The Phantom Menace

“It’s not the way that you say it
When you do those things to me
It’s more the way that you mean it
When you tell me what will be” — Justin Hayward

My wife watched a play this week chronicling some of the goings on under Pol Pot in Cambodia. The play mixed in music in a creative way of telling the story. It essentially, followed a man who was in a rock band before the revolution and what had happened to him.

Like most productions it included plenty of literary devices we teach our students. In this case, it including foreshadowing when the band was discussing what they would do if the worst occurred. Some discussed fleeing Cambodia. Others discussed hiding in the countryside. One essentially said he was in favor of Cambodia and would fly whatever flag or do whatever was asked to get by.

As you might have predicted, he ended up doing horrible things so he could stay on the “right” side. It was a singular moment in an otherwise poignant play about a very dark time in history. It is these stand alone moments that seem to grab my attention more than anything.

One of the principle characters in the play was a math teacher and family man before he turned into the administrator of a prison camp. The prison camp ended up being more of a death camp than a prison camp. Naturally, the character justified himself by saying that he did not personally beat or kill any prisoners. The guards had done that.

Fascism never begins with the horrible. Decent people never do the horrible at the outset. They convince themselves they are for the state. They love the state. Their belief system gets coopted with the state where we start calling it “Christian nationalism” as if that’s even a thing. You either for the state or against the state, so we should be for the state.

That’s of course until the state begins to do terrible things. By then it’s too late. Decent people have begun to do very indecent things because the country demanded it. The signs were all there. Some out in the wilderness even said it was coming, but they didn’t listen. They allowed their focus to be on the team instead of the ideals that team was supposed to represent.

Orthodoxy in all of its forms is a dangerous thing. It requires strict adherence that is all-consuming until it is too late. The band mate that became a tool of the state really wasn’t a bad guy at heart. The math teacher turned monster wasn’t a bad guy to begin with. Yet, they became the very worst version of themselves. If we pay close enough attention it could be a cautionary tale for all of us.

On Orthodoxy

Orthodoxy- conforming to established doctrine especially in religion

In my last piece, I talked about the Democratic/progressive/liberal need to reach out to Christians on the left. Crazy as it might seem, they do exist. In the process, I talked about the problem of shunning religion altogether in messaging and how this alienates Christians who are otherwise progressive or at least leaning that direction.

I shared this with another site and the comments were quite revealing. They were also predictable. One could trace much of the world’s problems back to orthodoxy. When put through a religious prism, orthodoxy usually looks a lot like fundamentalism. The second definition in Webster’s dictionary lists fundamentalism as “a movement or attitude stressing strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles.

This has forever been associated with Orthodox religions. You could be talking about Orthodox Jews, Orthodox Muslims, or Orthodox Christianity. The responses demonstrate that this type of belief system has been transferred and coopted by atheism. On first blush, it makes perfect sense. Non-believers feel assaulted by believers. They feel belittled by believers. Those beliefs have been shoved down their throats for years if not decades.

These are how these things get started. You feel cornered and so you look for a group of like-minded individuals. You commensurate with them and complain about everyone else. You poke holes in the orthodoxy and poke fun at the hilarity and hypocrisy of it all. You don’t bother to notice that you have essentially become them in another dimension. Lack of belief has become as rigid and intractable as belief.

Jean Jacques Rousseau spent a great deal of time in his famous book “The Social Contract” talking about the “general will.” The idea was that there is a set of non-specific values that everyone could agree upon. Naturally, the how is always the sticking point. The other sticking point has become the source of those values. If multiple people think the same thing then what does it matter whether those values come from religious doctrine, secular humanism, or anything else? This is what orthodoxy has wrought.

There are people in this world that could care less about the general will. They know what the general will is. They know what is right and what is wrong. They know exactly what they should do. Yet, they don’t do it because it does not benefit them directly. So, the battle lines have been drawn. The final frontier is not a battle between liberals and conservatives, left and right, or Democrat and Republican.

