Now What? An Open Letter To The United Methodist Church

So the Judicial Council’s decision came down late yesterday afternoon. I sure hope no one was surprised. Looking for a ruling of law on a matter clearly set out in law that is nevertheless contradictory to that law . . . Yeah, that’s not going to happen.

Who wants to be the first member of a Conference Board of Ordained Ministry to ask about someone’s sex life? How awkward is it going to be asking single ministry candidates if they’re celibate? If they’re a practicing homosexual (and Oh! My! God! what the hell does that mean?)? Who wants to be the first BoOM to codify such a set of questions?

How is this rule enforced? For decades people have gone through the process, and there are so many gay, lesbian, bisexual, and othered clergy. Their ministries are not validated by any Board or agency, but by the fruits of that ministry. Does this ruling suddenly declare all those whose lives have been changed because of their servant leadership are not actually Christian? Are their baptisms null and void? Are couples not legally married? Are the hungry fed, naked clothed, lonely visited not actually fed, clothed, and visited? At what point does this absurdity end?

What happens when all the sexual minorities in a Conference declare themselves openly? Do we spend tens of thousands of dollars on useless, meaningless trials that have nothing to do with the efficacy of their ministry, but rather their very personhood? Do we degrade ourselves, weeding out any and all clergy who violate our rules regarding sexual morality? Do we declare that how an individual loves determines their worth to be bearers of the Gospel? Do we deny the reality of the call of the Holy Spirit in the lives of gay and lesbian folk? Our Boards of Ministry now know better than God?

Twenty-eight years ago, my ministry mentor said something that has stuck with me: Celibacy in singleness is a nice ideal. We need to stop thinking and practicing a sexual theology that understands this reality of our incarnated reality to be evil, or the source of sinfulness. Few things are as beautiful as sexual intimacy. Obviously, human beings have debased sex; we have also debased eating through gluttony. We debase ourselves with pride. How is any of this relevant? Does being a sexual human being mean one is incapable of serving the Church as one called out for the service of Word, Sacrament, and Order?

At some point, we need to stop, take a step or two back, and realize how absurd, how ridiculous, how unChristian our ongoing obsession over sex and sexuality is. Were we engaged in heated discussions regarding the abuse of human sexuality in all its various forms, that would be one thing. Sexual violence by clergy is not limited to the Roman Catholic Church. We all know that. Rather than have a healthy discussion about that, however, we are actually insisting that the healthy expression of human sexuality in and of itself disqualifies some few among us from serving as called by God. It is, quite literally, an unrealistic set of demands that deny both the beauty of human love in all its forms and the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of believers.

And garments will be rent. Hard words pass back and forth. People will line up against one another. Clergy and laity and congregations will threaten to leave, one way or another. Yet we do not once ask the simple question:

REALLY?

We have wasted so much time and money and energy on the impossible pursuit of enforcing rules that no longer make sense practically, theologically, or ministerially. We have destroyed the lives of hundreds of people whose identity was determined by others rather than themselves; we have declared them to be unworthy of the work of Christian ministry not because of anything they’ve done but because of who they are. We are destroying our denomination because of bigotry and sinfulness. Our obsession with human sexuality has become more important than anything else. It’s absurd. It’s nonsensical.

It’s sinful.

We all know what’s coming, of course. All of which was avoidable by the simple act of prayer and discernment. All of which was avoidable by a careful examination of the Scriptures, our traditions, our reason, and the experience of the Church in our world today. All of which was avoidable were we grown-ups and put sex in its proper place in the lives of individuals and the Church.

We deserve our death. We have committed suicide, a cowardly, prideful act that denies the goodness of human life (trust me, I’ve been suicidal; I know what I’m talking about). I do so hope all those sexually prurient moralizers are happy with what they’ve wrought.

Why I Don’t Care About The Judicial Council’s Decision

The Church of St. Lazarus, Larnaca, Cyprus

As much as I’ve been very vocal over a quarter century regarding the necessity for full inclusion – it only acknowledges what is an ongoing reality of gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, and other-sexed persons serving lives of faithful servant leadership across the denomination; everything else is just political jostling – I couldn’t care less what the decision will be. Not because I don’t care about matters of justice, particularly within the bounds of our church; not because I do not care about the integrity of the mission and ministry of the United Methodist Church. No, I don’t care because I was confronted with the reality of a faith stronger than the vicissitudes of a history of conquest; stronger than the persecutions of sworn enemies; stronger than time itself and the folly of human forgetfulness. I’ve always “known” that ours is just one moment, a fleeting phase in the life of the Church Universal. It is one thing to read about it, and proclaim it. It is quite another, however, to stand in the presence of a living witness that has withstood the rise and fall of Empires, the defies the logic and rationality of our age as it declares the presence of the physical remains of a Biblical saint.

