My church group was given the name of a needy family and a list of suggested gift items. One evening in early December, my group met at Shopko. An hour later we had filled four carts with with food, candy, staples and toys. We returned to the church where we wrapped the items and had an enjoyable evening chatting with other groups doing the same.
A couple of days before Christmas, we parked in front of the family's home. As we unloaded the gifts, I looked around. The neighborhood was humble, but clean. Christmas lights adorned most of the homes. There were two cars parked in the driveway, including a pickup truck. As we trundled our gifts toward the house, I recognized the kind of truck it was from my experience as a contractor: the father of this household was a carpet installer. A niggling question arose in my mind as we congregated at the front door. Carpet layers work hard. Very hard. But they also make a good living: around $300 a day. That's over $70,000 a year. The bag of gifts in my hand suddenly grew heavier.
The door opened and a Hispanic woman greeted us. Several children stood behind her, gawking. She spoke little English, but motioned for us to enter. As we did, I noticed the expensive marble tile on the entry floor and the well-furnished living room, complete with a large Christmas tree, already surrounded by presents. Since I speak Spanish, I told her who we were.
"Ya lo se!" she said. I know! Curious, I asked her how. "We signed up for this," she said brightly.
"Signed up?" I asked. "Where?"
"At the community center. They had a list for people who wanted Christmas and I signed up. I told them what gifts we wanted and now here you are!"
I grimaced a smile. Here was a prosperous immigrant family with their own home and two cars. There was no sign of dysfunction, trouble, or poverty here. Dad made a good living. And we were giving them Christmas because Mom had signed up for it.
I didn't say anything; my friends were not privy to my conversation with the woman. After singing a couple of carols and leaving, we bid each other goodnight. I saw the glow of happiness on the face of my friends and I was glad for them. But in the rearview mirror of my own car, I saw my face. I was angry. Angry because some feckless government bureaucrat, eager to be "of help" during the season, had institutionalized and ruined what should have been a personal, highly private charitable act, where someone sees someone in need and quietly answers that need. Instead, a sign-up sheet and a gift list was given to church groups around Salt Lake and we spent our money and time awarding someone the Christmas lottery.
Now, before you call me Scrooge, hear me out. Historically, Santa Claus did not give gifts. He kept a list of naughty and nice children and rewarded them according to their behavior. Good kids got nice gifts; bad kids got a lump of coal. Both were earned. But Santa now represents the getting of something for nothing. Giving someone a gift doesn't reinforce good behavior (being "nice") and may indeed reward bad behavior (teaching people to expect no-strings charity).
May I offer an alternative? Instead of hand-outs, let's give hand-ups. And I know some folks who do just that: OPPORTUNITY INTERNATIONAL (http://www.opportunity.org/). For over thirty-five years, OI has made small loans to help people start their own businesses. Most loans are just $60 and 98% are repaid. The money is then lent to another worthy entrepreneur. Loan recipients form "trust groups," which bring together 10 to 30 entrepreneurs who elect leaders, receive training and pledge to guarantee each other’s loans. Because the group guarantee replaces the need for collateral, credit becomes available to those previously locked out from formal financial services.When clients build businesses this way, they set monumental changes in motion. Family income rises. Children are fed and go to school. Homes are improved. Lives are changed.
How many times have you wondered when you gave the panhandler a dollar what they were going to spend it on? With OI, you direct your loan to someone who not only values it, but will repay it and that money will then bless the lives of others.
I joined OPPORTUNITY INTERNATIONAL and I urge you to do the same. For as little as $25, you can change someone's life, and then that money, once repaid, will go to work again, changing someone else's life. You can make a one-time donation or choose a regular contribution schedule. And since OI has been at it, scandal-free, for decades, you know your investment -- for that's what it is -- is actually reaching the people who need your help. You're not teaching a man to fish and then taking your tackle home with you. You're loaning him the money to buy his own fishing pole, which he will repay. And then that money will help another man buy a fishing pole for his family. And generations of families will be affected.
Originally, Santa Clause had it right. Good behavior should be rewarded. This Christmas, I urge you to fill someone's stocking with a loan; give them a gift they will in turn give to another. Truly, a gift that keeps giving.
St. Nick will be proud. No coal for you!
So when I hear people call me "anal" when referring to my non-slovenly lifestyle, I want to shout, "Off with their heads!" and send them straight to the dirty, dank, dreary dungeon: their own filthy bedroom.
First of all, there's the matter of definition. "Anal" is short for "anal retentive," which is a Freudian stage of child development when the infant's attention moves from oral to anal stimulation, where it then learns to control excretory functions. Freud theorized that children who experience conflicts during this period may develop the personality traits of orderliness, stubbornness, a compulsion for control, as well as a generalized interest in collecting, possessing, and retaining objects. Although Freud's theories on early childhood have been influential, modern research suggests that parental attitudes have a much more concrete effect on how an infant will grow up.
The key phrase here is "Freud theorized . . ."
In George Orwell's 1984, the totalitarian government pacified the populace by redefining words as their opposite meaning. War fell under the rubric of The Ministry of Peace and so on. In the real world, this tendency for the majority (or a powerful, vocal minority) to redefine previously acceptable behavior as deviant continues apace. Formerly lauded personality traits such as neatness, organization, and cleanliness, falling outside the ability or approval of the powers-that-be, are redefined as wrong and even sick. "Anal" is one such definition.
Now I'm perfectly willing to allow that the woman that lives in her tiny apartment with 35 cats is in trouble by any standard, most notably hygiene. Ditto the co-worker who sharpens all his pencils to the exact same length. No one is going to say these folks do not have issues. But to apply the term "anal" to them is incorrect and doubly so when applied to someone whose organizational and achievement skills are not extreme but merely surpass your own.
You see, we "order-freaks" are on to you slobs. We've been in your home, waiting for half an hour as you scurry around searching for your car keys. Ours we found hanging on the hook by the kitchen door, where we place them each evening as we come in from the garage after work. When you finally find the keys under a couch cushion, we're late for the movie and you wonder why we're, as my mom used to say, "fit to spit!" It's probably just as well that we are seated apart in the crowded theater; you don't want to hear for the thousandth time how your lack of organization (or dare I say consideration?) has once again made a simple evening a never-ending battle with inanimate objects from the car keys to the sitter's number, to where we parked the car, to getting napkins for the popcorn.
If cornered, you toss it off. "I'm too creative to be bothered with such mundane things!" you shout as you sort through the garbage can for your retainer. (Not too bothered, I hope, to make it to the ER for treatment for salmonella poisoning.)
You look around at my house and snort, "Does anybody live here?" as if slovenliness were a prerequisite for happiness. To a shrinking minority of us, order in our physical surroundings happily releases us from worrying whether those undies really need washing, allowing us time to ponder the wonders of nature, plot our next book, or reminisce on the good old days when cleanliness was God's next-door neighbor instead of his arch-enemy living across the street in a Silence of the Lambs basement.
But we fuss-budgets are generous sorts. We know that your life of confusion, memory loss, and disorder effectively punishes far more than we could. We know that when you smirk and label us as "anal," what you're really saying is that you're unwilling to master one of life's most basic talents: the ability to structure your world so you achieve your goals. Not my goals. Your goals.
That's too bad, because I want you to achieve your goals. I want you to experience the joy of getting there early, the self-satisfaction of finishing your homework in time to watch your favorite TV show, the pride of wearing matching socks. All that I want for you. But you've got to want it too. So start by ceasing to label the rest of us. We're not your enemies. We don't have a derogatory psycho-sexual term for your failings; to us, you're just a slob, and being a slob is not a personality disorder. It's merely a refusal to do what's next.
That's all we clean-mongers do. We do what's next. The dishes don't fill the sink because we rinse and stack. The remote doesn't get kicked into the pool because we don't take it out to the backyard in the first place. Our cavity got filled because we made the appointment with the dentist, wrote it down on the calendar taped to the fridge, and looked at it the night before as we raided the freezer for the Rocky Road, which was in there because we bought two containers, knowing that no matter what lies we tell ourselves, we're going to eat a whole half-gallon and so it's a good idea to have another one for the rest of the family.
We do what comes next and guess what: It becomes habit and soon we don't have to think about it anymore and that means we're free to think about everything else. Including what you want for Christmas. (You're paying attention now, aren't you?)
