Bill Clinton Has Obviously Never Seen “The Big Lebowski”

From October 25, 2012.

Matt Bai says Bill Clinton’s advice to frame Mitt Romney as an extreme conservative rather than the nihlist voters believe him to be was a mistake (here in The New York Times).

Crux of the piece:

“The bottom line here is that one can over-think this whole notion of framing your opponent. Ninety-nine times out of 100, the line of attack that works best is the one that really rings true. In the case of Mr. Romney, whatever his stated positions may be, the idea that he’s a far-right ideologue, a kind of Rush Limbaugh with better suits and frosty hair, just doesn’t feel especially persuasive.

On the other hand, the notion that Mr. Romney isn’t centered in any philosophical impulse — that he will say or do whatever it takes to win — seems more plausible, given his contortions on a range of policies, and given his excessive caution as a candidate.”

Yesterday, Andrew Sullivan said that Romney’s singular skill at reversing positions whenever it seems expedient (or, to be generous, right) could be understood in the context of his mid-century Mormonism.  Mormons believe in continuing revelation, Sullivan says, pointing out that Africans and African Americans were classified as cursed in the LDS until 1978.   He quoted Mormon leader Bruce McConkie’s statement that year: “It doesn’t make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June of this year, 1978.” (Sullivan also points out that for close to 40 years, Mitt Romney remained active in a racist church, and that no one is raising that issue the way Obama’s connection to Jeremiah Wright was held up for all to see).

Sullivan claims that it’s okay to use Mormonism, “the only consistent intellectual thread in Romney’s life,” as a kind of decoder.  Readers accused Sullivan of not understanding what Mormons believe about the efficacy of continuing revelation.

Is it possible that Romney’s left-to-center-to-right-to-center-to-right-to-center dash of the last 18 months is simply the candidate’s inner life lived out in public?  Maybe.

And then there’s the belief, which Bai basically says most voters hold, that Romney is a manipulative nihilist.  The Lebowski Problem come home to roost.  Unfortunately for Barack Obama, Bill Clinton was otherwise engaged when Walter Sobchak instilled in us a deep distrust for that particular non-ethos.

Third party!

Romney’s Lebowski Problem

This is from March, 2012.  I’m reposting it today because everyone seems to think Mitt Romney is going to save the world from Donald Trump.  Or something.

I had the blissful opportunity of enjoying exceptional hot wings, conversation, and bro time in Wayne, PA this week.  One of the insights that emerged from this time of fellowship is offered here for your consideration.

Mitt Romney is so unpalatable because there’s absolutely no reason for him to be running for president.  It’s great that he’s not an ideologue, but it would be nice if he had some ideology.  It’s not the incessant flip-flopping so much as what that says about his real motives for running.  He has no great beliefs and hence no great motives.  He’s running because he wants to be President, pure and simple. He’s running because he wants the Office of Ultimate Upward Mobility.  He’s running for power or prestige or from some deep-seated need to leave no opportunity untapped.

We’ve been saying things like this for a long time, but it wasn’t until this week that we’ve been able to put it in the most precise terms possible:


Say want you want about the tenets of Obama’s socialism, dude, but at least it’s an ethos.

Does anyone really believe anything this man says?

Contraceptives and the Freedom of Conscience: Framing the Catholic Debate in Other Terms

English: Barack Obama signing the Patient Prot...

One day, this scene might be on money.

I’ve been reading up on the fall-out over the Obama Administration’s decision not to exempt large Catholic employers (hospitals, colleges, social service agencies) from provisions in the new health care laws requiring that enterprises of their scale provide insurance that covers contraceptives.

You don’t have to agree with Humanae Vitae to understand why the issue is important to people who believe, as a matter of religious conviction, that human life begins at fertilization.  You don’t have to be a paranoid pro-lifer to connect the dots between a mandate about legal medicine (contraceptives) and a future mandate about legal practices (abortion).  You don’t have to hate the President to seriously wonder when the other shoe will drop and your marquee universities and charities will be forced to fund abortions. Even if you have total antipathy for the Catholic church’s teachings or the wider pro-life movement, you can understand, if not empathize, with the anxieties and fears engulfing Catholic leaders and other pro-life people.  If you are pro-life, you may or may not get involved in the debate about contraceptives, but you understand and worry about the larger implications of these mandates.

