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Archive for the ‘musings’ Category

While sitting at the laundromat by myself waiting for my clothes to dry a little boy (probably about 10 years old) walks in.

Boy: “Where are you from?”

Me: “Around here.”

Boy: “Where do you live?”

Me: “A few blocks from here.”

Boy: “You have any kids?”

Me: “No.”

Boy: “You married?”

Me: “Nope.”

Boy: “Do you know what a gang is?”

Me: “Yeah.”

Boy: “I’m in a gang. South-side Crypts.”

Me: “That’s nice.”

The boy leaves

Me: “Odd child.”

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NASA image of Kiribati

On the way home from work today I was listening to Morning Edition on NPR when a story came on about the island nation of Kiribati.  Kiribati is a nation consisting of a string of islands in the Pacific Ocean that, due to climate change, is sinking and may be rendered uninhabitable within the next century.  This particular story focused on 20-year-old Tiibea Baure who is taking part in a program that seeks to relocate citizens of Kiribati.  Baure is now living in Australia where she studies nursing.  She wants to do well and get a job so she can bring her parents over to Australia with her.  The problem with that, though, is that her parents don’t want to leave because they don’t believe climate change is real.  This particular quote from Tiibea’s mother caught my attention:

“I don’t believe, because it’s something beyond me. It’s something beyond my knowledge, and it’s beyond my capacity to understand it. We just believe that God will look after us, and he will do his own way to save us.”

This reminded me, a bit, of an old story I once heard from comedian Jerry Crowder about a man who’s house is being encroached upon by flood waters.  The man is sitting on the porch with the water up to his feet when a boat pulls up offering to save him.  The man simply responds, “Go on ahead.  God’s gonna take care of me.”  Later on when the water is up to the man’s knees the boat comes back.  Again the man responds, “Don’t worry, God’s gonna take care of me.”  Finally, when the water is covering the house and the man is perched on his chimney a helicopter comes and a rescue worker throws down a rope saying, “Sir, grab a hold of the rope.  This is your last chance.”  Once more the man responds, “Go on, God’s gonna take care of me.”  Well, the man drowned and when he got to Heaven he told God, “I’m disappointed in you.  You said you were going to take care of me.”  God then looks at the man and says, “Ya dummy.  I sent you two boats and a helicopter.”

In a way I envy faith like that.  Especially since my own can seem so weak and doubtful at times.  At the same time, though, I wonder if such sentiments of faith can cross over from hope into foolishness.  To be sure, I believe that God takes care of us and that worrying is an utterly pointless and counter productive endeavor.  At the same time, though, I believe that God wants us to be pragmatic.  We are children of God but that doesn’t mean that he’s going to do everything for us.  Much of the time we have to simply dig in and solve our own (and each other’s) problems.  Typically what God does is provide us with the means–a boat, a helicopter, or even a scholarship program.  Most of all, though, He provides us with each other and that is how it should be.

We created our own messes of men so the least that should be expected of us is that we help each other work our way out of them.  God will always be with us and will even help us out in seen and unseen ways but through it all we’re going to have to keep working if we want to see a better world.

Of course we could all just sit around until we get to Heaven but that sounds kind of boring to me.

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A lot of hay has been made lately on the various news outlets surrounding WikiLeaks controversy.  I, personally, have rather mixed feelings on it.  On the one hand WikiLeaks was probably within their free speech rights to post what they had been handed (though whoever leaked those confidential documents probably wasn’t within their rights to give them out).  On the other hand, though, the actions of WikiLeaks seem rather irresponsible and perhaps just a little dangerous.  Time will tell what the end result of all this will be but for now the debate continues.

What I don’t have such mixed feelings about, though, is the actions of that amalgamates group of hackers and protesters who call themselves Anonymous.  To bring everyone up to speed, after the WikiLeaks controversy landed several online companies like Paypal, Mastercard, Visa, and Amazon ceased providing their services to WikiLeaks.  The protesters of Anonymous, crying persecution, began launching cyber attacks against the aforementioned companies causing system crashes and hours of lost productivity.