Instead, it is a battle between those that want what is best for a majority of the people and those that want what is best for themselves. Maybe they are just selfish. Maybe they are under the influence of another power. Either way, the time for worrying about orthodoxy is long gone. In a world where there is an enemy around every corner you join with allies anywhere you can find them, orthodoxy be damned.

A Christian Nation

“Providence has given to our people the choice of their ruler, and it is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.” — Jon Jay

I have a beef with the Democratic party, progressives, and leftists. I’ve made no bones about the fact that I’m a Catholic. I also have made no bones about the fact that my Catholicism shapes my politics. I didn’t pick a church that matched my politics. While it is true that the first amendment guarantees of freedom from religion as much as it guarantees freedom of religion, there is a difference between the reality of policy and the tactics that we use to communicate those policy ideas.

This past Sunday, the gospel reading was the Sermon on the Mount. Obviously, the homily was too. The sermon on the mount was compared to Moses bringing down the ten commandments from Mt. Sinai. In Moses case, he was bringing God’s law down to the people. In Jesus’ case he was trying to lift the people up to heaven. The famous eight beatitudes are listed below:

  1. Blessed are the poor in spirit
  2. Blessed are the meek
  3. Blessed are they who mourn
  4. Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for justice
  5. Blessed are the merciful
  6. Blessed are the clean of heart
  7. Blessed are the peacemakers
  8. Blessed are they who suffer persecution for justice’ sake

If Jon Jay was right then we should be seeking leaders that embody the characteristics listed above. This is where Democratic and left wing thought slides off the rails. Many want to shun Christianity in favor of something else. This has given over Christianity and its values to the right wing and the right wing alone.

Admittedly, it is a tight rope balancing act. You can be a peacemaker, clean of heart, merciful, and hunger for justice and be no religion at all. You can do those things while being meek and suffering persecution for justice’ sake while being Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist. You can call yourself a Christian and be none of those things.

I hate to use a golf analogy, but there have been many a round that I have played that began poorly. In fact, that’s the norm these days. The road back does not begin with a string of birdies, eagles, and pars. It begins with a single shot. You execute a single shot. Then you execute another and another. When you look up, you have rebounded from your poor start.

In a similar way, our politics will not rebound overnight. A sea of performance artists and carnival barkers won’t suddenly give way to serious people with serious ideas. It starts with a single shot. It starts by asking ourselves one simple question regardless of religious affiliation or not: which candidate embodies most of the qualities above? That’s true whether it is the local school board or the presidency. That’s true whether it is the dog catcher or the governor. It’s true whether they be Republican, Democrat, or third party. Good and wise policy cannot come from bad people. There is no getting around that no matter what they call themselves.

Listen Very Closely

“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” — Howard Beale

Beale is a fictional character. He was an anchorman in the movie “Network”. In the movie. Beale asks all of the viewers to open their windows and shout out the above refrain at the same time. Referencing a fictional character and a fruitless gesture seems oddly apropos in the moment. Naturally, you are just going to have to take my word for it.

What you are looking at above the media bias chart we teach our students. See, most people naturally just assume that media sources should only be measured by where they are on a left-right scale. The more important axis is percentage of factual content provided on these programs. The lower you are on the chart, the fewer facts that get dispensed on your network.

I’m sure you noticed that the left and right axis is pretty balanced on both sides. There are more right wing sources than left wing sources when you absolutely count them out, but it’s close enough not to make a difference. It is the factual axis that is most revealing. You’ll notice all but two left to center stay above the line that denotes selective or incomplete story information. Quite a few right leaning sources fall below that. In other words, it’s not symmetrical. Both sides do not do the same thing.

We set this in the backdrop of the latest right wing hysteria piece about DirecTV dropping Newsmax from it’s channel list. The right wing noise machine has called this censorship. Sure. If anyone leaning right accidentally stumbles onto this space I want you to listen very carefully. Censorship happens when the government stifles your ability to speak. It is not happening if your boss fires you for saying something offensive. It is not happening if a social media site blocks your commentary or decides to ban you from their site. For the love of God, it is not happening when a cable company decides not to carry your channel.