The Church of St. Lazarus in the port city of Larnaca, Cyprus is a living witness to the power of a living faith in the face of all that time and tide, human sin and folly, pride and violence can direct at it. In 890, a small church built over the tomb of Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, was replaced by a larger church befitting an Episcopal Seat. Byzantine Emperor Leo, known as The Wise, took all but a few of the bones of Lazarus back to Constantinople in exchange for the new structure. Across centuries during which the Byzantine Empire weakened, Crusaders would come for pilgrimages on their way to the holy land; later Crusaders would sack Constantinople and steal the holy relics, only to lose them once they had brought them back to Marseilles. The ancient city of Kition, fallen into neglect and all but abandoned, couldn’t support the maintenance of the church building, so it fell into disrepair.

After the Ottoman Turks conquered Cyprus, local officials petitioned to have the church restored. It took 22 years – 1589-1611 – but the building was restored to its present state. Through it all, lying forgotten in the stone sarcophagus from which the rest had been stolen, the few remaining bones sat, only to be rediscovered in the late 20th century. They were placed in a reliquary and sit in the main sanctuary of St. Lazarus to this day for veneration by the faithful who still come from all over the world to pay homage to the Biblical saint of whom it is said in legend Sts. Paul and Barnabus, during their first mission journey to the island, laid hands on the raised Lazarus making him the first Bishop of Kition.

A worship space has existed on the above spot for roughly two millennia, with the current building dating to the ninth century, repairs here and there visible enough. Through centuries of the rise and fall of Empires, the folly of the human pursuit of power and the declarations of those who would pass judgment upon the propriety of veneration of Holy Relics and the foolishness of holding on to ancient legends, this holy space is a living witness to the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit who continues to breathe new life to the surrounding city through its ancient stones. Emperors have come and Sultan’s have gone, soldiers from Rome and Venice and Byzantium and Nazi Germany and the British Empire have died, their names long forgotten while the presence of St. Lazarus has endured.

So what if the United Methodist Church splits over the matter of homosexuality? Will the Gospel pass to dust? Will the lives changed by our work together become null and void? Will the self-appointed arbiters of heresy and orthodoxy look any less foolish than they already do?  Even if the United Methodist Church, whose life and witness has been bound up with most of my adult life, were to dry up and blow away, would the truth of God’s love cease to exist? We are part of a living tradition that spans continents and oceans and centuries and confessions, that’s survived the tumult of  human history only to continue as a living witness in the midst of our current moment. Should the Judicial Council declare that sexual minorities have no place in the life of the Church, does that really mean much of anything, considering the great cloud of gay and lesbian, bisexual and questioning witnesses who have already served faithfully and rest from their labors? Are we really at a crossroads in the life of the church Universal? Rather, are we so caught up in insisting we know who has the right to tell the story we’ve forgotten that the story needs to be told, and only God calls those to tell it, wherever they are?

We are far too self-absorbed to remember how insignificant we really are. We are only vessels, our life poured out in faithful witness to the power of the Gospel over all that continually declare themselves the true power of the moment. The Gospel will be preached. Gay ministers, lesbian clergy couples, trans and questioning people will as they always have serve the Gospel of freedom in whatever capacity they are called by God to fill. And that Gospel and the life it brings will sustain communities far beyond our current historical moment.

I don’t care about the Judicial Council’s decision because, in the end, only the power of God sustains the faith, and that power is not and will not be usurped by any institution or persons, no matter how powerful or correct they may feel themselves to be. The Gospel will out because there are living witness across the globe that testify to its ongoing presence and power over whatever stumbling blocks human beings place in its way.

You Aren’t A Working Class Hero

I love it when people miss the point completely.

There are few things that really bother me as much as self-professed working-class heroes. These are the folks on your timeline who carry on about their long hours, their hard work ethic, occasionally make fun of people who don’t do the same jobs they do, and generally enjoy a kind of smug superiority. Particularly over other working-class folks whose views on life, politics, and workplace solidarity differ from their own.

These are the folks who carry on about protesters needing jobs so they won’t have time to protest. These are the folks who insist they’re the real backbone of America. They dismiss unions as promoting little work for a big paycheck. And they make sure everyone knows the world will stop if they decide not to go to work.

Except, of course, it won’t.

At all.

On the contrary, such self-promotion earns these people exactly nothing at all. The may feel good about themselves, but they won’t get a bigger paycheck. Their supervisors may pat them on the back, but when the ACA is repealed, their healthcare is going to cover less for a whole lot more money. They may flaunt their moral superiority over all the rest of the layabouts in the world, but when budget cuts come around, or the factory moves to Mexico or Thailand, they’re going to be just as unemployed as everyone else. With far less to show for it.

The thing is, the myth of the working-class hero plays on American themes – that hard work is a goo in and of itself and brings with it rewards; the myth of the powerful individual facing a hostile world and surviving, even thriving; the myth that organized labor is a long con looking to separate workers from their wallets in order to benefit a few – which makes it difficult to counter even with facts. The appeal is so basic, so much at the heart of how we see ourselves as Americans, it becomes difficult to resist.

Like most myths, however, these old American myths contained far less truth than they claimed; with changing social relations, they are functionally meaningless now. Setting aside the reality that the myth of the self-made American ignored pretty much everything else going on the world even as it was being propagated, now it’s impossible to be a successful individual without help from others. Whether it’s municipal ordinances governing where businesses can and can’t operate, through local street and sidewalk maintenance, to the local police force up to and through workplace hour, safety, and pay regulations that keep our workplaces safe physically and financially, not a single person working today has made themselves who they are.

