Archive for June, 2007

Soon, Very Soon

Thursday, June 21st, 2007

A couple of interesting things happened today.

In the national news President Bush vetoed a stem cell research bill again on religious grounds. I don’t want to rehash the whole embryo as human discussion, but if you are interested check out one of my earlier posts on the subject.

First, researches almost unanimously agree that stem cells offer great promise in treating diseases which today have no effective medical treatment.

Second, regardless of how you feel about an embryo, the embryos in question were NEVER going to end up becoming babies. They were going to be discarded for any number of reasons. The couple already got the baby that they wanted or decided to stop treatment. The embryo was flawed and either stopped developing or began developing abnormally. The ONLY purpose for these embryos is research. If they were not provided for research, they would be discarded.

Third, the only people who can decide to provide the embryos for research are the couples who, with the help of the fertility clinics, created them. Whether or not you agree with the law, these same couples can decide to legally terminate a pregnancy, but the researchers who would use these donated embryos for valid medical research can’t get federal funding and may in some states be prosecuted.

Finally, the American people overwhelmingly support embryonic stem cell research.

The second item was in our local newspaper. A very popular and successful choir director resigned from the local community college because a person objected to what was sung at a recent graduation ceremony. It didn’t make any difference that the music was selected by the graduating class and not the director. It also doesn’t matter that the pieces are common at many graduations. What did matter is that the President of the College felt that there was potential liability.

Both of these outrageous events suggest that world is officially upside down.

How can President Bush impose his minority personal religious views on a country while a choir director is getting sacked because a college administrator fears that the school will get sued for the choir singing “Soon and Very Soon” and “To everything there is a Season”?

Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Shouldn’t we be sacking the President and supporting the choir director? Shouldn’t we have a President that seeks to build bridges between differing religious views and chooses what best serves the most people? Shouldn’t we also have a climate of reason and tolerance where choir directors can teach kids to sing beautiful old spirituals without fear of reprisal? That’s the way that it should work. Our leaders demonstrating in their actions that what we have in common is far more powerful than any difference.

I know that someday we’ll get all of this right. It just didn’t happen to be this day. But it will be happen someday soon.

What is Truth?

Wednesday, June 20th, 2007

“Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice. Pilate saith unto him, What is truth?” John 18:36

A couple of really interesting things have popped up in the news over the last month that have an interesting connection in my mind.

The first was modern audio analysis of a tape made of the Kent State massacre. The analysis found that there was actually a verbal command to the soldiers to open fire on the students. This refutes all of the military testimony that was gathered in the investigations at the time. The accepted truth at the time was that there was a shot, or something that sounded like a shot, which caused the National Guardsmen to open fire on unarmed students. I was a student at Northwestern at the time and also actively involved in the anti-war movement. Because of the nature of the anti-war culture, I couldn’t imagine a student shooting at a soldier. So it certainly sounded like a cover-up to me. Now we know that there are at least two other people who have known the real truth about this killing – the person who issued the order and the first soldier who heard it and started firing. Those people have been living a lie since that day.

The second was additional study of the Kennedy assassination which supports the Warren Commission conclusions that Oswald acted alone. The whole conspiracy culture blossomed after the Kennedy killing and laid the ground work for my generations healthy skepticism about anything governmental. There were a lot of books which claimed to contain proof that the Kennedy assassination was a highly organized activity. Oswald wasn’t even the shooter. He was just the fall guy. The more time that passes, the more evidence mounts that it was like virtually every other assassination attempt in our country’s history – one delusional person.

The third was an interview on Fresh Air of NY Times reporter Thomas Ricks. He wrote a highly critical book about the first two years of the Iraq invasion called Fiasco. He recently was invited back to Iraq to accompany new Secretary of Defense Gates. This in itself is significant because Secretary Rumsfeld caught much of the blame from Ricks for the failed Iraq policy. Rumsfeld took such exception to Ricks criticisms that he had Ricks security clearances revoked and essentially eliminated his access to all official channels of information from the Defense department.

Ricks is now being embraced by both the military and the defense department as an important truth teller. The truth that he is telling now is that Bush and Cheney are largely irrelevant with regard to the future in Iraq. Gates has effectively purged the commanding ranks of all those who supported the invasion and has replaced them with pragmatists. These new commanders are actively planning the best way to exit Iraq without leaving a failed state behind. To hear Ricks tell it, we are probably never going to leave completely, but the nature of our involvement is going to change dramatically. We are going to abandon our role as peacekeeper and be forced to take sides in the looming civil war. We are likely to take the side of the minority Sunni’s against the Iran-backed Shiite’s. That move is already taking place on a regional basis as we arm local Sunni tribal militias in the battle against foreign al Qaeda forces. So after toppling Saddam, we are ultimately going help those who ran his government return to power.

