Sunday, May 20, 2018

Bully Pulpit

The sanctuary and pulpit at Trinity Church, Cheadle.

When Teddy Roosevelt referred to the Presidency as a "bully pulpit," he meant it was a wonderful place from which to preach. He was speaking with a minister at the time, comparing the preacher's pulpit to his own position, and he could not help thinking that being President granted him more moral authority than any member of the clergy. In late-Victorian parlance, "bully" meant "wonderful," rather than small-mindedly abusive. It was a different world then, a world of manners and righteousness, of keeping one's harsher opinions to oneself. This was a different nation then, a nation eager to welcome immigrants to fuel the vast industrial engines driving its economy as it took its first hesitant yet forceful steps onto the world stage. The Presidency had yet to claim anything approaching the power it has today, though Roosevelt was laying the groundwork for it.

I put a photo at the top of this post that contains a pulpit I occupied for two years, from 1988-1990. I was a young pastor, naive, idealistic, inexperienced, desperate to be taken seriously. My one year of church work before arriving in Cheadle was spent in rural southern Illinois, where I had worked out a manuscript-free, extemporaneous style of narrative preaching that dazzled congregations so much they could easily overlook my obvious deficiencies as a small talker and socialite (both essential skills to successful ministry). 

People listened to those sermons. They had a hand in writing them: my first wife and co-pastor hosted a weekly Bible study, and our preaching was influenced and shaped by what we and our parishioners discussed in those sessions. It was not uncommon for a parishioner to engage me in dialogue over what I had said from the pulpit in the days after it was delivered. I came to realize I had an enormous responsibility to take the concerns and needs of the whole congregation into account whenever I stood before them.

That responsibility, more than anything else, is why I left the ministry in 2000. Dating back all the way to those days in Cheadle, I had found myself frequently arguing with Biblical texts. Looking through the Lectionary, I would often choose to preach on the text that made me the most uncomfortable. When that was not the case, when I was preaching on something familiar and popular, I would worry at it until I could find an unusual angle, a twist in the story that I thought was too often neglected. And if there was anything in the text about doubt, or that led me to ask hard questions about my own faith, I would seize on it, blow it up, and make it the central focus of my sermon.

The most important congregation any preacher has is the one that looks back from a mirror. I had been struggling with doubt since high school, had gone to seminary in large part to address that doubt, and had instead found it reinforced by the methods of theological inquiry and Biblical criticism I had been exposed to by my professors. 

As much affirmation as I received for my personal, improvisational preaching style, I know I was not giving my congregation what they most needed: comfort, reassurance, inspiration, and not so much the motivation to make better moral choices as the pastoral ratification of those they'd already made. As their pastor, I was imbued with an authority I had no right to claim for myself: I was too young, too green, and far too skeptical of the faith it was my job to profess. And yet, simply because I was their pastor, they chose to overlook all those weaknesses.

There is authority in any pulpit. Those who step into pulpits take on that authority, and because they occupy them, they are guaranteed a trusting audience. Those who do not care for their message, who doubt that they deserve the authority of their office, are free to leave, as a number of my parishioners did over the years, sometimes because of disagreements with the denomination or its officers, but also sometimes, I know, because of something I said from my undeserved power as occupant of that pulpit.

I don't want any approbation for that decision. If anything, it took me far too long to make it. What I'm realizing today is that this gives me a frame of reference for understanding the flaws of the current occupant of the bully pulpit, the best place in the world to be a moral exemplar, a position the greatest Presidents have held with fear and trembling. The words of a President can cause the stock market to soar or tank. They can lead people on the other side of the world to rise up in protest, to rebel against their government, to go to war or sue for peace. It's an awesome place from which to speak, and I would not trust any holder of it--or any other pulpit, for that matter--who believes his or her authority is deserved.

In the hands of a narcissist, any pulpit becomes a weapon for manipulating the people who hold the office in high regard. I've known ministers who manipulated their congregations into accepting or denying the existence of behavior that should have led--and in most cases, eventually did lead--to defrocking. Pulpits across America are used to aggrandize corrupt clergy. Demagogues use them to transform well-meaning people into rabid nationalists, domestic terrorists, and patsies.

This country has had its share of narcissist Presidents. It takes at least some measure of narcissism to want such a job. All but the worst of them, though, have hung onto the fear and trembling modeled by the first President. And even the most corrupt did not see fit to use the bully pulpit as a cudgel against the democracy they had been elected to lead.

Until now. Now we have finally put a bully in the bully pulpit. Whether he is blasting his own Justice Department on Twitter or bombastically calling for the deportation of law-abiding Americans in front of cheering crowds of his most devoted parishioners, President Trump unprecedentedly exploits his office every day he holds it. His personality, his methods, his plans for both the Presidency and the nation have been compared to those of authoritarian dictators. 

When I came to the conclusion I should no longer occupy the pulpit, I was helped by administrators and colleagues who, while they were not always artful in the way they communicated their questions about my fitness, did their best to be gentle and compassionate. It took me longer than it should have to finally hear what they were saying, to see myself from their perspective and realize how I was coming up short, but in the end, I could no longer resist. Looking back on my career, probing the roots of my vocation, praying, meditating, journaling, I could draw no other conclusion but that it was time to leave.

I wish we could look to our President to choose as wisely as I finally did for myself, but that's never going to happen. Admitting he makes mistakes? Apologizing for errors? Being honest with himself and the nation? Listening to advisers who speak truth to his power? He refuses to do any of these things. He may be incapable of them.

If he is to leave the bully pulpit, it will not be by choice. That means it is up to Congress, the one body in America that can put an end to his pulpit bullying prior to the 2020 election, to act on whatever information Robert Mueller shares with them by impeaching and removing him from office. If they will not, it falls to voters to turn him out of office.