And all those pesky things like maximum hours legislation, minimum wage laws, the weekend, health and retirement benefits – these exist because of unions. People died to make sure their fellow workers would live better, be safer, and have better overall living conditions. And if you want to work more than 40 hours a week, these laws make sure you’re justly compensated for that work. It doesn’t prevent you from working more. It prevents you from being underpaid.

Setting oneself up as a paragon of working-class American virtue does one thing only: it makes those who do feel better about themselves, morally superior, somehow. Your bosses will encourage you to feel good about yourself at the expense of others so they can ignore overtime pay rules. They’ll use your own smugness against you, denying you benefits and continuing to keep your wages low, while constantly sending you notes thanking you for your example. You won’t be any better off. You’ll just have a bunch of paper to throw out.

I’m actually quite tired of self-professed working-class heroes who go around flaunting their alleged virtue for all the world to see. Businesses exploiting a meaningless myth in order to drive wedges between and among workers keeps everyone down. And the heroes themselves? They get nothing. Their pay is still low. Their jobs are still as vulnerable as everyone else’s. They work without any real guarantees their benefits will be there for them. Solidarity isn’t just a word from 1980’s Poland; it’s a goal towards which all workers should strive in order to benefit everyone.

Just because your boss pats you on the back doesn’t mean that same boss won’t exploit your smugness for his or her own benefit. Just because you have all sorts of letters and notes thanking you for your service won’t save your pension when the company decides to save money around the time you decide to retire. Being a working-class hero benefits no one. Not even you.

So get over yourself and start thinking of your fellow workers. We are all in this together. Even if not everyone knows it.

End Game

Russian President Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin

Espionage is a dangerous game. Even the attempt to suborn one senior official of a foreign power is filled with danger for all involved. Allegations of the mass compromising of members of the United States Executive Branch are unprecedented. Usually, this is the kind of thing bad novels are made of. Except, alas, there is abundant evidence in the public sphere that, at the very least, the attempt was made, beginning many months ago. Considering the business ties our current President has enjoyed in Russia over recent years, it hardly seems outside the realm of possibility those ties could lead to some attempt at turning what may well have been considered a valuable “asset” in the United States.

At the same time, something as massive as what at least appears to have happened to key people in the Trump Administration, up to and including the President himself, begs many questions. The most important, of course, is “Why?”  Why expend the energy and resources working with a series of what should appear to anyone outside the twisted minds of the American far right as people of dubious character and even more dubious intelligence? While it would certainly be a coup de main to alter the outcome of an American Presidential election, in and of itself that hardly seems like a goal the Russians would pursue. For months now, I have been wondering about their end game. What in the world do the Russians get by nabbing senior American officials at this moment in time? There has to be more than just some kind of espionage gold medal.

It certainly couldn’t be just having such highly placed assets. Ever since Aldrich Ames, I’m quite sure the US Intelligence Community has instituted all sorts of changes and checks to make sure such a deep penetration of our spy agencies is far more difficult. That senior American officials might well be under scrutiny makes more than a little sense. When it comes to turning foreign officials, spies, and other people, the Russians have always been the best. That whole “constant vigilance” thing certainly applies. So having low-level persons, mid-level persons, providing information to Russia is kind of to be expected. Nabbing a group of folks inside the White House and Executive Branch? That would be great, but such persons so dangerously exposed and (as it turns out) easily discovered it makes sense only if the goal isn’t, or isn’t only, gathering information.

Ever since the Russian invasion and annexation of The Crimea, Russian military adventurism has expanded a great deal. For several of the past years, Russian fighters have been playing chicken with our polar borders, seeing just how close they could get before tripping American ROE. It hasn’t been just the United States, however. Russian jets have been buzzing the Nordic and Baltic states as well, with Russian military maneuvers a tad too close to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania for them to rest comfortably.  While the invasion of the Crimea went like clockwork for the Russians, getting facts on the ground ahead of any serious attempt at Ukrainian reprisal, their larger efforts following attempted invasions of eastern Ukraine, have been abysmal failures. Enlisting ethnic Russians who are sympathetic to a possible Russian annexation has only brought more problems, including allegations of shooting down passenger jets. It’s important to look carefully at all aspects of Russian military capability. They are certainly a menace with a very large conventional army and sophisticated air assets, in particular their helicopters and fighter jets. They also possess nuclear weapons, which should make anyone considering the possibility of Russian military action nervous.

This past week, I heard the Sweden has reinstituted the draft.

In recent years, Sweden has alleged breaches of its airspace by Russian fighter jets and aggressive Russian activity in the Baltic Sea. In 2015, Wilhelm Unge, the head of Sweden’s intelligence agency Säpo, estimated that one-third of the diplomats working in the Russian embassy in Stockholm were spies. Following the publication of a similar report by Säpo last year, Sweden reportedly sustained a series of cyberattacks that it attributed to Russia.

