Liberal to Left Musings: Short Essays on Theology, Ethics, Politics, With Some Humor

Kenneth Cauthen

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Who Is Obama, Really?
Some leftward Democrats see Obama as betraying the progressive principles they thought he held. Republicans label him as far too liberal then and now. The media like to talk (the all-news channels ad nauseam) about his flip-flopping. Some think that he is pure pragmatist who wants to win, principles be damned.

Here is my tentative hypothesis: Barack Obama is most comfortable toward the left. His core principles are liberal. But he has promised a new politics that rises above crippling partisanship. This involves making compromises, accepting the better when you cannot get the best. He realizes that politics is the art of the possible. He recognizes the futility of being a martyr for lost causes. In all of this there are elements of of pragmatism and realism -- you cannot exercise power for the good unless you achieve it.

Viewed in this way Obama has been consistent in the deepest sense, although his approach involves adjustments in policy over time that give the surface appearance of flip-flopping. This approach puts him in the best light rather than in the worst as his progressive supporters and his avowed opponents are wont to do.

So far he is doing a good job of finding a proper balance between idealism and realism and between principles and pragmatism. Until compelling evidence renders this judgment null and void, I am sticking to it.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Unpleasant Truths the Next President Won't Tell Us
I earnestly hope Barack Obama is elected president, but neither he or John McCain is likely to tell it like it is, at least not in the form of the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Here is a sample of what we probably or surely won't hear from either in 2009:

1. A major reason why so many Muslims in the Middle East are hostile or hateful toward us is not because of our democracy or our values but because of our policies and practices -- invasion of their countries, the presence of foreign troops in Saudi Arabia, where the holiest places in Islam are located, support of repressive governments, and the like. The origins of our present troubles go back as least as far as the complicity of the US and Britain in the 1953 overthrow of the democratically-elected government of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq. Other factors, some of them, internal to Muslim nations and people themselves doubtless are involved, but our actions in and toward them are central.

2. An important factor in this constellation is our one-sided support of Israel. The founding of Israel may have been a mistake. Nevertheless, the nation is there, and their citizens have a right to exist in a secure environment under conditions of justice. Israel is guilty of many past injustices against the Palestinians and continue to oppress them grievously.

3. Oil is not the whole reason behind our actions and errors in Muslim countries, but it it looms large. Because we did not take measures, although President Carter urged us to, decades ago to free ourselves from our dependence on Middle East oil, our national well-being depends on keeping it flowing until we can at last free ourselves from this bondage. As some wag put it, if the main export of Kuwait were broccoli (despised by the then President Bush), would we have intervened to repel Iraq in 1991?

No president will fully acknowledge these truths because it would be politically disastrous to do so, and a proper response would require national repentance and new policies. Nevertheless, they constitute a hard knot of tangled predicaments that took a long to create and will be difficult to resolve even if the our leaders had to courage to do what is needed and if the American people would permit them to do so.

Is there much more to it than this? Of course, there is, but we won't be able to get to the much more unless we at least deal with these three fundamental elements.

The best we can hope for is that Obama, if elected, will be a little better, while if McCain wins, expect a continuation of the same policies that have contributed to the mess we are in.

We have a tiger by the tail in the Middle East. Does anyone know how to get us loose without serious injury to us or the tiger?

Obama and Faith-Based Human Services
Obama spoke favorably the other day about the value of faith-based human services. It reminded me that an article I posted on my web side in 2004 had become newly relevant. You can find it at this address:

Monday, June 30, 2008

Stop Wasting Time Debating What the Bible Really Teaches

1. The Bible teaches that homosexuality is wrong.

2. I believe that the Bible teaches that homosexuality is wrong.
The first statement is normative, purports to state an objective truth, and is highly debatable. It is
somebody's interpretation, and it can be disputed.
The second statement is descriptive, states a subjective conviction, and is indisputably true. I believe what I believe, and that's a fact.

Form 2 statements have the same implications for action as form 1 statements.

Most essentialist (Form 1) disputes about what the Bible really teaches in an authoritative fashion accomplish little. I could convene a conference on what the Bible teaches
normatively about homosexuality with the best biblical scholars and theologians in the world on the subject. It would produce a set of conflicting conclusions that I could predict in advance if I knew the general theological outlook of the participants.

As a rule liberal biblical scholars will conclude that the Bible condemns abusive sexual relationships of all kinds but not faithful, monogamous same-sex love. Conservative scholars will nearly always say that the Bible condemns all homosexual acts and relationships. Numerous conferences and debates in journals and books show this over and over. So I need not convene my conference. Seldom does anyone have a change of mind as a result of such debates. So, of what use are they?

