Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Mondays with Martin: City Mouse, Country Mouse

In last Sunday’s New York Times, columnist Ross Douthat proposed that we “break up the liberal city” in the United States. After a brief list of clichés about urban liberalism, Douthat gets to his point:
We should treat liberal cities the way liberals treat corporate monopolies — not as growth-enhancing assets, but as trusts that concentrate wealth and power and conspire against the public good. And instead of trying to make them a little more egalitarian with looser zoning rules and more affordable housing, we should make like Teddy Roosevelt and try to break them up.
While Douthat writes as though he his inviting America into one great happy reunion of city mouse and country mouse, there is so much wrong with his suggestion that it is difficult to know where to begin. In fact, not knowing where to begin is Douthat’s biggest problem. That is to say, his view is utterly detached from historical context.
There are reasons that we have become an increasingly urban culture, and that the same pattern of increasing urbanism has been sweeping the planet for more than a century. While the charms and conveniences (as well as the disadvantages) of urban living are readily apparent to anyone who has lived in a large metropolitan area, it’s not merely a matter of “how ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm once they’ve seen Paris?” The combination of farm technology, agriculture policy, and the digital revolution all play parts in the shift, but, in the United States at least, there are deeper cultural histories that are only partly explained by economics and technology.
I am a child of the Deep South. I grew up during the Civil Rights Movement. I came of age in the midst of a small hope christened the New South. I live now in the former capital state of the Confederacy, though most of Virginia doesn’t consider the part of the commonwealth that is in metro DC to be “real” Virginia.
I was pondering all of that and Douthat’s column yesterday morning at the King Memorial, and then on an afternoon run along a nearby bike path in Arlington. Yesterday morning was chilly and damp, but the wildly diverse crowds at MLK testified in at least eight or ten languages to one small part of the enduring draw of the city. Then the sun came out, the crowds grew, and I headed home. 
Yesterday afternoon was beautiful hereabouts, and I was far from alone in going out to enjoy it. About a mile into my run I began to take notice of others running, biking, or walking along the path. Most of them didn’t look like me.
I’ve spent enough time in “real” Virginia, “real” Kentucky, and “real” Tennessee, not to mention “real” Ohio, to know that many of my fellow bike-path denizens would feel real unsafe in those “real” places. The color of their skin, the lilt of their accents, the gender code-switching of their clothing would mark them instantly and indelibly  as outsiders.
I’ll freely admit that as one of Douthat’s liberal urban elites, my first response to his massive social engineering plan was to wonder why the onus for repairing the breach in the American commonweal seems always to fall on liberals. Is it because we clustered in cities and thus stoked working class resentment? Is it because we failed to reach out to white working class voters and thus enabled Donald Trump? Is it that we celebrated urban diversity, mocked rural culture, and called it racist? Or so some say.
Never mind that U.S. agriculture policy, dating back to the Depression era, was explicitly racist, and played a significant role in making the black farmer almost extinct. Never mind that white rural terrorists picked up the slack when race-based government policies weren’t enough to drive blacks from the land. Never mind that we treated the 80s crack epidemic in the cities as a major crime problem and responded by putting a third of young black men in prison but now we see the rural opioid epidemic as the public health crisis that it truly is -- and that the crack epidemic truly was, as well. And never mind that the Hillbilly Elegy view of rural America reduces incredibly complex social situations to anecdotes.
(Also, never mind the facts about the centralization of the contractor-driven military-intelligence-industrial complex accounting for so much of the deeply resented economic growth in metro DC since 2001. That's another blog post for another day.)
I firmly believe that the diversity of America’s great cities is their most important strength and a key driver in their dynamic economies, not to mention their cultural riches.
If we want to export that to truly economically marginal areas of the country we have to begin with an honest accounting of our history. That accounting needs to begin with confession and a commitment to restitution, for authentic welcome rests on being reconciled to one another.
If Mr. Douthat wants urban elites to meet up in small-town America he might ask around to see how many of us feel welcome there. If it’s only the straight, white, men like me who can say we are welcome then I would suggest that the problem does not lie in the cities.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Mondays with Martin: King Day Crowds and Prayers.

