To Whom Do We Owe Our Freedoms?

Facebook has become a constant reminder of what dominates the thinking and conversation of some people.  That is particularly true for those who harp on the same thing day after day.  Over the last six months or so I’ve seen a multitude of posts from a predictable number of “friends” who have gone on and on about how we owe the freedoms we enjoy to our military might, and the fighting men and women who put their lives at risk for us. 
I have tremendous respect for the service rendered to our nation by those who serve in the military.  It deserves to be honored by more than the occasional parade and a “support our troops” bumper sticker.  It certainly deserves to be honored by more than supercilious posts on Facebook.  Honesty would be a good place to start, and a good place to begin with honesty would be to acknowledge that much military action has little to do with defending our American freedoms, and more to do with establishing, sustaining and defending American economic and political interests that, however important they may be, do not pose a danger to the American way of life.
A more important step toward honesty would be a closer examination of to whom and to what we owe the freedoms we enjoy.  What are those freedoms, and how did they come into being?  Never was there an army that conceived of a representative democracy.  Never was there a navy that contemplated what the law of the sea might be.  In a republic such as ours, the military is an agency of, and subordinate to, something larger and more important, and that is the will of the people as represented through freely elected representatives, within the context of a constitutional framework adjudicated by an independent judiciary.  Moreover, it is all underwritten by generations of philosophers, theologians, the press, and a variety of thought and opinion leaders operating in the political arena.  
To whom do we owe the freedoms we enjoy?  To thinkers, writers, teachers, publishers, and (good grief) politicians acting, as they sometimes do, in the best interest of future generations.  To whom do we owe the preservation of our freedoms into the future?  To an educated and politically involved electorate.  If there is a real threat to the American way of life, it no doubt lies there: an uneducated electorate with little recognition of their ignorance or desire to change.
As for Facebook, I prefer people who harp day after day on kittens, children, and sunsets. 

Not Just Guns – It’s Mental Health Too

Gun enthusiasts have been quick to come down hard on the nation’s failure to provide adequate mental health care to those who need it most.  They are absolutely right.  We are lousy at it, and not just for those who need it most.  Mental illness needs to be addressed on a much broader scale than that. 
Years ago we closed down most of our state run mental hospitals, our insane asylums, because they were inhuman.  Many were.  We said that the mentally ill could be treated at the community level more effectively, at less cost and with more dignity.  That was true, but we never did it.  Moreover, mental illness has retained it’s patina of something sufficiently embarrassing to the rest of us that it must be kept in the closet, under the rug, locked in the basement, anywhere but admitted in decent society.
The past few decades have provided us with some extraordinary medicines that do amazing things to relieve the symptoms of mental illness, but prescribing them has fallen mostly to primary care givers who are not well trained in their use.  What choice do they have?  In our community we have only one psychiatrist in private practice.  The Yellow Pages list a slug of therapists of varying qualification.  At least, for the most part, they do no harm, and maybe some good.  So it’s the primary care physician who doles out the pills, and for goodness sake don’t ever suggest that mom or dad’s little helper has anything to do with mental illness.
As for those with serious mental illness, I have to give credit to the ones who have learned to cope with their psychoses most of the time.  Street drugs and alcohol help dull the pain, even if they make the psychosis worse.  It’s a deadly trap.  Homelessness is not that bad if you’ve got it figured out.  Holding a job is impossible, but one can learn to ignore the “pick yourself up and get a job you lazy bum” jibes from more decent people.  
We have two ways of helping them.  If they are crazy enough when they come into the ER, our Crisis Response Team can usually, but not always, find a bed for them in a city over a hundred miles away.  It’ll be a short stay, just long enough to detox and work on a new regimen of meds.  Acting out more often becomes a crime, and it’s off to jail, our number one mental health warehouse in the county. 
I don’t know what’s going on in your community.  In ours we are finally beginning to address our needs.  Both hospitals and several other agencies have a task force working on identifying our most pressing mental health issues.  The United Way has it’s own task force, and will dedicate as much as a third of it’s funding next year to a targeted mental health project.  The county will soon be receiving a small percentage of certain sales tax revenue dedicated to mental health.  All are working together to coordinate for significant impact on projects yet to be identified, but with intent to begin funding them by the spring of 2013.
In the meantime, one of our hospitals is about to offer the third in a continuing series of symposia aimed at helping physicians, nurses, hospital staff, pastors and other care givers improve the skills needed to attend to the emotional well being of others and themselves.  Another group has conducted two community wide workshops on the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) on emotional health and behavior.  The long standing work of other organizations that have for years helped dysfunctional families and abused spouses are getting more widely recognized.  It’s a start.  Not a very big one, but a start just the same. 