Given all this I propose we abandon unhelpful essentialist or normative notions of what a given religion IS or TEACHES or REQUIRES. This approach states what is claimed to be definitive truth, so that anyone who disagrees is wrong. The result is a multitude of contradictory claims.

What finally matters is what people BELIEVE Islam or Christianity is, or what the Koran or the Bible teaches and what they do about in daily life and practice.

Does the Koran permit or require
jihad? Muslim scholars and theologians are not in agreement about what it is and when it is required, permitted, or prohibited? But what I want to know is: What do particular Muslims around the world actually believe it teaches about jihad and what they do about it? This is operationally useful.

In daily life we confront people who hold a variety of views about moral and religious subjects, many of which contract others. I can only decide for myself what the right interpretation is. I cannot decide for others. The important question, then, is how I am going to relate to them -- agree and form coalitions to promote our common beliefs or oppose them in every appropriate manner.

The text of the Bible and the Koran say many things, but none of it means much until it is interpreted by someone. It is the various interpretations that finally matter in a practical sense. So let every believer and every group try to discern in their own ways what the Bible or the Koran requires today in the way of belief and practice. Let them all confess their beliefs and be loyal to them. Let them all seek agreement with others where possible by joint inquiry.

Debates about the objective truth of the matter are mostly fruitless and largely a waste of time. Have we not learned this by now?

Monday, June 23, 2008

George Carlin, 1937-2008

Somewhere in the many layers of George Carlin's makeup was a gentle, tender, sensitive idealist who had sympathy for those who suffered and a passion for justice. I think that was more fundamental than his cynicism and his nihilism. It was this compassionate core that generated all his contempt of hypocrisy and cruelty, his railing against the stupidities of religion and politics, and his rebelliousness against demands for conformity that stifle life and creativity.

Sometimes he went too far and cut away healthy substance though aiming only at the rot. Nevertheless, I think he epitomized his own insight -- a cynic is a disappointed idealist. Anyone who does not struggle with cynicism in this troubled world of ours does not understand the situation or lacks compassion.

He was creative and marvelously funny, never more so than when he saw the humor in everyday life--the craziness in common ordinary events that make up most of our existence. Contrary to much opinion, however, I don't think he contributed anything useful by using the seven words you can't say on regular TV but which he used to nauseating excess on HBO. I don't want to hear them on TV or anywhere else most of the time.

The truth is that we need forbidden words. They serve a useful psychological purpose. They express strong emotion in circumstances where only the impermissible will do. They suggest a note of defiance, an assertion of autonomy against society's standard of decorum. But if all words are permitted, what will we say when we need an utterance that provides the peculiar, delicious pleasure of trespassing into the prohibited?

To think that bad words are just a hang-up we need to get rid of is shallow, superficial, and silly. Forbidden words are not just words. They carry social meanings and have psychological power when properly used. If we trivialize them by introducing them into ordinary speech, teach them to our children, make them common on TV, etc., we will rob them of their efficacy, and we will just have to invent new ones. I like the ones we've got, so keep your f!gh*kj%$#$ hands off them, and don't try to make them respectable.

Remember the Mississippi lawyer who defended his state's anti-liquor laws thusly: "I do not want to drink my whiskey under the stigma of legality." Exactly!

When I see someone who displays deep internal anger, I immediately want to know about his early childhood years. With respect to Carlin I discovered that his mother when pregnant with George was minutes away from aborting him and suddenly changed her mind. In addition. his mother and father separated when he was an infant. He says that his father drank and was a bully who viciously beat his older brother for the first five years of his sibling's life. I suspect that explains a lot. See:

I liked the gentle, sensitive Carlin best. One of his finest contributions was a moving comparison between football and baseball. In the former, huge men wearing protective armor try to knock their opponents to the ground. In the latter, players hit a ball with a stick, and the sweetest words are "safe at home." We could have used more of that kind of humor and would have been better off without all the dirty words.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Shakespeare: A Poem
For the best in English writing, Shakespeare gets my vote.
When we want a bon mot, we do Shakespeare quote.
But since none else doth command such note,
Whom besides the Bible doth Shakespeare quote?

Friday, June 20, 2008

Obama a Promise Breaker or Political Pragmatist?
Senator Obama has been widely criticized as a promise-breaker on public finance, thus despoiling his image as a reformer and apostle of a new politics. While recognizing that the reason he did it was that he can raise much more money than Senator McCain and thus boost his chances of getting elected, critics concluded that Obama is just another politician like all the rest.

Journalists are reputed to be cynics, yet one has to laugh at how often they function as absolutists and moral purists on this and many other points. It is all or nothing, saint or sinner, pure or impure. All most could focus on was his flip-flopping and how it belied his alleged aim to transform Washington's way of doing things.