In addition to the renascent conscription, regional hostilities are also having an effect on public opinion in Sweden. In 2014, a poll found that a majority of Swedes supported joining NATO for the first time ever. Two years earlier, that figure had been a paltry 17 percent. Meanwhile, military spending in the country, which dropped from 2.6 percent of the GDP in 1991 to 1.1 percent in 2015, went up 11 percent last year.

It isn’t just Sweden.

After scrapping conscription in 2008, Lithuania, which is a NATO member, reinstituted the draft in 2015 for men in the 19-to-26 age group. (Facing a pro-Russian insurgency in the east, Ukraine also reintroduced conscription in 2014, just months after suspending it.) Unsurprisingly, Sweden’s new conscription protocol will take some of its inspiration from neighboring Norway, which features one of few gender-neutral fighting forces in the world. Its first enlistment begins in July and will draw from a pool of men and women born in 1999.

So nerves in Northern and Northeastern Europe are taught. American forces have moved to join their NATO allies in Poland, as a direct response to Russian aggression, according to the UK Independent. While relatively small in number – only about 4,000 – Russia promptly denounced the deployment as “aggressive”, to which I’m quite sure the then-Obama Administration probably shrugged and smiled. It seems clear the Russians are looking toward some kind of attempt at a military restoration of the old Soviet borders. Putin has been pretty clear throughout his years in office this has been a goal. The one thing preventing him from moving west through the Balkans and Nordic countries is, at it has always been, NATO.

Since last summer when candidate Trump started questioning the relevance and necessity of NATO, including criticizing those NATO countries he insisted weren’t “paying their fair share”, it’s been clear to most who connected the dots between his public flirtations with Putin and Russia and a far-too-casual dismissal of NATO effectiveness, this would portend poorly for NATO cohesion and effectiveness. Now, with a threat looming to their east, NATO needs the United States prepared, united, and resolute to deter any Russian aggression.

Alas, we are without a doubt in the midst of some of the worst political chaos in our history. The Executive Branch, from the inner workings of the White House down through the various departments, are in obvious turmoil, lacking both direction and upper-level Assistant and Under-Secretaries necessary for the smooth operation of government. Meanwhile, Congress is currently led by two men hopelessly compromised by their own weaknesses. House Speaker Paul Ryan has never been an example of strength. Indeed, his entire adult life has been one of sycophancy toward those in power. In a position of power himself, he is utterly lost. The only person to whom sycophancy makes any sense for Ryan is the President. This leaves the third highest Constitutional Office effectively useless as a check on the Executive. Meanwhile, in the United States Senate, Mitch McConnell is little more than a latter-day Stanley Baldwin*. The legislative branch of government, designed by our Constitutional framers as primer inter pares among the three parts of our federal government, is for all intents and purposes incapable of any effective action.

Meanwhile, from the Office of the President on down, the White House is a mixture of imbecility, ridiculousness, infighting, and utter confusion. We have a President who is almost comically unsuited to the office. His senior advisors include conspiracy mongers, white nationalists, and sycophants quite willing to sell their souls in order to hold positions of authority. Our National Security apparatus is hobbled, despite the recent appointment of Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster as National Security Advisor. More than capable, appointing Russian hawks as some of his key advisors, he does not yet have direct access to the Office of the President.

It was yesterday, however, when there was a little “click” in my head. In the early morning hours, Trump took to Twitter to accuse former President Obama of “bugging” Trump Tower prior to the election. Over the course of the day, what was little more than yet one more of Trumps ridiculous Tweets became the political story of the day. People on the left ranged from those who insisted a FISA warrant for Trump Tower, or Trump, or Trump’s associates, or something else, was old news just revealed by the President to those who insisted this is nothing more than a planned distraction from “the real issue”**. On the right, of course, are demands that President Obama be “investigated” for what people are already calling “Obamagate”. The Washington Press Corps is all over all of this, which leaves so much that needs attention outside anyone’s line of sight.

Yes, the reality of our Executive Branch compromised by Russian intelligence is serious business. There is more than abundant evidence the outcome of the 2016 Presidential election was undermined by Russian intelligence. In a normal time, the impeachment and removal of President Trump would be swift and easy. The combination of weakness in Congress, chaos in the Executive, and a significant minority of the public somehow believing that Obama is plotting a coup against Trump, however, makes the events of yesterday only more fuel to the chaotic fire that rages in Washington.

Putin’s end game is, or should be, pretty clear. He doesn’t care about any information the folks in the Executive Branch can grant him. Russian state media has not been shy echoing the Trump Administration’s line regarding alleged press and Democratic “persecution” of the President, leaving little doubt they do not care in the least about looks. They have what they want: A United States at all but fighting war with itself.

Any deterrence the United States might pose for Russian military action is now lost. Our Commander-in-Chief is a hopeless, helpless child. There is no direction from the top; if there were, the lack of any coherence would make such direction extremely difficult to push through a broken bureaucracy. Not only are the Russians happy to leave compromised American officials dangle in the wind; eight Russian diplomats, including long-serving, high-ranking people like the Russian Ambassador to the United Nations, have died under mysterious circumstances (please read: “They were murdered”) since the election. These officials are alleged to have been connected to various people in the former Trump campaign, Trump transition team, and Trump Administration. Russian President Vladimir Putin isn’t shy about leaving no loose ends.