OK, I’m Finally Taking a Shot at the Gun Issue

I started several times to write about guns and the American obsession with violence as entertainment.  Nothing seemed to work.  I kept running into local people, whom I know well, convinced that any gun control legislation, in any form, is a threat to their freedom as guaranteed by the Constitution.  Some of them are among those who believe that we should arm teachers and encourage everyone to go about armed at all times.  Old west vigilante justice has been romanticized without any memory of why western folks got rid of it in favor of the rule of law and, yes, the banning of guns in public places. 
Some of that attitude is generated by fear, and, as one posted just today, fear not only of other armed persons, but of one’s own government.  Having a stash of weapons is one way to make sure that the government does not turn into a Stalinesque police state. Not everyone is that extreme in their views, but the NRA and fellow travelers have convinced many that having any gun they want without limitation is an unalienable right, an indelible mark of what American values are about.  Some have been convinced that there is a secret agenda to outlaw and confiscate all weapons.  Even ordinary hunters get nervous at the idea that their favorite rifle or shotgun might be restricted in some unknown way they might not like.
Lingering in the background are world events such as our decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, uprisings in Libya and Syria, the drug war in Mexico and the multitude of war lords wandering around parts of Africa.  I don’t know what effect they have on the American psyche regarding guns, but imagine that it’s substantial.
There is something else contributing to all of this, and I think it is the flood of gratuitous violence in contemporary entertainment in which firearms play a staring role.  Even more than television and movies, the most popular computer games seem to be all about war, revenge, crime and the successful resolution of all issues through killing, the greater the slaughter the higher the score. 
The result is that guns have become objects of worship, idols to which absolute loyalty has been pledged without the slightest consideration of the consequences.  Garry Wills wrote a scathing article about guns as our modern day Molech, the insatiable god that required the blood sacrifice of children in the days of ancient Israel and surrounding nations.  He may have overstated the case, but not by much.  Led by the gun lobby, fueled by irrational fear, and nurtured by outer fringe libertarian ideals, guns have become idols that seduce otherwise decent people into the most vile heresy.  If Satan is the great deceiver, then this is a good example of what the satanic looks like. 
I do not want to condemn my friends and acquaintances who have fallen into this way of thinking, and I have not yet figured out a way to write or speak that might lead them into a reasonable conversation without blowing our relationships to smithereens.  To use an apt metaphor, they have a hair trigger on this issue, and cannot tolerate even the slightest suggestion that we might need some form of gun control legislation.  Having a pastoral relationship with some of them makes it even more difficult.
As for me, I’d like to see guns and gun owners licensed in a way similar to how we license cars and drivers.  It would require training and passing a test to get a license.  Assault type weapons would be outlawed, as well as excessively large ammunition clips.  To me, that’s a reasonable approach well within the intent of the Second Amendment.  Would there still be scoff laws?  Probably.  Would it solve all gun related problems?  No.  So what!