One can look at it this way, but if we assume a larger perspective, the final verdict may be rendered differently. Recognizing that politics is the art of the possible and that one has to gain power before one can exercise it, I have argued in these pages that a worthy politician needs to move between idealism and realism, principles and pragmatism. Obviously, on any given issue at a specific time, one can argue where the praiseworthy politician ought to be located on this double continuum.

Maybe Obama is an idealist who wants to change things for the better. Maybe he does have core principles that he will not abandon. Maybe in the case of campaign finance reform at this particular moment, he felt that realism and pragmatism dictated his decision in the light of the fact that the election may be close and he will need every advantage he can get.

This perspective does not necessarily validate his choice or render it any less regrettable. One can argue with it. Nevertheless, a larger perspective might save us from from a superficial one-issue moral absolutism that obscures deeper truths. Only a comprehensive pattern emerging over time gives us a basis for a sound judgment.

My own view is that the moral imperative that Barack Obama be elected president is so overwhelming that it justifies his pragmatic decision on campaign finance at this juncture in history.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

What Marriage Is: Some Clarifying Theses
When we say X and Y are married, we usually mean that they had a valid civil or religious ceremony performed upon presentation of a state-issued license. That works very well for most ordinary purposes, but upon reflection, it gets more complicated.

A few days ago in California Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, both in their 80's and who had been living together for more than fifty years, secured a license and went though a civil ceremony that gave them the legal status of marriage in that state. I say that in the sense that matters most this couple had been married for a long time. The license and the ceremony meant only that they now had all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities of married people recognized by the state of California.

For a full understanding, we need to recognize three meanings of the term "marriage."

A. Marriage in the fundamental sense means a relationship in which the partners have committed themselves to live in love and loyalty to each other for the rest of their lives. Note that Scripture speaks of what God has joined together, not the state.

B. Marriage in the legal sense means that the partners have met the standards and gone through the procedures required for them to be legally married in a particular state.

C. Marriage in the religious sense means that the partners have met the standards and gone through the procedures recognized by a particular religious community.

Given the disputes going on now all over the country, some clarifying theses may help:

1. People can be married in all three senses.

2. People can be married in sense A. but not in senses B. and C.

3. People can be married in senses B. and C. but not in sense A.

4. People can be married in any set of two but not in the third.

I argue, along with Will Campbell, that churches should explicitly separate A. and C. from B. Ministers of the Gospel should not do the work on the state. Not only does it violate the separation of church and state, it contributes to confusion about what marriage in the religious or fundamental sense means. Marriage does not require the sanction of the state to make it religiously valid. Churches and ministers should make it clear that what they do pertains only to C. If people want to be married legally, let them go the courthouse and take care of it. What we do in C. presupposes A., although we cannot guarantee it, but B. is not strictly a concern. Some people are more truly married in sense (A.) than others who have a legal or a religious certificate or both.

When a minister "marries" a couple in church, what that means, properly understood, is not that the license and the ceremony make them married but that formally and publicly the religious community recognizes what presumably has already been established in their personal relationship.

Hence, with regard to same-sex marriage, the church does not need the permission of the state to recognize a marriage in the fundamental (A.) and religious sense (C.). Churches just need to get out of the business of validating the legal status of marriage. That is the role of the state and not the church, and the church should have nothing to do with it.

Monday, June 16, 2008

President McCain and that 3 AM Phone Call

The temper of John McCain is legendary, and his memory sometimes fails him. Imagine that 3 AM phone call.

President McCain: What the $%$#! Who the *(*&+@ is this waking me up at 3 AM. Drop dead, you &^%$#@%$#.

Voice: Sorry, Sir, but missiles have been launched against us and are headed toward the Capitol and the White House. We have 30 seconds to launch anti-missile defense.

President McCain: You %$*&^%, call the President, so he can do something about it.

Voice: But, Sir, Mr. President, you are the President.

President McCain: Oh %$^&, I am the %$#@ President. Launch anti-missile defense immediately.

Voice: Sorry, Sir, Mr. President, it is too late. We waited 10 seconds too long.

President McCain: Uh Oh. $%^%$ %$#$%^& ^%$#

Today's Quiz: American Voters
Which of the following is true?
1. The great mass of Americans are decent, sound in mind and heart, and when informed will choose what is sensible and in the long run what is right.

2. The great mass of Americans vote their passions and emotions, sometimes against their own economic interests, are easily misled, and often choose leaders based on trivial rather than substantive matters.

Answer: Both are true at different times and in different proportions. The art of getting elected consists in knowing when and to what extent each prevails.

McCain is a war hero. So what?