That's a tall order for a populace who are not known for their enthusiasm for the ballot box. And many of the states that narrowly put him over the top with electoral votes are still largely populated with Trump believers. But there's also far less complacency on the left than there was in 2016. We know now that there were vast differences between the two major party candidates, and that we got stuck with the incompetent, corrupt one who just wants to blow everything up. That's probably exactly what his followers were hoping he'd do, and he has not disappointed them. It falls to the rest of us, then, to make sure these right-wing anarchists are outnumbered this November, and again in 2020. If ever there was a preacher who deserved to lose his pulpit, it's this one.

More than that, though, it's time we took some of the oomph out of that pulpit. This nation is not a monarchy, and how ever much Trump likes to joke about being President for life, we're not going to let that happen. But there is still far too much power in the Oval Office, too much authority in every word that issues from the Resolute desk. And it's been that way for awhile: Congress began granting the President greater executive authority in the wake of 9-11, and Obama did nothing to turn back the tide. Trump stepped into a White House that is more powerful than it has ever been at any point in the history of the United States.

Seeing what that can mean when enough anarchists living in the right places vote for a ruthless narcissist, it's time we moved away from the unitary authority of the executive branch. It's time Congress and the judiciary reclaimed their role as a check on Presidential power.

More than that, it's time we Americans took back Congress--and, yes, the Presidency. Our representatives need to hear--especially in the red counties--that we do not want a dictator. We want a President. And we want the bully out of the pulpit--both the one occupying it, and the wonderful power it possesses to sway the opinions, and shape the actions, of people around the world. No one human should have that much power: not an angel, not a saint, and certainly not a self-aggrandizing bigot whose moral sense extends no farther than his bottom line.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Comey in Me

This could have been me.

This was the week of Comey.

I listen to a lot of podcasts as I'm driving to and from school, taking a walk, working out, doing chores, running errands, anything that doesn't suffer from having my brain taking in information at the same time. Many of those podcasts are political, and those that aren't explicitly political are still newsy enough to bring in politics from time to time. For the last week, they've been dominated by James Comey, either discussing the contents of his new book or interviewing him about it. Much of what I've heard has been critical of the choices he made to reveal information about the investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state, and not to reveal information about the probe into Russian involvement in the Trump campaign. The case can be made that these two decisions turned an election that should've been an easy win for Clinton into a narrow victory for Trump, thus throwing the entire nation into the chaos of the Trump Era.

In his book and many interviews, Comey has been steadfast in his conviction that these decisions were made correctly given the information available to him at the time. It's not that he's happy with the results: his book is primarily an indictment of Donald Trump, a corrupt, dishonest, narcissistic bully who, in a truly just nation, would've been behind bars years ago for running an international money laundry for war criminals and racketeers, and doing it so ineptly that only a far greater ineptitude on the part of white collar crime enforcers has prevented exactly that outcome. No, Comey is no fan of our current President, and to the extent that his actions made his election possible, he will rue them for the remainder of his life. The case he makes, both in print and in interviews, is that however the election came out, he really had no choice. His integrity demanded he inform Congress, and the American people, that Clinton had been sloppy in her handling of classified communications, and that, as the election drew near, more emails had been discovered. On the other hand, the rules of the agency he served kept him for being transparent about the gathering clouds over the Trump campaign. Regardless of whether these decisions contributed to the outcome, he stands by them.

Listening to Comey, and to the commentators I subscribe to as they excoriate him, I've felt an uneasy kinship: I get it. I know why he did what he did, and much deeper than that, why he can't apologize for it. Ends do not justify means. The ends of keeping a liar out of office did not justify lying about his misgivings about that liar's opponent, and once the precedent had been established for keeping Congress informed, did not justify concealing new information about the investigation, no matter how inopportune the timing of that revelation. It's a corollary to the maxim Clinton imperfectly applied to her campaign of "when they go low, we go high": no political outcome is worth giving up one's principles. Or, to quote a political philosopher from the first century, "What does it profit [people] if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?" (Luke 9:25)

Like Comey, I have an almost pathological dedication to integrity. I've made decisions based on principles that have led to results I wish I could reverse: hurt feelings, lost opportunities, years of sadness and pain. I've made these decisions because ethically, morally, I could see no alternative. A lie here, a concession there, could've prevented suffering for myself and people I cared about, and might have kept others from exacerbating the hurt with their own choices. And yet, I really didn't see an alternative: act in any other way, and I would be untrue to myself and all that I stand for. Tell a white lie, fudge a result, play a political game, and however great the benefits to all involved in these situations, I would've been haunted by the decision to abandon principles, to justify means with ends.

This dedication to integrity has a price. It's one of the main reasons ministry turned out not to be the right profession for me: successful pastors are politicians, doling out truth sparingly, withholding it when it may, in their opinion, hurt more than it helps. It's why, for all my fascination with politics, I could never be a politician: progress is an incremental thing, achieved through half-measures, compromise, and quid pro quo. I'm too much the Eagle Scout to abide the chicanery essential to political success, however desirable the outcome might be.

The price of such integrity is a career of missed opportunities. For Barack Obama, it was a Presidency that, while scoring higher than any previous administration I can remember in ethics, accomplished little on the policy front, and ultimately ceded Congress to the foxier GOP. For James Comey, it was a likely permanent fall from grace: I can't imagine him heading up a federal agency again, with all the bridges he's burned.