What was Putin’s end game? Quite simply, neutering any effective American participation in a NATO response to Russian military action in the Nordic countries and Baltic States. Trump and company’s only benefit as assets is the chaos we currently live with each day. The US State Department has few senior diplomats capable of dealing with what might well become an impending crisis in Europe. The command and control of our military is hobbled. The American press and public are utterly absorbed and distracted by the shenanigans in the White House.

And the clock seems to be ticking. The window during which effective American diplomatic and military action and preparation would prevent what might well turn into a broad war in Europe is closing fast. Most of America is unaware of the impending danger. It might still be possible to act to prevent such a horror from occurring, but we aren’t blessed with anyone capable of cutting through the nonsense to make that point clearly and loudly. As self-absorbed and unbalanced as our Chief Executive, the United States – the one essential country – is at a point of weakness not seen since the years leading up to World War II. This is a threat to the whole world. We need to pay attention lest we are caught off-guard by a sudden cataclysm.

*Stanley Baldwin was the British Prime Minister during most of the 1930’s. As the Germans began to regain strength, Baldwin did all he could to ignore the evidence before him. Famously, after the Anschluss of Austria, as Parliament debated the issue, Baldwin revealed quite baldly and honestly, that he had put the Tories above the nation, fearing the loss of seats should he begin to warn the British of possible German military adventurism. Baldwin’s fiddling while Rome burned left Britain woefully unprepared for what was to come.

**My rule, to which I so wish others would assent, is that neither Trump nor his advisors are either intelligent or savvy enough to think up something as clever as “distractions” from “real issues”. These folks are, to be blunt, pretty fucking stupid and cleverness is not one of their virtues.

Just About One Month In

President Trump at his desk in the Oval Office

President Trump at his desk in the Oval Office

Since the inauguration, I’ve only written one post. While I haven’t been silent – my whole Twitter account is dedicated to politics – I have tried to make sure I don’t get too caught up in any given event or moment. I’ve really wanted to be able to think about what’s going on in order to make sure that, when the time came to say something, I felt confident what I was writing was as correct as possible. This is not a time for anyone to go off half-cocked. Sad to say, I see just a bit too much of that, especially on Twitter.

I thought I’d point out some things Trump critics do on a fairly regular basis I find either wrong-headed, distasteful, or both. First, I truly dislike armchair psychiatric diagnoses, particularly from people who think reading a paragraph in the DSM-V teaches them all they need to know about this or that mental illness. That’s not how it works. To diagnose someone without professional training, without repeated personal interactions, without any collaboration with like-minded colleagues is both stupid and unprofessional. Alas, way too many people call Trump a “narcissist” or “crazy” or “needing meds” or some such related word or phrase. Besides displaying a great deal of ignorance, this stigmatizes people who have mental illnesses. It tells folks like me that the world is watching and waiting to pass judgment upon us. It’s wrong, it’s hurtful, it’s ignorant, and it achieves nothing at all. Donald Trump may be many things, but pathologically narcissist is just not one of them. To repeat this over and over does no one any good at all and needs to stop.

Second, I really and truly believe people who insist this or that action taken by the White House is a “distraction” from “the real issue”. As if people cannot concentrate on more than one particular matter at a time! It is at least possible there are people who follow current events and politics who can see and understand multiple events and connect them – or not – without a whole lot of trouble. The ability to do so is kind of the mark of intelligent adulthood.

Now, another reason I dislike the whole “distraction” stuff is because it grants to Trump and his senior advisors both intelligence and an ability to plan neither he nor they have evidenced since the summer of 2015 when Trump announced his candidacy. To be blunt, these people just aren’t that smart; or if they are intelligent, they work with certain dysfunctions – obvious alcoholism in Steve Bannon; a desire to be liked that pushes hi to discredit criticism in Trump; these are just a couple – that hobble  any advantage their natural intelligence might give them. There is no “larger strategy”, there are no planned distractions from this or that crisis of the moment or the whole Administration. These guys are flying by the seat of their pants, lashing out at critics inside and outside the state bureaucracy more from habit than anything else. If we grant them more intelligence, foresight, ability to think and act strategically than they actually possess, we miss the far more important point that the appearance of ineptitude and chaos may actually be just that and no more: ineptitude and chaos.

I think it’ fair to say that the various elements of the federal bureaucracy cannot function under current conditions for an extended period of time. While senior cabinet positions have been filled for the most part, there exist hundreds of Assistant Secretaries, Under Secretaries, Assistant Under Secretaries who are in need of Senate advising and consenting. Absent the guidance from these political appointees, the various federal agencies and departments simply cannot function. Now, I know there are some who would and do insist these positions are unnecessary: we have cabinet secretaries who develop policies along guidelines set by the President. It seems so easy, right?