Restructuring the Weapons Industry

Public anxiety over the economy has generated a variety of proposals for what to do: raise taxes, lower taxes, increase public spending, decrease public spending, raise trade barriers, negotiate more freed trade treaties, and on and on.  On top of that, the public is convinced that the size of the public debt and continued deficit spending are about to sink us into the swamp of Greece and Spain.  The issues are poorly understood but deeply held beliefs about them are unshakable.  
I want to suggest that something else is afoot, or at least I hope it is.  It is a dramatic restructuring of the American economy to position it as a major competitor in a global economy in which America is one player among others, but not the singular driving force that can command the fortunes of others.  That will require a coordinated public private partnership that rules out the romantic ideal of free enterprise unhindered by government regulation and interference.  
The problem is that any one change in public policy affecting the economy will have a multitude of effects, often effects that will stagger the way business is done.  Take, for instance, military spending.  We can no longer afford to pretend that global peace depends on American military might flexing its muscle in every corner of the world.  It is sad that there is warlike violence in so many countries, that human rights and simple justice are trampled in many places for so many reasons.  Nevertheless, America cannot, and does not have the moral right to, intervene to impose Pax Americana.  From a more selfish perspective, continuing to try will destroy our economy in the end.  Other nations must work out their own problems.  We may not like the way they do it, but it’s their life not ours.  It amazes me that so many conservative types who demand limited government for themselves are lightning quick to demand that America impose it’s will on others, by force if necessary.  
So what happens when we begin to resize our military establishment?  I think we can safely disregard the hysterical paranoia about weakening our national defense.  That’s a lot of nonsense.  However, backstage from troops and equipment is an enormous weapons industry that employs many hundreds of thousands of workers earning high wages.  Those industries will have to figure out some other product line for their highly skilled people to produce, or go out of business, and considering how slow, bureaucratic, and hide bound they are, it seems unlikely that they can easily adapt to a new more entrepreneurial way of doing things. 
Consider a small example: if you build tanks, then tanks are what you want to keep building.  A recent report (The Week, October 5, 2012) noted that the army has said that it needs no more tanks.  It has enough, in fact it has 3,000 sitting in reserve, but tank building is what they do in Ohio, so congress mandated construction of 42 new tanks not because they are needed but to keep jobs filled.  That is make work corporate welfare at its wasteful best. That one small example is replicated many times over on a much larger scale throughout the weapons industry, and is echoed in the public angst that comes with proposed base closures.  
Somehow all that talent must be reoriented to non-weaponry, but making it happen gets very complicated.  There is nothing easy about it.  The weapons industry is irrevocably embedded in the fabric of our national government, so whatever is done must be a function of public-private partnership.  It seems to me that a slow decade long transformation is the way to go.  It would give the greater economy time to adjust.  I wish it was as easy as just saying that, but we all know that industrial lobbying and congressional ineptitude will fight any change at all.  That’s too bad because history suggests that the possibilities are enormous.  No one can be certain what they are, but we know that products from micro-wave ovens to the innards of our communication devices were given birth in the weapons industry.  I have no doubt that there is more ahead like that if we can make the turn. 
If we fail to make the turn, we will simply become the weapons factory for the world with our economy dependent on a continued cycle of armed violence in a great many places.   How immoral would that be? 

