Saturday, July 30, 2011

Will America Remain a Good Society?

Our country is in the midst of a clash between two competing moral visions, between those who believe in the common good, and those who believe individual good is the only good. A war has been declared on the poor, and it is a moral imperative that people of faith and conscience fight on the side of the most vulnerable. – Rev. Jim Wallis
I have been reluctant to write about the partisan bickering in Washington over the debt ceiling, if only to resist the urge to become overly cynical about our political process. But it is difficult. President Obama presented Republicans with a “Grand Bargain” that should have been embraced as every conservative’s dream – spending cuts of $4 trillion over ten years, an increase in the age of eligibility for Medicare, and other structural changes to the vast entitlement programs – but House Speaker John Boehner walked away. Boehner walked, I suspect, because he has a metaphorical gun to his head by the anti-tax, Tea Party radicals in Congress. Nevertheless, walk away he did, not because the spending cuts were insufficient, but because they would be achieved, in part, through very modest tax increases and the closing of loopholes on hedge fund managers, corporate jet owners, and companies that move offshore.

There once was a time when the Republicans would have embraced the President’s proposal as an opportunity to limit the size and scope of the federal government while also preventing a default of the nation’s obligations (see Where Have the Moderate Republicans Gone?). Led by the Tea Party, Republican refusal to compromise is a symptom of a much larger problem, a dysfunction in our political process. As David Brooks of The New York Times noted recently, the Republican Party no longer occupies the realm of normalcy, but has instead “been infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative.” To the Tea Party radicals, compromise is weakness. They are the Hezbollah faction of American politics, suicide bombers willing to destroy themselves to destroy their opposition. Meanwhile the country is collateral damage. “The members of this movement do not accept the logic of compromise,” Brooks noted, “no matter how sweet the terms. If you ask them to raise taxes by an inch in order to cut government by a foot, they will say no. If you ask them to raise taxes by an inch to cut government by a yard, they will still say no.”

The Democrats in Congress are only slightly better. While the Republicans are acting like children, neither side is taking into account the people who always get left behind in these debates, the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable. Senator Harry Reid presented an alternative to Obama’s plan that contained deep cuts in spending and no revenue increases, but upon closer scrutiny it involved numerical smoke and mirrors and “fuzzy math” as one former President liked to say. Only the President seems to understand that anyone serious about reducing the debt and deficits must put forth a plan that contains a balance of real spending cuts and tax increases, but he appears unwilling to insist on this. Where is LBJ when you need him?

Where are the statesmen in the Republican Party? Where are the moral voices in the Democratic Party who used to fight for the most vulnerable in our society? Where are the voices of reason, the men and women who believe in the end that the good of the country outweighs partisan ideology? Even Ronald Reagan, the most right-wing President of my lifetime, raised the debt ceiling 18 times and raised taxes eleven times when he occupied the White House in the 1980’s. Were Reagan around today, I suspect the anti-tax mafia of the Republican Party would metaphorically instruct their underlings to “take him to the airport” and have him “swim with the fishes”; he would be politically excommunicated. Reagan knew that the debt ceiling debate was about the country fulfilling its obligations and paying its creditors, not a fight over tax policy and government programs. That is reserved for the budget debates. But the anti-tax fundamentalists are threatening to savage the already flickering economy and the country’s long-term interests to win a political game, to humiliate the President, and to force their ideology onto an American public that yearns only for America’s leaders to act responsibly.

Meanwhile, the nation’s unemployment rate hovers at 9.2%, while the real unemployment rate consisting of those who have given up on finding work and the severely under-employed, exceeds 16.2% of the workforce. Forgotten and ignored in the debt ceiling talks are “the people who come to my church’s front door every day,” writes the Rev. Jennifer Kottler, Associate Pastor of Park Avenue Christian Church in New York City, in this week’s Sojourners. She talks of the people hurting the most from our current economic structure.