Now to lay some cards out on the table.   I am pro-life, and I believe there are solid progressive arguments yet to be made for the legal protection of gestating human life.  I also happen to believe that being pro-life requires a strong social witness for economic justice, racial equality, prerogatives of peace and a rejection of the death penalty.  I’m not Catholic, but the seamless garment makes a lot of sense to me.  Far too often, it has been ripped to shreds by leaders claiming a pro-life mantle on the issue of abortion only.

None of this means that I can muster up a cogent argument against the contraceptive mandate under current law.  That’s not because I don’t cherish our religious freedom.  It’s because I do, and because I recognize that the tendency we (religious and irreligious folk alike) have toward calling some things “secular” and “sacred”  robs civil society of real pluralism and limits the ways we let ourselves come and reason together.

Freedom of religion is fundamentally about freedom of conscience and always has been.  In our context now, it seems natural that a Catholic might appeal to freedom of religion when protesting a federal mandate about contraceptives or abortions.  But what if I disagree with the ethics of abortion on purely humanist grounds? Or as a libertarian?  In the popular practice of most juris prudence, I’m not protected the same way as a person claiming religious exemption.  The Catholic, the humanist, and the libertarian are all appealing to freedom of conscience, but only the Catholic (or other “religious” protester) is seen as doing so from a place of perceived transcendent duty, obligation, and, yes, conscience.

Why should that be so?

Do we actually do a disservice to religious freedom when we maintain that its more precious than  freedom of conscience?  In the post-Enligthenment milieu of colonial America, the anti-establishment clause sought to the respect the consciences of Americans of all creeds and no creeds.  But aren’t our secular values creeds unto themselves? And don’t we all, by virtue of paying taxes, fund things we otherwise oppose?  Abortion and contraceptives are one example, but we all know people who believe that the mere existence of social safety nets is to blame for our rotten economy and blighted inner cities.  If allowed, wouldn’t these acolytes of laissez-faire opt out of paying a certain percentage of their taxes?   Of course they would.  (By default, many do.)

In some instances we’ve developed models like conscientious objection.  But when Carl Wilson stayed home from Vietnam, his didn’t get to say “give my taxes to anything but war.”   If he’d been Amish, the question would be settled.  But even Quakers, who generally oppose all war on religious grounds, fund those wars with their taxes, at least for now.  Here libertarian arguments for as few taxes and as few programs as possible start to sound appealing.  But if we extend the freedom of conscious logic from taxes to practice, we’d have to allow institutional racism if we’re aiming to be consistent.  For a racist, freedom of conscience means that the government can’t prosecute racist employers for racist hiring practices.  Abortion and war are life and death issues, to be sure, but so is prejudice.

So maybe consistency isn’t the answer.  Maybe we’re looking for rational ways to serve two jealous masters:  the free consciences of our people and the moral ends (again, as perceived by someone) of government.  Note that even in the framing of the Bill of Rights, freedom of conscience is not given to those who would seek to establish a state religion or deny public assembly or prosecute peaceful protests and dissent.  We’ve made value judgements from the beginning, and we always will.

I am pro-life, but that’s not the reason I think the White House will have to compromise on the value judgement they’ve made here.  I think the federal mandate undermines the administration’s case precisely because it’s federal and precising because it’s binding without exception .  Unlike similar laws in many states, there’s no way of opting out of the federal mandate that healthcare be provided by these large employers, so Catholic universities and hospitals 1) must provide healthcare and 2) cannot limit what healthcare their funds cover based on religious objection.  Going into the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), “mandate” was the bogey-word, and now we’re seeing why.  But there’s no real precedent for conscientious objection to this kind of law, partly because this kind of law hadn’t ever been passed at the federal level, and partly because we simply don’t allow most folks to opt out of these things over matters of conscience.  But, amazingly, we make exceptions for religion, and because of that, religion suffers.