Cultural Change in America

Somewhere in the ‘80s I wrote class materials on understanding societal change for community leaders, mostly business people, who were having a hard time understanding what was happening to the towns and cities they lived in.  My argument then was that the Civil War did not end until 1965, by which I meant that it was not until the voting rights and civil rights acts of the mid 1960s that the primary issues of the war were finally resolved.  The point I was trying to make was that foundational social or cultural change takes a long time.  It moves at glacial speed in the face of other forms of social and technological change that move faster than we accommodate them.
Those were the same years in which we had begun to fight a different kind of civil war, of which the brutal reality of the Vietnam War was also a metaphor.  The struggle to settle into the hard work of reconstruction after the civil rights legislation had been passed was complicated by the raging storm of conflict over Vietnam at home.  It helped fuel race riots and assassinations.  Old friends, bothers and sisters, parents and children found themselves on different sides.  Claims and counterclaims so muddled the public debate that it was impossible to discern any clear cut line on which to take one’s stand without suddenly discovering other lines on which others took their stands.  To complicate matters, the Cold War ended, and with it the stability and reliability of having a known enemy camp with clearly defined geopolitical boundaries.
Our foundational myths of a national ethos could not hold, and there was nothing to replace them.  What do I mean by that?  As good an example as any would be the WWII Norman Rockwell paintings, The Four Freedoms.  They were the freedom from want, of speech, of worship, and from fear.  Freedom from want featured a happy extended family sitting down to Thanksgiving feast, with grandma placing a huge turkey in front of grandpa for him to carve.  Freedom of speech showed a working man in a worn leather jacket with some papers in his pocket standing to speak at a town meeting.  Freedom of worship displayed a patchwork of heads bowed in reverent prayer.  Freedom from fear showed parents lovingly tucking in small children with a brightly lit hallway in the background.  
Although the theme was taken from an FDR speech, the paintings said everything about our foundational myths of a national ethos without a single word spoken.  They didn’t have to.  With one insignificant exception, all the characters were white and reasonably prosperous.  Most viewers simply assumed that the worshipers were Protestant.  Families were understood to consist of once married, never divorced, loving, contented adults and happy children.  Freedom of speech meant freedom to speak out and be respectfully heard on issues about which we would all agree after everyone had his (or maybe her) say.  No one actually said that.  The paintings didn’t.  It was just assumed.  Everyone knew that this was what was true about America and not true about most the rest of the world.  We were white, Protestant, well off, and good. 
In the late ‘60s and throughout the ‘70s, in spite of the Cleavers and Mayberry, that mythical house came tumbling down, never to be rebuilt.  Here we are, nearly a half century later, struggling to find new words and new paintings to illustrate a new understanding of a national ethos, if we could agree on what that ethos is and a foundational myth most of us could agree on that would explain it.  The Tea Party movement wants to restore a time that never existed, something between Rockwell paintings and Matt Dillon’s Dodge City.  It’s a last gasp and grasp, doomed to failure, but with enough political muscle behind it to do real damage to our future.  Various liberals, progressives and conservatives are vying to discover a more realistic vision of what it means to be family, or speak freely, or worship, or have enough, or be safe in ways that make sense in a world of such dramatic and disruptive change.  A new American ethos is being born.  About the only thing that can be said with certainty is that it will be an ethos of American pride that includes neither American exceptionalism, nor the hubris of America the Greatest Nation on Earth.
I think that what I said thirty years ago to various community leaders is still true.  In the face of the lightning speed of technological change and the havoc that wreaks on daily life, the pace of foundational social and cultural change remains slow.  If it took a century to end the Civil War, I have little expectation that this new kind of civil war will end much sooner.  I hope I’m wrong.