What pulls all this together was a fascinating program on NPR’s radio lab with Robert Krulwich regarding how we remember. It turns out that our brain does not really remember anything. What we call our memories are particular patterns stored in neural paths in our brain. The process of recollection is not retracing those paths. Every time we remember, we create a new path which replaces the stored path. This new path is not an exact copy, but in fact is subtly influenced by our experiences and emotions since. So in reality, our “fondest” memories (those that we recall most frequently) are also our least accurate. They have been substantially altered, for better or worse, by our frequent use of them. The proof is a medical treatment which helps those troubled by traumatic memories. A chemical inhibits the process of recreating the new neural path, so if it is taken at the time when someone is recollecting a troubling memory, the new stored memory is less intense because it less precise, detailed, or emotional. These diluted memories ultimately lose the power that they previously had over the person.

So where does this leave us in the discussion of truth? What we are learning is that truth in any absolute sense has to be left to the divine. Humans at best can only hope to approach it, and even then it has to be a collective effort over time, since the memory of any individual is suspect.

It may also explain why we have to guard against our own pride. As time peels away the veneer of individual recollection, history inevitably rights wrongs and the truth slowly comes into focus. As improbable as it seems, President Kennedy was killed by a lone gunman. Even though it is deeply disturbing, Kent State was not an accident and those responsible are still at large. After five years and incredible costs, Iraq is beginning to emerge as the folly of hubris that it always was. The ultimate irony is that our path to stability in Iraq may end up being some recreation of the same power structure we displaced. It is unclear whether or not we will hold those responsible for Iraq accountable for their failures. History certainly will.

What I think this research also suggests is that when it comes to matters of state, we need a climate of active open respectful debate. When it comes to human affairs, individual opinions about truth are way too subjective and fragile. Truth is best found in collaboration and compromise rather than power politics, ideology, and single party rule.

Hidden Things

Saturday, June 16th, 2007

“Therefore seeing we have this ministry, as we have received mercy, we faint not; but have renounced the hidden things of dishonesty, not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully; but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.” II Corinthians 4:1-2

Scooter Libby is going to prison for doing his job. His job was to do what his boss, Dick Cheney told him to do. Cheney told Libby to discredit Iraq war critic Joe Wilson who had published an op-ed piece in the NY Times questioning that administration’s case for invading Iraq. Libby was going to do that by letting the press know that Wilson’s trip to Africa for the CIA to check out reports of Saddam trying to buy uranium, was actually arranged by Joe Wilson’s wife who worked for the CIA. So clearly there was some conflict of interest in the trip, and as a result, Wilson’s motives and credibility was suspect. The only problem with the whole thing is that Valerie Plame, Wilson’s wife, was technically under cover at the CIA and revealing her identity is a crime.

Regardless of what you think of these guys, they aren’t dumb. They may make mistakes in judgment, but they don’t break the law unknowingly. Libby, for example, is an Ivy-league trained lawyer. He knew what Cheney was asking him to do, and he probably told Cheney what the risks were. But he was also one of the architects of the whole neo-conservative vision of remaking Iraq in our image and likeness.

Now Libby is going to jail.

If you think that perhaps this is just an isolated incident of poor judgment, let’s see what else our pal Dick has been up to.

We probably should have known that Cheney was planning to make major changes in the public’s right to know when early in the Bush administration he organized a secret meeting of oil company execs to hammer out an energy plan. Now that we’re living the results of that plan, I can appreciate why he didn’t want to share it with us.

More recently we heard about Cheney’s attempts to coerce John Ashcroft to sign off on the President’s domestic spying plan by visiting him in the middle of the night in his hospital room. The reason for the visit is that those who were left in charge at the Justice Department during Ashcroft’s illness also refused to authorize the plan. The President approved that plan anyway, but Cheney wasn’t done. He later intervened to block the promotion of one of the attorney’s who opposed him, even though it had since come out that the Justice Department lawyers were interpreting the law correctly.

Now we discover that Cheney has ordered the secret service to stop its practice of logging those who visit the President and the Vice President. Those logs were crucial in helping expose Nixon’s involvement in Watergate.

And we recently also discovered that in 2001, he ended the practice of releasing Presidential papers twelve years after that President is out of office. What was significant about that date? He was blocking the release of the papers of Ronald Reagan under whom he served. Those papers would have shed new light on a number of scandals which occurred during the Reagan years. It appears that we are going to have to wait until Cheney is out of office to find out whether or not Cheney was involved in any way.

