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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Ignorant Arrogance of the Christian Conservative Troll

I've been wandering around YouTube recently, looking at spiritual videos in particular. That's nothing new for me, but I have had a bit of a different focus in that I have been specifically looking
Rachel Held Evans
at the comments made on videos of moderate Christian speakers. By that term, I mean people like Rachel Held Evans, Donald Miller, Richard Rohr, and other similar types. It's an especially fruitful exploration if they identify as or in fact are someone who was at one time more conservative than they are now. Specifically, I looked at the comments that were critical of them or their ideas. What I found surprised me - and that doesn't happen very often.

To judge by the comments, Christian conservatives are incapable of addressing the arguments of their more moderate brothers and sisters. If the more moderate brother or sister in question is Roman Catholic, he or she is called by their conservative critics a heretic. In Roman Catholic circles, that's even worse than calling someone a smelly, cross-eyed, cognitively impaired, pus dripping, parasite infested whore. Not that there is anything wrong with being a smelly, cross-eyed, cognitively impaired, pus dripping, parasite infested whore, if that's what you're into. If the more moderate brother or sister in question happens to be Protestant, they are called some version of inexperienced, self-absorbed, dangerous, arrogant, foolish, attention-seeking, self-serving or, God forbid, a feminist. In fairness, men are seldom called feminists - probably because the limited definition of feminism in
Donald Miller 
conservative circles is, "women who don't do what men tell them to do." Notice that in none of these criticisms are the positions put forth by the person being criticized addressed. Not even the heresy charge addresses the positions of the alleged heretic, because the term "heretic" is brandished like a broad brush and seldom are the specific and allegedly heretical ideas even identified, much less addressed. It kind of reminds me of my childhood, an admittedly less enlightened time, when boys called each other "fag" without provocation or any reason to suspect anything about the sexual orientation of the accused. The label itself, repeated often enough, was sufficient to induce suspicion.

What underlies all of these behaviors is an extremely thinly veiled (and unearned)
The Flying Spaghetti Monster
 arrogance coupled with a startling lack of intellectual acumen. It would be one thing if these critics could, in a charitable (i.e., Christian) way enumerate their points of disagreement and propose alternative perspectives. That's not what happens, for the most part. Rather, a festival of name calling and character bashing ensues, that presumably in the mind of the "basher" being enough to convince any reasonable person not to listen to the position of the person they are criticizing. The problem, of course, is that no educated person falls for such techniques, having learned long ago that a personal attack is always fallacious. They may as well suggest that the arguments put forth are contradicted by the teachings of The Flying Spaghetti Monster. What is really happening is that the conservative critic feels that their belief system is being challenged by the assertions of the speaker - and, clearly, it may indeed be challenged by the ideas of those speakers. Since, however, the conservative has been conditioned to believe that there can only be one correct belief system this challenge throws the way they make sense of the world into question. This is turn generates an enormous amount of anxiety. Lacking the intellectual tools to refute the argument at hand (largely because they have been told to avoid thinking for themselves at all costs), the only weapon left in
Richard Rohr
their arsenal is the fallacious but easy ad hominem attack.

None of this would matter all that much if it weren't for the fact that most of these critics have a lot of time on their hands and have been convinced they are personally responsible for any bad ideas that may be floating around. This derives primarily from the misinterpretation of a passage in Ezekiel in which God made Ezekiel responsible for the beliefs and behaviors of the people of his time. One of the basic intellectual and interpretive mistakes of conservatives is the very selective ability to differentiate between specific instructions in the Bible that applied to one person(s) at a specific time in history and general instructions meant to apply to all people for all time. When it comes to things like a kosher diet, conservative Christians very correctly hold that Christians are not required to keep kosher. When it comes to believing they are responsible for the orthodoxy of others as Ezekiel was, they fail the test rather dramatically - or perhaps very conveniently, as someone obsessed with the behavior of others has very little time left to check their own behavior.

When this kind of distorted feeling of responsibility is coupled with having a lot of time on one's hands and a Internet connection, the result is the kind of publicity that drives just about every reasonable and even marginally intelligent person away from Christianity as
fast as someone wearing a gasoline suit runs from a house fire. The unattractiveness of this kind of behavior is blatantly obvious to everyone. The difference is that conservative Christians, having been convinced they are to engage in a culture war, find being obnoxious to be some sort of badge of honor. The question that remains for those of us who actually care about the teachings of the Christian tradition is whether the short but loud history of Christian anti-intellectualism and bigotry can be overcome. In short, we have an enormous image problem, and the impact of that problem is clearly reflected in the dramatic decline in participation in the Christian tradition over the last fifty years. Even though that decline has also reached the conservative side of Christianity, they are loud enough that they will continue to create a problem for more moderate to progressive folks for a long time to come.