Please explain to me why the fact that John McCain was tortured as a prisoner of war in any meaningful sense validates his views on Iraq and other foreign policy matters. Logically, there is no connection, but it is commonly assumed that his military service and experience decades ago somehow provide him with unusual insight in the present and future. Why?

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Clinton for VP -- on McCain's Ticket
The way John McCain has been praising Hillary Clinton lately and the way he presents himself as the only logical choice for women, you would think he intends to choose Senator Clinton as his running mate.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

The Mystery of Big Brown Resolved
Although highly favored, Big Brown came in last in the Belmont and failed to win the Triple Crown. Nobody yet knows what happened. So I called Big Brown on his cell phone and was lucky enough to catch him in a free moment. Here is what BB told me:

"Hey, man, it was 93 degrees out there with humidity to match. I'd be crazy to go full speed and get all hot and sweaty. and smelly. Wouldn't be prudent. I'm a cool weather horse not made for work in the tropics. And that dang track was a mile and a half. Run all out for that distance in that heat and humidity? Give me a break!. Now go away, an episode of "Mr. Ed" is coming on."

So there you have it folks -- straight from the horse's mouth.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Dealing with the Hillary Problem

An Open Letter to Senator Barack Obama:
Dear Senator Obama:
I am delighted that you will be the Democratic nominee for President of the United State.

Senator Clinton had especially strong support among women and white men with a high school education or less. In light of that fact, I offer the following suggestions for your consideration.

1. Do not choose Senator Clinton as your running mate.

2. Offer Senator Clinton her choice of any one of the following: Supreme Court Justice, Attorney General, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, or any other appropriate high office she would like.

3. Appoint President Bill Clinton as a Special Emissary to the Middle East to work with other members of the Executive Branch, the Cabinet, and the United Nations in securing a peaceful, stable Middle East with special reference to Iraq, Iran, Israel, the Palestinians, and other Arab nations.

4. Consider a promise to appoint at least three women to the Cabinet. Indicate that special consideration will be given to a woman to fill the first open position on the Supreme Court.

5. Consider the following for Vice President: Sam Nunn, Ted Stickland, and Jim Webb for reasons indicated by the strengths of each.

6. Find a place for John Edwards in your campaign and in your Administration. Offer him a Cabinet post and/or assign him in some capacity to be in charge of working on health care based on your proposal, Senator Clinton's proposal. Edward's own ideas and other possibilities that might come to light. His larger assignment would be to work on strengthening the American family by providing the resources to help those with a high school education or less to get a good job, to promote universal health care, child support for working parents, and to promote the welfare and stability of working families in general. His overall aim would be to promote ways to overcome poverty and to achieve a healthy economy within the new world of globalization.

Sincerely yours,

A white Southerner who has shed many tears of joy at every stage of your success. And the day you become President -- Oh my, what a day that will be.
Sunday, June 01, 2008

Desperate Logical Gymnastics
Using the logic of the arguments of Terry McAuliffe, Harold Ickes, and James Carville in behalf of Senator Clinton to the superdelegates, it could be shown that the text of the Declaration of Independence is embedded in the King James Bible. Selah!

Friday, May 30, 2008

Limerick for the Day: What Happened?

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Random Comments for the Day
1. Sticking with a weak argument can make a smart person look dumb, e. g., James Carville expounding the case today why superdelegates should give the Democratic nomination to Senator Clinton.

2. If the situation were reversed, the Clinton campaign would be demolishing the arguments they now heartily support. Bill Clinton would be saying that the case for Obama is the "craziest thing I ever heard of."

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Alas, We Are All But a Demographic
Way back in 1976, if I could have voted in the Massachusetts Democratic Primary, I would have voted for Mo Udall -- the most progressive candidate. When the demographic report came in, I saw myself described perfectly in terms of income, education, occupation, being liberal in outlook, and the like. People like me in class and culture voted for Udall (or tended to, the professor in me says).

In 2008 I nicely fit the description of those mostly likely to prefer Obama in terms of education, income, occupation, and being liberal in outlook. Even with respect to age, I am young at heart! As in 1976 I am not a traitor to my socio-economic-cultural class but an embodiment.

What can we learn from this? It reminds us of our finitude. We see things like we do because we stand where we stand, not because we are especially gifted in knowledge, moral insight, objectivity, and devotion to the common good rather than to some selfish interest--and most certainly not because we know what Jesus would do. If taken to heart, it helps prevent us from thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought to think.

The danger is that such knowledge may not only guard against our being fanatics about some cause but may dampen a healthy enthusiasm for what we honestly believe in.


Tuesday, May 20, 2008


Congress overwhelmingly passed a $307 billion Farm Bill that included, among a lot of good things, a continuation of generous subsidies to wealthy farmers. McCain thoroughly denounced it for that reason, and George W. threatened to veto the measure. Obama, the idealist, visionary reformer who wants to change the way things are done in Washington, applauded it.