The confluence of Inauguration Day and the King Day holiday should be instructive. In the days just before we witness the transfer of American power, we celebrate our finest critic of that power.
Through most of his brief public life Martin Luther King, Jr. steadfastly stood apart from partisan politics, and with the exception of actively opposing Sen. Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential campaign, he avoided endorsements. That left him free to criticize leaders from either party. It also left him open to being claimed by leaders from every party.
That has been all the more true as he has become an American saint in the half century since his death. Thus it was both unexpected and unsurprising when vice president elect Mike Pence showed up at the memorial this morning.
For at least a generation, American leaders both liberal and conservative have tried to co-op Dr. King for their own purposes. While Mr. Pence did not make any public remarks at the memorial this morning, I’d bet money that if he had he would have quoted King’s line from the Dream speech longing for the day when his children would be judged “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
For many conservatives, that single line amounts to the sum total of what King stood for, and they lift up those words to buttress their claims about a color-blind society in opposition to every type of affirmative action and to every effort to champion diversity as a worthy goal. When Mr. Pence and his wife knelt in prayer at the base of the King relief, I suspect that, if he actually lifted a silent prayer, it was along the lines of encouraging the Almighty to speed up that day when all God’s children would be so judged.
I would be serious money against any suggestion that Pence was praying for the fuller realization of Dr. King’s dream. Given that he will be part of an administration headed by a man who said, in his campaign, “I’m good at war […] I love war,” I doubt that Mr. Pence was praying for the dream of a man who said, “any nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

Though Cheryl tells me I can never bet the house, it would be safe and certain to bet that the incoming vice president was not praying for the full dream of a man who told his staff (in 1966) “we are saying that something is wrong … with capitalism. … There must be better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism. Call it what you may, call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all of God’s children.”
I doubt seriously that he offered up a prayer of confession asking for God’s forgiveness for his part in the most racist presidential campaign in recent memory.
Mr. Pence was not the only person at the memorial this morning standing in need of grace. On principle, that would be all of us, for sure. Specifically, though, I’m thinking of the older middle-aged African-American gentleman wearing a clerical color beneath a t-shirt with a hate-filled message targeted at gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons. A little noodling around the Googles helped me identify the man as Minister LeRoy Swailes, whose “ministry” seems to revolve around comparing gays and lesbians to zoo animals. Minister Swailes’ t-shirt proclaimed the hate-filled message of a web site titled thirdgender666
I was at the memorial as a volunteer, and I was wearing my NSP swag, so I did not confront the man. But I did wonder (aloud to a nearby tourist) what possessed someone to think that hate speech was appropriate at the foot of a statue honoring a man who dedicated his life to love. Sadly, Mike Pence's theology seems a lot closer to that of Minister Swailes than to that of the man before whose granite-carved likeness he offered prayers.
Dr. King understood well the difficult weave of power, justice, and love. As he said toward the end of his life, “What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”
None of that happens without struggle. Power never conceded anything without a fight, as Frederick Douglas noted during the days before the Civil War. That’s something that Rep. John Lewis understands well, even if Mr. Pence’s running mate does not.
My morning was redeemed by meeting an elderly African-American woman who also understood that truth in a deeply personal way. I did not catch her name, but she told me a bit of her story. She was one of a handful of students who desegregated the DC public schools just prior to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision ruled separate but equal to be unconstitutional. A few years later, as a college student at Howard in the early 60s, she was part of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee group, and was arrested more than once in the struggle to desegregate public accommodations in the mid-Atlantic states.

John Lewis, of course, was president of SNCC in 1963 when he spoke a few minutes before Dr. King articulated his dream. Mike Pence was just a kid when Lewis and King and thousands of others were putting their lives on the line in the cause justice, freedom, equality before the law, and nonviolence as a realistic ethic for public and national life. Mr. Pence’s running mate, on the other hand, was a high school kid preparing to avoid the draft into the Vietnam era American military.
Mr. Pence has said that his decision to enter public life was inspired, in part, by Dr. King's life. I hope he stops back by during his time as vice president for more than a photo op and a quickie prayer. I hope he spends time with the words carved into the walls. They might inspire some longer, deeper praying.
My own prayer this particular week in America is pretty simple: God help us all.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Christmas 2016