In a world of limited energy, it seems to me that we need to make a decision about where that limited
energy might be most effectively expended. When we add to that limited energy that reality that we now live in a religiously pluralistic world, the divide between conservative and moderate to progressive Christians is only likely to grow wider. In that divide may rest the solution we seek. Our religiously pluralistic world exists because the Internet has exposed people to other traditions and belief systems. That genie isn't going back in the bottle, and it's a genie that threatens the very world view of conservatives of every religious tradition. They will no doubt prattle on endlessly about the rise of pluralism, and will finally have attached to the issue that will be their undoing - precisely because the genie isn't going back into the bottle. It's not unlike my tendency to complain about cold weather and snow in winter having no impact on the weather - if I decided to stand on the street corner and yell, "stop snow now, save your souls" not many reasonable people would be converted to the campaign! Perhaps, as conservatives have long suggested, the end is in fact near - only nothing like the end they have been expecting. All we need do is sit back and enjoy the show.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Some Police Shootings Really are Justified

In my estimation, for whatever it might be worth, it's pretty clear that Darren Wilson should stand trial for the murder of Michael Brown. It's also clear that the NYPD officer who choked out Eric Garner should stand trial for his murder. However, it's equally clear that the officer who shot and killed Dontre Hamilton in Milwaukee last April acted justifiably and that no charges should be brought. How can I say such a thing? I say it because I read the report of the expert the Milwaukee District Attorney hired to consult on the case. The experts credentials are unquestionable, as are the stories of the witnesses to the event. Only six of the dozens of witnesses say that Hamilton was shot while on the ground, and three of those were working in surrounding office buildings. That means they would have looked out the window after they heard the shots, by which time Hamilton would indeed have been on the ground. The other three rolled up in a car while the incident was going down. The autopsy results confirm that none of the shots hit Hamilton while he was on the ground. Despite all of this, Jesse Jackson is on his way to Milwaukee today to demand justice for Hamilton.

Dontre Hamilton was schizophrenic, and had been kicked out of his parent's home because of his behaviors - but suddenly the family doesn't talk about that reality. Suddenly he was a model citizen who never caused anyone any problems. Hamilton managed to get the officer's baton from him and hit the officer in the neck, causing him both injury and to fear for his life. There were witnesses who confirmed this attack. The officer did fire fourteen shots, seven of which hit Hamilton in the arm and one which hit him in the low abdomen causing no significant injury. The truth is that police are trained to shoot until the threat is stopped. Eight of the shots had no effect, but more importantly the shooting was over in three to four seconds. I have been attacked on the street, and I can tell you there isn't time to take an action, wait to see if it works, and then take another. There is no "shooting to wound," and people who think there is such a thing have watched way too many spaghetti westerns. I have also worked with seriously mentally ill people. I can tell you that when a person with schizophrenia becomes violent there is no negotiating with them. The fight is on, and it won't be over until either you or they are down. That's reality, and it sometimes isn't pleasant - but that doesn't make it less than the truth.

Here's my biggest problem: the black community will continue to lack credibility until it is willing to admit that there are occasions when a black person is legitimately accosted by police, that there are black people who do actually commit crimes and deserve prosecution, and - sadly - there are black people who attack police officers and that those officers respond with justifiable force. Yet every time I watch the news and a black person is arrested, all I ever see are people claiming the invisible man did the crime and not the person detained. The statistics alone tell us this cannot be true, yet time after time the same nonsense occurs - and then leaders in the community are mystified as to why, when there are cases of police brutality, the public has a hard time believing the witnesses! It's a modern day twist on the boy who cried wolf story. You can't cry, "the police did wrong," over and over - even when the evidence is clear that is not the case, as with Dontre Hamilton - and expect to maintain any credibility. Calling in Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton doesn't change that, because in all honestly they are attention seeking media whores who care not one whit about what went down on the street as long as they can get some face time in front of the cameras. Building credibility requires telling the truth. That can be painful, but it can go a long way toward remedying many cultural and societal ills.

Sadly, Dontre Hamilton is a victim - but not of police misconduct. Rather he is a victim of a society that decided during the late 1980s and early 1990s to de-institutionalize the mentally ill. The result is that the patients who were in State hospitals were transferred to group homes and people who needed group home services were sent to the streets. That huge mistake is what needs to be addressed if we want to make sure there isn't another Dontre Hamilton, but fixing that situation will cost money. Our society values money more than lives, so it quite simply isn't going to happen. That's the real tragedy here.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

I'm Offended!