It’s the guy I met last week who is trying to make ends meet with a $300 per week job (in New York City) with three kids and a wife, on parole, and at the end of his rope. He doesn’t need piecemeal charity; he needs an economic system that rewards hard work and allows him to work and provide for his family. He doesn’t want to end up back in prison, but he knows that he might go back to the underground economy so that he can feed his family. It was 104 degrees here last week, and he’s already thinking about his kids needing winter coats and boots and school supplies.
CNN has reported that one in five males in the United States presently fill the ranks of the unemployed. But the anti-tax radicals insist this is the time to shrink government and to let everyone fend for themselves.

What is really at stake, it seems, is a much larger, more crucial debate over the role of government in a good society. How do we maintain the greatness that is America while ensuring that we remain a decent, fair and compassionate country?

We live in a country that values freedom and rugged individualism. Born of a revolution, Americans achieved independence from colonial oppression, expanded westward and made their own way. We developed the frontier, survived a civil war, and won two world wars. Through it all, we allowed our citizens to dream and innovate, compete, and create enormous wealth. We have historically, through the unfettered engines of capitalism, free enterprise, and competition, combined with substantial government support and investment, produced the richest, most productive economy in the world’s history.

But fundamental to our economic system and the free flow of capital is a dark reality, one easily overlooked by the people who most benefit from our economic system. A market-based economy requires a certain level of inequality and unfairness to function efficiently and properly; it demands that some people be left to fend for themselves. A competitive economy, consisting of winners and losers, offers great wealth to some and a long, uphill struggle for others; it is a zero sum game with millions of people left behind. In business, the bottom line is king, a dictator with an army of accountants and financial wizards whose impersonal decisions affect the lives of employees and their families. When times are good, we can be a generous nation, taking care of the weak, the vulnerable, the poor, the sick, and the unemployed. But in times of peril, when we experience phases dominated by greed and intolerance, our society begins to look less friendly, less ideal.

Throughout the Twentieth Century, it had been the government’s proper role to narrow the gaps inherent in a profit-driven, market economy; to uplift the poor and to make certain that society remains, if not equal, at least fair and compassionate. Government is needed, in part, to do the things that private enterprise, left to its own devices, cannot or will not do: protect our air and water; ensure a safe food supply; educate our children; build and repair our roads and bridges; protect our country from foreign and domestic threats; enforce our laws fairly and equally; regulate our disputes and maintain a fair judicial system; protect consumers and oversee fair and competitive markets. Following the Great Depression and American victory in World War II, the United States enacted the Employment Act of 1946, which made full employment a national priority, in which it was understood government would play a significant role whenever the private sector fell short.  Although we never achieved the ideals of the Great Society, we sought as much as possible a Good Society.

In their zeal to return the United States to a 19th century world where property and privilege dominated, the Tea Party has lost sight of the world in which we actually live. The countries that shape the 21st century will be those most adept at managing the private-public partnership needed to sustain infrastructure, energy sources, scientific and medical research, the environment, and the development and nurturing of human capital. The financial collapse of 2008 that led to the Great Recession, and the rapid advances of technology that continue to eliminate people and jobs, demand reforms of today’s hedge fund capitalism. If the Tea Party insists on imposing a 19th century form of capitalism onto the nation’s economy, it will only accelerate the country’s moral and economic decline.

In the current debate over the debt ceiling, concepts of justice, fairness, decency, and hope have been forfeited to the forces of power politics. The victims are the poor, the middle class, the millions of laid-off and underemployed Americans who have settled into a semi-permanent state of economic depression. Responsible leaders are not those who force a makeshift debt ceiling bill at the midnight hour designed only to delay another fundamental debate and to prevent an economic collapse. Responsible leaders sit down together and find ways to cut spending without damaging our economy and hurting our most vulnerable citizens; they agree on ways to raise new tax revenues to pay down our debt (which merely pays for past expenditures, including the Bush tax cuts and the unfunded wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), while maintaining those programs that benefit our people and our economy; and they find ways to maintain a fair and compassionate society, while at the same time reinvigorate economic growth and success.

