Saturday, June 08, 2019

Panic at Pride

swag that we didn't get to toss to the crowd
because we were running away.

Well that wasn’t on my bucket list, but I have now had that quintessential American experience: running with a panicked crowd fleeing in fear of a mass shooting.
Fortunately for the hundreds of thousands of folks at today’s Capital Pride parade the altercation that sparked the panic was not a gunman bent on mass murder, but when you see a wave of people running at you with terror in their eyes you don’t stop to inquire into the details. You run.
I was with a group of More Light Presbyterians waiting to walk in the parade. I've walked it with MLP most years since 2003, and many of those years with our kids. I was glad I didn't have young children with me tonight as we ran away from an unknown fear.
We ran several blocks down 22nd Street away from DuPont Circle until we were safely behind a garbage truck that was blocking off traffic to the parade area. A DC cop was at that check point, and she calmly told us that there was a suspect in custody and no active shooter, and would we please not run because someone might get injured.
At that point, people started checking in with friends elsewhere along the route or just hugging the folks around them grateful to be safe.
This is America in the age of easy access to high powered rapid fire weaponry. It’s a time when people gathered on a beautiful summer evening to celebrate the gift of love and diversity can be instantly reduced to a scrambling panic by reports of gunfire.
Fortunately, in this case, there was never an active shooter. But we’ve all been trained – either actually trained in schools or workplaces or trained by the experience of consuming countless news reports. We’ve been trained to believe that it could happen anywhere at any time. We’ve been trained to expect it.
The saddest part of the experience to me was that it came as no surprise. When I saw the wave of people running my direction I immediately thought, “active shooter: run.”
That is the America we have allowed to devolve all around us. It’s not the country I want to live in.
It is, however, my country. So I will do what I can to help something better come to life here. I’m posting this and making another contribution to Everytown for Gun Safety. I invite you to contribute to a gun violence prevention effort. In the name of love.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019