While it is the right of all to protest and demonstrate against what they see as a wrongdoing using cyber attacks as a protest tool seems to me to be simply juvenile, hypocritical, and ultimately pointless.  Such attacks are not a way of voicing an opinion but are, instead, a way of silencing or punishing anyone who might happen to disagree with them.  With the selfish logic of a petulant child they are trying to proclaim freedom of speech by silencing those that would disagree with them.

Unfortunately this sort of nonsense continues because these cyber attacks (which are very much a crime) are incredibly difficult to prosecute.  Most of these small time hackers will never be pursued or held accountable.  As a result they become increasingly arrogant and self-righteous and as their arrogance increases their sense of morality will decrease.  From that point it would not be surprising to see cyber attacks becoming even more petulant, aggressive and indiscriminate.

So if the established methods of correction and accountability have such difficulty dealing with this then what is there left to do?  Thankfully there is still another powerful tool at our disposal.  That tool is the protest of those willing to use reason and public discourse and not hide behind a veil of anonymity.  A hacker can inconvenience and destroy but it is the public and accountable conversationalist who really change minds and shape the world.

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These days we are rather over run by the romantic comedy genre.  To a certain extent that’s alright but after a while they can start doing more harm than good.  You see, most romantic comedies tend to revolve around a very adolescent concept of love.  This sort of overly sentimental and unrealistic depiction of romance (sometimes called “emotional porn”) is fine when all you want is a few moments of escapism but when it starts to reach the level of saturation it has it starts to affect how people believe romantic relationships should be.  That, in turn, can lead to some really messy situations when unrealistic expectations butt up against the realities of life.

That is why, for relationship veterans like me, the Scott Pilgrim series is such a breath of fresh air.  Here (in both the original graphic novel series and the recent film adaptation) that on the surface seems an over-the-top and absurd story operating on the logic of video games and Saturday morning cartoons but dig a little deeper and there can be found one of the most insightful and true to life depictions of human relationships to grace the genre in recent years.

For the uninitiated, the Scott Pilgrim series follows the mis-adventures of a habitually  immature Canadian hipster named Scott Pilgrim.  Scott has fallen obsessively in love with the new-in-town Romona Flowers and, by some miracle, has gotten her to return his affections.  Ramona, however, comes with a bit of baggage in the form of seven evil ex-boyfriends bent on Scott’s destruction.  Add onto this Scott’s own slightly off-kilter exes and the fact that everyone inexplicably has or gains superpowers at one point or another (see the aforementioned video game logic) and you get one of the most complicated relationships to ever hit the streets of Toronto.

With all of these ingredients pilled together we somehow get a wildly epic and hilariously comedic story that somehow manages to depict people in a realistic light (points, power-ups and boss fights aside).  That is because the characters here actually behave like real people do.  The problems here aren’t the contrived obstacles of most romantic comedies.  The big problems aren’t even really the seven evil exes trying to kill Scott.  Instead the main thing standing in the way of Scott and Ramona’s relationship is their own hang-ups.  Their respective immaturities, insecurities, and selfish desires prove a much greater threat and much bigger challenge than any sword-wielding, half-ninja ex ever could be.

All-in-all, Scott Pilgrim seems like something tailor made for my personality.  On the one hand it is crazy and over the–deeply infused with the hipster-geek culture that I’ve so long embraced–while on the other hand it is deeply heartfelt depicting both the joys and fallibilities of human relationships.  Needless to say, it gets a strong recommendation from me.

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I have been thinking a bit more lately about the Tea Party movement.  It’s a movement that I have heavily criticized in the past but all told I don’t think they are all bad.  I don’t think they are all selfish or greedy or racist or any other number of generalizations that could be used to dismiss them out of hand.