How many times have we heard that statement in response to everything from a television program,
to a movie, to a joke, to a song, to something we've done that is really quite innocuous, to a belief we hold - really to anything and everything? Most of the time, the thing that "offends" people is nothing more than a different perspective. I'm not talking about dirty jokes, vulgar language, revealing clothing, or running naked down Main Street. I'm talking about much more benign things that only become "offensive" because they don't fit in the the speaker's usually conservative beliefs and world view. You see, somewhere along the line "offensive" became a method of trying to control the thoughts and behavior of those with whom conservatives disagreed, and there is little more vile to me than thought and behavior control. It's also cowardly, because it attempts to shut down conversation If your actions offend me, you need to stop - and debate is unnecessary.

The truth is that the whole notion of being offended has become a powerful technique among the religious right. Pastors have been toppled from their positions after "offending" church members, and the church members accusing the Pastor don't really have to articulate what it is that offended them. Presumably, talking about the things that offend one is, in and of itself, also offensive. It is the neutron bomb of conservative Christianity. Remember the neutron bomb? It was developed during
the 1970s and was a weapon deemed so vile that President Carter banned its further development or use - which no doubt means that weapons developers went ahead and built it anyway and that there are scores of these things stockpiled somewhere. What made them so vile is that they killed people but left infrastructure intact by somehow not destroying anything but living beings. This is precisely what "I'm offended" does. It removes the person in question, the "offender" without any nasty collateral damage that arises from discussing feelings and belief in an open and healthy manner. Like an assassin's bullet fired from hundreds of yards away, there is a presumably "clean kill." Of course, no kill is ever clean, and this one is very vile because it creates a culture of fear. Because the things that "offend" are most often quite innocuous, virtually anything could get one knocked off. In other words, Christianity has produced a group of wimpy, back stabbing cowards who lack the stones to take responsibility for their actions and statements.

Enter Stephen Collins, who played the pastor-Dad on the saccharine sweet television show 7th Heaven. I should start by saying that I have always had a bias against Stephen Collins - at least ever since Star Trek: The Motion Picture, when he clearly was trying to usurp Captain Kirk's position on the Enterprise, but I digress. 7th Heaven was repeatedly named the "least offensive" show on television by conservative Christian watchdogs because of its emphasis on the evils of premarital sex. As an aside, how ironic is it that after appearing on such shows many young female actors find it necessary to pose in magazines like Maxim in an attempt to try to get their careers back on track as normal young adults? Anyway, Eric Camden - played by Stephen Collins - the pastor Dad and family patriarch, upholding the sexual morality so important to single issue Christians, the icon of "good Daddy," now is cast in a new light. You see, Stephen Collins - now by his own admission - is a pedophile. That is something we all can get offended about, but so far the religious right has been virtually silent. How can this be?

It can be because "being offended" doesn't really have anything to do with being offended at all, and everything to do with advancing an agenda. I will submit that agenda is two fold. The first is to advance the conservative world view in the culture - and if they were honest about their intent, that would be fair enough. The second is more insidious and spiritually damning. The second is to ensure that followers never have to critically examine or defend their beliefs. Why would a movement not
want to have members critically examine their beliefs unless those beliefs were, shall we say, a bit shaky? Why, the very suggestion is surely offensive!

As for Collins, now 67 years old, he has admitted that he molested three girls - perhaps after checking the statute of limitations. Studies of pedophiles would suggest it's virtually impossible that he didn't molest many, many more girls. Very few, if any, pedophiles only molest a few victims. The drive to act out is very strong, and he may have only admitted to the crimes for which he cannot be prosecuted or in which the victim is likely to come forward. On the other hand, he has a shred more integrity than Bill Cosby - which is kind of like praising someone for spending three hours eating dinner at the all you can eat buffet but skipping dessert.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Fiction and Reality are Different, Stupid!

I confess, I am mad as hell. Of all the stupid, muddle headed, nonsensical excuses for the American torture of prisoners, blaming television has to be the worst. Yes, friends, Jack Bauer is responsible for American torture. Shows like 24 are responsible for the desensitization of the American populace to torture. Apparently Superman also makes us think we can fly, Iron Man makes us think a special suit will give us special powers, Men in Black leads us to believe aliens from outer space live on this planet wreaking havoc, Spiderman has us climbing the walls of buildings, and Walker, Texas Ranger makes us believe Chuck Norris can act. The only problem is, NONE OF THEM ARE REAL!
Not even Chuck Norris, because every real person can blink their eyes.