And here's the worst part: as much as I insist on my own integrity, and Comey insists on his, I don't think either of us faults politicians for holding themselves to far less rigid standards of conduct. I understand and accept that political progress comes incrementally. To ultimately achieve universal health care, a given in every thriving democracy but ours, we first had to cobble together the chimera that is Obamacare. We'll get to socialized medicine eventually, but it will be through pruning and refining the transitional system that is the only lasting accomplishment of the Obama Administration. Similarly, it took decades of half-measures like civil unions to arrive at marriage equality for same-gender couples. The legalization of marijuana is also coming one state at a time. Civil rights expansions never happen as rapidly as they should, given the clear language of our founding documents.

There are times when people of principle stand in the way of progress. As one United Methodist district secretary told me, "Sometimes people have to die for the church to move on." My own principles are conservative in their fixation on truth-telling. That appears to be James Comey's problem, as well. Others are stuck on principles that American culture is outgrowing: racial and sexual purity, gender roles, traditional family values, the role of religion in public policy, the right to gun ownership, how open the borders of our nation should be. I can see a time when white nationalism will have withered away once and for all, but it may take the death of a political generation for that to happen. As the millennial generation matures and comes into political power, I can't imagine politicians like Trump ever again ascending to power.

Getting there any sooner will necessitate compromise. And that's why we have politicians, people who, unlike James Comey or yours truly, can make choices that will lead to incremental progress, can avert their eyes in the face of moral compromise that really doesn't need to be broadcast, can occasionally fudge a fact or two, or simply neglect to share one that the world is better off not knowing about--at least until the election is over.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

The Only Constant

Utah's Delicate Arch began forming 300 million years ago.
In the way of all things, it will eventually collapse.

I didn't see Rosalie's retirement coming.

I've known Rosalie since 2005, when an activity she led at a workshop turned my professional world upside down. Here's a little background on why: I studied music education from 1979-1984, expecting to spend my career directing high school (and eventually college) bands. By the time I finished my MS, I was beginning to wonder if band was really the place for me. A year of actual public school teaching spooked me, and I ran back to the academy, this time to become a minister. I was not to give music teaching another try until 2003, almost two decades after I finished my training.

From 2003-2005, I was the kind of music teacher I'd trained to be--or, rather, defaulted into being, since my focus in those training years had been almost exclusively on instrumental, not general, music. I taught out of whatever curriculum was in place when I arrived at a school, was clueless about how to motivate children to appreciate it, and mostly found it to be hard work. Then, at the beginning of my third year, I went to Orff 101, a half-day workshop introducing me to the improvisational, playful, hands-on approach to music education known as Orff Schulwerk. It was good workshop, with plenty of useful ideas, but the best part of Rosalie, wordlessly leading a percussion circle so playful and creative that I suddenly knew exactly what kind of teacher I needed to be, however many dues I would have to pay to be able to do what she did.

In the years since then, I had the privilege of working with Rosalie when she was president of the Portland Orff Schulwerk Association board. When, in 2016, I was offered my current job in the Tigard-Tualatin School District, my first thought was "I get to work with Rosalie!"

And then, two days ago, she announced her impending retirement.

I've never seen her work with children, and now it appears I'll never get the chance. I've also had few opportunities since 2005 to see what she can do with adults, so I can't really say she's been one of my mentors. I've spent hundreds of hours learning from the gurus of the San Francisco International Orff Program, and probably less than an hour with Rosalie in that role. Even so, I know that what she showed me thirteen years ago was a beacon to what I could become. To put it in theological terms, it was my Road to Damascus experience. Those other teachers shaped me in many ways, but it is not the Orff approach to create clones of great teachers. My pedagogical identity has evolved organically to encompass my talents with words, as well as my passion for creating and arranging both found and composed music. At my best, I evoke the sense of play Rosalie brought to that rhythm circle. But I'm also more verbal in my teaching than those who know me outside of the classroom might expect. It's the preacher in me, a performer with language who lives to clarify, explain, and narrate; but also the novelist, taking themes and shaping them into new creations. And finally, there's the obsessive enthusiast, intrigued by a rhythm, a timbre, a tapestry of sounds that can express something genuine and beautiful. My best lessons, in true Orff style, are half-hour group improvisations.

I'm going to break away from that tangent now to return to the shock I felt when I read the email about Rosalie's retirement. It's not as if there were no signs of it coming: she's been teaching in TTSD for decades, and is really the dean of our cohort of elementary music teachers. Since I arrived in the district, she's had both her knees replaced, and has made it clear she just doesn't have the time or enthusiasm anymore to deal with district politics. In her email, she said she's ready to do the things she's had to put off, and wants to do them while she's still young enough to enjoy them. I sympathize with that: there are plenty of places I'd like to go at times of the year when I just can't. The last time I saw northeastern fall foliage, I was in my 20s. Many of the places I'd like to visit are just too expensive to travel to in the summertime. As wonderful as it is to have a ten-week uninterrupted break every year, I would leap at the chance to have those weeks parceled out through the year, so I could experience the hot places in cooler seasons, and see all the places at times when they're not swamped with tourists.

But again, I get away from the presenting issue here: someone who's close to my age (I've never asked) who I've looked up to is retiring. My world is changing in a small but significant way, prefiguring a choice I'll need to make sometime in the next decade.

Meanwhile, the youngest child I've parented is about to graduate from high school. My oldest child had a child of her own eleven months ago, and that baby is now on the verge of walking. The kindergartners I taught music to in 2003 are old enough now to be college juniors, and the kinders I taught in 1984 for eleven short weeks are in their late 30s. My wife got new knees of her own last winter, and we're hoping to take them out on some hikes this summer.