What I do think they are, though, is a bit of an enigma.  The best I’ve been able to gather is that the Tea Party universally stands for three issues (most recently defined by Toby Marie Walker on NPR’s Morning Edition):

  1. Constitutionally limited government
  2. Free Markets
  3. Fiscal Responsibility

I look at these three point and think, “well yeah, who except the most politically extreme isn’t for those things?”  Ask your average liberal if they think that the powers of government should be defined by the constitution and they will say of course.  Should money be managed responsibly?  There’s no question, yes.  Should the American economy be based on free market capitalism?  Well what else would it be based on?

As with many things, though, the devil is in the details people will violently disagree on how to accomplish the same goals.  The divide is fairly obvious between conservatives and liberals but I suspect that the various factions of the Tea Party are not totally united on this front either.  That is because, in adhering to Libertarian philosophy, they lack any kind of foundational or centralized leadership.  They are an amalgamation of disparate factions all claiming a single moniker.  Just like how bunches of rocks and dirt can, under the right conditions, make a devastating mudslide the Tea Party can be a force to be reckoned with.

Just like a mudslide, though, such a force is at best very noisy and at worst utterly destructive.  It does not create something new but simply pushes aside everything in its way.  This may seem an unfairly cruel comparison but it is simply meant to illustrate the shortcomings of a crowd mentality.  A crowd can shout mantras and wave placards but at the end of the day they are just making a lot of noise.  It is the individual leaders, with the support of the crowd, who are able to sit at the table and talk about change.  Even more importantly, an individual leader can listen to the opposition and negotiate: finding the middle road in the best interest of all parties involved.

Many Tea Party supporters have said that it is just that sort of “back room dealing” that they want to get rid of.  That is all well and good but perhaps we are throwing the baby out with the bath water here.  None of us want our society to be run by shady deals and secret meetings.  Why, then, have we not created many public forums?  Where are the public debates?  Where are the town hall meetings (the real ones, not those political rallies passing for them)?  Most of all, where is our civility and willingness to listen to our opponents respectfully?

Whether liberal, conservative, or moderate this is how real change is accomplished.  Other methods may make for a bigger show but no hearts and minds will ever be changed unless we learn to listen more than we talk.

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I don’t know if this is still done or not but way back when I was in elementary school it was common practice to recite the United States Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of each school day.  Like most students, this was something I repeated daily rather thoughtlessly.  It was just part of the morning routine and by the time I had reached middle school the practice had faded away all together.

The pledge was not gone, though.  It still popped up at sporting events, Boy Scout meetings, and other all-American past-times.  It was during such events that a curious thing started to happen.  Little by little I became increasingly uneasy about these words coming out of my mouth.  Eventually the practice devolved into simply holding my hand over my heart with not a word escaping my lips.

So what was the big deal about the pledge?  Well, it really was a result of a couple things.  First of all, from a very young age I was taught that a man’s word is what most defines his character.  Thus honesty, honor, and maintaining commitments became very important to me.  Eventually I would not even utter a promise unless I was absolutely sure I could keep it.  In other words I literally believed (and still believe) that a man is only as good as his word.

Secondly, there eventually came a time in my life where I started to seriously re-evaluate many of the beliefs I had always taken for granted.  Many a moral point became hotly debated within my head and one of those just happened to be the idea of patriotism.  It’s not that I didn’t love my country or want to serve my community but I began to see a certain conflict between the culture of patriotism and the commitments of faith in God.  All to often I would see how the interests of America were being placed above the moral imperatives of Christian faith.  Even worse, American values were often falsely re-branded as Christian values.

For me this was something that I had to reject and as a result I could no longer pledge any allegiance to anything but God.  I came to understand that there was both good and evil in the nature of America and I could not give my loyalty wholesale.  As a result I came to understand my relationship to my country in subjugation to my allegiance to God.  I would freely praise the good of Americana but the ills would receive no defense from me.  I would not consider my country in any way inherently superior to any other nation.  Finally I would serve my community and neighbors not out of service to country but in service and love towards God.

