Saturday, June 29, 2013

Gay and Christian in a Changing America

Jeff Chu, Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian's Pilgrimage in Search of God in America

Society’s mass realignment regarding sexual identity and gay rights leaves religious believers in turmoil. If God’s Law is the same yesterday, today, and forever, how do we cope with a world whose morality looks more malleable? What does it even mean to believe in a transcendent, redeeming Lord as a gay American? As someone with one foot in each camp, journalist Jeff Chu set out to unpack the diverse answers.

Protestant theology believes all sins are equal in God’s sight. White lies make us as culpable as murder, because any sin puts us outside God’s grace. Yet in the early 21st Century, we’ve made homosexuality a litmus test of Christianity. While mainline denominations race to be the most inclusive, evangelicals double down on Levitical prohibitions, making homosexuality the great unforgivable sin. This theological absolutism boggles observers’ imaginations.

Early on, and incrementally throughout his narrative, Chu stresses that nobody reads Scripture “just as it is,” much less in an unbroken arc throughout history. Everybody brings their unique experiences and suppositions to the Bible, and the lessons we draw meld ourselves with the text. He demonstrates that passages in Leviticus, Romans, and elsewhere that demagogues claim have invariable meanings, in fact possess surprising shades of implication.

These differences become problematic when churches, or church leaders, claim one inviolable position, and brook no dispute among loving believers. Chu speaks with several fellow travellers who, unlike him, could no longer stomach belief when plagued by Christianity’s polar divisions. Some just became agnostic and abandoned the fight, while others—he cites the first gay ’zine at Arkansas’ largest Christian university—become outright adversarial.

Too often, we judge one another without first knowing one another. For instance, many Americans, even good Bible-believing Christians, see Westboro Baptist Church as a seething cauldron of blasphemy and pietistic evil. But when Chu sits down with Fred Phelps, he discovers a remarkably warm, affable grandfather with a quick laugh. Westboro’s actual religious motivations prove more complex, subtle, and markedly familiar than Chu could have ever predicted.

From across the sexuality divide, events prove even more remarkable. Jennifer Knapp, whose gospel folk-rock helped define Clinton-era pop Christianity, found herself an outcast when she couldn’t deny her inclinations any longer. This rejection has dug a trench between her and the Church, but she has found herself closer to God on the outside. And she’s provided many dedicated believers the chance to venture beyond their insular fortresses.

The lengths some Christians travel to reconcile Biblical faith with homosexuality become, at times, epic. Chu spends an extended sojourn with Exodus International, America’s largest ex-gay therapy organization. He witnesses a morass of moral and scientific contradictions, which demands the question: is this any better than nothing at all? (Months after Chu wrote these chapters, Exodus shuttered its doors and officially apologized for its own existence.)

But rather than fleeing the problem, some people, remarkably, make it work. Chu meets one husband and wife who’ve enjoyed several years of happy marriage and joint ministry, despite his professed homosexuality. (He claims no attraction to women overall, but intense attraction to his wife. He says.) Another man, after much prayer and contemplation, decided to simply remain celibate, no small decision in modern sex-obsessed culture.

Others believe nobody should have to make compromises on their identity, even when it makes traditionalists uncomfortable. Metropolitan Community Church, the largest denomination organized by and for gays, has grown to become a competitive force in American Christian discourse. But when Chu worships at MCC, he discovers: an explicitly gay church can inadvertently privilege “gay” over “church,” losing sight of their founding mission.

Why does anybody think they can define whom God excludes? As Chu notes, Jesus never dealt with homosexuality. But consider whom he considered worthy of his ministrations: tax collectors, Samaritans, widows, prostitutes, adulterers. Given the choice, Jesus shared his inmost secrets with those outside power, not those goody-two-shoes who claimed they had God’s direct line. If he came back tomorrow, Jesus might have many gay friends.

Chu’s wide-ranging exploration of gays and Christianity matters not for moddish concerns or Supreme Court decisions, but because how we treat “the least of these” counts. Future Christians will look back on our time and wonder, not whether we kept the letter of the Law, but if we upheld the spirit of the Gospel. And we need to decide what that means, soon. Because in these last days, God’s people too often think we know our Father’s mind, and have stopped listening for His voice.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

L.A. Confutational

Dennis M. Walsh, Nobody Walks: Bringing My Brother's Killers to Justice

In July 2003, two Los Angeles hoodlums shot tweaker Christopher Walsh in the head, stuffed his body in a plastic garbage barrel, and stowed his remains in a Van Nuys storage unit. His brother, defense attorney Dennis Walsh, swore vengeance on LA’s criminal underground, telling anybody who would listen, “Nobody walks on this case.” Little did he know he’d become the biggest scourge on the underworld since Charles Bronson.

Dennis Walsh tells his own story with the kinetic aggression that drives filmmakers like Scorsese and Tarantino. His brash, violent, gleefully profane narrative never lags, leaving readers feeling like they’ve been pummeled by a true master pummeler. And while his cast of thousands may demand intense attention to keep names straight (keep notes on the endpaper), his story of realistic sublegal crime fighting makes CSI look wimpy by comparison.

Walsh’s father was a Cleveland PD detective who got rich working the other side. A one-time rising star of California’s Irish mob, he led his many sons into “the life.” The only Walsh without a record, Dennis did a hitch in the Navy, completed his law degree, and went into private practice, keeping bottom-feeders out of the hoosegow. This strange dual life made him perfect to nvestigate crimes where police cannot venture.

Christopher Walsh, Dennis’ youngest brother, drifted through life, got hooked on meth, and spent his final days among tweakers who’d surrendered normal humanity. Nobody heard from him for weeks before his remains surfaced. Seems tweakers don’t interact outside their circle, even when somebody has to clean up the blood. Even less when it means talking to the police: everybody knew who killed Christopher, but nobody would sing for the LAPD.

