Wednesday, February 27, 2008

I swear I've seen this before...

For those that have been around me for the last four or five months, it is clear to see two things:

  1. The original slate of Democratic candidates for president was as strong as the Republicans’ was weak.
  2. Barack Obama is clearly the best candidate (though I still have a soft spot for John Edwards).

This has remained unchanged, even as we have whittled the candidates down to four.

At the same time, something else has transpired: those inevitable discussions of inevitability.

You know the ones.

The book on the Democrats is that they have two perpetual “problems”, as the conventional wisdom suggests:

  1. The coalition of constituents is too broad and will inevitably break down.
  2. The party, regardless of the quality of the candidate, will find a way to lose/blow its lead/self-destruct, etc..

Clearly, both of these “wisdoms” are ridiculous and unscientific. I will briefly address the former, but my main interest is in the latter—and you will soon see why.

The “too” broad coalition is made up of women, racial minorities, homosexuals, the wealthy, the middle-class, the poor, workers, unions, teachers, doctors, lawyers, scientists, Vatican II Catholics, Mainline Protestants, the college educated, the greens, and internationalists, whereas the Republicans have made their bed with CEOs, Xenephobes, and fundamentalists. Our diversity is clearly an asset. Neither of these camps could properly be described as homogeneous. The difference is this: the Republican Party has built two things up in place of homogeneity: K-Street and the simple message that taxes are to be seen with the same condemnation they reserve for abortion (and ‘the gays’). That’s it. The heart of the Republican message is that taxes and health care are evil. The ‘fracturous’ Democratic Party is not too broad a coalition—it is not allowed to stay on message the way Republicans are.

Now the other.

The Democrats didn’t blow the 2000 and 2004 elections any more than they won 1992 and 1996. The party is not wholly responsible for one candidate’s victory and another’s defeat. The fact is that Bill Clinton was a savvy campaigner despite his staff. Al Gore had the world’s dumbest staff (the Clintonistas) many of which also served on John Kerry’s staff. They encouraged a platform of playing not to lose. It’s like this (beware the sports metaphor): You take a three point lead into halftime and come out in the second half in your “prevent” defense*. It’s your own fault that you lose!

[*a prevent defense allows the opposing offense to move the ball freely without giving up a big play—fine with 30 seconds left in the game and 80 yards to defend, but horrible at ANY other time in the game. It is the ultimate playing-not-to-lose play.]

Besides, the Democrats didn’t ‘lose’ those elections any more than the Republicans ‘won’ them (remember Florida?—and Ohio was even worse).

Take a quick look back at what is increasingly looking like the ‘good ol’ days’ (pre-Reagan). In 1976, with a Congress that had been firmly entrenched with Democrats for decades, a young man from Planes, Georgia upset the preferred Democrats in the primaries and won the White House. He was a man of optimism, common sense, and was looking to better the country. Jimmy Carter took office with a huge party majority in Congress. However, his presence was blasphemous to the party leadership, led by the lion of the Senate, Ted Kennedy. They stonewalled Carter as if they were the opposition party and pushed him around. It is seen now as either petty infighting or party hubris, depending on how you see Ronald Reagan, but I don’t agree with either assessment. Carter was a different kind of Democrat, and he came to power in a pre-Party-Discipline Era. Kennedy didn’t trust him. And that served as the party’s big mistake, as it opened the door for Reagan’s landslide in 1980.

But look at this campaign season. Think about the two top Democrats. Think about Senator Clinton’s drop from favorite to also-ran. Think about former Pres. Clinton’s remarks about Obama in January. Look at the desperate attempts to erode support for Sen. Obama. Think about the reports we hear from the Clinton Camp in which they “really don’t trust him” and think that he is a “stuffed shirt without substance”. Remember what I said about the Clinton staff that ‘helped’ in 2000 and 2004? Notice how that same staff is operating in 2008?

My fear isn’t that “the Democrats will blow it” but rather that this one group of Democrats, that served as outsiders and new blood in 1992 have over-indulged on the red Kool-aid and are about to play the spoiler role in this election. Who cares about Ralph Nader, hanging chads, and Republicans counting ballots, Sen. Hillary Clinton can easily make it so that a Democrat will not win the 2008 election. The more desperate she becomes, the more her aging Baby Boomer old guard lob live grenades at the Obama camp, the more likely the election devolves into a morass that looks more like the Iraqi “election” than 1996’s (the last seemingly ‘clean’ one).