So next time you're tempted to call me "anal," remember: if you do, it will be just another reason you might not find something from me under your tree. The other is that you don't have a tree because you put off buying one until Christmas eve and they were all sold out. But that's your problem. I don't have one.
Okay, maybe one: I'm not king.
THE NATURE AND MISSION OF JESUS
I believe Jesus was mortal. He was a bodhitsatva, a soul who had mastered love over his lifetimes and was poised to transcend mortality, but instead chose to return to earth one final time, for an important purpose.
I believe Jesus’ purpose was to teach us to love. His Gospel is the shortest, straightest path to mastering love and thereby transcending mortality, which is the goal of all souls incarnated on this planet. When he says, "Come, follow me," he guarantees that if we emulate his example, we will master love and transcend mortality, just as he did.
I believe in error, not sin. Errors require correction; sin requires judgment. Because every mistake we make (willful or not) comes with an automatic, proportional, and negative consequence to our soul, when we are in error, we immediately begin the process of suffering for and learning from that error. Therefore, there is no need for an eventual judgment by God because perfectly proportional consequences are linked to the error and we instantly begin learning the connection between our error and its consequence.
I believe in individual consequences. Because each error has an immediate and proportional consequence, there is no need for a savior to "pay" for my errors. Jesus did not, and could not, die for my errors because (1) they have nothing to do with him—they are inflicted upon myself and upon other mortals, not God. I alone am solely responsible for them; (2) in the precise moment they occur, I begin suffering for them, whether I recognize it or not; and (3) it is contrary to God’s loving nature to ask or permit anyone to interfere with these natural and balanced consequences which I have caused and which accrue to me alone.
I believe Jesus is our example. Because of his transcendent status as a soul who learned all the lessons of mortality, Jesus is the ultimate example of our potential. Those who allow his perfect love to envelop them begin the personal processes of spiritual self-mastery. When that process is complete, any cosmic debt that might exist is, by definition, paid. Only the person in error and the offended person are parties to the process. There is no need or place for the suffering or forgiveness of a third party, including God and/or Jesus.
I believe that though Jesus did not suffer and die for my sins, he nevertheless died for a purpose. This purpose was to show his mastery of love and to stand as a witness of the same. By his death, he left a lasting impression on his disciples, who then took his Gospel to the world, giving all mankind the opportunity to hear, comprehend, and follow his example, if they so choose.
I believe in universal salvation. By "universal" I mean everyone, and by "salvation" I mean unhindered in progress toward godhood. There is no unpardonable sin because God is pure love and nothing, barring our own recalcitrance, can keep us from him. Our errors have profound consequences to our eternal souls, consequences which accrue immediately and proportionally. Yet once the error is comprehended and forsaken, forgiveness occurs immediately because God's love trumps judgment and we once again find ourselves on the path toward him. In this way God's plan is perfectly fair because it allows every soul unlimited progress, thereby demonstrating God’s key attribute: Love.
The preceding Articles of Faith can be condensed into the following syllogism:
Love transcends all limitations.
I am learning to love.
If I master love, I shall transcend all limitations.
* * *
Thank you for taking the time to read these very personal statements of belief. My intent in sharing them is not to offend or convince, but to encourage you to consider the foundations of your own life and then to live accordingly. For my part, I've found great solace in believing that I am an eternal soul with a potential limited only by my own desires and effort. I am grateful for the miracle of living in a benign universe with loving souls all around me who wish nothing but happiness and joy for me. When I ponder the eternities ahead of me, I sometimes grow faint and weary, but when I remember the eternities behind, I know I can do it. And that is when I know I've just heard the voice of God in my heart.
What a gift!
In this post, I will continue positing my articles of faith, this time focusing on my view of the nature of man and mortality. To me, these beliefs are logical extensions of my beliefs about God.
THE NATURE OF MAN
I believe we are eternal entities who are presently clothed mortal bodies by God. For the same reason I believe in God when I gaze up at the star-strewn night sky, I also believe my origin is from that God and that he has placed me here on this earth.
I believe in eternal progression. Because God is love and agency is eternal, nothing we do on earth can prevent us from progressing, unless we so choose. Consequentially, what we do during our moment of mortality could not possibly change the entire course of our future, given the weight, depth, and breadth of our past experiences and accomplishments, as indicated by our presence here on earth.
I believe man’s destiny is to transcend mortality. Our eternal nature is intelligence, not mortal matter. Intelligence has no gender. Our spiritual and mortal bodies may contain parts and passions, but our souls do not. The body and its experience here on earth are tools designed to teach us specific lessons and when we learn those lessons we will discard those tools and move on to the realm of pure intelligence, perfected by mortality.
I believe there is a plan designed to help us transcend mortality. There are many probations that yet await us, tests and experiences that will help us progress on our eternal path, though I do not know the form these probations will take.
I believe the purpose of our eternal progression is to become gods if we so desire. That is the ultimate definition of God’s love—that we might have all that he has or experiences.
THE NATURE OF MORTALITY
I believe the earth is perfect. Far from being a "fallen" planet, it is the ideal testing place for our mortal probation and was created to aid our eternal progress. When we pass beyond mortality, we will return to the realm of intelligence, unbound by mortal matter. The earth, as all physical things, shall pass away.
I believe God communicates with man on earth. He guides and influences us though inspiration, visitations and dreams, and through mortal guides and exemplars.
I believe in reincarnation. Each of us has lived may lives on this earth, progressing at our own rate. Mortality simply has too many lessons for one life, and God’s loving nature requires that we receive the maximum opportunity mortality can afford us so we will be prepared for the higher realms. This also explains the disparity in the quality of life and abilities across the human spectrum—the only just explanation for this is that each challenge and ability is designed to teach a valuable lesson and each lifetime has its own unique emphases. Wicked people are simply those who have not learned their life’s lessons and must continue returning to earth until they do. In contrast, those who master love will finally leave this world and move on to higher planes of existence.
Many people live out their lives unquestioningly performing a script given to them by others or by mindlessly rejecting it. Few people take the difficult step of examining what it is they truly believe and then formulating a system therefrom that guides their actions. In simple terms, writing down our beliefs -- creating our own articles of faith -- ensures that our acts are based on a coherent philosophy.
Over the next few columns, I will share my own "Articles of Faith," not to proselyte, but to encourage you to craft your own. My list of beliefs has given me great solace, peace and direction in my life. I'm certain writing your own Articles of Faith will do the same for you.
THE NATURE OF GOD
I believe in God. I have no evidence, save the stirrings of my heart when I contemplate the immensity of the universe on a starry night. Because it is human nature to anthropomorphize deity, I am not surprised that in a white male-dominated world, our image of God is that of an elder, bearded, white male god. Therefore, I use this imagery to refer to God, not because I believe God is male or even a singular entity, but for the sake of simplicity.
I believe God is progressing. Not just in power, progeny and domain, but in knowledge, experience and wisdom. If he were not, his life would be unutterably boring. Nevertheless, he is so far beyond us as to appear perfect to us.
I believe God’s power is limited. Because God is progressing, he therefore does not have unlimited power. For example, man's free will is self-existent, not granted by God, though it conceivably may be limited or expanded by him. God's own limitations do not diminish his power or authority; rather they serve as an impetus for his continuing progress, which gives his life meaning.
I believe God is perfect in character. Just as it is ignorance to ascribe limited human physical characteristics to God, so is burdening him with human personality disorders such as jealousy, anger, changeability, or a desire for retributive punishment.
I believe God’s prime characteristic is love. Therefore, he is no respecter of persons. There is no "chosen" race, gender, marital status, group identification, church or sexual orientation. It follows, then, that anyone who believes God is a respecter of persons—that he is a bigot—cannot by definition be inspired of God or speak or act in his name.
I believe God’s purpose is to help us become like him. Since, by definition, love wants what is best for the beloved, God desires that we achieve the knowledge and wisdom he has achieved.
Next time: THE NATURE OF MAN
For two thousand years Jesus' followers have struggled not only to follow his difficult invitation, but to discern exactly what "loving" your neighbor actually means. Does treating my neighbor as I'd like to be treated include buying him lunch? After all, I'd like someone to buy me lunch, and with the hundreds of people I know and whom I consider "neighbors" (in a lunch-buying kind of way), I might never have to buy my own lunch ever again. Sounds good so far.