I checked out of Facebook for Lent and declared a “social media fast” for the season. It’s been almost a month now, and I don’t miss it nearly as much as I would miss chocolate had I been stupid enough to think that setting that aside for a season was a good idea.
It's Lent, so here's a cross.
Photo credit: Hannah Lederle-Ensign
Actually, I am glad to have set aside social media for a while. It’s opened up some space for thinking about the vast distance between creating and consuming, or, at least for pondering how I consume media and, more significantly to me, how I produce it. It’s also led me to pondering the role of the citizen in the age of social media, and evangelism.
Hm, maybe I really was spending way too much time on the book of faces.
I was, oddly enough, an earlier adopter of Facebook. I’m usually late to all the tech parties, but my volunteer work at Camp Hanover made me aware of the Facebook back when it had an article and you needed an .edu e-mail address to get on. I remember in the summer of 2005 walking into the middle of a conversation among camp staff about how many friends they had and having the whole concept of “friending” on Facebook explained to me. When the site opened to old folks in the fall of 2006 I created an account thus forever ruining it for my children, who were teens and younger at that point.
I haven’t completely stepped out of all social media this spring, but, as has become age-appropriate, Facebook is the social media site that I use the most. I’m on Twitter, but a Lenten fast from that site feels kind of like giving up standing on my head: it’s something I can do but I have never really figured out why so I don’t do it often. I may not be too old to stand on myhead, but I’m way too old for Instagram and I only use Snapchat to send silly pictures to my kids.
But in recent years I’ve spent more time on Facebook than any other single source of media, from Netflix to legacy media to news sites or podcasts. Only MASN broadcasts of Nats baseball games could come close!
So I have been interested to see how stepping out of social media would feel. Frankly, like Michael Stipe at the end of the world as we know it, I feel fine.
I do miss a couple of particular aspects of the Facebook piece of social media – pictures that friends take of cute babies or vacation vistas, the daily trip down memories lane, and the occasional laugh-out-loud cleverness of friends.
But there’s so much that I do not miss at all: the lure of arguments and the pervasive rudeness in most every vaguely political comment thread; the cynicism embedded in so much of the snarkiness; the dearth of original thought.
The last one is, as it turns out, what I miss least. It’s not that people on Facebook are not creative. I know for a fact that many of them are, and sometimes even on Facebook. It’s that most of us don’t use Facebook as a platform for sharing our creativity. Instead, most of us use it as a platform for amplifying what passes for creativity from sources that have the stamp of approval of corporate America.
That, most significantly, includes political commentary, but it also includes arts, music, religion, and creative culture more broadly. Most of us, most of the time, use Facebook reacting to or sharing content found elsewhere in spaces controlled, to varying degrees, by corporations.
This concern doesn’t even address “fake news” and those paid to spread it around, which is its own set of problems.
There’s a lot not to miss, as it turns out, but it does seem a bit strange to say I don’t miss the dearth of original thought. It’s like a double negative: I don’t miss what’s not there?
Not exactly. More accurately, I think we’re missing out on the great opportunity that social media offers.
Which is why, during this Lent, I’ve increased my use of YouTube despite proclaiming a “social media fast.”
It was honestly only after about three weeks of “social media fast” that it occurred to me that YouTube is, in fact, social media. YouTube still feels more media and less social to me. Actually, I have used the site a lot like legacy media most of the time.
It’s been a site for viewing a slice of video that doesn’t make it to prime time, or to watch slices that made it to prime time when I didn’t. That is to say, I catch up on a lot of Stephen Colbert’s monologues, which, strictly speaking, don’t actually appear in “prime time” anyway, for what that’s worth.
I also watch a fair bit of video about niche hobbies, such as disc golf and guitar playing. YouTube, in other words, has been TV for things not popular enough to get on TV, or for things I was too busy (sleeping) to catch when they “aired.” It still feels a bit like Wayne’s World if local access cable providers paid absolutely no attention to copyright.
But I’ve also used YouTube as a platform for sharing original, creative work. I’ve had a “channel” at least since middle child and I created Crooked, a documentary about the music culture of Virginia’s Crooked Road heritage route.
Late last year a tech-savvy millennial suggested using YouTube as the simplest solution to wanting to live-stream worship from the wee kirk. So we created a Clarendon Presbyterian channel and I became a televangelist. The experience with that, to date, is also way more “media” than “social” and we’ve got a grand total of 7 subscribers at the moment. Joel Osteen can no doubt feel the foundations shifting beneath his 17,000-square-foot mansion.
Creating a weekly video post, or vlog post, to use a really hideous term of art, has occupied some of the time I was spending on Facebook. Has that been a good use of the time?
I was going to say that I’d leave it to others to judge the relative value of what’s come from the time, but I actually believe that I can offer a judgement at least as accurate because the act of creating always has a value that exceeds the thing created.
So, to be sure, an audience can judge their own experience of receiving – of consuming – the thing created, but only the creator can judge the value of the experience of creating. I have no doubt that the value to me of the practice of creating short videos far outstrips the value to me of the practice of consuming content on Facebook.
And they are both “practices” – actions or activities to which I give my time, and which shape me in ways both intentional and not. The practice of posting short videos shapes me as a creator, as a thinking, as a writer. The practice of consuming content on Facebook shapes me primarily as a consumer. The platform’s algorithms are designed to do that, and they are good at it.
The practice of creating necessarily shapes me in far more productive ways.
In a democratic republic citizens are charged with creating the rules that govern the republic. “We the people, in order to create a more perfect union …” must, therefore, be creative if such a republic is to be being created in our time.
If social media matters, and clearly it does, it must matter as a location for the creative work of citizenship. That’s not the only way it matters, but it does matter in that way.
I’m not auditioning for a role in the social media police. Everyone is free to engage as they want and as they will. I’m only staking out for myself the contours of my own space amidst the whole of it. Lenten discipline, as I understand it, is not about reforming the world. It’s about reforming how one lives in it. Practices shape us, and we shape the world, but we really do have to first be the change we wish to see in the world.
When I step back in to the Facebook space I will step with the intention to use it as creatively as I am able. I’m not going to share content created by people I don’t know personally. I don’t personally know anyone whose creative products have corporate machinery behind them or who have massive markets, so it’s part of the shop local ethos. I’ll share things of value from people I value, and that will include sharing things I create myself. If I link to a think piece from the New York Times, for example, I’ll only do so in connection to a think piece of my own. After all, the purpose of think pieces is to compel thought.
This is a still from Crooked; it's compelling, so I'd share it
I will for sure continue to post pictures of things that strike me as beautiful, interesting, or humorous.
There has to be space for beauty and humor. Of course, as the late Joe Wilson, then director emeritus of the National Council for Traditional Arts, said in Crooked (the film Martin and I made a half dozen years ago), “there’s always a part of humor that’s not very funny […] the part that dehumanizes.” “Always” may overstate the case, but only slightly. Still, I believe there’s a narrow gap that good humor can aim for that lets the air out of inflated egos, points out the foibles of the self-important, and helps ground all of us in the midst of the absurdity that marks so much of life. So, I’ll try to bring non-cynical comic asides and loving smart-assery, and invite you to hold me accountable when I miss the mark.