Outside of these local changes in my life, there are the enormous socio-political changes taking place in this nation and in the world. No, I'm not going to take a dive into the Trumpian nightmare here--I swore off such columns in my last essay--but I do have to acknowledge the world is going through a difficult labor as it gives birth to something new. This didn't just start with the 2016 election: the turmoil in Europe between natives and immigrants has been going on for some time now, the US has been wrestling with it at least since the World Trade Center came down, Washington politics went sour with the rise of Newt Gingrich in the early 1990s, nihilism overwhelmed political idealism with the Watergate scandal, the country lost any innocence it had once had with the assassinations of two Kennedys, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King...

Come to think of it, has there ever been a time when we as a nation, not to mention a planet, were able to just rest secure in a golden age, or even just a brass age, without feeling something new bubbling up from its core? Change is all around us. It's woven into the very fabric of space-time, driving all that is through a constant evolution from one state of being to another. Nothing stands still. Nothing.

And on that point, I suddenly find myself wanting to quote Scripture, something I rarely do anymore. It's one of the most-quoted passages in the New Testament, from Paul's first letter to the church in Corinth, a passage often called the Love Chapter:

[Love] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

What is love, but the willingness to embrace change in another? If we are in the life of any other person for long, we will experience that person changing, aging, evolving, leaving behind some of what made us love that person when first we met, replacing them with other qualities that we may at first despise, but ultimately must accept if we are to go on having a life together. While this is most apparent in children, especially those we know from birth, it's also evident in the partners we will spend the most time with, adjusting together to the indignities aging works on the human body. The changes happen so gradually that sometimes we have no idea about them until we look at a photograph from the early days of the relationship, and marvel at how young we once were.

This may be the most midlife of meditations I've recorded in this space: nothing holds still. Everything changes. There is no resisting that change, however unwelcome it may be. If it is someone we love, the best we can do is to embrace it, going on loving the child whose politics no longer agree with our own, or who has decided to come out as gay or transgender; to find a new way of relating to the retiring colleague or mentor; to learn to appreciate a body that can no longer run marathons or climb mountains, but can enjoy a walk in the park on an early spring day.

Change is the only constant. Accepting that, no, much more than that, affirming and rejoicing in it, is what love is all about.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Choosing Hope


Today I did something I haven't done in many years: I saw a movie for the third time in less than four months. The movie was Star Wars: The Last Jedi. I saw it in a tiny second-run theater in Boise because there just weren't any first-run movies left in town that my son and I were both interested in seeing, and we needed to fill a few hours while my grandbaby napped after entertaining us for most of the afternoon.

The first time I saw this movie, I wasn't completely sold on it. I'd not liked the first installment of this trilogy, which felt abbreviated, unnecessary, and a real downer to me, as the grand victory of Return of the Jedi turned out to be hollow and temporary, with a resurgent empire not just overthrowing, but destroying the galactic republic. And this second movie certainly takes the depressing direction of its predecessor to a new level: by the end of this installment, the resistance has been reduced to a few dozen people, all of whom can fit on the Millennium Falcon. Adding to the sadness is the passing of Luke Skywalker, who sacrifices himself for that handful of rebels; coupled with the knowledge that there will be no Leia in the final chapter, as Carrie Fisher died soon after the making of this one.

And yet, as I walked out of my third viewing of the film, I felt buoyed by what I'd just experienced. To understand why, this film has to be put in its sitz im leben (a theological term for the cultural context out of which a scriptural text or doctrine emerges): our nation is in crisis. Ten years ago, we felt a new hope as a young, principled, inspiring African-American became President, bringing with him a supermajority of Democrats in the Senate to match the majority in the House. Finally, it seemed, we could get on with the business of making America truly great, a nation that practiced what it preached, that emulated the more humane approach of its European allies in building a safety net for its most needy citizens, that advocated for human rights in international relations while expanding them at home. For eight years, our President was a wise, cautious, decent human being.

All of which is an excellent disproof of the "Great Man" theory of history.

For while the President and his Congressional allies worked to expand health care, to close down the Guantanamo prison camp, to extend a hand of peace to former enemies, the Right began to rebuild. The reasonable-appearing doctrines of the neo-cons had been relegated to the ash heap, and many of the more moderate Republican members of Congress had lost elections to moderate Democrats. One might think a chastened party would look for redemption in a shift leftward, but that was not to be the case. Instead, the most rabid elements of the party began to make alliances with reactionary and bigoted elements of American society who would have been deemed far too radioactive by previous incarnations of the Grand Old Party. A constant barrage of misinformation was coupled with the utter refusal of the Republican party to cooperate in any way with President Obama's policies. Over time, the Democratic majority eroded, losing first the House, then the Senate, until finally the only way Obama could effect change was through executive orders. Even so, the candidacy of Donald Trump seemed to guarantee an extension of Obama's progressive agenda into a new Democratic administration.

But Hillary Clinton lost that election, and for those of us who had hoped to see America embracing the greatness of its beautiful diversity, who had dreamed of a nation that could finally be the shining city on a hill emptily preached by Ronald Reagan, it was as if the Galactic Republic had just been obliterated by a new Death Star.

In the Fourteen months since Trump was inaugurated, we've experienced a rolling crisis that has exhausted me of all the punditry I once enjoyed so much. This abomination of a President's narcissistic domination of the media has left me stuttering, unable to choose a direction in which to point my keyboard. I start writing about an issue that matters deeply to me (most recently, the Parkland, Florida, shooting), only to find my attention seized by resignations and firings in the White House, by former mistresses of the President telling their stories, by petty Twitter bullying committed by the Chief Executive of the United States, and on and on it goes. It has become so hard to find a footing in the deluge of Presidential effluent that I've taken weeks off from writing about anything.