Choose all that apply:

Obama is all talk, no action.

B. He needs to win Iowa in the fall election.

C. If he loses, he plans to buy a farm.

D. He was quoted as saying, "Look, it's OK to be idealistic in speeches, but, heck, everybody knows you can't fight the Farm Lobby."

E. He read my blog about the need in politics to temper idealism with realism, principles with pragmatism, and got so crazy trying to decide where to draw the line that in his daze he approved the Farm Bill.

F. He thought he was being asked about the "Charm Bill."

G. McCain is the real reformer.

H. It's a lot more complicated than this.

PS: For a succinct but balanced view of the 2008 Farm Bill see the statement from Bread for the World, which calls it "half a loaf."
In fairness to Obama, he said that we should not refuse the better because we cannot get the best. As a candidate for national public office he knows how hard it is to seek justice in the presence of powerful parochial economic and ideological interests -- the bane of democracy.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Quasi-Acerbic Oddities from a Quasi-Eccentric
Top 10 World Titles

1. Most overrated product: wine
2. Most overrated artist: Picasso
3. Always last to know: Hillary Clinton
4. Biggest waste of time: Bridge
5. Most acceptable
rich, really rich person: Warren Buffet
6. Most Boring: Donald Trump
7. Most annoying: Limbaugh, O'Reilly, Hannity (tie)
8. Product in greatest oversupply worldwide: T-shirts
9. The Abomination of Desolation: Prosperity Gospel
10. Least global need: Another list of 10 superlatives of anything

Friday, May 16, 2008

Wright and Obama: Prophets and Politicians
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. I Cor. 12:4

It is important keep in mind the distinction between a prophet and a politician.

A prophet speaks unvarnished truth to power, heedless of consequences, which can sometimes be severe. Ideals and norms can be enunciated without regard to their immediate practicality.

A politician is engaged in the art of the presently possible who, in a democracy, must get elected and thus must not unduly offend the prevailing sensibilities of the populace. Before power can be exercised, it must be attained. Hence, strategic compromises with truth and justice must be made along with wise silence, prudent avoidance of dangerous issues, and some pandering to local bias. The patriotic gestures must be observed, no matter how trivial, like wearing a flag lapel pin or making important pronouncements in front of a bank of American flags, and, if possible, accompanied by pictures if not the actual presence, of the lovely family of the candidate or official.

(EXCURSUS: Senator Walter George from Georgia said that for five years he could go to Washington and do his work. When reelection year came, he said he had to go back to Georgia and "shovel some sh**t." George was a savvy politician who knew how to play the game, but he knew when he was tossing the manure. As a sophisticated intellectual with integrity, Obama sometimes seems reluctant to follow this example. My advice to him: Get a good shovel and, without abandoning your call for a new politics, when the occasion calls for it, creatively, thoughtfully, enthusiastically, and pragmatically "shovel some sh**t. )

Jeremiah Wright is a prophet. Barack Obama is a politician. These gifts must not be confused. Some seem to think it is enough to explain black liberation theology and the prophetic black church tradition to the white population to make Jeremiah Wright acceptable for political purposes and to make him harmless to the Obama candidacy. Don't bet on it. The positive interpretations of Wright are mostly shared among his defenders, the converted testifying to the converted. If Obama wants to be elected in order to do the good he honestly wants to do and to achieve what is politically possible, he has to do whatever his integrity will permit to render the Wright issue impotent to wreck his candidacy. I hope it is not too late. The Republicans will use every dirty trick in the book to destroy Obama with this issue.

Those of us who work in the cultural arena (and that includes religion) must do the work of explaining, interpreting, and defending the role of the prophet. That is not politician Obama's task. He walks a fine line between getting elected and maintaining his integrity, i. e., keeping a proper balance between realism and idealism and between principles and pragmatism. (On this point, see my blog of April 29, 2008. My texts for today's homily are a repeat of those in the aforementioned blog.)

Is the politician, then, limited to present actuality with no power to transform the present into a better future? No, not a all. A strong leader must locate the places where growth and transformation are possible, areas and issues where a breakthrough is possible by creative vision and liberating action -- a kairos, a situation pregnant with new potential for justice and a greater social good in need of a midwife to facilitate the birth.

I am not a prophet nor a politician but a professor. My calling is to elucidate context, provide definitions, make distinctions, and to expose simplistic propositions that obscure complexity, ambiguity, and nuance, to puncture pretension, and to provoke deeper thought than usually prevails. I wish I had better gifts to do so. I am thrilled when someone tells me I have been successful in some measure in living up to my calling.

