, conspires, and encourages forces of evil, always lurking along the way.

Advents Galore: What do they mean?

Advent anticipates the arrival of something new, novel and likely to change lives.  We’ve had lots of advents in recent times: the advent of the automobile, airplane, radio, television, computers, microwaves, mobile phones and the like.   Each has had a profound effect on the way we live. Each has changed the way the world works at the edges and in the center.  Change like that is always with us, but it seems to be accelerating, and we can’t always tell which changes will have profound effects, and which will be of passing interest. Change comes on us so quickly these days that we have a hard time imagining what the next important advent will be.

In one sense, advents in secular life are far different from the Christian Season of Advent we are now in.  They are new, unexpected, and change secular life.  Christian Advent prepares us for the annual remembrance of Christ’s nativity two thousand years ago, hardly something new or novel by today’s standards.  Christian Advent also looks forward to an unknown time when creation will be renewed in its totality, an advent so foreign to the secular world in which we live that it hardly seems worthy of much consideration.

On the other hand, the novelty of Christ’s nativity remains so mysteriously new and novel that we have a hard time wrapping our heads around it. Our annual remembrance remains strangely new.  The Nativity ushered in such profound changes in the way we live and what we expect out of life that Christians have yet to fully apprehend them.  It is the hinge on which the world’s history pivots.  The season of Advent prepares us to experience Jesus Christ anew each year as if for the first time. 

And what of the far distant Advent of a new creation in which the mess we’ve made of things will be cleaned up for all times?  For Christians it’s a present Advent that is already here where the Kingdom of God is made present by love, but not yet fully realized reality: The already but not yet.   It’s a holy mystery, and for those willing to live into it, it’s life changing for them, and for all with whom they live and work.   It is the light that darkness cannot overcome, even if it’s only a little light in a few places. 

The Season of Advent comes at an inconvenient time, but then the Word of God always comes at an inconvenient time.  In this case, the church created its own inconvenience by plopping Advent and Christmas down on top of a preexisting Roman holiday of joyful partying and gift giving along with feasting and drinking to excess. I guess the idea was to tame the pagan celebrations, but it didn’t work.  The Roman Empire may have died long ago, but the Roman midwinter Saturnalia is still with us much as it was, with the addition of rampant consumerism.

Despite righteous tut-tutting about putting Christ back into Christmas, the two holidays are likely to coexist for more centuries yet.  And let’s face it, we Christians enjoy celebrating with friends and family as much as anyone.  We like the festive decorations and cheery songs that offer momentary relief from the troubles of daily life.  It will all be gone by New Year’s day.  The reality of January blahs and credit card statements will put a damper on it.   As the author of Ecclesiastes said, it’s all vanity, a chasing after the wind, there’s no substance to it.

In the meanwhile Christian Advent will have turned into Christmas joyfully celebrated all the way to January 6th, only to be followed by another season rejoicing in the light of Christ that enlightens the whole world and all of cosmic creation. Christians will remember that what began two thousand years ago is still in process, still changing lives.  It has substance that endures no matter the condition it encounters.  It never ceases to be new, novel.  

So let us give thanks for the many advents that have enriched the way we live.  Let’s enjoy a few weeks of good fellowship, and take delight in decorations, songs and feasts.  But let us more fully bend to meet Christ again as if for the first time knowing that the blessings of this Advent, still unfolding, are real, life changing, and will endure through the end of time into all eternity.