If you look carefully you can find Newsmax on the site above. It exists on the far right hand wing on the chart and is one of the least accurate. It comes somewhere between OANN and Fox News. That is terrific company. Since most commentators can’t be bothered to explain this nuanced point, I will make an attempt in case you are conservative and stumbled into this space.

All media outlets are biased in some sense. There are two kinds of bias. The first kind of bias reflects the editorial judgment of the outlet. What stories do they pump up? What stories do they bury? On this level, everyone in the mainstream media deserves all of the criticism that gets hurled their way. We amp up conflict. We amp up controversy. We amp up whatever sensationalism we can for eyeballs, clicks, and advertising dollars.

The second level of bias is the kind of bias most people think of. Are you actually telling the truth? You can see the chart above as easily as I can. There simply is no equivalency here. The notion that both sides do it is not only wrong, but it is inherently dangerous. I suppose that when someone exaggerates the importance of an issue then we can consider it a form of lying. That of course depends on how cynical you want to be.

However, take a look at your chart. MSNBC and CNN are reliable sources. They exercise a ton editorial discretion in what they choose to focus on, but they generally report facts. OANN, Newsmax, and Fox News do not. I don’t subscribe to DirecTV. They can allow any channel they want and they can cut any channel they want. It’s called capitalism. Maybe conservatives can give it a try.

A Festival of Sadness

“Depression is feeling like you’ve lost something but having no clue when or where you last had it. Then one day you realize what you lost is yourself.” —Unknown

On the heels of my New Year’s resolution we come upon a few stories that have circulated over the past month. My response to these stories used to be anger. I would rant and rave about this and that to my friends. I suppose I may do some of that, but the reality is that I am just more sad than anything. There is a feeling of hopelessness that is just overwhelming.

The first story involves the all too familiar. There was yet another mass shooting this weekend involving an AR-15. So, why the sadness? Obviously any senseless and arbitrary loss of life is sad. If you aren’t sad then you are probably angry. If you are neither of those things then your humanity is slowly slipping away.

Of course, that’s not why I am sad. I’m sad because we will go through the cycle of thoughts and prayers, ringing of garments over easy access to guns, the ensuing arguments over what AR stands for in the AR-15 and whether that even matters in the question of whether anyone should own one. We will argue about whether it’s guns or mental health and of course those that argue mental health will offer absolutely zero ideas of what to do about it. Someone else will say we shouldn’t politicize this tragedy and that the time to address these things is some undeterminable time in the future. We will wait several weeks and then there will be another one almost like it.

The second story that brings sadness is the continued arguments over COVID treatment and vaccines. At this point, it is not an argument I want to participate in. Are these vaccines dangerous? Ineffective? Are the over the counter or prescribed treatments effective? These are all important questions and they are questions I don’t have answers for. I’m not a medical doctor.

It is the fact that these things are being debated in political circles at all that is the depressing thing. We have medical experts. There is a learning curve for them just like there is for us in our chosen profession. As they learn more, treatment improves. It is the same cycle for any other disease we have discovered. Politicizing science is just so damned depressing.

Finally, we get to the George Santos/Matt Gaetz/The Former Guy portion of the proceedings. I suppose we can throw in the Bidens just for fun. At this point, this shouldn’t be difficult. If you committed a crime you should go to jail. That includes the Bidens. As we know, there is no proof of a crime on their part, but that’s usually when these things break down. In these other cases we know full well. In some cases there are four or five different jurisdictions standing around and wondering if someone else will relieve them of their burden. They just hope that some court, some prosecuting attorney, or the grim reaper himself will just fix it.

Add these all up and you can hopefully see why the anger and outrage has shifted to depression. Things just seem to be getting worse. Things just seem to be hopeless. The only solution/advice I have is that paying attention only feeds the hopelessness. Maybe it is time to unplug for awhile.