But what happens when I have to return the favor? If everyone expected me to buy them lunch, then I'd go broke. Every day, I'd have to pony up the cost of a lunch (and I'll bet most people wouldn't consider a burrito at Taco Bell a sufficient expression of my love for them) and I'd go hungry unless someone else was feeling generous and bought me lunch. (Now Taco Bell sounds downright proletariat -- Red Lobster here we come!)
It's easy to see how "loving" your neighbor and still managing to get lunch yourself requires that your neighbor not be someone who would take advantage of your "love." That aside for the moment, this brings me to my main point: the Great Divide.
We have all heard the phrase, "The world is made up of two kinds of people . . . " and what follows is an example of a dichotomy: those who like dogs and those who don't. Those who like cats and those who cats like, etcetera.
But one of the greatest (and apparently, the most evenly split) divides these days is politics. When President Obama claims a mandate to impose his policies on America, he's really only talking about the five percentage votes by which he won. Five percent is just 1/20th of 100 percent and cannot, by any terms, be called a "mandate." But, as Rahm Emmanuel says, "Never let a crisis go to waste," and that slim five percent has become carte blanche for the Dems to completely reorder life in the good ole U.S.A.
But if the mandate is insufficient, no worries. What really gives Democrats the "right" to make these changes is their wonderful and unassailable self-image. After all, they see themselves as morally and intellectually superior to everyone else. Morally superior because they take Jesus' charge seriously: they love their neighbor so much that they want to do everything for them, not only buying them lunch, but dinner, breakfast, late night snacks, pay for their school, cash in their clunker, give them a mortgage they cannot afford, and now even guarantee inadequate and expensive healthcare. (Remember that kid who asked Obama to get him out of his McDonalds grind? Done and done! Isn't He lovely?)
This manifestation of love is, in a Democrat's mind, proof positive of his moral superiority. His intellectual superiority is assured by the term he now cloaks himself in: "Progressive." Anyone who is not progressive must be . . . well . . . regressive: a troglodyte, a throwback, a BAD person, morally as well as intellectually.
All well and good, if you accept the premise that tossing out thousands of years of history and proven cultural mores is "progressive." Of course progressives (who used to be liberals until that label became tainted by the Law of Unintended Consequences, more below) usually cite examples of their progressivism in racial terms (no matter that Lincoln was a Republican and that many southern Democrat senators voted against the Voting Rights Act of 1964), but ignore what fifty years of their loving special interest politics have done to the black community: 70% out of wedlock birth rates and nearly half of all young black men in America in jail, largely for crimes against other black men.
Nevertheless, a Democrat/former Liberal/now Progressive is unconcerned with outcomes. The Professor in Chief is all about high-minded theory and postulates. All that really matters is intent. The Law of Unintended Consequences has no force in His universe. When someone (usually a throwback Republican) points out how $3 trillion (an all-too familiar number nowadays) thrown at "poverty" over the last few decades has only made the plight of the poor worse, the Annointed One and his minions merely say, with a straight face, that if we'd spent $4 trillion, the problem would have been solved. Nanner nanner.
Of course, this is proof positive of their uncircumscribable love for their fellow man. Except for the fellowman who has to finance their limitless largesse. He's the guy who gets screwed, because Democrats always make someone else buy the world a Coke. Congressional Democrats are currently exempting themselves from their vaunted healthcare plan -- their own healthcare will not be tampered with, because the taxpayers are already footing the bill. If it's not broke, right?
So not only do Democrats believe you're too incompetent to know what you want for lunch, they want to take you out to a tony restaurant, order steak and lobster -- for both of you! -- and then expect you to pull out your wallet and pay for it, as you fawningly thank them for taking you out to lunch. And they will do this every day of your life, if you let them.
I don't think Democrats are morally and intellectually superior to Republicans. But in terms of pure chutzpah, they have no equal!
Feel the love!
Case in point: the election of the least-prepared president in the history of the country prompted millions to writhe in an ecstasy prompted by His presence and the promise of change they really, really believed in. We're now seeing that change: an unprecedented restructuring of America toward statism and away from personal responsibility.
But Tuesday's elections proved how short Obama's coattails really are, though he inexplicably remains personally popular. Why? In a previous post I posited that many white Americans voted for Obama primarily because he was black, in order to prove to themselves and others that they were not racists, which of course, proves them to be exactly that, because racism by definition includes taking race into account when judging a person. Yet these same devoted voters stayed away from the polls in droves this last week, showing the true fervency of their love for the Dear Leader.
China and India, the world's two most populous nations, decline to be bound by the sort of legislation now wending its way through the U.S. Congress in the form of "cap and trade" restrictions on CO2 emissions. These two ascendant behemoths are responsible for over one-quarter of the "poisonous" (so says the EPA) carbon dioxide emissions on the planet. English PM Gordon Brown has declared that the world has just thirty days to prevent an environmental catastrophe if the proposed Copenhagen emission standards are not adopted worldwide.
Yet facts are stubborn things. There are more polar bears now than there were fifty years ago. The world has been demonstrably cooling for the last ten years. So, "global warming" has been cynically replaced by "climate change" as the Left's latest mantra. After all, who can dispute that climate changes? A low incidence of sunspots over the last decade is ultimately responsible for the cooling, but this takes mankind out of the equation and makes his attempts to protect Mother Gaia laughably impotent. As a result, only one percent of Americans rate "climate change" at the top of their concerns. (Wages and jobs predictably hold that position.)
Western religion is in decline, while childish, tantrum-throwing Islam rises steadily, due to low birthrates in the West and high Muslim birthrates everywhere. It is only a matter of time until Islam becomes the world's dominant religion. Christianity is on the wane except in the impoverished and uneducated Third World, and then only for the most strident evangelical sects. Church attendance in America is at historically low levels and is practically nonexistent in Europe. More than half of Americans judge themselves "spiritual but not religious."
What all these events and trends have in common is this: the ardent acolytes of politics, religion, and science prove a universal and innate human search for meaning. Historically, meaning was found through the three professions: the church, medicine, and the law. All three are now in decline. Given the reprehensible behavior of so many religious leaders, who can trust someone who claims to speak for God? Doctors until recently enjoyed great respect, but the healthcare debate has revealed that their vote (e.g., the AMA on Obamacare) can be bought as cheaply as anyone else's. And no examples need be given for lawyers, who are barely more popular than Congress.
So what happens when traditional sources of meaning and purpose evaporate before our eyes? The church is passe and uninspiring, with few answers that satisfy modern believers. Politics is a cesspool of needy liars and false messiahs. Its latest incarnation, the nanny state, is insufficiently adult to inspire respect and obedience. A nanny, after all, is not a parent; she's a teenaged babysitter. Can we believe in a government that takes from those who produce and gives to those who do not? Environmentalism is supposed to be based on science, yet supercomputer models of climate change are as wrong as a pocket dog in a tutu. Mother Gaia doesn't even know we exist. What then, can we believe in? What is the next religion?
Man is a spiritual being and religion, no matter how it's clothed, is an innate expression of his spirituality. But in today's world, what religion can truly satisfy our natural need for union with the Ultimate?
When no religion is believable, will we still believe in God?
Or will we see the following headline on the cover of TIME: "We're all Nihilists Now."
In that milieu, I remembered again of the power of music and yet how easy it is to let it slip silently out of our lives. The music that moves me most is jazz, because of its heady improvisation, soaring instrumentality, and ability to envelop the listener in a moment of time that elicits meaning not through lyrics but from the unspoken and often inarticulated feelings inside the listener's heart -- an emotional journey sketched by the musician but colored in by the listener's personal reaction to the song. And when I find myself in that moment, forgotten memories recovered and given voice, I shake my head in wonder that I allow myself to exist outside that moment for so much of my day.
When I was eight years old, I was riding my bike home. They had been clearing a lemon grove for a new park, and had dug many shallow trenches for sprinkler lines. My buddies and I had been playing Army Man all day in those trenches, wearing plastic replicas of GI helmets and hurling hard green lemon hand grenades at each other like the dog faces in "Combat," our favorite TV show.
On that particular evening, tired and dirty from a day of saving the world, I was pedaling home on my red Schwinn. I had my little transistor radio rubber-banded to the gooseneck handlebars and was turning a corner when I heard my first Beatles' song: "Camp By Me Love." The tune and words were so catchy that by the second time the chorus rolled around, I knew it by heart. (Of course I found out later that it wasn't a song about a guy asking his girlfriend to go camping, but something about love being beyond price. But at that time I knew nothing about love but a lot about camping, so that's how I heard it.)