Budgets are moral documents. They involve choices that reveal the kind of country we are and desire to be. Do we continue to lavish tax cuts on people who make more than $250,000 a year, or do we instead increase the top marginal rates by two percentage points to help fund defense, infrastructure, environmental protection, and food stamps for the elderly poor? Do we really need the new $2 billion fighter jet if it means cutting Head Start and early childhood nutrition programs? Should we allow unlimited mortgage-interest deductions on vacation homes if it means spending less on improvements to our highways and bridges? The answers cannot simply be to cut food stamps, or to stop protecting the environment, or to eliminate Head Start, or to ignore the nation’s transportation systems. The implications of such negligence are too painful; the consequences to the nation’s soul too severe.

It is in these difficult times when the moral fabric of our society is most tested. Anyone who claims that we should cut Medicare, food stamps, and education but will under no circumstances increase taxes, does not have a plan for America’s future. Anyone who believes that millionaire hedge fund managers and corporate jet owners should pay no more while the elderly, the poor, the environment, the nation’s infrastructure, our schools and the sick must do with less, are not serious about leading this nation and solving our problems. I am not yet ready to give up on the American Dream or the hope and vision of a Good Society. And I am willing to pay for it, individually and collectively, through a reasonable, progressive tax system. But if the anti-tax radicals of the Tea Party have their way, America as a nation will have lost its soul.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Thank You J.K. Rowling

It is a curious thing, but perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it. Those who have leadership thrust upon them, and take up the mantle because they must, and find to their own surprise that they wear it well. -- Albus Dumbledore
My two daughters attended the midnight premier of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two while visiting my parents in Asheville, North Carolina, last week. (The thought of attending the second or third showing at a normal hour later in the day was out of the question.) It was only fitting that they went together, for together they grew up, from pre-teens to teens to young adults, with the story’s main characters. As we reach the final chapter and approach the end of an era, I cannot help but feel a touch of sadness, as if my children have graduated to yet another phase of life and are now primed for adventures of their own making. The youthful anticipation for the next installment of the Book and the hopeful excitement over the next sequel to the Movie are but memories banished to the fragments of time.

J.K. Rowling’s magnificent creation will belong forever in the annals of world literature; the Hollywood versions, though of much less artistic merit, will linger as a cultural phenomenon for years to come. An epic adventure of a normal boy with an extraordinary destiny, Harry Potter is a tale of courage and honesty, conflict and prejudice, in which a young man’s passion for life overcomes the fear of death. It is a series destined to rival the historic classics of C.S. Lewis and J. R. Tolkien.

I watched my daughters grow up with the boy wizard and his friends, and I must now observe as they forge ahead without benefit of Harry’s shared anxieties and Dumbledore’s wise counsel. They developed and matured and came of age at nearly the same pace as Harry, Ron, and Hermione; they shared the same feelings of nervousness and anxiety, of laughter and love; the same hopes and fears of their newfound and, I am certain, lifelong friends. They cried when Dumbledore died in Book Six and they worried over whether (and how in the world) Harry, Ron, and Hermione would survive the dark forces brooding over Hogwarts and the wizarding world. I will miss the energy, enthusiasm, and passion they exerted over the fictional characters that inhabited the pages of these wonderful books. But I will remain forever grateful to J.K. Rowling for creating the Harry Potter series, for providing me a pathway into the adolescent lives and developing minds of my teenage daughters, a chance to connect with them in a way that many fathers of teenage girls never do.

I am grateful to J.K. Rowling as well because, in many ways, Harry Potter is the singularly most important reason my daughters developed a love of reading. In a day of Playstation II and Wii, YouTube and Facebook, when video games and the Internet dominate the cultural landscape, Rowling succeeded in getting millions of kids to read, and to continue reading. Prior to the age of eleven, Jenny had shown little interest in reading. But then she picked up a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and connected with Harry’s life in a way that only a sixth grader can. She empathized with Harry; related to his fears and anxieties when he first boarded the Hogwarts Express on his way to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry; understood his confusion and bewilderment at being the Chosen One; laughed at the awkwardness of Harry and Ron, especially with girls, and recognized the tensions which slowly developed between Harry and Ginny, and Ron and Hermione, feelings of jealousy, embarrassment, and missed opportunities that every teenager experiences at some point.