The Mystery and Meaningless of Political Strategists

Where do all these political strategists come from? There must be thousands of them. Every day, it seems, a new batch never seen before shows up on the news stations . Are they being spontaneously generated in TV studios? Crawl out from rocks at night? They can be identified because they (1) nearly always repeat the party line of the day and (2) seldom have anything important or new to say. The worst situation is when a Dem. and a Repub. strategist are paired off against each other to offer a predictably partisan interpretation that adds nothing to understanding.

What accounts for this plague? Simple. The all-news stations have 60 minutes to fill every hour. They have at most 10 minutes of news, most of it old news repeated endlessly, and only occasionally new news. Breaking news breaks for 10-12 hours. They have roughly 20-25 minutes of commercials, and the rest is filled with commentary by resident pundits, network consultants, and imported experts. During the campaign season, i. e., nearly all the time, much of this time is filled by political strategists, except when there is a natural catastrophe, some medical story that is breaking in, Paris Hilton has been sighted (cited?), or a plane is in danger from landing gear not working, which brings out a multitude of immediately available aviation experts. Now and then, of course, we get to observe a highway chase, usually in California, that can occupy half a day. But mostly, these days we get to hear the vapid analysis of political strategists.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Message for Obama: Children of Light Need to Wise Up
For the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light. Jesus, Luke 16:8

Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Jesus, Matthew 10:16

Do not cast your pearls before swine lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces. Jesus, Matthew 7:6

Deceivers, yet true. Reinhold Niebuhr

A worthy politician needs to keep a proper balance between two sets of perspectives: 1. idealism and realism, 2. principles and pragmatism. Idealism without realism will end in cynicism and passivity. Pragmatism (doing whatever works) without principles leads to a naked struggle for power guided solely by self-interest.

1. Proper idealism means devotion to the true and the good, but not in a naive way that assumes mere moral suasion is sufficient to win the day. Ideals must be connected to interests and perceived needs. The power of the civil rights movement resided in the coincidence of justice and self-interest in black people. A few saints may prefer the interests of others to their own but not enough of them can be found to populate a mass movement. Idealism must be tempered by realism -- a recognition of the way things actually are in this world where people tend to prefer their own wants to the needs of others and seek present rewards for themselves rather than sacrifice for the present and future good of all.

2. A good politician, where good means both successful and devoted to justice, must be anchored in moral principles and a quest for the common welfare. Principles have to be flexible enough to conform to what can actually be achieved. Politics is the art of the possible. An idealistic politician cannot exercise power in behalf of justice without being elected. Devotion to justice must be tempered with wisdom about the way the world actually works. Principles without pragmatism yields no success. Success at all costs means a quest for power for its own sake rather than power as the necessary means for attaining good ends.

I think this is what the three quotes I began with add up to. The children of light must learn the ways of the world from the children of darkness without losing the light that guides them. They must be worldly wise like serpents as they battle the evil forces without losing their innocence and their ideals, remaining harmless as doves. They must even be seen as agreeing on some points with the children of darkness while in this deception remaining true to their fundamental moral principles and the quest for justice. It is foolish to give pearls to pigs, since they cannot possible appreciate them.

I learned politics in the segregated South of the 1930's and 40's. Candidates for governor of Georgia who embraced integration from the left got a few thousand votes, as did the extreme white supremacists on the far right. Any moderate who could be perceived as compromising segregation in the slightest was damned by his opponent -- usually successfully. So we either got strict white supremacists or moderates who pretended to be more orthodox than they were in order to get elected so they could do something for black people within limits of of the pragmatically possible. I never faulted the moderates for espousing white supremacy as long as I believed they would actually be better in practice than their rhetoric suggested, i. e., were deceivers yet true, wise as serpents yet harmless as doves, making use of the wisdom of the children of darkness in order to let in some light. It would have been foolish for an integrationist politician at heart to espouse this notion to white voters in Georgia in 1940, for they could no more understand this crazy idea than pigs can be awed by a precious pearl.

All this has become fresh with the mess Barack Obama finds himself in dealing with his "bitter" comments and the harm Wright. has done without doing wrong to Wright. He has not been at his shining best recently. Three brief comments based on the words of Jesus and Niebuhr.

1. Before he announced his candidacy for president, he should quietly have left the Wright church. If he didn't know about the extremist comments he now denounces, why didn't he? He should have known that the mean machine of the Republicans would make a "Willie Horton" event out of it. It is the kind of thing the blood-thirsty, audience-hungry, ratings-driven media loves-- controversial, emotional, involves conflict, and can be simplified, presented visually, and repeated endlessly.