Ringing in the new year

“I can be someone’s and still my own.” — Shel Silverstein

Those of you that know me know I’ve used that quote before. It is one of my personal favorites. At a certain point, we get to an age where things get to us more easily. I read that story every year to teenagers when they prepare for Confirmation. I get choked up every time I read it.

I know a lot of people that have new year’s resolutions at the ready on the first. It takes me awhile. All of this came into focus when I perused twitter and encountered yet another of those patented “I don’t understand how you could vote for…” and it occurred me that we are hearing this more and more often these days.

The obvious point is that it shuts down our collective discourse. It puts us into one side or another and determined that the other side is just a group of village idiots. So, my new year’s resolution is to raise my level of discourse. I will certainly still challenge individual members of the herd. It’s hard to avoid doing that these days, but I will do my red letter best to avoid transferring that to a whole ideology.

This brings me back to Silverstein. The line above obviously is directly related to the story it came from (“The Missing Piece”) but it is one of those rare lines that can stand on its own. As a writer I’m jealous. All of us want one of those lines at least once in our life. There was a time when I thought I could be a speech writer. Occasionally, my writing drifts that direction and when I read lines like that it stirs me to try again.

America is a unique place. It always has been. It combines the mythos of rugged individualism with a community feel where we do what we can to help each other get along. We can be someone else’s and be our own at the same time. So, our body politic must tow the line between a collectivism the rest of the world embraces and an individualism that numerous tout.

When we dial away party politics we get to a point where we each have our own personal take on where that balance rests. There used to be a day when Democrats and Republicans could set aside differences and meet in the middle of particular issues. I suppose it still happens under the rarest of circumstances. It is the ultimate difference between statespeople and performance artists.

Obviously, I’m just a teacher so my thoughts and words have little to do with what actually happens in government. However, it can impact what happens in my little corner of the world. It can impact my personal relationships. It can impact the level of angst I feel on a daily basis or my level of optimism for the future.

I can be my own and someone else’s at the same time. I can manage my own happiness and practice a certain level of autonomy while allowing others to help me whenever I need assistance. I can be that helping hand to others when they need emotional or physical support. We can collectively be our own and each other’s at the same time. We can remember that our own personal belief of where we stand on that continuum between collectivism and individuality does not define us as a human being. Our humanity must exist beyond that and so we cannot allow ourselves to get bogged down in the “I can’t understand how you can vote for….”

The disappointing thing is that we know we will. I know those words will leave my lips or get typed out on my screen. I know this. Ultimately, new year’s resolutions have to be aspiratational. We know we likely won’t reach those goals, but we have to try. We have to try to do better.

Here we go again

“I know nothing stays the same
But if you’re willing to play the game
It’s coming around again.” — Carly Simon

These get worse and worse every time you hear them. The victims get younger and younger and the shooters more and more alarming. This time it was a six year old that purposefully brought a gun to school and opened fire on his teacher. She survived the shot and hopefully will make a full recovery. Who knows if the 25 year old first grade teacher will want to teach again.

These stories involve the worst parts of our collective humanity and yet they involve incredible acts of heroism. The victim had the presence of mind to successfully get most of the class outside the classroom. When she saw that she didn’t get everyone she went back for the rest. She deserves all of the medals and honors that any of us can bestow on her.

I began teaching in 1997. I was a mere 23 year old teaching kids as old as 18 and 19. Looking back, I shudder at how inept I was. I knew the material and did the best I could to deliver it, but nothing prepared me for the challenges teachers encounter every day.

Over the years, I have had numerous successes and numerous failures. Yet, there was never a time when I seriously thought one of my students would want to hurt me. I certainly think some of my ex-students were capable of hurting others. I even had one student I worked with that was charged with murder. I’m not sure how that case is doing at this point.

No one goes into education expecting to make millions. My parents would regale us with stories about how they sold glass bottles back to the store to scrape the pennies necessary to buy groceries. Movie theatres would give them discounts and other businesses would as well. It was just understand that teachers would struggle.