Just this week, several junior members of the White House staff were escorted out by Secret Service because they failed their background checks for security clearances. This isn’t a fluke; Trump lost his National Security Advisor because he was compromised by the Russians. Should Trump, his chief of staff, or others continue to select people who cannot pass government clearance, or even display basic competence (Ben Carson at HUD, Betsy DeVos at Education), the whole machine grinds to a halt. We are not just a nation of over 300 million people. We are a continental nation-state, with discontiguous states and territories in need of the smooth functioning and open communication of state and federal bureaucracies. The federal government may or may not be too large – that’s an ideological and political matter that’s certainly debatable – but as of right now, it is what it is and combining the internal chaos at the top and the absence of a mass of critically needed upper and mid-level people to help develop policies, quite literally nothing will get done. Not relief to California; not the coordination necessary for our military to function properly; not agricultural policy to continue as we enter planting season. The whole thing just stops, or at best coasts along without any real understanding whether what they’re doing is in line with current policy parameters.

As for the matter of Russian penetration of the national elections last year, since stories about just that were appearing over the summer and continued with more or less attention paid to them during the Presidential campaign, I think it is more than fair to insist we need a serious, full-on investigation. Our National Security Advisor to the President of the United States was compromised by the Russians. We know Donald Trump has business ties in and with Russia, both private and public. We also know Russian intelligence hacked the databases and internal servers of both major political parties. We know they fed matieral concerning just one of those parties to a third party – Wikileaks – who published it, damaging Trump’ opponent. Hell, we even know Candidate Trump all-but-invited the Russians to conduct espionage on the Democratic Party. Considering recent Russian actions, from buzzing an American destroyer in the Black Sea to parking a military/intelligence ship just outside our territorial waters on the East Coast without a word either from the President or more than general statements from the Secretary of Defense, I think it is more than fair to insist we need to understand the full extent of Russian penetration of our recent elections. If anyone was compromised in one way or another by Russian intelligence or business interests.

These are the more important matters. There are others, such as Trump’s mindless Twitter-usage, including using a “lügenpresse” and an old Soviet epithet “enemy of the people” to describe our major corporate media outlets. This latest crosses a very dangerous line, with the President of the United States not only attempting to further discredit a constitutionally protected part of our civic life, but make of it an opponent to the orderly functioning of government. Yeah, this is bad and lots of folks have made that point so I won’t belabor it that much.

Speaking of dangerous territory, I do have to say that seeing currently serving general officers of the US military publicly comment on the current political climate – chaotic and confusing – is also disquieting. While I appreciate that senior military officials might well just be looking for the public to pressure the White House, particularly the National Security apparatus up to and including the Commander-in-Chief to get their act together, I honestly don’t like it when military officers, particularly generals, go public with stuff like this. I didn’t like it when they did it to George W. Bush. I didn’t like it when they did it to Barack Obama. And I’m not a fan of it now with Donald Trump is President.

I also do not like rumors that either the Intelligence Community or what’s called the Deep State (the domestic and foreign National Security apparatus, from the FBI through the various intelligence agencies, the military) might well be planning on the strategic release of damaging information the end the Trump Presidency. If that’s even in discussion among some folks in the Intelligence Community, they need to stop it. We do not need parts of our national security bureaucracy deciding who is and is not fit either to lead them or to be our President.

Venturing a guess, barring some serious disaster somewhere, either Congress will discover it’s collective spine and act, or pressure from the public will push them to act in their oversight funtions both to investigate and demand accountability from the departments of the executive and the President himself. This will happen sooner rather than later precisely because the status quo is just not tenable. Something will give soon enough. My greatest hope is that when it does, as little damage as possible is done either to our public institutions or the American people.

Protests And Riots

Police looking at one of several shops in downtown Washington, DC experiencing random violence yesterday, Inauguration Day.

Surveying one of several shops in downtown Washington, DC experiencing random violence yesterday, Inauguration Day.

I’ve been honestly amused by people posting to social media that, while they support protests they see riots as a crime. There’s a meme going around that says that protests should only happen when human rights are being violated. As if there’s a time human rights aren’t being violated! People want to walk a fine line where they don’t want to appear unAmerican and say people have no right to protest marches; on the other hand, at the first sign of violence, the whole event becomes tainted, kind of like dropping a drop of sludge in a wine vat.

Except, of course, protest marches are little more than controlled riots. Anger is directed toward constructive acts like carrying signs, joining with a large of group of like-minded people shouting slogans. In a large group of people, however, there will always be those for whom this just isn’t enough. Windows get smashed. Rocks get thrown at police. People are shoved, sometimes punched (like a white-supremacist was yesterday; some people said this was wrong because it made him a sympathetic character. Really? A Nazi gets punched in the face by an African-American and suddenly we’re all boohooing for the guy?) Broken windows, bloody noses, arrests – these are part and parcel of political protest, going back to colonial times. In our oh-so-proper bourgeois world, we dislike anything messy, untidy, and disruptive. These are social goods to be maintained at all costs.