With the presumptive candidates as Senators Obama and McCain, we have the opportunity for the first substantive, issues-oriented, hopeful, and unifying election in decades. Sen. Clinton, please don’t destroy it like a suicide bomber.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Is the sky falling or has a new day dawned?

I am in the interesting position here in the Diocese of Western Michigan to afford a culture shock that I have never had before. I grew up in Alpena, then moved to Midland and attended Holy Family, and became a postulant in the Diocese of Eastern Michigan—my home diocese since its creation in 1994. I went to seminary at Huron University College in London, Ontario, serving as one of the few American ‘outsiders’ before returning to the States permanently last spring. Now that I am in Western Michigan, I have found a new, unexpected outsider status. No, it isn’t simply my ‘foreign’ seminary experience or my different diocese that separates me. It’s that everyone seems to have gone to Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Evanston Illinois. My Fresh Start group had five Seabury grads (out of seven of us). A recent dinner out with another couple of Gen X clergy was with two Seabury grads.

I normally don’t notice this, and as you can expect, I have come to expect being the outsider, but there was something different about it this past week: the recent announcement of the end of the traditional 3-year residential MDiv from Seabury. Our lunch on Thursday and my dinner on Friday were dominated by this discussion. Of course, I hadn’t read the statement published by the dean on Wednesday (2/20) or the article in Episcopal Life from Friday (2/22), but I missed out on the anguish and sorrow that they feel. It is that feeling of the end of legacy and of tectonic shifts that uproot those that long for the grounding of their seminary experience. I couldn’t share in that experience.

But from the statement itself, and the reaction from the deans at General and Church Divinity School of the Pacific, it appears that Seabury is not making a huge mistake in eliminating its moneymaker, but is perhaps jumping the shark.

In the opening paragraph, The Very Reverend Gary R. Hall, dean of Seabury-Western, suggests that:

There are, first, enormously creative opportunities facing seminaries today. Many areas of the church are developing new ways both of doing and preparing for ministry. And multiple church groups continue to call for a new range of educational services from our institutions of theological education: continuing education for clergy, lay education, distance learning, and consulting services for congregations and dioceses.

He continues in the second paragraph by stating:

At the same time, all the seminaries of the Episcopal Church face real economic and missional challenges. The stand-alone residential model developed in the nineteenth century is becoming unsustainable for most of our institutions. Bishops, congregations, and seminarians have fewer resources to allot to the education of seminarians. And the cost of theological education has resulted in an unprecedented level of student debt.

The dean suggests (in vague terms) that there are three major aspects to consider for the long-term future of seminary-led education in the Episcopal Church (as in every other church):

  1. The current model is not sustainable and has not been sustainable (i.e. we can’t afford it today and won’t be able to afford it tomorrow).
  2. The current model is not cost effective for postulants or dioceses and it may be deterring participation in seminary education.
  3. At the same time, there are opportunities for new models of education that require the tools that Seabury can offer.

It would be easy to think that this is a ploy to get more money or is Chicken-Littleism run amok. You could hear the words “consulting services” and rightly worry that Seabury will slip from being a prominent seminary possessing a storied history into the morass of those independent spiritual organizations or to become a Political Action Committee or think tank, like those that line K-Street in D.C. I wouldn’t go there yet.

Perhaps none of us really knows what Seabury is starting to do and what they are about to come. Perhaps they themselves don’t know, but they are willing to test it out.

The simple truth is that our traditional understanding of congregational ministry is failing and our traditional understanding of diocesan structure is failing. It only seems reasonable, therefore, that our means of educating clergy would also be failing. With dioceses paying less and less of the tuition, this training that we so esteem is clearly becoming much less of an option. Throw in the effects on uprooting families (or splitting families apart for three years, perhaps including two summers), and the potential for traditional seminary training seem to be an increasing disadvantage for those with aspirations to ministry.

At the same time, many of our local dioceses are currently ill-equipped to do the training necessary to form our clergy in the way seminaries can. And speaking as a recent seminary graduate, Huron formed me in a completely different (and I think better) way than my supporting diocese would have (this isn’t a knock on Eastern Michigan, but a fist pump for Huron). Not to mention that the business of church will no doubt produce businesspeople, little priestly CEOs if you will, in place of the scholarly-trained clergy that we seem to want.