The fact is that if you are too damn stupid to distinguish between fiction and reality, then you are too damn stupid to care about much of anything other than your addiction to escapist entertainment. You are so interested in removing yourself from reality there is very little hope you will actually engage it to oppose much of anything.

Could it be, I wonder, that what really desensitizes Americans to torture are very real things like war, violence in our streets, the militarization of our police departments, jackasses practicing "open carry" in the local Wal-Mart, the popularity of cage fighting and so-called MMA, the popularity of video games that make shooting another human being in the head something that can be undone by hitting the "reset" button, the fact that so many parents believe that little Janey and Johnny need to start the marital arts as young as possible, and dozens of other examples of socially acceptable violence practiced on a daily basis?

Please don't misunderstand - I know that violent forms of entertainment contribute to our willingness to commit violence ourselves. I will readily stipulate that watching back to back episodes of 24 will make me more willing to punch out the paperboy. What they
have never made me do is think it's a good idea to shove hummus up somebody's ass - though it would explain the taste of hummus.

We need to step up to the plate and stop making excuses for our moral and ethical failings - and we absolutely have to insist that our government do the same. Part of that is accepting responsibility for our actions and insisting our government do the same - including turning over everyone who violates either domestic or international law for prosecution. The idea that we should hide war criminals puts us on a par with the great despots of history. As someone who grew up on government propaganda about the Soviet Union and its satellite countries, a propaganda that never failed to point out every real or imagined human rights violation, and as a citizen of a country that presumes to chastise the Chinese government for its human rights violations, I object to this kind of grade school  morality that says something is only wrong if you get caught and condones any and every attempt to shift the blame for misdeeds to the other.

It's time to put our big boy and big girl panties on.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Pablum and Profanity

Please don't let anyone convince you that you have to surrender your personality and proceed as if you have been lobotomized. Many will try, at least by their example. How many spiritual teachers have we seen who, trying to convince us how calm and peaceful they are because (presumably) they
are so unbelievably enlightened, seem unable to raise their voice loud enough to yell "look out!" should they see a truck about to run someone over as they cross the street? Could there be anything more suspect? Why would enlightenment or union with the Divine cause us to become cookie cutter lobotomized mumblers, our personalities banished to the outer reaches of the universe where they mingle with other abandoned practices like picking our noses in public (which also, by the way, has nothing to do with awakening in any but a social sense)?

One of the things I love about some Buddhist teachers is that they don't pretend they don't say "shit!" or even "fuck!" every now and again. Insight Meditation teacher Noah Levine is especially good at that, and the Zen tradition in particular seems full of stories depicting life as eating, sleeping, and shitting. Some people, conditioned as they are by American puritanism, recoil at such a suggestion. That in turn reflects that they have recoiled from life, preferring to live it at a presumably safe distance. Nonsense. You cannot live life at a distance, just as you cannot live it vicariously. No matter how well your child's soccer team does this year, the truth is you sucked at the game and would do well to let your kid off the hook and face reality.

What I want to know is this - when will we drop this absolutely asinine belief that spiritual people must, as a prerequisite to awakening, have never lived? I have worked in industry, in healthcare including psychiatric settings, in the Church and in the hood. I have hatched, matched, and
dispatched people* and in the process I have seen them at their best and at their worst. I have dealt with all of their secretions - physical and emotional. I have been, quite literally, elbow deep in adult feces, at which time the only word one can say with any authenticity is "shit," and fallen on my ass in puddles of urine, which does tend to piss one off. I have wrestled people to the ground and restrained them. I have watched people drink, smoke, and drug themselves to death at an early age, and watched other people excommunicated from the possibility of human touch by virtue [sic] of the misunderstanding and cowardice of family, friends, medical professionals, and clergy. We do have an untouchable class in America, and I have said "fuck this" and touched them anyway. These are the experiences upon which my spiritual life has been forged, and whatever minimal level of awakening I have achieved has not erased those memories from my consciousness nor made me someone other than who I am. It would be absolutely absurd for me to believe that anyone else has had a different experience.

Despite all of this, I hear from the pulpit and the Buddhist teacher's seat an unreal, lobotomized, wolf in saint's clothing presentation that implies these people neither fart nor burp. Sadly, I have been in sacristies and back rooms, and their odor gives them away. I have seen self-proclaimed and duly elected spiritual leaders rant and rave against sexual misconduct, all the while sleeping with more members of their flock than they have fingers on their hands. I have seen the fundamentalist preachers decry the LGBT community only to be revealed as having groomed underage boys to have sex with them when they come of age. We all have seen the cover ups, the lies, the scandal, the
denials, the  minimizing - but let one spiritual leader say "motherfucker" and all hell breaks loose. I'll let you decide which is worse.