In 1765, after the British Parliament had passed the Stamp Act over the objections of many of the colonial representatives in London, people in Boston in particular were not fond of the law. Besides being onerous, there was the principle that Parliament, which had not sought to govern the American colonies for over a century and a half, suddenly thought it not a problem to pass laws for them without their voice or consent. One sunny morning, the local Stamp officer, Andrew Oliver, was hung in effigy from a tree on the High Street. A crowd gathered, with some merchants coming and making mock obeisance before the effigy. Boston’s sheriff wanted the crowd broken up, despite the fact they were doing nothing illegal. Officers told the sheriff even trying to do so would bring on the violence they were seeking to avoid.

Soon, however, the crowd seemed to break-up and the effigy was cut down and nailed to a board. They marched through the streets chanting and shouting against the Stamp Act, reaching the docks in Boston Harbor. A building under construction, thought to be the new Stamp Office, was torn down. Then, the crowd turned and marched to Oliver’s home.

Oliver and his family were spirited away even as a crowd gathered and set up a bonfire, upon which was thrown first the effigy, followed by pieces of Oliver’s chaise. I’ll let A. J. Langguth continue the story:

[Rioters] raced to the bottom of Oliver’s garden and began ripping down a fifteen-foot fence. Once inside the garden, they stripped all the fruit from the trees, brokes off the branches and tore down a gazebo. When men began to smash windows at the back of the main house, it was not idle vandalism. Window glass had to be imported from England and was expensive to replace.

. . . [M]en were sindie the house and heading for the cellars, where they helped themselves to the stores of liquor. Ipstairs, rioters found the familys looking glass, which was reputed to be the largest in North America. They left it in shards and went on to break furniture and scatter the Oliver silverplate throught the house. [A. J. Langguth, Patriots, p.56]

Before we were a Republic, Americans have protested, including using violence, to make political statements. There were anti-draft riots in New York City in the summer of 1863. In Chicago, the Wobblies and Pinkerton detectives fought running battles in the streets that are now known as the Haymarket Riots. In 1932, World War I vets looking to receive the bonus promised them at the end of their service in 1919 gathered on the Mall in Washington DC. Local businesses claimed the so-called BEF (Bonus Expeditionary Force) was responsible for vandalism, robbery, and even rape. Against the direct orders of President Herbert Hoover, Douglas MacArthur sent in tanks and cavalry who burned tents with the families of the protesters inside. A young cavalry captain named Goerge Patton bayonetted the leg of one Bonus Marcher; that veteran had, in 1918, literally dragged a young and wounded George Patton to safety on Flander’s Fields back in 1918.

Northern White America came to appreciate if not necessarily sympathize with the non-violent protests across the segregated South. Thinking well of themselves as broad minded and liberal, they thought the treatment the protestors received – beatings and arrests – an overreaction even while preferring there be no such protests at all. After all, didn’t these young men have jobs or school to attend? Wouldn’t they better serve their race if they were doing that rather than stirring up trouble? While in Seminary taking a class in Liberation Theology, I insisted that there was not nor could be any such thing as non-violent protest against injustice. Even if those doing the protesting do not act out violently, the powers that be most certainly will. American saw that in places like Birmingham, AL and in North Carolina where young men sitting in at the Woolworth’s counter were beaten and dragged off by mobs of whites, only to return to their silent protests.

It is fashionable these days to say, “Well, I like Dr. King and his peaceful protests, but people like Malcolm X and the Black Panthers were too extreme.” This ignores the reality that, at the time, officials saw no distinction among these persons and group. Thus we create the distinction between protests and riots in the face of a historical reality that denies such a distinction.

Yesterday’s bit of vandalism provided good visuals for those who don’t like protests. I’ve yet to hear whether these were people who were protesting Trump’s inauguration, agent-provocatuers (something the feds have always been very good at), or just knuckleheads who might just want to show up on TV. By and large the protests yesterday was subdued and orderly. Today as hundreds of thousands if not millions of women around the country march to remind America and the incoming Administration that women’s rights are human rights, to be respected and protected rather than dismissed, I just have to wonder why anyone would be against such protests. Because of the possibility of violence? There’s always the possibility of violence. There usually is violence of some sort, although that has been reduced thanks to the examples of the Civil Rights era. Still, whether it comes from the protesters themselves or officials (just remember that young man facing a squad of militarized police officers in Ferguson, MO; that’s what I call an overreaction), the potential for violence is always present. Rather than try and create a false distinction between peaceful protests and violent protests/riots, how about we all grow up and understand that when people protest, they’re angry. Anger, particularly over rights revoked or denied, can be on high simmer for years, with a protest offering a forum either for constructive action or destructive action. Rather than insist that violence is bad, tout court, how about we recognize these as political acts rather than criminal acts, and treat them accordingly? Rather than sit at some remove from the scene of the action and presume to pass judgment on what is right and what is wrong, how about asking these folks why they’re angry and actually listening to their answers? How about thinking, for just one moment that people are acting out like this might very well have legitimate grievances? After all, breaking window glass in a home was a political act. Why should we not think busting the window at a Starbuck’s, the epitome of middle-class and upper-middle-class complacency and serenity in the face of human suffering, might well be a political act? And please remember, there’s insurance for for things like this, so I don’t get all that upset for the companies.