When I got home I picked out the melody on our spinet piano. I knew nothing about chords, so I just tried to find the bass note that went with each change of the melody. But within an hour I had basically figured out the song. I was ecstatic and from then on, I was a musician. I heard something on the radio and reiterated it on piano. It wasn't long before I was rearranging chords to make new songs, often using the same lyrics I'd heard on the radio, often to such tin-eared results as "Camp By Me Love." Nevertheless, by the time I finished high school, I was a fair interpreter of popular music. I formed a band with some friends and 1975 was a glorious year when Zarahemla played church dances, parties, and youth gatherings all over southern California. We even entertained unrealistic fever-dreams of a recording contract.
My best friends have always been musicians, and all of them are more talented than I. I was a sponge, soaking up information that I'd not gotten in my formal training, which ended for the most part when I entered high school and had no time for piano after classes, sports, the beach, and my job. My fellow musicians introduced me to the finer elements of music theory, culminating in the clever "mu" chord popularized by Steely Dan. When I realized that this jazz chord made their music seem at once complex and accessible, I shook my head in wonder. How can adding a second tone to a triad do that? Further, how can a melody evoke emotion?
Music brings me back in time better than any other memory aid. I remember putting Billy Joel's astonishing 52nd Street album on the turntable and dully realizing that this guy was better than Elton; after all, he wrote the lyrics and the music! I could name dozens of songs and albums that literally stand like bright signposts in the landscape of my life, often associated with people, sometimes with places, and always with powerful emotions, sometimes as a result of the song itself, sometimes as a remarkable synchronicity when a song comes on the radio that exactly mirrors what I was feeling at that exact moment. Hall & Oates' "I Can't Go For That" featured a rudimentary computerized drum sound that literally made me exclaim, "It's changing! Right now! Music is changing!" And indeed, from that moment in 1983, drum machines came on board, some would say to sad results. And I would love to argue the point, not to convince you, but to talk with you about music, which is one of the few things in life worth arguing about, because it always results in sharing, in increased appreciation for a song or band or style you didn't previously like, and a full heart. Not many conflicts result so often in large smiles, knowing nods of the head, and hearty handshakes when the argument is over.
So there I stood at the side of the stage, wearing my yellow SECURITY tee shirt, facing the audience on a Sunday evening in Deer Valley, listening to Al Jarreau sing one of his most famous tunes, his face radiant and his happy demeanor contagious. Al et al. helped me find the groove and I was right in the center, swaying slowly from side to side, eyes half open, hands behind my back, chin lifted, rhapsodic. "Mornin' mister radio/mornin' mister Cheerio/mornin' sister oriole/need I tell you everything is fine?"
The sun was setting over the pine-clad canyon wall and the grassy hillside before me was full of people, all in that same groove, heads nodding, smiles on every face. And when he sang the rising melody, "I know I can/like every man/reach out my hand/and touch the face of God!" a chill ran up my spine and tears started in my eyes. I was in it, that evanescent moment when music fulfills its greatest promise: it was drawing me closer to the Infinite.
Did I mention it was also raining at the time?
As a resident of the most conservative state, I have lamented the lack of political excitement in my own backyard, but then I went to the Board of Education meeting inaugurating a new school district which was carved out of the largest school district in Utah. Salt Lake valley is divided economically east and west. The east side is established; the west is growing. While schools are aging on the east side, new multi-million dollar state-of-the-art schools are springing up on the west side. Thus, property taxes in the Jordan School District have been high and going higher, yet most east side tax money goes to construction on the west side. East side denizens didn't like paying for schools ten miles away from the run-down schools in their own neighborhood, so last November the Canyons School District was born.
My own taxes took a jump, even as my home fell in value by almost 15%. To find out why, I attended the first Canyons school board meeting. It was interesting, and like all government-sponsored programs, expanded from the planned two hours to four. Why? Because scores of my neighbors, who appeared relaxed and agreeable before the meeting, burst into angry outbursts and shouts at the utterly stunned board members sitting before us.
The issue was simple: the Board, repeatedly patting itself on the back for its boldness and creativity, showed us an almost unintelligible PowerPoint presentation designed to inform us as to the mechanics of the new tax scheme, all of which resulted in what they proudly pointed out several times was a zero-increase budget. Oh, what a good boy am I!
Following the presentation, taxpayers each got three minutes to express their opinions. And here's where democracy fell apart. People asked, quite rightly, how the Board could be considering a tax scheme identical to the previous year when everyone in the audience was making do with less this year. The diminishing value of our properties aside, many people used their three minutes to talk of jobs lost, increasing utility expenses, and across-the-board belt tightening. They were often interrupted by applause from the sympathetic and increasingly angry crowd.
During these diatribes, the Board members sat stone-faced and unresponsive. Not a word was uttered in defense of the proposed budget and no question put to them by a taxpayer was answered. Many of them simply worked on their personal computers. Some took notes. But not one of them engaged with the petitioners or responded directly to their concerns.
At the end of more than a hour of public outrage, the time was turned over to the Board. Though they addressed some of our concerns, they spoke among themselves, not to us. It became clear that they had already made up their minds before the meeting ever began; public opinion had not swayed them in the least. At the end of their internal discussion they voted unanimously to approve the tax scheme as proposed.
In disgust, half the audience got up and left.
Then the surreal process was repeated. The CFO spoke in vague terms about budget particulars, this time sparing us his pointless PowerPoint. Public response was again allowed. I got up and asked how is it that the Board refused to respond to questions put to them in real time, by real people? They simply stared at me, saying nothing. Not even the simple, irrefutable logic of "when the pie is smaller, you cannot have the same sized piece as before," seemed to penetrate their closed minds. I closed my remarks by noting that one of the Board members had stated that 85% of their budget was tied to district salaries and benefits. Had they considered the unfortunate but clearly responsive option of reducing salaries and costs across the board or cutting administrative positions? My question was answered with silence.
In the Board discussion that followed public comment, a Board member revealed that salaries and benefits of District employees were set by state law; the Board had no power to change or alter them. So, in a school district with a budget of $200 million, the Board has the power of the purse over just $30 million.
I shook my head. What, then, were we doing there? More to the point: what was the Board doing there? What impact could they possibly have on the District other than rubber-stamping the administration's proposed budget? It seemed like high school all over again: people running for meaningless offices for no other purpose than to advance their own popularity. The budget of the Canyons School District was unanimously approved by the Board.
That's when the rest of us left.
On the way home, I reflected on what democracy has devolved to. All the elements of possible success are there: engaged people with opposing interests striving toward important goals. Yet not a single moment of true dialogue occurred during the entire four hour enterprise. People made presentations, people commented on the presentation, Board members talked among themselves and then voted as they had planned to vote all along.
This new "democracy" is no doubt designed to avoid the messiness of traditional democracy: heated discussions and angry accusations, which can result -- if people's minds are open -- in solutions to problems. So there we sat, two hundred people in the same room, and not a minute of real person-to-person communication in four hours. But from the Board's perspective, the evening had been a success: they got the budget they proposed, they heard from their constituents (though they apparently didn't listen), and the pressure in the boiling tea kettle of public anger was reduced. Success, right?
Not to the almost two hundred tax payers who attended, their taxes raised, their usable income reduced, and their opinions ignored.
One good thing came out of the evening for me: a growing feeling that democracy in America is undergoing a painful rebirth. As more and more of us attend these public gatherings and we see how ridiculous the process became while we were busy living our lives and leaving politics to politicos, we are forming new opinions about what's wrong with our country and how to fix it. We of the silent majority, who routinely solve problems in our own lives and live within our own budgets, are beginning to demand the same from our elected officials. And if the stunned, disbelieving looks on the Canyons School Board's faces are any indication, then a sleeping giant may be awakening.
You may diminish this sort of grass-roots awakening as mere Astroturf and decry it as staged and unimportant. But from what I saw last Tuesday night in Sandy, Utah, you do so at your growing peril.
P.S. The next day, a local television station quoted a District spokesman on the Board's unanimous approval of the proposed budget: "We believe it is responsible fiscal policy for Canyons constituents in a very difficult budget year. We wanted to be responsive to the needs of our public."
I kid you not.
Fortunately, Congressman Conyers, some people have read House Resolution 3200 and some of them are lawyers and here's what it means, with the page numbers and a layman's translation:
- Health benefits will be limited on an annual dollar basis (29). This means rationing.