This is one of those deals where people in both parties talk about how teachers should make more. Obviously, some think we get enough already. I live a comfortable life. I could complain, but I really shouldn’t and can’t with any intellectual honesty. I’m not turning down more money, but money is not the biggest area of concern.

The biggest area of concern is how a six year old can get their hands on a 9 MM handgun and why they would feel the need to shoot their teacher. The rhetorical questions have answers, but none of them are satisfying. The other area of concern is to somehow reconcile the reverence people have for teachers and yet people outside the classroom interject their values and prejudices into it. Either you trust us with your kids or you don’t.

I don’t think any kid really wants to shoot me, but I also don’t give them any reason to do it. Some teachers are more confrontational. Some teachers are more strict. That’s not my job, so I’m fortunate. Those teachers may have to be those things because it ultimately helps the kids in the end. I wouldn’t be foolish to say every teacher has the best interest of kids at heart. It’s an indefensible statement. Yet, that is the default position until proven otherwise.

We don’t need door control. We don’t need a cop in every hallway. We don’t need to wear bulletproof vests or arm the staff. What we need is common sense measures that will keep a six year old from having a 9 MM in his possession. It’s just one area where the rest of the world looks our way and scratches their head. We know what’s causing this and we know how to stop it. That’s only if we are being intellectually honest.

Just Stay out the Way

“Never interfere with an enemy while he is in the process of destroying himself.” — Napolean Bonaparte

I have a tiny piece of advice for the Democrats. Of course, you probably need more than twelve people to read your ramblings regularly in order for them to stand up and take notice. However, in case it does get out, here is my plea: just stand back and don’t say a word.

As I sit here, Kevin McCarthy has failed to gain the speakership after eleven ballots. The last time this happened (1923) the eventual speaker was elected after nine ballots. So, McCarthy has made history. Congratulations Kevin. Democrats have had their pictures taken with popcorn and thoroughly enjoying the whole spectacle. Tread lightly Democrats. The Republicans are disintegrating before our very eyes and you don’t want to be anywhere near them when they do.

No one likes a bully and no one likes someone that laughs at someone else’s misfortune. There is a time when the joke has gone on long enough and everyone wants to move on. The people see what is going on and the longer it goes on the less people need for anyone to spin it. The House of Representatives literally cannot govern until they elect a speaker and which each passing day the symbol becomes more and more emboldened.

Republicans are not interested in governing and they really can’t govern. Of course, one leads to the other, but I couldn’t tell you which one of those comes first. Think about Texas Republicans. They keep complaining about how liberals have ruined the state. They have been in power for 30 years. They’ve controlled the legislature, governor’s chair, and lieutenant governor’s chair every day this century. Yet, they blamed the power outage on renewable energy. It’s like the chef that goes to the market, buys the ingredients, preps the food, and then cooks the food blaming the meal on someone else.

They at least can seat leadership. The House can’t even do that. Democrats passed numerous bills over the past two years with narrow majorities in the House and an even Senate. During the Trump years they literally passed only one landmark piece of legislation in four years.

So, just stay out of the way. Do not call any attention to yourselves. Don’t get caught enjoying the moment too much. The American people will learn a painful lesson before too long. Republicans are not serious actors and they won’t get any serious policy ideas from them. They are performance artists, carnival barkers, and frauds. The people will see it. You don’t have to break your arm pointing it out to them.

Carnival Barker

“No man ever went broke overestimating the ignorance of the American public.” — P.T. Barnum

One of my loyal readers (one of the seven) and I engaged in a brief discussion over the antics of Skip Bayless. For those not into sports or sports commentary, Bayless has been a carnival barker for decades that essentially made it as a troll before there ever was something called the internet. Others would call them shock jocks or provocateurs.