That's the state of things as I've been seeing it for months, and it's why I've written so little in this space. But then, along came hope from a quarter I never expected: teenagers standing up to the man who put the bully in the pulpit, to his cronies in the NRA, and to all his minions on Capitol Hill. Yesterday hundreds of thousands of them marched across the United States, crying out against the nation's insane obsession with guns and the dithering of politicians in the pocket of an organization whose goal appears to be arming every American to the teeth with weapons that probably should not be in the hands of even soldiers. Most of these young people can't vote--yet. But they will be voting soon, if not in 2018, definitely in 2020; and so will their parents. I'm not just saying they'll be of voting age: unlike most previous generations of teenagers, these kids are highly motivated. And they're angry. They're tired of the caviling and protestations of politicians whose hopes and prayers at the latest massacre do nothing to prevent the next one, tired of belonging to a majority of Americans whose safety is continually put at risk by the minority that clings to its weapons, tired of being belittled by gun-loving adults who refuse to take a young person seriously, and that anger will be translated into votes.

Yesterday they marched, and they made me both proud and hopeful. And then The Last Jedi gave me a frame of reference for those feelings, and did it with panache.

At the heart of the movie is the bitterness of a man whose dream of restoring the Jedi knights to their previous role as defenders of the Republic has been dashed by the betrayal of his most promising student: his nephew Ben Solo who, corrupted by the dark side influence of Supreme Leader Snoke, has slaughtered all his fellow students. Luke retreats to a far corner of the galaxy to nurse his grief. When Rey, a young woman with astonishing gifts, comes to him for training and help, he rejects her, telling her the Jedi are through. Much happens after that rejection. In the end, Luke changes his mind, and his intervention gives the few remaining rebels time to escape.

It's a thrilling, moving story, with far deeper messages than most installments of this franchise have been able to encompass. What works the best for me is the sense of the passing of the torch as the generation who last defeated the Empire realize their time is past. If there is to be another restoration of democracy, it falls to the young to accomplish it, to those who only know of the feats of Luke, Han, Leia, and Chewbacca as legends. Sure, Luke could duke it out with Snoke, but as it turns out, he's not even the true villain. Even as he spouts evil banalities that would be right at home in a Trump tweet, his disciple, Kilo Ren, is plotting his demise. His halved corpse is still smoldering when Ren steps into the power vacuum; and it is he who Luke deals a moral defeat, just as Obi-Wan Kenobi once sacrificed his own life to Darth Vader to ensure the escape of young Luke. It falls, again, to a younger generation to defeat the Empire.

That is why, after a year and a half of topping my Facebook profile with a picture of an upside-down flag symbolizing the republic in distress, I have today replaced it with a picture of myself, taken just a few hours ago by my daughter. I have had enough of obsessing over the attention-demanding vortex of the Oval Office, though that in itself would not be cause enough to take down that flag. No, there's something much more important that I have realized, a New Hope as it were, born of the great things I see happening all around me. This nation, I now see, will soon experience a new birth of liberty, and government of the people, by the people, for the people will once more rule this nation. It will be there courtesy of a new generation of Americans, a generation who cannot understand why their grandparents are so afraid of diversity, who take for granted the proposition that all people are created equal, and who believe the work of government should be, as the preamble of the Constitution has always proclaimed, promoting the general welfare of all Americans.

I'm not saying this old Jedi is ready to hang up his light saber. But I am happy to set it aside for now, sit back, and watch what amazing things this millennial generation can accomplish.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Duck and Cover for the 21st Century

Mid-twentieth century students practicing for the apocalypse.

No, I'm not that old. Duck and cover drills ended before I started school.

I did get a heavy dose of "Your Chance to Live" lessons, courtesy of the Defense Civil Preparedness Agency (formerly the Office of Civil Defense), during my middle school years. This lessons took the forms of films and filmstrips about a variety of disasters: earthquakes, hurricanes, tornados, floods and, yes, nuclear war, the existence of which made the whole series necessary. Curiously, I don't remember any of those lessons taking place once I started high school, which leads me to wonder if having them be such a large part of public school was just an Idaho thing. (My family moved to Oregon the summer before my freshman year.)

Whatever the reason for exposing impressionable young students to so many ways we could all die, the result was probably not what the preparers of the curriculum intended. Being prepared didn't make me feel any safer. If anything, I felt more overwhelmed and helpless than if I'd never learned the stages of nuclear death. In a nuclear attack, I learned, death was inevitable for the vast majority of people within several miles of the explosion, whether it was from the unimaginable heat at the epicenter, being crushed by collapsing buildings or the shockwave, or toxic doses of radiation; and since it was the era of Mutual Assured Destruction, there were very few people fortunate enough to be living out of that range. And those lucky rural folk not slaughtered in the initial attack had only a limited reprieve from death: all the debris thrown up in the air would blot out the sun for years, while that which drifted back to earth would spread radiation to every corner of the planet.

No wonder the OCD/DCPA dropped its instruction to "1. Duck. 2. Cover." (and, in many an anti-war poster, "3. Kiss your ass goodbye.") "Your Chance to Live" was an inapt title for the curriculum, which could more accurately have been called "You're All Going to Die."

So let's jump ahead to the early 2000s, and my reentry to teaching. I trained for the profession during the Cold War, left it almost as soon as I started, and spent the late 1980s and all of the 1990s in the United Methodist ministry. The civil defense agencies I remembered from my own childhood had been absorbed into FEMA, and children were no longer being taught what to do if a hydrogen bomb took out the nearest city. Fire drills were, as they had been in my own childhood, still a frequent and inconvenient part of life for teachers and their students. The terrorist attacks of September 11 seemed not to have affected school life in any way.

Columbine, on the other hand, had introduced a new cause for alarm, as it introduced us to the concept of the active school shooter.