- Instead of you, your doctor, or even your insurance provider, a government committee will decide what treatments or benefits you receive (30). Enjoy standing in line at the DMV? Then you'll love this!
- Health services must provided to everyone (50-51). "Everyone" obviously includes illegal aliens, as well as those who simply do not wish insurance coverage.
- Government will have access to your financial records to ascertain eligibility (58). The end of financial privacy.
- Union retirees and their families will receive special benefits under the plan under Section 164 (65). A sop to the Unions that elected the democrat majority. AARP also benefits, due to an exclusion specifically tailored for it.
- A national "healthcare exchange" will be established to bring private plans under government control (72). This will destroy private insurance coverage, for no private company can compete with the federal government.
- Under the Exchange, plans which do not meet certain requirements will be excluded (84). And they set the standards, excluding their competitors: private insurers.
- The Exchange will set benefit levels and limits (85). More rationing.
- "Outreach" activities will be conducted to entice people to participate in the new healthcare plan (95). Here's where ACORN and other approved NGOs come in.
- Governmental immunity applies to lawsuits regarding payments or methodology in healthcare (124). Presently, you can sue your insurer. Say goodbye to that right.
- Physicians' income will be regulated by the government, regardless of the physician's special training or abilities (127 & 241). This is akin to paying everyone in the NBA the same salary.
- Employers must automatically enroll employees into the public option plan (145). No choice of insurers.
- Employers must provide healthcare insurance for part-time employees (147). Tens of thousands of small employers will now go out of business.
- Employers who have a yearly payroll of over $400,000 who fail to enroll in an Exchange-approved plan will be be fined 8% of payroll (149). That's a small business: just 10 employees at $40,000 a year.
- Employers who have a yearly payroll between $250,000 and $400,000 who fail to enroll in an Exchange-approved plan will be fined 2%-6% of payroll (150). That's as few as five employees: Mom & Pop businesses will fold.
- Individuals (including the self-employed), who refuse to enroll in an Exchange-approved plan will be taxed 2.5% of their income (167). Zero choice, both in coverage or participation.
- Nonresident aliens who refuse to enroll in an Exchange-approved plan will not be taxed (170). But they will nevertheless receive the same healthcare as you do.
- Costs for cancer treatment will be leveled among hospitals (272). The Mayo Clinic must charge no more than any other hospital for their superior expertise.
- Physicians are limited in ownership of hospitals (317). Thousands of small and rural clinics will fold.
- "End of life" consultations are mandated (424-428). A government bureaucrat will advise you that since your healthcare is rationed, here are the ways you can die.
- The end of life consultation may result in a court order regarding life-sustaining treatment (429). The government may even order your death.
- State "family planning" services will be regulated by the federal government (774). Any hope of state sovereignty over abortion law will be terminated.
As a lawyer myself, I instantly recognized the legal-speak of the Bill, which was undoubtedly written by a liberal think-tank intent upon converting America to a socialist state. They know that healthcare "reform" is a sure-fire way to fundamentally change the American economy, making the population dependent upon the government, and thereby ensuring that those dependants will vote democrat for the foreseeable future. When over half the public learns it can vote itself free money (or free benefits), then what is to stop them from doing so? The other 49% must shoulder the cost, for as long as they choose to do so. Will Atlas shrug?
The Troubled Assets Recovery Plan (TARP), a 1500 page bill that spent close to $1 trillion, was considered too important and pressing for our representatives to read it before enacting it. The Democrat leadership in the House waived the traditional 72-hour posting requirement and required members to vote on the bill within 24 hours. Of course no one read the bill and of course it's been a great success, hasn't it?
And now, we have those same leaders in the House insisting that members of Congress not only not bother to read this bill (with many more far-reaching provisions than the TARP bill), but vote on it immediately without discussion or debate before the August recess.
Why? Because of what the Bill contains, plain and simple.
Now you know more than John Conyers. But that didn't surprise you, did it?
Published over fifty years ago, Rand's book was at first received cooly by critics and public alike. Her editor, humorist Bennet Cerf, asked her to trim the 1200 page leviathan. Rand replied, "Would you edit the Bible?"
Arrogant? Perhaps, but arrogance is often just poorly-received competence, and Atlas Shrugged is a perfect example thereof. No, people do not speak like this; Rand's characters do not so much dialogue as speechify. Indeed, John Galt's sixty page radio address near the end of the book may be the longest speech ever written or given, but it wields great power and unimpeachable authority. It is a must read, even if you cannot slog through the entire book.
Atlas Shrugged is an important book and feels especially apropos in the current political climate, where statists wearing liberal sheep's clothing are attempting to fundamentally change the American (and thus, the world) economy. Obama is often compared to FDR, both for his rhetoric and agenda. It can be safely said that the uber-nanny state Obama is attempting to impose upon us got its start as Social Security back in the 1930s, a program originally intended to help the widows and fatherless, but which has expanded (as all federal programs do) into a nationwide retirement program. And it has become the single most expensive item in the budget and is poised to bankrupt the economy, just as cradle-to-grave socialism is threatening western Europe, which is currently turning away from its destructive tenets.
Obama's healthcare "reform" has now morphed into another 1984-style double speak term: "healthcare insurance reform," and will grant the federal government unprecedented control over one third of the U.S. economy. It will be run like all government agencies, with massive bureaucracies, powerful and intractable federal employee unions, unimaginable waste, and a cut-throat competitive edge that will destroy private competition. Who competes with Medicare? No one. Who offers flood insurance in Louisiana apres Katrina? Only FEMA.
Despite its challenging length, Atlas Shrugged is a simple story. Rand's "Objectivist" philosophy divides people into three classes:
- Producers: those farsighted individuals who see a need, create a product, sell it on the open market, and reap a reward;
- Looters: those who choose not to create, but who seek to take the rewards of creation from the producers, by force, if necessary; and
- Moochers: those who use guilt and need as levers to pry profit from producers instead of producing anything themselves.
In Rand's alternate America (this is actually a science fiction novel, due to the presence of futuristic metal alloys and unprecedented energy-producing machines), producers -- tired of the ingratitude of a public that reaps the rewards of the producer's industry and effort -- decide to go on strike. (Indeed, The Strike was the working title of the book.) When the world's economy predictably comes to a grinding halt, it is left to the producers to remake the world in their image: where a man can, through his effort alone, envision, create, and profit from his labors without anyone making demands upon him.
What enrages critics of the book is that it so forcefully rails against what has become a fundamental tenet of modern capitalism: the "duty" of producers to "give back." Bill Gates has used the term; every industrial magnate has. They "give back" because they have been "lucky" and therefore the unspoken implication is that their wealth or prosperity or even their positive self-esteem is unearned. They must "disgorge their profits" for the "benefit of all." Come on, you know you've said this yourself as you write the check to the United Way.
Rand does not condemn charity; she condemns the charitable obligation imposed on producers by looters and moochers. Only producers produce; looters and moochers do not employ producers -- they rob them. The government, whose only Constitutional imperative is to protect us from foreign intervention and maintain a civil society at home, has, in Rand's philosophy, no right whatsoever to steal from producers and give to those who cannot or will not produce. Producers, by the very nature of their life's work, do an immense amount of good for the world: they invent new things, employ people to manufacture them, pay dividends to investors, provide consumers with time-saving and life-improving products, and raise the standard of living of the entire world. Society should be grateful for these people instead of condemning them or taking from them at the point of a gun (the tax code).
What do looters and moochers produce? Nothing, save bureaucracies dedicated to taking from producers and distributing to non-producers. Rand said it well in the book in a conversation between an industrialist (Hank Reardon) and a high-seas pirate (Ragnar Danneskjold):
"I'm after a man whom I want to destroy," [said Danneskjold]. "He died many centuries ago, but until the last of him is wiped out of men's minds, we will not have a decent world to live in."
Reardon looked at him blankly, not understanding.
"He was a man who robbed the rich and gave to the poor. Well, I'm the man who robs the poor and gives to the rich -- or, to be exact, the man who robs the thieving poor and gives back to the productive rich."
"What in blazes do you mean?"