Fortunately, his remaining time in office is short. Hopefully his influence will also wane as the truth continues to come out, as it always does.


Thursday, June 7th, 2007

“Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire. Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath aught against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.” Matt 5:21-24

I had the great pleasure of talking about this with a friend and his wife at a chance meeting at a local coffee house.

Even though we are both at opposite ends of the political spectrum, we both lamented at how the American people appear to value combat over compromise.

We as a country appear to be much more interested in who is right rather than what is right.

Now some people might say that this has always been so. So I started to do a little research on the subject.

It’s true that this country has had periods of time when it was badly divided, but we’ve also had leaders who had the courage to bring us back together.

Those of you who watch the Daily Show already know part of this story, but I’ll share it for the rest. One of the most contentious periods in our history was the civil war. This was a time when brothers were joining opposing armies with the understanding that they might actually be shooting at one another. That’s how passionate people were about the issues of slavery and state’s rights. Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860 on an anti-slavery platform and had to deal with almost half the country in open revolt against his policies.

Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote about this period of time in her biography Team of Rivals. One of the things Lincoln did after he was elected, was to select three of his bitter political rivals, Seward, Chase, and Bates for cabinet posts. He felt it essential to have the views of all of the people represented as decisions were made which affected the future of the union.

We need leaders with that sort of vision and courage today.

We have to figure out how to get beyond the concerns of political correctness, spin, and political advantage. We must openly disagree if we are to discover what binds us together and what we can accomplish. We must talk to each other in order to disagree. We must speak honestly as well as decently, which means that we may sometimes need to say unpleasant things about each other.

At the end of the day, we have to reconcile with all our brothers rather than treat them like fools or criminals. Our choices, like Lincoln’s, have to be for the good of the union rather than the good of any particular political party. We need leaders who will remind us that our strength is in our diversity and that our policy should be the result of healthy debate and thoughtful compromise.

We’ll have leaders like Lincoln by voting for them when we find them, even if they don’t support all that we believe in. Our votes help set the tone of government. This change starts with you and me.

What Would Confucius Do?

Sunday, June 3rd, 2007

I’m almost through a book by Karen Armstrong called The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions. It covers a remarkable period in world history that she calls the Axial Age. It was that period of time in the ninth century BCE when people in four different parts of the civilized world created four of the great religious traditions that are still shaping our world today: Confucianism and Taoism in China; Hinduism and Buddhism in India; monotheism in Israel; and philosophical rationalism in Greece.

I was particular struck by the Confucian concept of ren. In simplest terms, it is a form of the golden rule. In practice, however, it is much more profound.

What we know as the Golden Rule shows up in the Bible in a number of places including the second great commandment given by Jesus.

“Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Matt 22:35-40

Confucius took this much further. In his thought, it wasn’t sufficient to simply wish good things for your neighbor, or refrain from inflicting on your neighbor whatever you wouldn’t want inflicted on you. Confucius articulated what “love” in “love they neighbor” really meant.

In order to achieve ren, you had to seek to achieve your life goals through your neighbor. You had to love your neighbor so much that you seek to bestow on your neighbor all of your life’s hopes and dreams.

Your path to financial success, for example, starts with doing all you can do to make others financially successful. Your path to security is by making others secure. You path to respect is by respecting all others. Ren is an idealistic state that even Confucius agreed was likely beyond the grasp of most students. The path to ren, however, is one that Confucius felt all should follow. As one description put the Confucian idea, a good life is an endless aspiration for ethical perfection.

As I was thinking about ren within the context of our proud Christian nation, I thought it might be interesting to analyze how our current policies would change. Instead of trying to return to some mythical fundamentalist golden age, as some Christians are teaching, what if we as a nation strove for ethical perfection.

We would see our economic success from a global perspective and focus our attention on helping the poorest countries get their economies going. How do you think that would affect global stability? We would invest in clean water for developing African countries before we tried to sell them weapons. We would use our military might to protect the most vulnerable (e.g. Darfur) rather than those who had oil to sell. Our policies would conserve earth’s resources for our neighbor’s use rather than exploit them. Wouldn’t that be a breathe of fresh air (pun intended)? We wouldn’t torture, we would help free those who were at risk of torture. We wouldn’t start wars, we would help end them.

You might say this is fantasy and could never work. Many would say that unless every nation shared our values, these policies are too risky and idealistic .

I agree that Confucius was an idealist and saw more in men than maybe they saw in themselves, but then so did Jesus.