Active shooters had been a fact of life for decades. There had been incidents in workplaces and college campuses of a gunman systematically killing random victims. In Columbine, though, a new phenomenon asserted itself: shooters could be children who'd accessed their parents' guns, with or without their permission; or in places with ridiculously lax gun laws (which, if the NRA has its way, will include every jurisdiction in the United States), had simply gone out and bought them. These weren't just handguns or hunting rifles they were using, either: schools were being shot up with assault rifles with high-capacity magazines. These are military weapons, the sole purpose of which is to take human lives, and they are being used for precisely that.

That's why "duck and cover" is back--though it's really more like "hide in a corner with the lights off." In a lockdown drill, we teachers are instructed to lock our doors, turn off the lights, and have our entire classes huddle in a corner of the room that can't be seen through any windows. We're fortunate at my school in that, apart from the doors, there are no windows at all, so it's not hard finding a corner that's out of view. While the drill is being conducted, we expend a lot of effort quieting the children. Meanwhile, administrators roam the building, testing doors to make sure they're all locked. It's a great relief when the "all clear" is sounded.

We don't need civil defense films to tell us why these drills are so important. It's in the news. Since the beginning of this calendar year, school shootings have happened once a week. The conference I attended in November in Fort Worth, Texas, began with instructions of what to do if an active shooter entered the convention center. There have been mass shootings at a church in Texas, and a country music festival in Las Vegas. Acquiring a mass murder weapon and using it on a crowd of defenseless people has become a suicide fad.

And not all lockdowns are drills. In the sixteen years since I resumed my teaching career, I've been through at least four lockdowns that were initiated by word of a violent crime being committed in the area. One of them was an actual school shooting: Reynolds High School, June, 2014.

About 200 children a day pass through my music room. They are inquisitive, funny, awkward, goofy, distracted, charming, sweet, and, with almost no exceptions, innocent. The thought of any human being turning an assault rifle on them is so appalling to me that I find myself tearing up whenever I encounter news of a school shooting. I grieve the innocent lives lost, the permanent wounds it leaves in the survivors, the parents, the school, and the community. I'm furious that there is a powerful lobby that actively takes these tragedies as an opportunity to promote even laxer gun laws, and that the Republican party does their bidding without questioning even their most ridiculous policy proposals.

At the same time, for once, I feel hope. The surviving students of the Parkland massacre are calling bullshit on the Florida politicians, as well as President Trump, who have so easily slid into the ineffective platitudes with which Republicans traditionally try to spin away from the obvious implications of shootings to their reckless gun policies. And they're not stopping there: drawing on the lessons of the Women's March, they're organizing, putting together a march on Washington to demand action. Many of these young people will be of voting age, if not this fall, by 2020; and while 18-year-olds have been a historically apathetic demographic when it comes to the ballot box, there is nothing like feeling your life is at risk, and the party running the government doesn't care, to turn a nonvoter into an activist.

The original "duck and cover" gave birth to a generation of peace activists who, while they did not succeed in reversing the Cold War (it took the collapse of the Soviet Union to bring that about), did manage to get the United States to abandon the Vietnam War. Perhaps the lockdown generation can begin to reverse our national addiction to weapons of mass murder, starting with restrictions on their sale and confiscating them from the minors and people with records who should never have been permitted to buy them in the first place.

It'll be hard work. The NRA is powerful, and the Republican party is full of cowards unwilling to stand up against it. But there's nothing like the fearless righteousness of a teenager to cut through the excuses and nuances of a debate that we've permitted to become far more complex than it needs to be. Less guns means less death, and if anyone has the right to insist on that truth, it's the young survivor of a school shooting.

Hard work, yes. But it sure beats hiding in a dark corner, waiting for the killer to break through the door.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

No More Guns

Students at a memorial service in Parkland, Florida

If he hadn't had the gun, those seventeen people would still be alive.

I can't say that truth will get lost in the pointless ritual that follows every school shooting. There are always commentators making this point, and plenty of people--the majority of Americans, in fact--who agree with it. And yet, I know that in the end, it will be ignored.

How do I know this? Let's start with the responder-in-chief, the President of the United States, who, for once, spoke with measured, careful tones about what had happened at that Florida high school as an angry antisocial ex-student smuggled an assault rifle on campus and indiscriminately picked off students and teachers, then disappeared into the crowd of terrified fleeing teens. Trump didn't mention guns once in his speech. He's not alone: most politicians treat the truth at the heart of America's gun problem--that it involves guns--as a third rail.

From there, I turn to the organization that has, all by itself, managed to cynically, even diabolically, deflect attention from that truth again and again, hundreds of times since the Columbine massacre ushered us into the modern Age of the Active Shooter: the National Rifle Association. This lobbying group has so much blood on its hands it's beginning to resemble a death cult. Any policy proposal that even remotely has a chance of limiting the access of angry young white men to the tools that enable them to become mass murderers is labeled an assault on essential liberties. The NRA's solution to too many guns is always the same: more guns. Arm everyone. Turn a mass shooting into a free-for-all in which everyone dies. Then, at least, we have a better chance of knowing that the active shooter will be dead at the end.

But there's nothing I can do about those gundamentalists, so I'll move on to the next part of the equation: well-meaning people who blame deficiencies in society for school shootings. Look at Canada, they'll say. They've got plenty of guns there, yet nobody walks into a Canadian school and opens fire. It must be something wrong with this country. And yes, they do have a point there: mass murder has become something of a fad in the United States of America. Whether it's the country music festival in Las Vegas, a Baptist church in Texas, or a high school in Florida, killing a lot of people with an assault rifle has become a cultural phenomenon. Something snaps in a person--again, almost always a white man--and he uses his obscenely lethal hobby guns to mow down a roomful of children. We have a public mental health problem, these commentators will say. There aren't enough psychologists and counselors in our schools, enough social workers in our communities, enough access to the services that could help a lonely, isolated, angry white man overcome his frustration and make less lethal choices.