"If you remember the stories you've read about me in the newspaper, before they stopped printing them, you know that I have never robbed a private ship and have never taken any private property. Nor have I ever robbed a military vessel -- because the purpose of a military fleet is to protect from violence the citizens who paid for it, which is the proper function of a government. But I have seized every loot-carrier that came within range of my guns, every government relief ship, subsidy ship, loan ship, gift ship, every vessel with a cargo of goods taken by force from some men for the unpaid, unearned benefit of others. I seized the boats that sailed under the flag of the idea which I am fighting: the idea that need is a sacred idol requiring human sacrifices -- that all of us must live with our work, our hopes, our plans, our efforts at the mercy of the moment when that knife will descend upon us -- and that the extent of our ability is the extent of our danger, so that success will bring our heads down on the block, while failure will give us the right to pull the cord. This is the horror which Robin Hood immortalized as an ideal of righteousness. It is said that he fought against the looting rulers and returned the loot to those who had been robbed, but that is not the meaning of the legend which has survived. He is remembered, not as a champion of property, but as a champion of need, not as a defender of the robbed, but as a provider of the poor. He is held to be the first man who assumed a halo of virtue by practicing charity with wealth which he did not own, by giving away goods which he had not produced, by making others pay for the luxury of his pity. He is the man who became the symbol of the idea that need, not achievement, is the source of rights, that we don't have to produce, only to want, that the earned does not belong to us, but the unearned does. He became a justification for every mediocrity who, unable to make his own living, has demanded the power to dispose of the property of his betters, by proclaiming his willingness to devote his life to his inferiors at the price of robbing his superiors. It is this foulest of creatures -- the double parasite who lives on the sores of the poor and the blood of the rich -- whom men have come to regard as a moral ideal. And this has brought us to a world where the more a man produces, the closer he comes to the loss of all his rights, until, if his ability is great enough, he becomes a rightless creature delivered as prey to any claimant -- while in order to be placed above rights, above principles, above morality, placed where anything is permitted to him, even plunder and murder, all a man has to do is to be in need. Do you wonder why the world is collapsing around us? That is what I am fighting, Mr. Reardon. Until men learn that of all human symbols, Robin Hood is the most immoral and the most contemptible, there will be no justice on earth and no way for mankind to survive."
Incendiary? Yes. Incorrect? No.
Now, lest I be misunderstood as just another greedy rich guy, I will say that I make an average living. I still get out of bed every day and I struggle to pay my bills. But unlike many, I do not blame others for my lack of wealth. I revel in their prosperity and work hard for my own. I do not begrudge the rich their riches. They employ me; no beggar ever gave me a job. And when I engage in charity, it is not only because I see a need, but because I wish to give. I receive a benefit in the transaction, a feeling of goodness, of rightness. The other's need is secondary. But above all, I give because I choose to, not because I am forced to.
Ayn Rand was prescient. One of Obama's campaign promises was to disallow the charitable tax deduction. This in itself is in line with Objectivist philosophy: the government should not reward (or punish) people for charitable giving. Giving should be its own reward. But the consequence of denial of this tax deduction will be that people will give less and the government, seeing increasing need everywhere, will do what it has always done: it will impose upon us a "charitable tax" in order to satisfy the perceived need. So charitable giving will no longer be voluntary but a requirement. After all, we're all in this together, aren't we? Mark my words.
I close with John Galt's famous words:
"I swear -- by my life and my love of it -- that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine."
If you are shocked by this statement and believe it is heartless and cruel and selfish, then you have not yet read Atlas Shrugged. You should, before it is banned by the State.
Who is John Galt? I am.
I'm not buying it. The same guys who run the Post Office now want to run healthcare. Government runs only one thing well -- the military -- and no one on earth believes they do so efficiently. Remember $40 screwdrivers?
So what is the solution? Make the evil rich pay? Okay, let's say we do. But evil rich people know how how to read the bottom line, and when something costs more than it's worth, they will stop paying for it and start living off clipping bond coupons. So there will be fewer evil rich to tax, not to mention the fact that the rest of us will be out of work because the evil rich guy will close his factory. If anything, we should lower his taxes. "If you tax something, you get less of it." Fact: tax revenues exploded under Kennedy and Reagan, when rates were lowered.
What about cost-cutting in the medical industry? Sure, let's do that. In a competitive economy, there is always an incentive to cut costs, but what do you think will happen when the government horns in? Does anyone compete with Medicare? Government-run health care ("single payor") quickly runs everyone else out of the business. So be careful when you pit the government against private enterprise, while hamstringing private enterprise with endless rules, regulations, and taxes. Government will win and private enterprise will lose. And so will you, because choice is the key to competition. No choice, no competition, no half-off Big Macs.
So what is the answer? My suggestion is so simple and so well-proven I cannot believe it is not being shouted from every rooftop in D.C: treat health insurance like car insurance!
To begin with, it must be lifestyle-tested. Your car insurance rates are dependent upon your driving. If you avoid accidents entirely (or pay for fender-benders out of your own pocket), or if the accident is not your fault, your insurance premiums stay low. In healthcare, this means that you must live a healthy life. Maybe twice a year, you go in for a check-up. They look at your triglycerides and lipids, your waist-to-height ratio, check to see if you smoke or drink or do drugs. Based on the results, your health insurance premiums are set. Live well, pay little. Live badly, pay lots.
But what about the unforseeable? If my car's steering goes out suddenly and I get in an accident, I am not held liable -- the car company is. Likewise, if I am born with a congenital defect, my insurance premiums would not be raised. It's just bad luck and would be paid for out of profits. But if I'm a hundred pounds overweight, my premium would go through the roof. Go to the mall these days and see where your health insurance dollar is being spent: at Sbarro pizza by the obscenely obese guy in sweat pants and the "What me worry?" tee shirt. Why shouldn't he pay more for his health insurance? Likewise, why should Lance Armstrong pay for his testicular cancer? Was there anything in his lifestyle that contributed to it? If not, then Lance's health insurance premiums should be the lowest on earth. I'm glad to chip in to help him because he is the textbook example of an innocent victim. But not the Sbarro guy. He deserves to pay for his own heart bypass surgery.
In keeping with personal responsibility, why should an employer pay for your health insurance? He doesn't pay to insure your car, does he? It should be your responsibility and yours alone. That way, you'll be encouraged to shop around (like you do with Geico and Allstate) to find the best deal. Stripped of the obligation to pay for your health costs, your employer might choose to pay you more, hire another worker (end of the recession, kids!), pay higher dividends to shareholders, or pocket the money himself. In any case, more money would be loosed in the economy, more goods and services would be sold, and everyone would benefit. "A rising tide lifts all boats."
Under my proposal, the government doesn't need to get into healthcare at all. Evil corporations, seeking profit, would do so, just like the dozens of evil car companies worldwide who compete to sell me an evil Honda or an evil Hundai. Evil hospitals would be more efficient, more responsive to virtuous consumer demands ("I want seatbelts with my colonoscopy, please!"), and evil investors would reap evil rewards, which they would then reinvest into the evil economy. If my evil healthcare company failed to provide me with virtuous service, I would go elsewhere. And if, by malfeasance, the evil bastards killed me, my estate would have the right to sue the stethoscope off them, just like we can do with the evil auto insurance companies.
Automobile insurance works well in America. The government isn't in it (though I'm sure they'd love to be). Using the same model, our healthcare can only improve. (Indeed, let's go one step further and privatize the post office, divvy it up between FedEx and others, and get a letter back down to a reasonable cost.)
Note the image of the cadeuses, above. Can you make out the dollar sign in the twining serpents? Doctors don't go to medical school solely to be good Samaritans -- they also go to make a good living. The result for me is good health, if I do my part. I have a high-deductible insurance plan, which gives me incentives to live a healthy life and forego skydiving. The result is my health care costs are minimal and my health is . . . well . . . maximal! And it doesn't cost you one red cent!
The only one I worry about is Ronald McDonald. He's going to have to find another line of work.
I am not talking about Iran. I am talking about Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990. When George H.W. Bush finally ordered the liberation of Kuwait, it was over so fast that everyone was stunned. They called it the "100 hour war."
Kuwait secured, our army amassed on the Iraq border. "Go get him!" I shouted at the TV. "Get the maniac who started this whole thing!" But President Bush, himself a creature of diplomacy (he had been U.S. ambassador to China) refused to do the obvious. "That is not our U.N. mandate," he said in measured tones. The Left heaved a sigh of relief ("We are not aggressors!") and the Right chucked their footwear at televisions all across America in exasperation. And so our troops came home and over the next decade, Saddam Hussein murdered more than a million of his own people before we finally removed him, at great loss of American life and treasure.