As much as I would love to push the line, in some ways, that religious freedom really is fundamentally different that freedom of conscience, I know that doing so actually  makes all thoughtful freedom weaker in the end because it denies the truth that even atheists or scientific materialists imbue their Weltanschauung of choice with a transcendence they don’t talk about at cocktail parties.  The framers of the Constitution knew this, even as they enshrined their own sense of universal Good into our founding.  And without that liberal DNA, what?  Monarchy?  Tyranny?  Our system is far from perfect and often far from fair.  But we are challenged with the task of working these things out.

I’m inclined to say we’re left having to admit that freedom of conscience isn’t absolute, even in America, and never, ever has been. We know this in our gut, which is why people say “this is a freedom of religion issue” as if freedom of religion is somehow different from freedom of conscience. It’s why the Amish live in their separate peace, while other people of faith find ourselves in the sublime tension of Christ’s call to be in the world but just not of it.  We are to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and trust God to work things out.  But Jesus also calls us salt and light, and our public witness for the poor, the marginalized, the least powerful of these is a public duty of Christian faith.  We rightly call companies with unjust working conditions and other harmful practices to task, and we rightly manifest a prophetic witness to the government.  But in the end, if the tax is passed, we pay it.  If the law is passed, we follow.  But as much as we love law and order, Americans were born to throw off these kind of yokes.  And so we work things out, and it takes time, and we screw up.  And we thank God for the grace that covers our poor judgement, our ignorance and arrogance, our well-intentioned mistakes and ill-gained, ill-spent treasure.

The State of Our Union Tomorrow, Today

I just posted this on Facebook and wanted to share it here:

I didn’t watch SOTU, but I’m optimistic. Not about Democrats or Republicans. Not about elections or debates. About something money couldn’t buy but the economic crisis helped us see: here and now, most of us want to be better than we’ve been. Most of us are committed to being more fair, more open, more compassionate…more generative. The economy still scares me, maybe now more than ever, but the renewed capacity I’ve seen in people to give even from what little they have so that those with even less might have something…I believe in that. I believe in love. I believe we’re called to live God’s future in the present. I believe we must, and I believe we can.

Marian Wright Edelman: The Rent We Pay For Living and the Biggest Problem American Children Face

“I was taught that the world had a lot of problems; that I could struggle and change them; that intellectual and material gifts brought the privilege and responsibility of sharing with others less fortunate; and that service is the rent each of us pays for living — the very purpose of life and not something you do in your spare time or after you have reached your personal goals.”

“What’s wrong with our children? Adults telling children to be honest while lying and cheating. Adults telling children to not be violent while marketing and glorifying violence… I believe that adult hypocrisy is the biggest problem children face in America.”

― Marian Wright Edelman

The first quote was in my Google+ feed today thanks to a dear friend who works with children.  I forwarded it on to the leaders of our Mission Team here at First Presbyterian and to all our ministry and program staff.  For me, it comes closest to defining a missional life as anything I have seen.

The second quote is prophetic in its assessment and ever-timeliness.  I hope to God for a day when it’s outdated because we, American adults, will have made it so by our ethical and moral commitments, our spiritual and political priorities, and by shining lights on places where our systems have absorbed injustice instead of upending it.

Maranatha.

The High Cost of Cheap Goods: Going to Hell In a Hand-Held Device

091208- Mike Daisey @ TBA08 1c

Mike Daisey image by djbrokenwindow via Flickr

Three Pillars Trading Company is a client of mine. I’m producing blog articles for this fair-trade, sustainable import business, and from time to time, I’ll be sharing pieces of them here. My first post at Three Pillars is about the disgusting conditions that factory workers in Shenzhen, China endure while they put together our computers and hand-held devices. Yes, as fellow Apple fanboy Mike Daisey exposes, even our MacBooks and iPhones.

An excerpt:

Monologist and raconteur Mike Daisey recently spent hundreds of hours exploring the treatment of industrial workers in the Shenzhen region of China. His findings are nothing short of chilling, and he’s taking to the stage (and Internet) to get the message out. Mike makes the stunningly simple observation that while most justice-minded people work very hard to integrate their ethics and consumer choices when buying socks and sneakers, very few of us ever really stop think about the fabrication and delivery chains that produce our favorite hand-held devices.