So here is what I think Seabury should do to change the model:

  • They should encourage a radically new way of thinking of seminary-led training: out of a more monastic, residential theological training within an institution that reinforces an academic response to scripture: but to isolate the academic study from the seminary experience. It is, perhaps, an opportunity to take responsibility for the academic work of the education (perhaps through summer courses, independent studies, and consultation with individual dioceses) while shifting the field education and priestly training to the dioceses. This would lead to training that is directly related to the needs of the diocese and would allow for local accommodation that might encourage aspirants to ordination to eliminate the move to seminary and then the move to the first cure.
  • This may also be able to enhance the training of mutual ministry support teams or total ministry teams. Giving some of these groups more exposure to seminary training, and bringing them up to appreciable, potentially universal standards.
  • This would also encourage interested dioceses (most likely those from Province V) to not only collaborate in the education of the postulants, but would encourage a new education framework that could become not only more cost-effective, but would encourage more education for diocesan clergy through the expansion of diocesan examining chaplains.
  • Further, the developed framework may lead to greater collaboration between neighboring dioceses within the Province, sharing in the training in aspiring clergy with the potentially greater opportunities for placing the individual after s/he completes the requisite training. With a greater hand in the development of the new clergyperson, the diocese will be confident in what s/he will need to know when embarking on his/her first cure, making that first experience more beneficial.
  • Lastly, the emphasis of the training of new clergy in these two spheres: academic and priestly will no doubt deal with that cry every new priest shouts in his/her first year: “They never taught me this stuff in seminary!”

There are problems, of course. And I’m partial to the intensive seminary experience, if for no other reason than the Daily Office. But considering the evolving problems being faced by non-evolving institutions, it is wonderful that one seminary is willing to avoid extinction.

We’ll see if I’m right.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Commander in Chief, part 2

Here is a further reflection on this troubling title.

Why are we so eager to refer to our president as something other than ‘president’?

What are we trying to say about the president that the official title for the office is insufficient?

Commander in Chief is intended to be a stronger term than president.

It is a term that highlights the military role of the presidency and placing that above the office’s other responsibilities.

Article II begins:

The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States

It does not say any of the following:

  • The Commander in Chief can suspend the constitution.
  • The president shall be called The Commander in Chief.
  • The president shall rule the military with an iron fist.
  • The Commander in Chief can use the title wherever s/he pleases.
  • The Commander in Chief is the specialest guy in the whole world.

Clearly, the term has not only the context of the military, but is a descriptor of military rank—not title.

Here are a few other misuses of the term that you might hear this year:

  • Senator, as Commander in Chief, how would you address our economic woes?
  • What are some of the main ways the Commander in Chief can help the education system?
  • What role should the Commander in Chief play in fixing the health care system?

That last one might be funny—“yes, I think Marshal Law would be great for hospitals!” or maybe “I would seriously consider strategic bombings of underperforming facilities!”

The truth is that we have had 7 straight years of the perpetual Commander in Chief, and it is about time we gave that crap up.

The next president will be the Commander in Chief when he sits in the Situation Room and when addressing military matters in the Oval Office, not anything else.

The constant use of the phrase is clearly an attempt to diminish the roles of the president that are supportive of the infrastructure and simultaneously elevating the military role.

It also is suggestive of supremacy—perhaps its most fascist usage—over all else in government. Commander in Chief, when used outside of the military loses interest in the first word and gains it for the third: chief. This further distracts the people by encouraging our vision of Bush as tribal chief, as top of the heap, while Congress in not only a co-equal branch of government, but legislative branch. They direct our nation. In their position in declaring war, they are also responsible for directing the nation in conflict, while the president directs the military as chief officer. He must still bow before the Congressional authority to begin and end war.

You know what, it may be better if we never use the term Commander in Chief again.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

There’s a first time for everything…

I’ll admit it. Republicans have gotten one thing right. Sort of. Not right enough to be able to say “I told you so” or anything. Right from the completely wrong direction. Right in the wrong way. And yet, they’re still a little bit right.

The best defense for Bush during and after 2000 (other than that he’s the candidate you would prefer to invite to a barbecue) was that he was a business man (or bidness man, if you will). Republicans love the idea of the CEO president.

Well, they interpret it to mean that we should elect a CEO to be president, which is completely wrong. I might suggest that we elect a president to be a CEO. Bear with me a second.