No history lesson has ever been more indelibly etched on my consciousness: When evil threatens liberty, free men must fight.
History repeats its lessons often, so even the dumbest student will eventually understand. It is doing so in Iran at this moment. A revolution not unlike our own American revolution is struggling to get traction. People are rebelling against an oppressive regime, marching in the street, using social networks to organize (twittering on the Internet instead of placing lanterns in church towers), and risking their lives.
And what does our Blatherer in Chief do? After almost a week of silence, he finally mouths a few lofty sentiments but does nothing. It is left up to individuals, including thousands of American citizens, to create ersatz servers using cell phones, so Iranians can communicate with each other. Facebook users all over the world are changing their network to Tehran, so the government doesn't know they are outside Iran and thus shut their pages down.
Yesterday, I witnessed a small, pro-Iran march in Salt Lake City. Like their Tehran counterparts, most of the marchers were college-age kids. They were clean-cut and conservative in their dress, clearly from the right side of the political spectrum; ordinary kids who came out in support of freedom, not the usual special interest politics of the Left.
And where is the Left? Where are all the people who bombarded me with e-mail about genocide in Darfur? They are silent, because while the Left is full of compassion, it has no interest in actual freedom. It wants to save the starving child but not the angry young adult. The difference is revealing: the starving child cannot survive without the do-gooder's compassion; a true revolutionary wants only the tools to secure his own freedom -- he doesn't want your compassion; he wants a gun. Thus, his needs do not coincide with the true needs of the Left, which are about obtaining feel-good, self-congratulatory mantras to intone at the next faculty mixer.
Twenty years ago, Tianenmen Square in China presented the West with the same dilemma. Should rhetoric be our only weapon against oppression? What did we do to help the protesters in that communist country? Nothing. Many died then; many are dying today in Tehran. A million died in Iraq before we finally did anything.
And this time around it's a no-brainer, because Iran is not only ready for democracy, it is almost ready to explode a nuclear device over Tel Aviv. Nuclear capability is the reason we did nothing to aid the Tianenmen Square demonstrators. North Korea (where two generations of starvation has reduced the average height to just 5'2") continues its self-annihilation because it has nuclear weapons. Why don't my friends on the Left send me e-mails about genocide in North Korea?
History repeats itself. I just wish it would shout, because we are clearly deaf.
My TV's days are numbered . . .
Tommy Lee Jones plays Hank, a retired military investigator working with small town detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron) to first find, then uncover the reason for the death of Hank's son Mike (Jonathan Tucker), a recent returnee from the Iraq war. They ultimately discover that Mike was murdered during a night on the town which included visiting a strip club, fighting in the parking lot, illegal drug use, and having sex with a hooker . . . you know, just a typical Saturday night for our enlisted men. The climactic reveal is that Mike was senselessly killed by one of his buddies, a combat comrade in Iraq, for no apparent reason. Indeed, said the perpetrator: "It could have easily been Mike killing me."
No wonder the $23 million film made less than $7 million in the U.S.
I have no problem with the film strictly as film. It is perfectly acceptable fare: a murder mystery. And I have no trouble with the military setting. People do terrible things everywhere. But why In the Valley of Elah was one of the first (and few) Hollywood films to be made about the Iraq war is inexplicable. Surely, no one on the Left is asserting that more than a minscule proportion of our soldiers are murderous sociopaths. No, what they're really saying is that war, especially war the way America fights it, turns decent young men like Mike into sociopaths; in other words, we're creating a whole generation of brutal murderers.
This is the "Gitmo creates terrorists" argument, for which, statistically, there is absolutely no evidence. But lack of evidence never deters a true believer. In fact, lack of evidence gives rise to a leap of faith, which is the staple of under-informed, emotionally-oriented people. "I care! Isn't that enough?" they seem to shout when contrary facts arise.
No, it isn't enough. Accuracy would also be nice. And lest anyone reject my assertion that this film is anti-American, how else do you explain the final shot, where Hank raises a weathered American flag upside down, a universal sign of distress. With this image, the filmmakers are saying America is in trouble because of the way we fight wars; we are destroying the young men and women in our military. This is also an age-old Leftist canard: soldiers are victims. (Ignore the fact that our military is 100% voluntary.) In one scene (I love how filmmakers reveal their own motivation as well as their characters'), Hank's wife Joan (uber-Leftie Susan Sarandon), chides him for his military background, saying their son Mike joined up because he was raised in Hank's home; he literally had no choice. So not only are soldiers victims, they were brainwashed into being such.
To recap, this is Hollywood's view of the military and America's foreign policy: Evil engagements abroad (always for ultimately nefarious reasons, e.g. "blood for oil!"); CYA coverups by the military (the liaison, Lt. Kirklander (Jason Patric) is an unlikeable, insensitive company man); immoral behavior by our troops (the inciting incident in the film, which drove Mike "crazy" was his hitting a child on an Iraqi street with his Hummer, because there were standing "orders" to never stop a convoy for a pedestrian because that usually set them up for an ambush (sounds like a good policy to me), yet Mike never swerved or hit the horn; he just roared straight ahead, killing the child); illegal drug use, drunken fighting, consorting with hookers and murder being de rigeur behavior of soldiers on leave; yet these same soldiers are credulous children, victims of over-zealous, gung-ho parents and the corrupt militaristic American culture, which put them in the position where they have no choice: they simply must become sociopaths.
If this is the sort of film Hollywood makes to mark the Iraqi war (a war which, by the way, has been, for all intents and purposes, soundly won), then the upside-down flag is indeed apropos. But instead of the local VFW post, it should be flown over the Kodak Theater where they hold the Academy Awards.
When I was growing up in the California surf culture of the 1970s, the label phenomenon was still in its infancy. Labels were small and discrete, like the tiny penguin logo on a polo shirt or the Levis "V" pocket stitching. But when no one complained; indeed, when everyone began proudly wearing these instant status-confirmations, the logos got larger and larger until now, the American Eagle logo fills the entire shirt. Recently, it has become so large they had to shorten "American" to "Am" just to fit it in. And justly so, for how are they going to sell a shirt outside of the USA if it proudly (and loudly) proclaims it's from America?
I watch this walking billboard phenomenon everywhere I go and it makes me sad. Combine it with the multiple piercings (and I mean everywhere!) and tattoos (ditto), and I can only be dismayed at the apparent lack of self-esteem so many people must have. Don't they know that individuality is a function of what's inside them? What they think; what they believe; what they do, is what actually differentiates a person from the crowd, not what they wear, how they cut their hair, pierce their ears, or what corporate logo they plaster across their chest.
Of course, I can understand why children like labels: it makes them feel safe. After all, one of the hallmarks of childhood (especially the teen years) is the need to fit in. I remember the "uniform" I wore as a teen: deep-pocketed corduroy shorts, horizontal-striped long-sleeved t-shirts, zorries (thongs), and long hair cut in the surfer style. I look at pictures of myself from those days and shake my head. Yet the labels I wore were the clothes, not the words on the clothes. But was there a difference, so long as we all wore the same uniform? Not really.
But I was a child then; now I am an adult and I've put away labels as much as possible. I buy most of my generic clothing at Costco. Even my tennis shoes are non-descript; I haven't worn a pair of Nikes in . . . I would have to say . . . forever. To me, no pair of tennis shoes is worth more than $25 unless they can actually make me dunk like Michael Jordan.
But everywhere I look, I see adults emulating their children, though the labels get more expensive as we grow older. My first car was a VW beetle, an icon in its own right. I proudly drove my surf rack-festooned bug to the beach and back for years. For some time in the 1990s, I had a BMW 5 series sedan, which I babied. But at heart, I'm a truck guy and one day when I went into the garage, I noticed my precious Beemer was layered with a coat of dust. I hadn't driven it in a couple of weeks. I promptly sold it. I was done with labels, I guess.
Now I drive a nondescript truck. I removed the dealer logo from the tailgate and chucked the license plate frames. If I could get the Toyota sombrero logo off it, I would, but it's molded into the front grill.
If we must wear labels, wouldn't it be fascinating if we were required to wear labels that described the person we actually are? Imagine walking around the mall wearing a "Grouchy Bigot" T-shirt. (Okay, I've actually seen that one.) But what about "Zero Self-Esteem" tank top revealing all those tattoos? Or "No Time To Work Out, But Plenty of Time To Pierce My Ears" women's tops in XXL sizes?