I am no patriot but perhaps nations could benefit from a little less patriotism.

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There have been a couple political events from the last few weeks that have equally piked my interest and made me weep for humanity.  Upon examination, though, I realized that these two events basically boiled down to the same tired themes.  Let’s take a look at each of them.

"Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain." - Iowa motto

Vander Plaats and the Gay Marriage Hubbub

Politics here in Iowa have been oddly eventful this past year.  After Bob Vander Plaats failed attempt to win the Republican nomination for Iowa governor a while back he essentially disappeared off the scene for a while leaving many to speculate that he was planning a run at governor as an Independent.  Yesterday Vander Plaats finally spoke publicly about his intentions.  Turns out he’s not going to be running in the governor’s race (though he still refuses to endorse anyone else).  Instead he has decided to get back up on the anti-gay bandwagon and campaign to have three of the Iowa Supreme Court justices (who last year unanimously voted to overturn a ban on same-sex marriage) when they come up for retention this November.

Basically what Vander Plaats is advocating is taking revenge on the Supreme Court justices who made a ruling that he and his supporters didn’t like.  Aside from being a tactic that would likely have no effect on the ruling in question (much like the executive order he wanted to make as governor) this move seems to demonstrate a woeful lack of understanding about the purpose of the Supreme Court.

In Iowa I think one of the smartest things we ever did politically is set up a system where our Supreme Court justices are not elected but appointed by the governor.  They are then up for retention election every eight years (which is typically little contested).  The inherent strength in this process is that it removes the justices as much as possible from the sway of political and partisan whims.  As such, they are able to rule fairly and without bias and, most importantly, act as a check for the sometimes overzealous political machinations of the legislative branch.  If, like Vander Plaats has suggested, we punish the justices for doing their jobs or even go further to change to an elected justice system we would be directly undermining the purpose of the courts and trading that asset in exchange for the sway of political rabble rousing and mob rule.

Crying to “refudiate” the Ground Zero mosque

On the nation-wide political scene, apparently many folks are up in arms about the approved plans to build an Islamic center near the area of Ground Zero in New York City.  The main complaint has been that allowing an Islamic building near the site of the 9/11 tragedy would be a desecration to the area.  This line of thinking makes absolutely no sense to me for a few different reasons.  First of all, decrying this Islamic center basically amounts to lumping the entirety of the Islamic religion with the actions of a handful of extremest who do not in any way embody the ideals of Islam as a whole.  Secondly, if the city government were to heed these cries and go back on their decision to allow the mosque to be built it could be very easily seen as an official condemnation of Islam and Islamic people as a whole.  Finally, the call to disallow this center becomes even more apparently illogical when it is learned that one of the primary purposes of the proposed Islamic center is to encourage and promote inter-faith tolerance and acceptance in the city.  Why, exactly is this a bad thing?

The common thread

Both of these cases of public opinion run a muck have two things strikingly in common.  First, both of these events are essentially non-issues (in that they don’t really effect many people going against them)  that have been hijacked by politicians for the purpose of political posturing and rallying the passions of their constituents in the lead up to another election.  Secondly, both of these instances invoke the specter of the “evil they”.  Homosexuals in the first example and Muslims in the second are being made out to be a wicked other threatening the way of life of “real Americans”.  It is a common move to make politically.  After all, nothing unites quite like a common enemy (even if the enemy is an imagined one).  It is also an incredibly dangerous move since it intentionally creates an “us vs. them” mentality  which creates fear and prejudice at its inception and hate and violence when it is carried to its ultimate conclusion.

Can we who call ourselves a people of liberty recognize the evils that are being perpetrated in our midst?  If we can’t we may find ourselves entering into a dark period that has been repeated again and again throughout the history of the world.  It’s really up to us to decide.

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