Christmas letters typically look back over the year with a nostalgic sepia-toned mix of sweetness and light, but 2016 was not typical. Many of us simply want to put it behind us and hope for something better next year.
The deeply troubled state of the world challenges the Christmas proclamation that a light shines in the darkness and the darkness shall not overcome it.
I reckon that even a dumpster fire provides a light that overcomes darkness, and, even in a year that challenged the most starry-eyed optimist to find it there were some rays of light.
Actually, 2016 began full of simple joys in our little corner of it. We made it to one coast or the other five times in the first half of the year, and walking along the edge of the ocean always brings a sense of awe and wonder at the grandeur of creation.
We could all use a bit more of that, for standing in awe of something inexpressibly larger than ourselves provides perspective too often lacking in our overly wired lives. One might think that the wired nature of life these days makes it easier to share light, but that’s not the way it feels most of the time.
It’s not just me and it’s not just you. Something different is going on these days. According to a study published in the journal CyberPsychology you can discern something different in the values that predominate in television shows that kids watch these days compared to shows over the preceding half century. The researchers found that “Fame, an individualistic value, was judged the top value in the shows of 2007, up from number fifteen (out of sixteen) in most of the prior decades. In contrast, community feeling was eleventh in 2007, down from first or second place in all prior decades.”
Though the surveys on which the researchers drew hasn’t been completed for the current decade, I’m
willing to bet that the situation has only gotten worse. Perhaps that’s why most folks started their complaints about the dumpster-fire nature of 2016 as celebrity deaths started piling up, and some folks date the beginning of the end for 2016 back in April when Prince died.
The problem with celebrity culture, as noted in other research, comes when our focus on the lives of celebrities diverts our attention from life in community. People who follow celebrity culture most attentively are also the least likely to engage in community organizations and to volunteer. Virtual life replaces real life, and we wind up with a reality TV star stepping in to the most powerful office in the world.
Real life, of course, can be hard. As the wisdom of the Princess Bride reminds, “life is pain, princess; anybody who tells you otherwise is selling something.” Real life brought more than our share of pain and grief in 2016, with the unexpected death of Cheryl’s brother Dave in August, and the equally unexpected death of my sister’s husband, Terry, the Monday after Thanksgiving. Any year that includes the deaths of two brothers-in-law, each only a few years older than we are, is a dumpster-fire of a year.
Nonetheless, by the light of even a dumpster fire, we beat back the darkness and experienced more than our share of deep joy.
Hannah began her senior year of high school this fall. As one of her friends notes, not inaccurately, she’s “a freakin’ genius.” I don’t know about that, technically speaking, but she is an exceptionally bright, thoughtful young woman driven to succeed academically. She’s busy with college applications over the holiday (although, at the moment, she’s reading a book about “ferocious human beings” that seems decidedly non-academic). She keeps herself moving – literally – by running cross-country, swimming, and running track. She even consented to running a 5-mile Turkey Trot with her old man on Thanksgiving, and has signed up to join me on a 4-miler on New Year’s Eve. She was heavily motivated by the swag.
Neither of her brothers would consider such opportunities no matter what the gear giveaway included, but they will hit the disc golf links with me whenever we’re together.
That doesn’t happen as often as we’d like, of course, but we did get out to Santa Cruz to visit Bud last spring and he was in Arlington for about six weeks at the end of summer. Many discs were thrown. Bud is heading into the homestretch – that is to say, the dissertation phase – of his doctoral work. More significantly, he’s engaged! He will marry his long-time girlfriend, Monica, next fall at a Virginia winery. We are thrilled to welcome Monica (and her two adorable little dogs) to the family officially. (Unofficially, she’s been one of the crew since soon after she and Bud met at Mary Washington when they were freshmen.) 
If you’re paying attention so far you’ve noted that we’ll have a high-school graduation and a wedding in 2017. But wait! There’s more!
Martin will graduate from Virginia Commonwealth University in the spring with a BA in history. He’s pretty much loving life in Richmond, and he has also brought Delanie, another delightful member of the crew, into our lives over recent years. Martin is spending his Christmas break doing an internship in the maps division of the Library of Congress. (It pays to have a well-connected mom!) He has come home each day bubbling over about the maps he gets to study. He’s writing descriptions for items that are being digitized, and he’s spent several days this week studying Nazi-era maps of the Atlantic coast used by German U-boats. He says that it’s more than a bit unnerving to handle real documents stamped with swastikas.
Personally, I can’t think of a more important, though sadly undervalued, academic major these days than history. As Charles Taylor wrote recently in the Boston Globe we have created a “culture that equates knowledge and expertise with elitism, a culture ignorant of the history of the country it professes to love and contemptuous of the content of its founding documents.” Our collective ignorance of our own history certainly feels particularly threatening just now, and so many of our institutions designed to create and sustain an educated citizenry are debased.
Fortunately, Cheryl remains happily employed by one of the truly great American institutions. Her work at the Library of Congress continues to engage, challenge, and reward her. She works with a team of smart, thoughtful, and caring colleagues, and they do remarkable work helping educators access and use the library’s incredibly immense digital collections in classrooms across the country. She also continues to fill our home (and, often, our church) with delicious food, and keeps family (and special friends) warm and cozy with beautiful knitted socks and hats and scarves.
I receive more than my fair share of those, and I am perfectly happy with that situation. I am also quite content well into my 14th year as pastor of the wee kirk. The work is good, and the people are better. Beyond work, I spent a lot of time in 2016 writing songs and playing them on the front porch. One of these days Martin and I will commit a bunch of them to digits and share them beyond the confines of the porch. You can find a few things we’ve put up on Soundcloud.com under my name. We’ll continue our creative collaboration in 2017 as we begin the research phase of a second film project. This one is being funded by a generous grant from the Louisville Institute. Consider that a really lame teaser, and tune in to Facebook for further developments.
In an early conversation with one of the folks who will undoubtedly be featured in the project I jokingly said, “we’re going to make you famous.” I do not, actually, aspire to that at all. Fame and celebrity bring little of value to the world. I hope, instead, to share a little light, because I continue to trust that even a little light will overcome the darkness. Here’s hoping that the light that shines brightly in 2017 comes from something far more beautiful and hope-filled than a dumpster fire.
PS: have I mentioned Cheryl’s big brown eyes recently? They are the most beautiful in the world, and they usually get what they want. That is why we have a new addition for Christmas. Meet Mr. Bounce – 10 whole pounds of fluffy sweetness who, in the 24 hours he’s been with us, is living up to his name.


Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Tears and Fabric

Of the MLK quotes that have found their way into my writing over the years, these lines, from the Letter from the Birmingham City Jail, have resonated most often with my own thinking:
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. 
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about two parts of that connection and the weaving. When we were in Atlanta for my brother-in-law’s memorial we stayed with a friend on her family’s farm out near Stone Mountain. The story of the remnant 60-some acres of what was once a 600-acre farm that has been in a family since the 1940s is one of being woven together. The story of Stone Mountain itself, with its tortuous history of KKK gatherings and its weird relief of Confederate heroes, has its own inescapable network of connections.
These days the farm where we stayed boards horses, and out in the middle of one pasture stands a seismic station. It can detect an earthquake happening on the other side of the world. The stable earth we stood on in Atlanta is the same rumbling earth shaking beneath the feet of others standing half a world away.
Our friend told us about finding some unexploded ordnance from the Civil War on the farm a few years back. She had professionals come out to take care of it which they did by blowing it up. I remember watching the video on Facebook. It was impressively loud. Yet it didn’t register on the seismic monitor. The explosion scratched the surface of the earth but it didn’t cut deep enough to register at the level where we are all connected.
The war that left behind the unexploded bomb and the carvings on the nearby mountain, on the other hand, touched far deeper places.
On a community and family level, the death that had brought us to Atlanta also left a deep wound that tears at many hearts. No seismic monitor can measure the depth and breadth of this shaking (although the site meter on the blog does show that more people read the eulogy to Terry than any other single post in the more than 10 years I’ve put scribblings here.)
More than that, thought, the overwhelming response of several communities – art, music, faith, work, and family circles – takes measure of something beyond our finest instruments. We are bound together in a single garment, and whatever affects one directly affects the rest of us as the fabric of our lives is rent.

The personal is political, and these connections carry profound implications in all kinds of ways. From the straightforward reminder to hang up and drive, to take driving as the deadly serious responsibility that it is, to the reminder that a single death in Atlanta – or in Aleppo – shifts the ground beneath all our feet.