My first introduction to Bayless was when he was on ESPN. They used to have a show called “The Sports Reporters” where heavyweight (or just heavy) journalists would come on and debate the issues of the day. The cast would run the gamut including award-winning authors Mitch Albom and Mike Lupica to Bayless and child molester Bill Conlin.

Bayless once insinuated that Troy Aikman was gay as a prominent journalist that covered the Dallas Cowboys. This was in the 1990s when there were no prominent gay athletes and very few prominently gay celebrities. Besides, it wasn’t true and even if it was a horrible way to go about breaking that sort of news.

That seems somehow fitting today as Bayless finds himself in hot water over a tweet following Damar Hamlin’s gut-wrenching injury. Hamlin is apparently doing better and hopefully will be able to leave the hospital at some point. Who knows whether he will ever resume his career and at this point that is nowhere on anyone’s radar.

Bayless’s tweet (which I will not show) appeared to question why the league was canceling the game or how they would resume the game. It appeared to show some concern for Hamlin, but was worded poorly and seemed insensitive at the time. As my friend pointed out, there was no reason to tweet that at all. No one cared about the game in that moment and most sports leagues would have handled it the exact same way. You deal with the issue at hand and worry about ramifications much later.

The point to all this is that some public servants and some commentators are desperate to be the story. There is a fine line between gaining fame by being a trusted voice to comment on the story of the day and gaining fame by being the story of the day. This yet another time when Bayless becomes the story. People are calling for him to be fired, but more will watch in the meantime. Color me surprised.

In all fairness, Bayless isn’t the only guy doing this. Stephen A. Smith is just another example of a guy that does this. Perhaps we round them all up, put them on the same show and see who can garner the most attention. That way, the rest of us can just avoid that show and listen to more thoughtful commentary.

Profiles in Mediocrity

“Do my crying and my sighing
Laugh at yesterday?” — Brian Wilson

I was having one of those discussions with my daughter. She is at the age where I’m trying to teach her some more complex concepts. A part of it is preparing her for a complex and sometimes frightening world. Another part is simply building her vocabulary. So, I had her look up “nihilism” on her phone.

Nihilism is “the belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated.” So, in other words there is no objective truth. There really is nothing of value and there are no moral absolutes. Dealing with people that truly believe this is a lonely and frightening existence. Leadership based on this isn’t really leadership at all. Yet, this is where we are.

The new Congress is trying to elect the new Speaker of the House. Candidates have to have 218 votes in order to be Speaker. Technically speaking it doesn’t even have to be a member of Congress. I suppose it could be a member of the minority party, but that would be theoretical at this point. In simplest terms, you simply keep voting until you find one.

Kevin McCarthy is supposed to be the new Speaker of the House. He has gotten as many as 201 votes in the elections from the past two days. As I write this, there have been four separate ballots and there is no speaker. This is the first time this has happened since 1923 when it took nine ballots to elect a new speaker.

Watching the modern Republican party is a real life lesson in governing philosophy. Traditional conservatives decried what became known as moral relativism. As best explained, that would be the concept that no one person’s moral compass would be superior to someone else’s. However, that is still far different than nihilism.

McCarthy’s behavior over the last few years is a perfect example. He decried the January 6th attacks until he didn’t. He opposed extremism in his own party until he didn’t. He has tried to be all things for all people and is discovering that you really can’t. Someone that will stand for nothing will fall for everything. I’m quite certain that I read that somewhere.

Ultimately there is a difference between believing there is one objective truth and believing there is one objective truth for you. There is a difference between allowing new information and life experience to change your moral compass and never having one in the first place. There is a difference between engaging other people with a different moral compass than your own and engaging someone that believes nothing.

I have said this before and I’ll say it again. This is why the Republican party is dying. Conservatism isn’t dying. Major philosophical planks can’t really die. Parties die when they have nothing at their core. Power is not a core belief. Attention is not a central tenet of any governing philosophy. Politics cannot be transactional for very long. If you stand for nothing you will fall for anything. Grab the remote and pop some popcorn. The death of a major political party is something to behold.