The Constitution in Articles I and II (Legislative and Executive Branches) lay out the way Congress and the President are to behave. Article I articulates that the bicameral legislature is there to govern the nation. They are the representatives of the people and do the work of the people. They declare war, they impeach the president, they write and pass legislation. That is their primary duty. In the second Article, we are given three main jobs of the president: appoint administrators of the government, nominate justices to the Supreme Court, and serve as Commander-in-Chief for the armed forces. That's about it.

Here’s the problem. Commander-in-Chief is the least defined title in the Constitution. It means nothing and everything, depending on how you look at it. But recognizing the role of Congress to decide the whether or not we go to war, it is clear that the title of Commander is the most important one (and not Chief). The fact of the matter is that the president is only intended to be the strategist and to be an officer in the military. The Congress determines the overall fate of military endeavors, not the president.

By this time you might be clamoring to give me historical examples or arguing that the roles have never taken off this way, but this is clearly the intention of the law.

So here it is: the president is management. S/He is to oversee the operations of the government. S/He hires and fires the cabinet heads and makes sure that the different departments get and have what they need. S/He gives speeches about the government and says all the great things it is doing and why you should invest in it. S/He oversees the military in much the same way.

Congress, on the other hand, should be seen as civil engineers (not a board of directors—too confrontational). Their job is to make sure that the country is going in the right direction, that future accommodations are being planned for, and that we are operating with highest social, economic, and spiritual efficiency.

And there’s the rub. When the president steals this authority from congress (unitary presidency—see Dick Cheney’s Law) or operates in the same sphere of influence with Congress, writing laws, pushing heavily on the veto, it creates inefficiency. Outright conflict is not an inevitable option, but a choice. The fact of the matter is that we, like the Hebrew people, have the tools at our disposal to live out the Kingdom of God within our society, but our preference is for kings. We want strong and emotional and immature leaders that give us justifiable reasons to hate other people and to live out injustice in our environment. We seem to want the supreme overlord. But unlike the Hebrews, who wanted a king to be like their neighbors, we want a strong-armed fascist tyrant, not like our neighbors (Canada and Mexico) or our compatriots in Europe (Britain, France, Scandinavian countries), but like Saudi Arabia, North Korea, and Russia. It is preferring a criminal justice system like North Korea’s to that of England.

One of the greatest misnomers is the State of the Union address in which the president processes into Congress like a king and is bid by the Speaker of the House to present a ‘state of the union’ to Congress. But looking at both the way the Constitution is written and the very dynamics of the situation, we have it backward. Putting the president, whose spends his time in Washington or oversees is telling Congress, the legislative body that spends 1/3-1/2 their time with their constituents, how the country is doing? Isn’t the president a little insulated for that? Aren’t the members of Congress much more qualified to tell the president the real state of the union?

This is the primary issue. The president is not a king. The president has none of the powers of Congress and is not intended to play their game on their field. The president should spend his/her time making sure that the Secretary of Education is making our youth the best educated in the world. S/He should spend time making sure that the head of the Environmental Protection Agency is not only determining our environmental impact, but addressing those concerns in calls for Congressional action. The president should spend his/her time better engaging our military forces in actions mandated by Congress. But…

We have the believer in the unitary presidency, whose behavior in directing Congress, demanding fealty from the troops, and ignoring those appointed to run the government (most of whom are glaringly unqualified for their jobs if not indefensibly and intentionally bent on sabotaging their agency). Pres. Bush is operating as a true fascist king, not only coronated to an imaginary thrown, but surrounded by an elite guard of politicians, lawyers, and media personalities and moguls that want you to believe that Bush is not only Commander-in-Chief of the military, but of the country. And that is just disgusting.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

In a Bushian world, democracy isn't the only victim

Boy do we love democracy. We love it. It is in our bones. It is the fundamental principle undergirding our relationship with everything: our environment, our schools, our organizations, and even our families. We are principally a democratic people.

And the axe that I am used to grinding is that the United States of America is not a “true” democracy—we are a republic that abides by ‘democratic principles’. But I don’t plan on grinding that axe today. Instead, it is what is essential for democracy—and its cousin, capitalism—to exist: liberty.

A pure democracy, based solely on its institutional self, inevitably leads to a mob mentality. Might makes right. The will of the majority will always destroy the minority. In effect, a democracy functioning at the height of its potential will eventually destroy the minority, creating a principle of not majority, but unilateral opinion. Instead of serving as a hotbed of diversity and independence, it will naturally devolve into the same result of other social systems such as socialism and fascism: uniformity.