Donald Rumsfeld was a horrible Secretary of Defense, but when he told reporters asking questions about post-liberation rioting and looting in Baghdad that democracy is a messy business, he was quite right. While it was an excuse and smoke-screen to cover-up the reality the invasion had occurred with no thought given to what would happen once the government fell, it is also true. Democracy is messy. It’s never tidy. Having hundreds of thousands of people engage in acts of protest, resistance, and defiance is a sign of a healthy polity. It means people are engaged, they care what happens to them and others. It means they’re willing to take risks to make the world a little better. As someone who has marched in a couple really big marches and watched as police treated peaceful protesters badly, let me just say that violence, like H. Rap Brown reminded us, is as American as cherry pie. We should just pull up our grown-up pants and deal with it, rather than pretend there’s actually a distinction between political protests and riots. They’re just different stages of the same, larger, action.

Eight Years

Barack Obama taking the oath of office, January 20, 2009.

Barack Obama taking the oath of office, January 20, 2009.

Today is the last day of Pres. Obama’s two terms as President of the United States. There’s been so much written about how people “feel” about the end of his terms, with people expressing sorrow and joy, wishing them will and wishing them ill, I thought it would be a good idea to take a look at Barack Obama’s record as President of the United States. What has happened in the United States over the past 2,922 days? Are we as a nation more economically stable? Are we safer? Have Americans lost any rights or privileges because of President Obama? What kind of America is Donald Trump going to be leading as of noon tomorrow?

One measure of economic vitality is how well the Stock Market is doing. There are many averages, but the one most commonly used is the Dow Jones Industrial Average. At the close of business on Jan. 20, 2009, the Dow stood at 7949.09. Yesterday it closed at 19,774.01. This shows both that the economy is moving along and that investors feel confident the economy will continue to be healthy.

Another way of understanding economic health is the unemployment rate. Now, that number only examines potential members of the workforce who are currently unemployed who are actively seeking unemployment. It is not a measure of the total numbers of Americans who are eligible to work and are not working. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in January 2009, the unemployment rate was 7.8 percent. Because of the worsening of the American economy due to the bursting of the housing bubble, it would continue to rise to a high of 10% in October 2009. In December 2016, the unemployment rate was 4.7%. Since the end of the Second World War, “full employment” was usually thought to be an unemployment rate of 5% or less. With that in mind, the United States has been at “full employment” since September 2015.

The safety and security of the American people and nation-state should be one of the highest priority of any state executive. There are several measures that are helpful in understanding our safety both here and abroad. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting tables, the first is the violent crime rate in 2008 was 454.5. The property crime rate was 3212.5. In 2014, the last full year for which data is available, the violent crime rate was 365.5; the property crime rate was 2596.1. It’s important to note that this continues a downward trend in the overall crime rate that began in the early 1990’s and has continued more or less unbroken in the years since. It’s also important to note these rates represent the number of persons per 100,00 Americans. In the early 1990’s, the American population was around 275 million people. It’s around 335,000,000 now. Not only are the rates lower, with a far larger population the chances of any particular individual being the victim of crime has reduced significantly.

The United States Department of Homeland Security and the University of Maryland have teamed up to create a single source database for terrorist activity around the world, including the United States. START, The Study of Terrorism And Responses to Terrorism project is an invaluable resource for scholars and your average citizen to learn about how terrorism has evolved over the past four decades, how terrorist attacks have changed, and what groups – at any given moment – are responsible for terrorist activity.

According to the reportPatterns of Terrorism in the United States: 1970-2013, just one of many reports from the Terrorist and Extremist Violence in the United States (TEVUS) Project at START, from its peak in the early 1970’s, both the frequency and fatality of terrorist acts have decreased dramatically. This graph is clear:

terrorgraph

If you look at the actual statistics of terrorist acts by specific groups, during the period 2000-2013, “Unaffiliated Individuals” accounted for nearly a third, 31%, of all terrorist activity. This includes the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. The next two groups on the list, The Earth Liberation Front (ALF) and Animal Liberation Front (ALF), account for just about half of all terrorist actions in the United States during those thirteen years. Al-Qaida is responsible for 4% while White Extremists account for 2% of the total.

While Al-Qaida is certainly responsible for more deaths during this time period, only the Ku Klux Klan was related to American fatalities during the period 2001-2011:

terrorchart

Even if you include the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, the actual rate of terrorist attacks in the United States continues to be quite small.

Another measure of social and economic health is the percentage of Americans who live below the poverty rate. According to a report from the Bureau of the Census (.pdf), in 2008 13.2 percent of all American households lived below the poverty rate. According to the same report, in 2008, 15.4 % of Americans had no health insurance. In 2015, the percentage of American families below the poverty line was 13.5%. The uninsured, however, had fallen to 10.4%.

By many metrics, including the most important ones, Barack Obama had a successful Presidency. Hardly perfect, but far better than one might guess if one’s only source of information is social media.

Not too shabby, Mr. President. Not too shabby at all.