To which I say, yes, but: take the guns out of these men's hands, and while they'll still be frustrated, angry, and isolated, they at least won't be killing a dozen children over it.

Yes, America is a horribly callous place when it comes to public mental health. Yes, we are ridiculously miserly in doling out services to those who need them most. Yes, being proactive in our handling of sociopaths is something we ought to be doing whether or not they have access to AR-15s.

But they do. And they're killing our children with those weapons. So how about, before we offer therapy to the first grader who's playing with matches in a puddle of gasoline, we take his matches away?

Yesterday morning, I cried into my breakfast. I was listening to "Up First," the NPR morning headline podcast, and they did a story about the students who were using their phones to report, live, on the shooting as it happened. They followed it up with the protest the students organized, on their own, soon after the shooting had ended, and the words they chanted: "No more guns! No more guns!"

They get it. They've seen all the bullshit, and they're calling it for what it is. They know that the difference between a disgruntled teenager with a gun and one without a gun is seventeen bodies. They know the political platitudes, the public hand-wringing, and most of all the inexcusable lies being spewed by the gun lobby will do nothing to prevent next week's school shooting. They know there are just too many guns, and more of them will only make matters worse.

Here's where I need to get personal, and speak from my own perspective as an educator. I teach music in a public school that was built in the 1970s. My building is blessed with a dedicated, caring staff who work hard to make sure that no child, however difficult, is left behind. We can tell which children are struggling emotionally and socially, and we do everything we can to get them the support we need. Our psychologist and counselor create plans for them. Our teachers and administrators conference with their parents. We put them in support groups, given them a cool-down room for when they need to be alone, have educational assistants accompany them to activities that are difficult for them. We put them on behavior modification plans to help them learn how to behave acceptably in every setting. In extreme cases, we refer their parents to professionals who can give them the help we're not equipped to provide.

In a word, we're being proactive. We're doing everything we can to help every child grow up to be a healthy, happy part of American society.

My school is not unique in this work. The school I came from before this job had all these same supports in place. I know they continue once children move on to middle school and high school. Public education takes mental health very seriously. The old canard about us not having enough resources, and spending too much time on testing, is simply not true. Sure, we could use more money to update our facilities and lower class sizes; and at some point, we really need to get over our nationwide obsession with standardized testing; but by and large, public education in 21st century America is providing troubled students far more support than it ever has before. These kids are not falling through cracks.

So what about the Florida shooter? Wasn't he expelled from the school he shot up?

Yes, he was. And here's the painful truth: there are some students who just can't be helped, no matter how much attention is showered on them by teachers, counselors, administrators, and even their parents. Some of them have a death wish. Absent the means to fulfill these bloody fantasies, they may still commit violent acts that land them in the criminal justice system. Assault without a deadly weapon is still a crime.

Assault with a deadly weapon, though, is murder.

I know there are other measures that could be taken to protect children. A couple of times a year, we have lock down drills, during which I lock my doors, turn off the lights, and have whatever students are in my room huddle in a corner where they can't be seen. There is only one outside door in the building that is unlocked during school hours, and it only provides access to the rest of the school by passing through the front office. That's not a 100% solution--a shooter could make quick work of the office staff, then head on through the work room to the rest of the school--but it's a buffer. We also have an open campus: at both ends of the school, people can just walk onto the playground, unseen by anyone in the building. Those areas could be fenced off, but like many public schools, our outdoor facilities are open to the public during non-school hours. I love it that our students can do what I did as a child, and visit the school on weekends to play on the equipment, perhaps use the playing field to fly a kite.

These are some of the things that make public schools public. Fencing off the facility, cutting off access to it, takes it out of its central role in the community.

So let's get back to the issue with which I started this essay: if he hadn't had the gun, those people would still be alive.

Pundits and politicians are wrong. This is not complicated. Take the guns away from the angry young white men, and while they'll still be obnoxious, and might even need to spend some time in jail until they can outgrow their rage, at least they won't be mass murderers.

And no, I don't have any illusions about this simple solution being easy. America is addicted to guns. Curing an addiction is a difficult, expensive thing to do. It doesn't happen overnight. Some addicts spend their entire post-addiction lives in recovery. But if they never start, they'll never recover.

We need to begin recovering from our gun addiction. Taking the first step need not be a complicated thing. It needn't even be returning to the ban of assault rifles--well, not yet anyway. It could just be restricting how big a magazine they can have. Less bullets means less bodies. It could also be restricting the sale of weapons to people who, for one reason or another (say, being expelled from a high school for violent tendencies), should obviously not be allowed to have them.

And yes, I now that in the eyes of the gun cartel and the rabid addicts it services, even these simple common sense restrictions are blasphemy. But at some point, we the people and the politicians we elect have got to summon up the courage to tell the NRA to go to hell.

As those terrified children said in the wake of yet another NRA-sanctioned slaughter: no more guns. It's as simple as that.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Like, Smart

"What are your superpowers again?"
"I'm rich."

And that, my friends, is why we have an idiot in the White House insisting that he is "like, smart" on Twitter.

But I digress before there's even been an ingress. This essay was inspired by a tweet straight from the thumbs of the Chief Twit, but it's framed by a movie I saw a week ago: "Justice League." That movie is every bit as awful as you may have heard from those superhero completists unfortunate enough to have subjected themselves to it, but it does contain some saving graces, one of which is the brilliant casting of The Flash with a twitchy nerdy fanboy who can't believe he gets to hang out with his heroes--and yes, that's a device that was ripped off in its entirety from the introduction of the new Spiderman as a twitchy nerdy fanboy who can't believe he gets to hang out with his heroes in both "Captain America: Civil War" and "Spiderman: Homecoming." But again, I digress.