Social media is what we make of it. When I step back into it, I'm going to try to make it better.

Monday, March 18, 2019

EPA Testimony

I haven't posted anything here for a while, and, on top of that, I'm on a "social-media fast" for Lent. Which is to say, only a tiny handful of people will ever see this. That seems perfectly appropriate, actually, because it feels a lot like testifying at the EPA. I was there this morning testifying against a proposed roll-back of mercury pollution standards. Only a tiny handful of people there -- three staffers and a couple dozen concerned citizens, to be precise -- will ever hear these words.
Nevertheless, people of faith and conviction are called to speak out on behalf of those who cannot. In the case of mercury pollution, we were speaking out on behalf of infants, who are most vulnerable to mercury poison, and fish and wildlife who, if they could speak, would tell us that we're killing them.
In any, thanks for stopping by. If you'd prefer to watch this rather than read it, I used my weekly video blog over on the church's Youtube channel to share it there. Oh, and, just because I'm on a social-media fast doesn't mean you can't share this on your own social media accounts if you feel so called.
My name is David Ensign. I am pastor of Clarendon Presbyterian Church in Arlington, Virginia.
Congress advised the EPA to limit mercury emissions back in 1990. My wife was pregnant with our first child at the time. He was a legal adult by the time EPA finalized the mercury pollution standards that the current proposals would weaken.
Mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants has decreased by 80 percent since those rules were enacted in 2011.
I come before you now mindful of the children my son, and countless other sons and daughters across the country, will be raising in the coming years and ask merely, “why would we even consider going backward on this?”
Mercury poses its greatest threat to our youngest children, who are particularly vulnerable to this toxin. We have significantly improved the health prospects of the next generation of American children through the current rules; let’s not roll back the clock on our youngest citizens.
I grew up in east Tennessee. I’ve worked in eastern Kentucky. I’ve spent countless hours researching along the crooked roads of southwestern Virginia. I have literally seen purple mountains majestic against the golden light of sunset driving down I-81 through Montgomery County. I know the beauty of both the landscapes and the people of Appalachia.
Weakening mercury pollution standards is bad for both the landscapes and the people of Appalachia. Both the land and the people who live upon it are vulnerable and threatened by mercury pollution from dirty coal-fired power plants, among the many devastations resulting from an industry that extracts resources and leaves behind blighted countryside and impoverished communities.
The great texts of my tradition call us to protect the most vulnerable of our people, and to be good stewards of the earth and all its creatures.
As the Brief Statement of Faith of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) confesses, “we violate the image of God in others and ourselves, accept lies as truth, exploit neighbor and nature, and threaten death to the planet entrusted to our care. We deserve God’s condemnation.” 
But we pray that God will act with mercy to redeem creation.
I believe God does act – even in such places as a hearing room and in the midst of routine administrative matters such as this hearing.
Even here; even now.
If we listen for the still small voice of God, speaking through the laughter of a healthy child, through the yearning voice of a young mother, through the cry of a hawk soaring above an Appalachian river – if we listen for God calling us, we will know how to respond, we will know whom to protect, we will know better than to poison our waterways; we will know better than to poison our children; we will know better than to poison our future.
Psalm 27, which we read in worship yesterday morning, begins in desolation – as if the psalmist had visited a river clogged in mercury-laden coal ash. But it ends with hope – as if the psalmist trusted us – you and me – to care for those living downstream.
“I do believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living,” the psalm proclaims.
We, too, can see that goodness if we act with compassion for those who would be hurt by the proposed roll-back in mercury pollution standards and simply say, “no.” I urge you to reject the proposed loosening of the current standards.