Continue reading here. Whatever you do, be sure to click through and watch the video interviews TechCrunch conducts with Daisey. They’ll make you angry, sad, and sick. The fact that people like Mike Daisey exist might also make you feel some hope. As I’ve said before, if I ever link to anything I’ve been paid to produce, I’ll say so. That’s the case here, but, as you might know, I only take jobs from organizations I can get behind.  It would be great if you surfed from here to my cool new client, but much more important to me and to Three Pillars is that you please, please, please hear what Mike Daisey has to say. In fact, here’s a direct link right to the TechCrunch article with three video segments. They are worth your time.

As for Three Pillars, one of the chief goals of their blog is to provide a place of interest and information gathering around the the kinds of issues that people interested in fair-trade goods are likely to also care about. If you do make your way there, I know the Three Pillars folks would appreciate any feedback or comments you might have about how to make the blogging experience on their site all it can be. My job is strictly on the content side and I get to pick the issues I blog about there.  If you have suggestions, please let me know.

While we’re on the subject of sustainability, and since I used “hell” in the title (that’s just a figure of speech, Rob Bell), I’ll also say this: after watching Daisey speak, I’m seriously worried about the state of the Western soul. Most of us don’t know that a company as seemingly with it as Apple is party to the things happening in Shenzen. We get great products for low Western prices, but at an unknown human cost to people with even less access to power than most of our own unemployed homeless.

I’ll be honest. This makes me feel like shit. Since I read Karl Rahner in div school (Savvy Sister, are you a fan of his? I am.), I’ve always thought his take on original sin made the most sense: everyday, we’re part of sinful, evil systems that we don’t even know about. Doing something as simple as buying a banana (let alone an gallon of gas or an iPod) might end up supporting unspeakable evil. The same goes for your retirement funds. Unless you’re in a socially aware mutual fund, chances are your IRAs are funding weapons and Chinese petro companies with dirty hands in Darfur. Shit, when I worked in finance, even the so-called “socially responsible funds” invested in Big Pharmaceuticals and Big Banks because after taking out cigarette makers,  arms makers, gambling companies, pornographers and environmentally destructive firms, Banking and Medicine were the only two industries left. If you want a brief rundown on how powerful those industries are, consider if this is true where you live like it is here: most of the most consistent new construction going on prior to the banking crisis and even after was and is for new banks and new drugstores. I’m not saying prescription drugs aren’t legit or that there’s something wrong with taking medicine as directed, but we all know that on the R&D and supply ends, opportunity for corporate abuse is rife. I don’t think I need to say anything at all about banks and financial institutions. You know where I’m going.

Where does all this bullshit evil come from in the first place? I know the following:

  1. everyone we meet is fighting a great war.
  2. Karl Barth, (Karl Rahner’s Protestant Number) said that evil is the aggregation of humankind’s repeated choice of Das Nichtige (very basically: choosing “Not God” (aka “Nothingness”) instead of God, who is life) played out in history.   He’s not very far from Rahner here when it comes down to it: Evil is a given, and it gets amplified as we continue to choose it (or, finally, participate it in unknowingly because it’s so entrenched).  Its the manifestation of everything that isn’t God, actualized by aggregate choices and non-choices framed by the earlier actions of others (which, in fact, may not have been truly free choices, given #1).
  3. be kind, because (see #1).
Image representing Apple as depicted in CrunchBase

Crunch.

A dear friend of mine, wry with a sort of common-sense Pennsylvania German-Lutheran fatalism would say this leaves us pretty screwed.  But I’m not so sure about that in the end. Shortly after I got out of the mutual fund industry, another friend of mine with many years in the retirement-planning business told me that it was impossible to invest with your conscience. As you might expect, I disagree. You probably do, too. Whether you’re a person a faith or simply a person of faithful ethics, you already know that voting with your dollars, so to speak, requires certain sacrifices. I’m due for a phone upgrade this month. Oh, how I want an iPhone. But maybe I won’t get anything. I know the phone I would have bought will still be made in shit-hole conditions and will still be sold. I know it will be the best looking chunk of original sin on the market. How funny that it’s made by a company who’s logo is a piece of bitten fruit. Well, not funny ha ha. Funny strange. Actually, not so funny at all.

So, friends, what we do we about all of this?