The Cult of Self Reliance

So called conservatives are certain that they are the party of rugged individualism and self reliance, and equally certain that all others are liberals, the party of nanny state dependency.  It’s a silly idea at best, but firmly held by many.  The problem with silly ideas is that they cannot easily be refuted, but they can be explored. 
For instance, we have witnessed much ado about an Obama quip taken entirely out of context, something along the lines of “You did not build it.”  Many a self proclaimed self made man and woman took umbrage.  By their own initiative and hard work, they are proud of the businesses they have built up.  And rightfully so.  They have exhibited courageous initiative and worked hard to overcome the risks inherent in starting, building and sustaining an ongoing business.  It isn’t easy.  Many fail along the way.  But  succeed for fail, it is never done alone.  It requires a complex interdependency of time, resources and conditions from others to make it happen, and failure to recognize that is nothing short of unrighteous hubris. 
Self reliance and individualism are not the property of conservatives.  The primary difference between so called conservatives and those who are not, is that those who are not do not fear government as the sworn enemy of self reliance and the rights of individuals, but as a tool to encourage, enable and develop both. 
A couple of side notes are in order.  First, why do I call them so called conservatives.  It’s because I don’t think they are true conservatives who recognize the value of what is tried and true, and work to conserve the best of what it offers.  Second, those who are not are not thereby liberals, especially the sort of liberals labeled by so called conservatives as European Socialists and radical left wingers.  I have no idea what that means, and don’t think they do either.  Third, those of us who claim to be liberal, progressive or true conservative are not naive about the danger of government.  For all the good it can do, government can only be enforced through coercive means.  Therefore, it must always be treated with caution and respect.  As C.S. Lewis said of Aslan, so we might say about government, it’s good but not safe.  But I digress.  Back to self reliance.
The most self reliant men, and they were men, I have ever met have been the homeless men of New York City among whom I worked for several years.  Whether unwilling or unable, a great many of them could not abide any rules other than their own, and often not those.  They had honed the art of survival under the harshest of conditions, and approached the concept of interdependence with the cunning of the urban jungle, knowing that survival depended on separating others from at least some of their resources by any reasonable means.  I guess that if they must be compared to a wild animal, it would have to be the coyote: working alone, living together when needed, opportunistic hunters satisfied by whatever is available, seldom taking more than needed at the moment.
To be sure, their lives tended to be short.  Drug overdoses, exposure, pneumonia, tuberculosis, AIDS, and various forms of organ failure were the usual causes.  But that’s beside the point. They were self reliant to the end. 
That, of course, is not the sort of self reliance the so called conservatives claim and accuse liberals of disclaiming.  What they have in mind is something more in the line of old legend best told in recent times by authors such as Louis L’amour.  His stories always featured the self reliant hero who appeared on the scene of dastardly goings on, managed to clean up the mess, and set things right for a better, more civilized future.  That’s the sort of self reliant individual so called conservatives have in mind.
A closer reading might be in order.  There is always a pre-story explaining how the hero became self reliant through a series of mentors and trials.  On entering the story the hero always finds a set of true and loyal friends who help him at every turn.  The bad guys are almost always rapacious entrepreneurs of private enterprise willing to use any means to gain the advantage over ordinary people.  There is always a scene where the hero appears to be beaten, recovering against all odds through his self determination, the skills he learned from others, and help from the community.  The final showdown ends with the evil guys dead or running, and the hero proclaiming that his own way of life is a dying way that must reject the gun and give way to interdependent communities governed by law, of which he and the girl (there is always a girl) want to become members.
If L’amour wrote morality tales, the far right has forgotten the moral.  Their twisted cult of individualism and self reliance leaves out the part about what makes for civilized society: interdependence, rule of law, community.

Shame on those Russians

I don’t like Putin.  The Russian legal system is suspect.  The Russian Orthodox Church is way too cozy with the Kremlin.  Human rights really are in jeopardy.  The two year sentence of Pussy Riot performers is far too harsh.  But if some masked rap/rock troupe invaded the Holy Eucharist at the Washington National Cathedral, interrupting worship to chant and dance against the president (regardless of party), I, and presumably you, would be horrified at such a desecration of holy time and holy space. Tried and convicted within minutes by television and talk radio, harsh penalties would be demanded and expected.  And if some other country attempted to instruct us on our shortcomings, it would be met with a bellicose response.
I don’t think we need to worry about it. The American way to invade holy time and holy space is with a gun, and it’s usually not about politics, but about some personal grievance.  We quickly label the invader as crazy and wonder why we don’t do something about crazy people.  The idea that we might do something pragmatic and sensible about gun control is verboten.  We can’t even talk about it without the gun lobby going ballistic (so to speak) about the only part of the Constitution that means anything to them, and the gun toting public demanding to carry more guns wherever and whenever they want, even into holy time and holy space.  But I digress.
Shame on those Russians.