We social gospel liberals with some knowledge of black liberation theology can understand and appreciate most of what Wright said, but trying to get a sympathetic response from white audiences generally is not a challenge to undertake in a political campaign, which the media translates into simplistic, distorting thirty-second summaries. Wright seems to me to be stuck at about 1970, and Obama cannot afford to repeat that fight as a politician in 2008.

2. He should not have offered a psycho-social analysis of the working class -- a muddled one at that -- to a privileged group in private in California. Didn't he know that nothing is private any more and that his words were toxic?

3. In his press conference today (4-29) he went further in disassociating himself from Wright than before. Why didn't he do this earlier? My theory is that Obama is a man of integrity who previously tried to include in his explanations all the nuances, complexities, and ambiguities in the situation. That is fine for a professor in the classroom -- which he was -- but not in a political campaign. I wanted to see more passion and some simple statements, e. g., "I have had it with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright." He used some strong language, but he appeared calm, controlled on TV. although reporters present on the scene said he was visibly angry. In any case, he should have thrown Wright under the bus earlier -- if he wanted to maximize his chances to be president, and I, for one, earnestly want him to be.

In Plato's Myth of the Cave the freed prisoner who has escaped into the realm of light, truth, and goodness from the dark cave where he could only see fleeting shadows on the wall was not able to make them out at all after returning to the dark cave and thus faced derision from the unenlightened prisoners because the enlightened one was not as good as they were at interpreting the shadowy figures on the wall. Want to know what this Myth means? Start over with the quotations from Jesus and Niebuhr.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Obama, Bittergate, Elitism, and the Historical Debacle
The truth is that among segments of the Democratic party there is an ugly elitism. Some highly educated, culturally liberal, affluent Democrats share a disdain of ordinary, working-class folks. They are viewed as racist, sexist, homophobic, flag-waving, gun-toting, unenlightened, religiously conservative foes of abortion. Truth is not altogether absent in this mental portrait of rural, small-town Protestants and urban Catholics. But the negative attitude toward them by elitist liberals at the feeling level is distinctly "elitist." Moreover, for Christians in this camp (I have known some), this unloving outlook is utterly unattractive and sad.

The larger historical background of all this is a tragic disjunction between the economic interests of ordinary working people which inclines them toward the Democratic party and their conservative cultural, social, and religious outlook which attracts them to the Republicans. It began when Lyndon Johnson signed civil rights and voting bills and, as he said to Richard Russell, handed the South over to the Republicans for a generation.

To those who believe that justice requires equality of race, gender, and sexual orientation without discrimination and more economic equality among social classes, this split has been painful indeed. We are puzzled that there is more tolerance of the greedy rich than of cultural and religious conservative folks among working class strivers.

The Republicans, who never tire of championing the money interests of the wealthy, have cleverly managed to portray themselves as the friend of the ordinary religious, patriotic American -- factory and office workers, small farmers, lower[paying service employees, etc, who usually. get paid by the hour. Their success in this endeavor is found in the stereotypical Southern Bubba and Northern Joe Sixpack who by economic interest should be Democrats becoming Reagan "Democrats," the "angry white men," who voted for Nixon, Reagan, and Bush I and II for racial, religious, and cultural reasons. Too often devoted to cultural diversity at the neglect of economic equality, the Democrats have lost a series of elections.

The asses of the Democratic Party have aided and abetted the Republican elephants by aligning themselves with a variety of liberal interest groups whose focus is on social and cultural values that puts them at odds with the conservative, white working class, small-town, rural, ethos of religion, patriotism, and tradition that may include bias toward minorities, immigrants, and others who are different from them. At them same time the Democrats moved toward the center on economic issues, becoming so friendly to business that the economic policies they offered were less attractive than the conservative social and cultural agenda of the Republicans.

Into this pile of historical, cultural, and political manure stepped Barack Obama so clumsily and so deep that he may not be able to shake it off his boots -- and will not succeed at all if Hillary Clinton and John McCain succeed in their demagoguery. Obama's remarks to a private group of the privileged about the less privileged contained such mangled thought and such a poor choice of words that it is hard to forgive him -- he should have known better.