I'm remembering a country song called "A Country Boy Can Survive" by Hank Williams, Jr. that has a line in the chorus that goes like this: "We say grace, and we say Ma'am, if you ain't into that we don't give a damn." Of course, Hank also said some ill advised things about the President that I don't support, but I'm not beyond stealing his ideas. I'm going to write a spiritual song to the same tune, and the chorus will go something like this: "We say shit, and we say piss, if you can't feel that truth there's something you missed."

Don't worry, if you don't like that there are plenty of pretend spiritual teachers. You can go sit at their feet right after you get done castigating your child for not bringing home the championship trophy. You have to be authentically you, too. Just please don't tell me how holy you are, or I will have to say some of those words you don't like.

*"hatch, match, and dispatch" refers to Baptism, Marriage, and Funerals

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Looking for an Edge to Catch

A wonderful psychiatric nurse named Joyce, whom I worked with years ago, taught me the concept that some people at some times just look for an edge to catch on. I suppose we all get that way from time to time, just off our game enough to be looking for a reason to get upset. In its milder forms, finding that edge to catch on just makes us irritable and bitchy. In its more severe forms, we easily
become violent. When I worked in inpatient mental health, we were pretty adept at not providing the edge people sought, but if they wanted one badly enough and couldn't fine one they would simply create their own - real or imagined. Over the years I discerned that whether people were likely to become irritable and bitchy, violent, or somewhere in between was determined by a complex formula including psychological factors, fatigue, pain, illness, stressors, and our beliefs and attitudes. Generally speaking, those people who believe that nothing is ever supposed to go wrong look for that edge much more frequently than those who believe that life is comprised of both the good and the bad, the sunshine and the rain, the ups and the downs we all encounter.

It has occurred to me that America is now a society of people looking for an edge to catch on. It started with feminism, I am pretty sure, when women started complaining if a man held a door for
them. (If you are angry now, can you see that I just provided an edge for you to catch on?) Of course it didn't start with feminism, but the example is a good one nonetheless. Suddenly, what had once been a socially reinforced behavior became a bit of a mine field depending on the attitudes of the person for whom we held the door. There are almost endless examples of the increase in a search for the edge. When I was much younger than I am now, I learned that it was polite to complement someone on their new hairstyle, new clothes, new glasses, and similar things. It built good feelings and strengthen relationships - even work relationships. Despite the fact that men don't notice these things as much as women do, I tried to keep track of who got their hair cut, or got new glasses, just to be a kind co-worker. Today, such a statement is a risky venture because it can perceived (correctly or incorrectly) to be sexual harassment. In my more cynical moments, I want to have business cards printed up that read:

DISCLAIMER: I do not find you attractive in any way, in fact I find you rather repulsive and wouldn't want to have sex with you if you were the last person on earth. Therefore, any complements I might pay you when in a forgetful state should not be interpreted as an advance of any kind, but rather a momentary lapse in which I inadvertently behaved with kindness. 

My plan would then be to distribute there cards to everyone in every room I enter. Sadly, such a strategy wouldn't work, because someone's edge would be that I didn't want to have sex with them and the drama that ensued wouldn't be worth the safety offered by my disclaimer. If you have ever encountered someone with a Borderline Personality Disorder, you will know what I mean right away.

Further evidence of the prevalence of seeking that edge to catch on is the prevalence of litigation in
our culture. It seems everybody wants to sue everybody else just about any time their little feelings get hurt - even when it's their own negligence that got them in whatever mess they find themselves in. Many people actually believe that life is supposed to be smooth and without bumps in the road. The result is that when life's natural bumps appear, they look for someone to blame and someone to pay for their discomfort. If something goes wrong, by God someone is going to pay, and it doesn't really matter to the offended party if the person who ends up paying is responsible for what happened or not. It's as if we believe that cash compensation makes all things better, but the truth is that once that money is spent we are right back where we started and the next unanticipated bump in the road is right around the corner.

The solution? To be honest, I don't have a fail proof solution. It does occur to me that we can spend our whole life trying to avoid providing the much sought after edge for others and as a result never actually live our own lives, and that doesn't seem a fair trade. I do feel that we can identify those people in our lives who are regularly looking for an edge, and seek either to avoid them or, if that's not possible, be very careful when interacting with them. On a more proactive note, we can work to surround ourselves with healthy people and, as we get to know one another better, trust that our motivations will be clear to them. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, when someone does find their much sought after edge, we can choose to walk away and not get caught up in the drama. Misery loves company, but the company seldom loves the misery!