After the first book, Jen and, soon, younger sister Hannah anticipated the printing and release of each subsequent book, and then consumed every word. Jen read each book multiple times (and later listened to the audio readings by Jim Dale). They lived and learned with Harry about the world of wizardry and magical spells, the ups and downs of Hogwarts, the petty jealousies and resentments of its faculty and students, and the many people (good and bad) that Harry and company encounter along the way. Because of Harry Potter, today Jen is a prolific reader of fiction and nonfiction alike, having developed an interest in religion and philosophy that stems in part from the influence of the seven Harry Potter books. Hannah already was a reader before Rowling’s creations, but she shared Jen’s intense passion for the Potter adventures, which simply reaffirmed her love of books, literature, and the power of a good story.

From my vantage point as a father, Harry Potter allowed me to talk with my children about important things, about bravery and courage, integrity and ethics, justice and oppression. We talked as well about the conflicts and tensions that envelop love and friendship. We debated the goodness and badness of Snape and discussed issues such as prejudice (half-bloods, mud-bloods, pure-bloods), the forces of evil (Death Eaters, Voldemort), the significance of being the Chosen One (Harry Potter), and the perils of growing up, of trying to live the life of a normal teenager while confronting the obligations of a larger destiny; of the desire to snog with the opposite sex and compete in Quidditch matches, while having to battle the dark forces threatening to overtake all that was good and decent about the world in which they lived.

At its heart, Harry Potter is about the transforming power of love and its ability to conquer all, to overcome the fear of death, to be willing to sacrifice one’s own life for the sake of others. Once you get past the flying broomsticks, talking centaurs, Dementors and Death Eaters, wands and magic spells, Harry Potter is really a coming of age story of three good friends who, through chance and circumstance and history are bound together, destined for a life of consequence. From the moment they first met on the Hogwarts Express, they formed an unbreakable bond with their readers. We rooted for them to win at Quidditch and to thwart the despicable Malfoy. We worried for their safety and the welfare of the many good wizards who were at risk from the dark forces on the horizon. We attended their classes on Transfiguration and Charms, Potions and Muggle Studies, the History of Magic and the Defense Against the Dark Arts. We cared about them.

There is something truly magical in watching your children connect with literary characters that they really care about, to hear them talk and argue with their friends about the importance and significance of Dumbledore’s wand and whether Snape can be trusted; to genuinely worry over the fates of these imaginary figures. Perhaps it is better to concern oneself with reality, but while Harry Potter is a fantasy, the series successfully captures our imagination because it contends with real life issues of historical import, the age-old dramas of good versus evil, life and death, oppression and violence, and the threats to liberty posed by the forces of prejudice and revenge.

Along the way, like Harry, my daughters also found solace in the wisdom of Albus Dumbledore. “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live,” he reminded Harry in The Sorcerer’s Stone. “The truth is a beautiful and terrible thing,” he noted on another occasion, “and should therefore be treated with caution.” After the traumatic death of Cedric and the return of Lord Voldemort in The Goblet of Fire, Dumbledore warns the students at Hogwarts that “[d]ark times lie ahead of us and there will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right.” Dumbledore’s life lessons rival those of the wisest teacher.

The death of Dumbledore in Book Six was traumatic, but perhaps a valuable lesson to young hearts and minds. “It’s the unknown we fear when we look upon death and darkness,” Dumbledore advises Harry at one point in the story, “nothing more.” In The Prisoner of Azkaban, Dumbledore admonishes Harry, whose father was murdered by Voldemort when Harry was a baby, “You think the dead we loved ever truly leave us? You think that we don't recall them more clearly than ever in times of great trouble? Your father is alive in you, Harry, and shows himself plainly when you have need of him.” In the end, these truths may have helped Harry recognize that death itself was not something to be feared, that a greater force exists within each of us.