Soon after Bruce (Batman) Wayne has recruited Barry (Flash) Allen, Barry, in the context of a conversation about the dream team of superbeings Bruce is assembling to combat a really dumb cosmic villain named after a one-hit wonder band of the 1960s (Steppenwolf) who is, again, a knock off of the uninteresting cosmic villain who will be the centerpiece of the next Avengers movie, asks him what superpowers entitle him to be part of this team. Bruce's two word answer--"I'm rich"--is maddening to anyone who's spent any time at all in the shadowy Gotham side of the DC universe. Yes, Bruce Wayne has a lot of cool toys that enable him to zip up the sides of high rises, glide across the skyline, encase himself in lightweight body armor, and roar through the city in a turbocharged tank. But all of those gadgets would be worthless without the years of training he's devoted to sharpening his skills as a martial artist and gymnast, not to mention the deductive intellect he puts to use as the World's Greatest Detective. Take away all the gadgets, even strip him of his body armor, just give him a black cape and a cowl, and Bruce Wayne is still a superhero. Riches do not the Batman make.

They did, however, make a President. We who care about the future of American democracy have long railed against the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which equated corporate money with free speech--though in a number of elections, it appeared that advertising blitzes actually worked against the success of the candidate being promoted. Trump's victory erases those losses, and jolts us back to the equation of money with electoral success.

I'm not saying that Trump bought the election--or that he could even have afforded to. Part of the collusion scandal that surrounds Trump is the extent to which he is indebted to foreign interests, including Russian oligarchs. His taxes have been withheld to protect the lie of his status as a billionaire. His campaign depended to a large extent on funding by the ultra-right, nationalism-friendly Mercer family. So no, it's not that Trump is, statistically, all that rich. It's that he, more than any other member of the million-to-billionaire class, embodies wealth. He moves in a cloud of money, gilding his homes and hotels, descending to announce his candidacy on a gilded escalator, angrily tweeting from a gold toilet, posing with his family in a gilded chair resembling a throne. His actual bottom line is just not that important: the world treats him with respect not because he is rich, but because he acts rich. Challenge the veracity of his claim to wealth, and he sues. Whether or not he has as much money as he claims, he's got enough to drive his accusers into bankruptcy with lawyer fees and court costs.

This brings me to the other reason I've emerged from my teaching-diminished blog output: three days ago, excerpts of an expose of the Trump Regime revealed that without exception, every Trump advisor interviewed for the book considers the man to be an idiot. Those who make public declarations of admiration for him--Vice President Pence, his Cabinet secretaries, and most embarrassingly of all, Senate and House leaders--are sucking up, knowing that lavishing the man with undeserved praise is the only way to get him to cooperate. None of these toadies believes a word of this vapid praise. Trump doesn't read, lacks the attention span to sit through even a short briefing, spends his days watching sycophantic Fox News, lacks the mental capacity to understand what any of his appointees actually has the power to do, and engages in pissing contests with nuclear-armed dictators. Nobody in Washington who knows the first thing about government sincerely believes he's up to the job, and they will admit to it the moment he's out of earshot, slapping their foreheads in disbelief at his incompetence and referring to him as an idiot.

Idiot though he is, the man is still rich, and he did manage to get himself installed as President. In his mind, that makes him smart; no, strike that, it makes him a genius. In his mind, the multiple investigations into Russian manipulation of the election are bogus because they endanger his sense of having won the election on his own merits. His wealth, his fame, his political success prove he's smart.

In fact, though, we have a President who, despite the wealth that got him elected, lacks any other superpower. He has none of the discipline, intellect, or commitment to justice that turned Bruce Wayne into the Batman. Strip Trump of his gilded lifestyle, and he's just a demented racist senior citizen venting on Twitter. 

Which brings me, finally, back to "Justice League" and the wrongness of that throwaway line about wealth as a superpower. There were times in the Batman universe when one or another of his nemeses--the Joker, the Penguin, the Riddler--got access to some or all of Batman's gadgets, went on a joyride in the Batmobile, and proved that it actually takes skill to use those toys. Put on the Batsuit in its modern, armored version, and you could probably survive a beating, maybe even a few gunshots--but that doesn't mean you could climb the side of a sky scraper, hold your own in a melee, or steer a rocket-powered tank around Gotham City. Those villains were all super in their own ways, gifted in manipulating minions, cracking safes, creating dastardly gadgets of their own, but none of them could hold a candle to Bruce Wayne in using the tools of his trade.

That's what we have in Washington now: the White House, the center of our superpower nation, is no longer inhabited by a human being with the talents and skills to use it properly. A villain whose only power is wealth is behind the wheel of the Batmobile, careening around the city, destroying landmarks and treasures in his hopeless quest to be taken seriously.

At the end of "Justice League," the considerable powers of Batman, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Cyborg, and the Flash are still inadequate to defeat Steppenwolf. It takes the intervention of a resurrected Superman to bring him down.

There are heroes all over America opposing the Trump phenomenon: the millions who turned out for the Women's March, the lawyers and judges who keep rejecting his executive overreach, the masses whose phone calls saved the Affordable Care Act, the Black voters who chose Doug Jones over Roy Moore for the Virginia Senate seat. The initial premise of "Justice League" is correct: no one superbeing can bring down a monster like Donald Trump. It will take a communal effort. We as a nation must reject the most insidious falsehood of this regime: that wealth does not, in and of itself, prove that anyone is good, wise, intelligent, competent, just, or deserving of any distinction save placement on a list of people with money. We must do it with our voices, our hearts, our bodies, and our votes for someone who will make us proud to say "That's my President."