I think Obama in his heart of hearts is sound in his empathy and identification with all races and classes, especially the less privileged. I hope he survives, but he better wise up politically lest his awkward bowling take its place in the cast of historical failures along with Dukakis in the tank and Kerry wind surfing -- all elitists. and losers.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Health and Mortality
During the last year doctors figured out several interacting issues I had and resolved them. Now instead of seeing doctors three or four times a week, I'm seeing them three or four times a year. Two have dropped me completely. That is progress for which I am grateful. However, I still check in with my mortician frequently just to make sure I am still alive.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Dr. Pepper and Wine: The Debate
Resolved: If all the wine in the world were turned into Dr. Pepper, there would be a net gain in taste.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Deja Vu a la Clinton

Thursday, February 28, 2008

William F. Buckley, Jr. 1925-2008
He was a conservative I hated to hate. I admired his perverse perspicaciousness, his clever pleonasm, his gifted periphrasis, his polysyllabic dexterity. He had no sympathy for antisesquipedalianism. Though he was wrong on many things, he charmed you with his style. and generally was not nasty to his opponents in intellectual combat. Born to wealth, he unashamedly enjoyed its privileges. He was personally gracious to his many friends and debated others with skill and good humor. His libertarianism did allow him to denounce the futile war on illegal drugs, which was one of the few point on which I found myself in agreement. A man of many talents, including playing the harpsichord, he will be missed.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Yawn -- Nader is Running Again
Ralph Nader is right on the issues, e. g., that we live in what is dangerously close to a plutocracy and that making Medicare universal is a better plan than either Clinton or Obama offers.

The only possible justification for his candidacy is that it would actually change the political climate in ways that would make what he advocates more politically feasible in the future -- his own reason for what he is doing. Will it? I doubt it seriously. But as long as he does not prevent a Democrat from being elected, let him have his say.

Should be be allowed in the presidential debates? Only if he qualifies in enough states to make him a possible winner and the reputable polls show convincingly that at least 15% of voters intend to vote for him.

King/Queen or President?
The way Hillary and Barack are quibbling over the details of their respective health care plans, you would think they were running for Queen/King, that the day after they took office they could by royal decree enact their version into law. Any policy either of them recommended could be rejected, modified, or put aside for one Congress prefers.

So all the debate about whose plan is better is a minor point at the moment. Each has strong points, and both have weaknesses. Either plan would be a lot better than any Republican President would support. Neither is as good as simply making Medicare available to everybody.

The question before us is whether Hillary or Barack should be the Democratic nominee, and that will not be settled -- and should not be -- on the basis of which has the better plan right now. Remember: we elect Presidents not Kings or Queens.

In any rational discussion each would acknowledge the valid criticisms against what they offer and merely claim that their proposal is on the whole better than the other's and the best that can be hoped for in the current political climate. Boy, am I a dreamer!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Suddenly Feeling Ancient
I always thought that "Golden Oldies" music was the good stuff from the 40's and 50's. I just learned that radio now uses the term to refer to the 1980's! Boy, do I feel old.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Why Obama is Winning
Obama has integrated his masculine-feminine sides. In Clinton one dimension is usually behind the other, and the integrated person is seen only sporadically. We never ask who the real Obama is. We often do ask that question about Clinton.

Barack is the woman who doesn't cry. Hillary is the man who sometimes does.

Obama can be soft in speaking of uniting, working together, going beyond the old he-man politics, cooperating, overcoming the past and seeking transformative change without destruction -- all in a deep voice and preserving his manliness. He has it together in a unified package – an authentic person.

Most of the time Clinton presents herself as strong, invulnerable, experienced, smart, tough, a battle-scarred veteran who has been tested by Republican dirty tricks, i. e., the well-prepared man who is ready from day one to send the troops into battle if necessary. Moreover, too often she comes across as cool and controlled -- a persona she has worked hard to project in this man-dominated world. Even worse she frequently gives the appearance of being programmed and calculating, careful to seem on both sides of every issue, offering something for everybody in her zone of support and offending as few as possible.

Behind that John Wayne exterior is a soft, vulnerable, human being with feelings who is hurt by being disliked and who can cry. For a brief time in New Hampshire and in her closing remarks at the Austin debate last night, this side came through, and it was appealing and persuasive. In these moments she was empathetic, genuinely concerned about hurting people and ready to champion their cause.

Oh, I know about the demographics, the fund-raising, the contrast between Obama's purple poetry and Clinton's plodding prose, the organizations on the ground, Clinton fatigue, and all that other stuff the TV pundits peddle ad nauseam. All this is important, of course, but I think the decisive difference that may get him into the Oval Office and her back in her Senate office is his ability to project persistently a winsome, compelling, unified personality, whereas the face she presents most of the time is losing and the appealing face that could make her a winning candidate is seen only now and then and too late..

PS: Maureen Dowd has the same idea (NY Times, February 24) but probably didn't get it from me, though hers is cuter.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Word and Idea Stealing

Plagiarism is unacceptable. Therefore Clinton and McCain should give credit to each other when they make the same criticisms of Obama in almost the same words.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Thoughts on a Snowy Day: Happiness
Happiness: Happiness is the last day of the pledge drive on NPR. And today is the day. Pledge week on public TV and radio has been called "the fund raising equivalent of waterboarding." NY Times Magazine (February 17, 2008)