The world of Harry Potter has been an influential part of my daughter’s lives, encompassing more than half of Jen’s young life and nearly two-thirds of Hannah’s. Part of me does not want it all to end, for the end of Harry Potter means it is time to recognize that my daughters are now young adults, two young women ready to live and explore life on their own terms, that they are less in need of Dad’s advice and company. I know that, in many ways, this is a good thing, but I am reluctant to let go. Perhaps we will find a new author or a new story to share in the coming years, some new ground of mutual interest to provide a forum upon which we can talk about significant issues without even trying. But I am forever grateful to J.K. Rowling and the world she created.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

For One Brief Shining Moment

For forty-nine months between 1968 and 1972, two dozen Americans had the great good fortune to briefly visit the Moon. Half of us became the first emissaries from Earth to tread its dusty surface. We who did so were privileged to represent the hopes and dreams of all humanity. For mankind it was a giant leap for a species that evolved from the Stone Age to create sophisticated rockets and spacecraft that made a Moon landing possible. For one crowning moment, we were creatures of the cosmic ocean, an epoch that a thousand years hence may be seen as the signature of our century. – Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr.

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy stood before a joint session of Congress and committed the United States to landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth before the decade’s end. “No single space project in this period,” he suggested, “will be more impressive to mankind, or more important in the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.” Kennedy’s vision of an American space program was necessitated by the Cold War and influenced by lofty ideals of public service and America’s can-do attitude. Although the initial reaction was one of skepticism and doubt, the American spirit prevailed. Kennedy’s bold vision unleashed American ingenuity and creativity and the Apollo space program was born.

Eight years later, on a warm summer evening, my family gathered in my Aunt Shirley’s house in Bath, Ohio, to watch the world’s first moon landing. We sat on the living room floor and surrounded the television set as we watched intently Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin become the first Americans, the first human beings, to walk on the surface of the Moon. It was an inspiring and uplifting event, one that allowed us to focus beyond ourselves and reflect upon the world’s common humanity. On that July evening in 1969, less than a decade after President Kennedy first challenged Americans to reach for the stars, the human race accomplished what was perhaps its greatest technological achievement.

It was a moment of faith and revelation; faith in the American spirit and the revelation of a profound truth born of increased perspective and understanding. President Nixon called the Apollo 11 mission the “greatest week in the history of the world since the Creation.” And yet, as magnificent an accomplishment as was the moon landing, “[M]ost significant,” wrote Norman Cousins, “was not that man set foot on the Moon but that they set eye on the Earth.” A photograph taken from the Lunar Module, shown above, continues to remind us of humanity’s shared destiny and allows the world to see itself from afar, to place the universe in its proper perspective, and to look homeward. It increases our awareness of the uniqueness of life, permitting us to view the Earth as a rare and beautiful light that must be protected and cared for. Although less appreciated today, the photograph helps us better understand that we are but a tiny oasis of life in a vast and overwhelming universe.

Neil Armstrong has recalled that, while standing on the Moon’s surface, “It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put [up] my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” Frank Borman, who orbited the Moon during the Apollo 8 mission, was fascinated by the view of the Earth from 240,000 miles away. “Raging nationalistic interests, famines, wars, pestilence don’t show from that distance.”

I have often thought back on that magical moment when, as a ten year-old boy, the mystery of the universe unfolded before my eyes, when the possibility of peace and international understanding seemed real, the world a borderless mass of humanity temporarily united in a common endeavor. For at least a few minutes on that July day, young children the world over, of every race and nationality, briefly stopped what they were doing to look up at the moon. For one brief shining moment, Russians and Americans forgot about the Cold War; blacks and whites set aside their prejudices; Catholics and Protestants prayed to the same God; and Arabs and Jews together wondered about their place in the universe. “The eyes of the world now look into space,” said President Kennedy at Rice University in 1962, “to the Moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace.”