The principle that the Founding Fathers added to our democratic republic was what we might call liberty: a principle of individual and collective freedom. Libertarians take this as only an individual descriptor, but the collective freedom is just as essential. Our system checks the power of the majority by giving unrepresentative power to the minority—forcing the system to not only respect the minority, but live in a dynamic tension between the majority and minority. In this environment, consensus is more a product of obvious points of mutual interest—not the decimation of opposing opinions. The central piece, however, is that tension.

All of this is obvious to us about our government, but less so with regard to our economic system, capitalism. Capitalism, in its “freest” form will move in the same direction as democracy: suppression of divergent opinions and universalism. Similarly, checking the economic system so as to benefit minorities and individuals can form the basis for both balance and true symbiosis with the democratic ideals that are most important to us.

What does this look like? It is preferring the opportunities of that one group that Pres. Bush likes to talk about supporting while attempting to utterly eradicate: entrepreneurs. The idea is this: a capitalist system is made up by industrious individuals that have an idea. The individual works hard, uses whatever sources of revenue s/he can muster, and produces something. The consumer may or may not choose to buy it, but if s/he does, then the capitalist can be rewarded for his/her work with revenue. If the consumer doesn’t buy it, then the capitalist fails and is broke. The principles that freemarketeers love about this is that sense of liberty that we think they embrace. They quote Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and we think that they must be right.

But the solution to capitalism run amok is in that tension between equals. It is the encouragement of individuals to maintain themselves alongside the fully-functioning democratic social system.

A ‘free’ market only suggests freedom for a corporation (not a capitalist or collection of capitalists, but a quasi-governmental organization) to purchase other corporations, reducing both the freedom of choice within the marketplace (a hallmark of Smithian capitalism) and the risk that justifies the reward (placing the cost of doing business on the government—primarily cities, but also states and the federal government).

The current system, of cities eliminating taxes for corporations for the small compensation of jobs for workers is not only a system of inevitable failure, but a system that generates abject poverty throughout the social system. This directly affects the health of each member of the system—even the ones getting rich off the arrangements. This also encourages a funneling of capital away from the local economy (money traded between capitalists), but from a local consumer to a corporation that has no real ties to the community, including financial obligation. Think about it this way. If I made wrenches and sold them to my friends under a small business I called “Drew’s Wrenches”, I would pay the city of Lansing, the state of Michigan, and the federal government a tax for my business. If I paid myself a wage, I would also pay income tax. If my small business becomes a corporation (because I make damn fine wrenches), I can tell Gov. Granholm and Mayor Bernaro that they better pony up or I’m gone. They then eliminate my business tax and further subsidize my operation by chipping in property tax cuts. Even though I am now employing a few more workers at minimum wage and a couple of white collar managers, the state gains zero financial profit from this investment. All of the money will either go into my pocket (which means I will live in Boston or Seattle, helping those economies, not Lansing) and into investor pockets (similarly out of state). Now imagine tax breaks for Wal-Mart stores where none of the money will stay in the city or state. This arrangement is like spending $5,000 for a computer only to find out the computer costs $150 to make, retails at $1,000, and you were paying $4,000 for Geek Squad to plug it into your wall.

To fix the severe economic problems we are facing today requires the same approach to our semi-capitalist economic system that we use to our semi-democratic social system: the injection of individual and collective liberty. The needs of individuals within the system (consumers and capitalists) must supercede the needs of any corporation. The needs of individuals collected in community must be more important than one individual’s right to become rich (through a system that directly undermines everyone around them). The pursuit of the American Dream is happiness, not wealth.

Lastly, the system must be cleansed of corruption—seen in the unhealthy relationship between politicians and multi-national corporations. The influence of these quasi-governmental monstrosities has hijacked the rule of law and led to a tax code, legal system (including Supreme Court), the FCC and SEC, international trade agreements, and a Federal Reserve that give not only a preference for corporations and corporate interests, but continue to re-form the system so that corporations benefit because of our individual pain. It is a vampiric or parasitic relationship because they are not paying for their own investments (we are) or for their failures (we do), but they are able to keep their rewards.

The more freemarketeers make our economy “free,” the more I am left feeling like a slave, willfully supporting Pharaoh.