I would hate to see the shirt I would have to wear.
There's one I hope would apply to me; one I would proudly wear: "The only limitation is your imagination."
Imagine yourself in the Colisseum, like in the movie Gladiator. You are standing in the middle of the arena. Thousands of people are in the stands, watching to see what will happen next. Will you make the right choice? Or will you fail? Some of the spectators wish you ill; others hope you will make the right choice; but the vast majority are indifferent to your plight. And no one is down on the field of battle with you. You are alone; only you can make these important decisions.
You look around at your options. A tall wall surrounds the circular field upon which you stand. At regular intervals, all along that curving wall encompassing your life, are doorways. When you were born, almost all the doors were open to you, though some were already shut. For example, I was born a man and the "female" doorway was closed to me at birth. But the “male” doorway was open and on the other side of it were -- and are -- many great opportunities. The same is true of all the other doors. Take a minute and think about all the doors that were opened to you when you were born. The choices were almost limitless.
And though there were some doors closed to you at birth, they are not necessarily destined to remain so. Knowing how to drive a car is one example. Through your hard work and diligence, you opened that door yourself. I know it's not lost on you how many opportunities come to us as a result of knowing how to drive.
So consider for a moment how many doors are open to us, or remain closed to us, or that we deliberately shut ourselves, depending upon our choices.
My philosophy has always been to keep as many doors open as possible, and pry others open if I can, thus adding to the options of my life. For that reason I went to law school, though I never really wanted to practice law. I just wanted to know what lawyers know (which is, quite simply, how the world works), and now I do. That door remains open to me and is a great benefit when it comes to understanding current events and politics.
I find it amazing that at people in their twenties are expected to make decisions that will continue to be valid for the rest of their lives. I find this premise sad and untenable. Not that you should put off some of these decisions (career, marriage, etc.), but before making any life-changing decision you should remember the importance of that decision and make it in an informed manner. A proper education will make your decision much easier.
Though you are a graduate today, you have really just began your real education. It does not matter the extent of your formal training, what matters is that you make learning a priority and a habit in your life. That will keep more doors -- and more opportunities -- open to you than anything else I know of.
This is my gift to you on this important occasion. Good luck!
Today, I will do a little prophesying myself. First, my bonafides: I am an internationally-published author whose books deal with spiritual and social themes. I am interested in the state of the heart and soul, and I have spent most of my adult life examining and pondering our culture and times, and then writing about them.
Over the past three months I've been promoting a new book in Costco and Sam's Club stores, where people buy everything from turkeys to televisions. And not a few books. My signing table is usually set up at the end of the book aisle, a great placement, as most shoppers pass me as they head for the food section. Behind me, in recent weeks, are pallets of Stephanie Meyer's four-volume hardbound "Twilight" series, priced at $45, a stiff price to be sure, but a steal when the suggested retail is $75. It's a steal all right, but I fear the theft is of the virtue and judgment of the largely female readership of these popular books.
The author, Stephanie Meyer, is following in J.K. Rowling's footsteps: an instant millionairess, having sold 40 million copies of the books worldwide. But Rowling's appeal was limited largely to young boys, while Meyer's Bella Swan is obviously designed to balance the equation and draw in young girls. Bella is a young, chaste girl who falls in love with a vampire, who acts as not only the object of her romantic yearnings, but as her protector and savior.
Vampirism, from its inception, has always had obvious sexual connotations. The drawing the blood of a docile or sleeping female through a "kiss" on the neck by a powerful male results in her falling under the vampire's thrall, and her own soul is now drawn into the darkness of murder and mayhem that delimits the vampire existence.
But not Twilight. In this artful remaking of the myth, the vampire (Edward Cullen) drinks only animal blood and so he's "safe" for Bella. This, of course, is another sexual euphemism: Ed and Bella don't go "all the way." Bella has no idea what Edward does outside of her presence beyond his assurances that he drinks only animal blood, and, like the young girl she is, she naively believes him. Of course, in the end, their "love" is consummated, as "love" always is. But it's done so cleverly that the readership -- primarily, pubescent girls and their mothers -- see it as "love" and not an act of sexual violence, as vampirism always is.
Perplexed by the books literally flying off the shelf behind me, I asked a woman in her mid-forties what her take was on the phenomenon. She said her two teenaged daughters read the series, and so she read it as well, "to get an idea what was going on." She looked thoughtful for a moment, then smiled: "I think it's a bit of the 'bad boy' thing . . . women are attracted to the bad boy. And since the young vampire doesn't drink human blood, he's not really that bad, is he? Plus, he's nicer to her than the mortal boys her age."
So here was a woman who seemed, for all intents and purposes, to be a good mother who was involved in her daughters' lives to such an extent that she even reads the same books they do. But she saw nothing wrong with vampirism, so long as Edward didn't murder (read: rape) Bella. And since Edward is "nicer" to Bella than the troglodytes on campus, Bella can be excused for succumbing to Edward's charms.
Horrified, I reflected on the state of parenting in the world today. Instead of guiding children toward literature that uplifts and instructs, parents now join their children in reading not only childish and soul-destroying books, but they assuage any resulting guilt by actually believing they are "involved" in their children's lives . . . that they are "sharing" something.
Something like a needle, I think.
But it's been thus for years. The Harry Potter phenomenon was no different. This children's book was also read widely by adults, who, fleeing the increasingly unacceptable violence and language of "adult" fare, retreated into the safe world of a child's story about magic. That itself is not alarming; most people understand that magic is pure fantasy. But the subtextual messages of Harry Potter are what concern me. Unlike the time-honored "hero's journey" of literary tradition going all the way back to Odysseus, Harry Potter was a new kind of hero: he started out a hero and shows little true emotional growth throughout the books. His in-born talents are apparent the first time he stretches out his hand and the broom pops up from the ground. He's a natural! Of course he is, his parents were remarkable wizards themselves -- it's genetic! Throughout the books, people meet Harry and exclaim, "My God! You're Harry Potter!" as if that explains everything about the lad. He simply has to "discover" his talent and use it. No growth (besides puberty) is thrust upon Harry. He is destined to be a great wizard because he already is.
I find this lack of personal development in a protagonist alarming. Our own lives are nothing but challenges that reveal our character; challenges that make us stretch and grow. But Harry is already a great wizard, and, magically, he will show himself to be such. This kind of magical thinking might save Harry's life in the books, but it's death for us in the real world. We mere muggles are doomed to have to learn and grow, to actually mold ourselves into something worthwhile. Our birthright is a mere potential; it's not an exclamation of divine right.
But it doesn't stop there: George Lucas, off to such a stirring start in the first three Star Wars movies, completely destroyed the Force itself when, in the fourth film, Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn informs Anakin's mother that tiny, microscopic organism -- mitoclorians -- are the real source of the Force, and Anakin has a remarkable concentration of them in his blood! No wonder he's going to grow up to be Darth Vader! It's inevitable!
So instead of Luke Skywalker's journey toward adulthood and heroism, where he grows by fits and starts, unable to prevent the remote from zapping him when he has the blast shield on his helmet lowered or failing to see Darth Vader in himself in the Dagobah cave, his father Anakin comes out of the womb fully prepared to be a Jedi Master and later, Darth Vader. Of course, those darned mitoclorians. Too bad I don't have any in my blood.
These shortcuts to power (Harry Potter and Anakin Skywalker) are dangerous lessons to teach our children, for those of us not living in the fantasy world of books and movies know there is nothing more crucial to success in life than achieving -- through our own blood, sweat, and tears -- actual competence, whether it be our ability with a light saber or a magic wand. (And thus far, no one I know on this planet has any talent with either!)
To the mix of incompetent arrested-adolescent adult males spawned by Rowling and Lucas, Stephanie Meyer is now adding young women infected with the dangerous notion that it's okay to date the Edward Cullens of the world, so long as he doesn't drink their blood. What Twilight says about sex is obvious to any girl who has ever been in the backseat with a boy: "It's okay," he coos, "we won't go all the way." What he's really saying is that they won't go all the way tonight. But eventually they will, and it will be she who bears the consequences of his "love": destroyed self-esteem, STDs, and perhaps even pregnancy, while he finds another victim down the road. More and more Bella Swans of the world will be left behind with shattered lives. Good job, Stef.
Congratulations, Mom, on reading Twilight with your daughter. When she turns thirteen, maybe you two can get matching tattoos.
Just call me "Cassandra."