As an American, I felt a sense of national pride that day which has rarely been replicated since. It was a time when anything seemed possible, when peace and harmony momentarily triumphed, when divisiveness over the Vietnam War and the generation gap, racial tensions and immigration, drugs and crime were temporarily set aside. Only a year earlier, we had experienced the murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy and our nation’s cities erupted in violence; young men were coming home in body bags and our leaders were caught in the lies and miscalculations that rendered a formerly obedient nation cynical and rebellious. On that July evening in 1969, when we looked up at the Moon, the future appeared bright and hopeful, the conflicts, bloodshed, and sectarian violence then enveloping the globe temporarily forgotten.

As Buzz Aldrin told a joint session of Congress in September 1969, the mission to the Moon “should give all of us hope and inspiration to overcome some of the more difficult problems here on earth. The Apollo lesson is that national goals can be met where there is a strong enough will to do so.” Aldrin continued, “The first step on the Moon was a step toward our sister planets and ultimately toward the stars. ‘A small step for a man,’ was a statement of fact; ‘a giant leap for mankind’ [was] a hope for the future.”

Our nation will soon embark on its final Space Shuttle mission and the United States, facing an economic crisis at home and never ending military conflicts abroad, appears to no longer strive for supremacy in space. The President’s 2011 budget called for cancellation of the Constellation program, which had planned to once again send men (and women) to the Moon and, eventually, to Mars. Although President Obama is committed to exploring space, his plans call for increased involvement of private enterprise and international cooperation, with a shift in focus to international security, scientific responses to climate change, and the development of long-term missions that remain undefined. With concerns mounting over deficits and debt, the nation’s politicians appear to have ceded Kennedy’s vision of an American frontier in space to the budgetary axe. Perhaps it is the politically wise approach, but I cannot help but feel some sadness that there is something lacking and uninspired in this vision for the future, a defect in our national character.

I understand the need to reduce our deficit and trim the national debt, but for the past fifty years, space exploration has provided tangible benefits far in excess of our monetary expenditures. The space program is why we now have television satellite dishes, medical imaging devices, improved fire-resistant materials and smoke detectors, cordless power tools, and better shock-absorbing materials in helmets. It is why we have made so many advances in global positioning devices, food freeze-drying and preservation processes, and communication and weather satellites.

Aside from practical advances, however, there are many intangible reasons to explore space with a sense of national purpose and zeal. We need the stars and the Moon, a sense of higher purpose, a chance to reflect beyond ourselves and our narrow parochial interests. We need on occasion to see the world from afar. In discussing the first voyage to the Moon, Aldrin explained, “This has been far more than three men on a mission to the Moon; more still than the efforts of a government and industry team; more, even than the efforts of one nation.” The lunar voyage “stands as a symbol of the insatiable curiosity of all mankind to explore the unknown.”

It costs a great deal of money to explore space, but great nations embrace bold visions and high ideals; they lead the way in scientific discovery and technological advancement. And they enable us to dream of limitless possibility, of shared destiny and a common purpose. “Mankind’s journey into space,” said Ronald Reagan in 1988, “will become part of our unending journey of liberation. In the limitless reaches of space, we will find liberation from tyranny, from scarcity, from ignorance and from war. We will find the means to protect this Earth and to nurture every human life, and to explore the universe. . . .This is our mission, this is our destiny.”

In The Once and Future King, the first of the King Arthur trilogy by T.H. White, the great magician teacher Merlin turned a young Arthur into a bird so that he could view the world from the sky. Arthur discovers that, from the air above, there are no boundaries below.  He realizes that wars between nations erupt over borders that, in reality, do not exist. "When you see from a higher perspective, there are no boundaries, and so there’s no reason for fighting," affirms Merlin.  Perhaps this is why we must continue to explore space and discover the universe – to learn Merlin’s lesson; to view the world from a higher perspective; to understand that the world in its beauty and creation is without boundaries; that we are but one people on a tiny planet in a vast universe.