An an attorney with longstanding underground connections, Dennis stood in a unique position to haunt his brother’s killers. In his trademark Cleveland Indians ballcap and jeans, he infiltrated California’s insular meth-head community; with his brother Tim at his side, tweakers began saying “the Walsh Brothers” like you might say “Sinn Fein.” But his sharp suits and avuncular silver curls gave him unique access to California’s byzantine legal system, too.

Walsh tells a gripping story, shifting between Wild West vigilante heroics among an essentially lawless community, and the tense compromises necessary from an officer of the courts. One moment, Walsh and his brothers may serve a beat-down on some Valley scum-sucker to nab new leads. The next, he walks careful lines in the LA criminal court, perennially trying to stay on deputy DA Stephanie Sparagna's good side.

While Walsh remains the hero of his story—dude, meth-heads shot his brother in the face—he doesn’t flinch from his ad hoc morality. As an unwanted guest in a community with no law and little order, he often has no choice but to solve problems with his fists and lie to his allies. When the LAPD proves ill-equipped for Christopher’s case, Dennis helpfully offers to distribute old-fashioned street justice.

Eventually, evidence in Christopher’s murder crisscrosses LA County, transcends economic class, and overlaps California’s many criminal subcultures. Arresting Christopher’s killers requires Faustian bargains, impromptu partnerships, and elaborate knife-edge dances between law enforcement agencies. When his drug-addled chief witness makes a deal with the US Marshals but has an LAPD warrant on his ass, Dennis uncorks diplomacy worthy of Churchill at Yalta.

Even when the cops have Christopher’s killers behind bars, Dennis’s journey isn’t over. On Law & Order, everything looks so neat: 24 minutes for arrest, 24 minutes for trial, and by the credits, they (almost) always have the guilty party in chains. Not so, says Walsh: enterprising defendants can impede the legal process for years, while witnesses age, memories fade, and evidence languishes. Christopher’s killers prove astute heel-draggers.

Nothing proves easy in this story. While working both the courts and the criminal underworld, Dennis must also control his criminal brothers, keep his sources from discovering one another, and remain a viable vigilante after everyone treats him like Batman. He never recovers the murder weapon. It may be in the concrete foundations of actor Ving Rhames’s house, demonstrating how this case binds SoCal glamour with postmodern urban decay.

Not everyone will like this story. Walsh’s intense, meteoric narrative requires acute attention, especially since he compresses events that actually occured some time and distance apart. His raunchy prose may bother some readers, particularly his frequent f-bombs and casual violence. But Walsh’s deeply cinematic story, bolstered by heartfelt investment in events over a decade later, gives him distinct power. This stark, unforgiving story won’t leave you easily.

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Real Price of a Fake Economy

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernenke
Last week’s rapid stock sell-off, which ended as quickly as it began, exposes underlying fractures that remain in our financial markets even this long after the 2007 meltdown. Moreover, and more important for our daily business, it exposes the fundamental flaw behind ongoing “recovery” efforts in the American economy. And if it doesn’t give us warning that our current economic track is ultimately unsustainable, that only proves we weren’t listening.

Multiple news sources used the word “plunge” to describe the Dow’s 354-point nose dive, though in historic terms, Thursday, June 20th, 2013 doesn’t even rank. Whether in absolute point terms or percentages, Thursday’s slide barely registers. But because we’ve grown accustomed to supposed constant growth like Jack’s beanstalk, any triple-digit slide seems catastrophic, at least to the financial journalists who cover Wall Street for the national publications.

But most Americans don’t own stocks. Most Americans shouldn’t own stocks, because we lack the specialized skills for reading market movements and anticipate future trends. While many Americans indirectly hold stock through mutual funds or retirement portfolios, in practical terms, Dow fluctuations are as distant from our lives as castor bean futures or the floating value of the Mozambican metical on global currency markets. It’s hard for Americans to care.

We should care about this seemingly remote economic benchmark, not because it impacts us (it barely does), but because it provides a valuable barometer of our economy’s basic weakness. Thursday’s stock drop took place not in response to market forces, but as a lemming-like response to the Federal Reserve’s decision to scale back economic recovery measures. The suggested end to fictitious influences caused very real financial blowback.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew
Since the global financial meltdown of 2007-2008, multiple governments, including America’s, have trumpeted the goal of “recovery.” Most citizens hear that and think it means getting people back on their feet, encouraging new hiring, and ensuring smooth working for the whole economy. Yet the Demopublican duopoly that dominates government has grown infatuated with the financial sector. They’re primarily trying to regain the boomtown mentality that dominated a decade ago.

Financial journalists got news-drunk when the Dow closed above 15,000 in May. But the nearly continuous bull market since 2009 has been driven by “quantitative easing,” a bureaucratic euphemism meaning the Treasury encourages buying by cheapening the value of a buck. This has flooded markets with abundant bargain-basement cash, while producing a profoundly topheavy economy, as dough rushes to the top by draining value from ordinary wages.

Joseph Stiglitz notes that 93 percent of the “recovery” since 2009 has accrued to the dreaded One Percent. This happens partly because President Obama packed his economic advisors with Robert Rubin acolytes, who assume the financial services industry’s innate goodness. They’ve performed remarkable fiscal gymnastics to infuse markets with cheap money. This produces a strong economy in the aggregate, but doesn’t help most ordinary Americans.

Financial operators are herd beasts. When the Fed throws cheap money, financiers crowd around, grab what they can, and follow the leader. If one broker makes bank on stocks, everyone joins in. If somebody gets rich gambling on tech stocks or housing prices (let’s just imagine), hundreds want on the bandwagon. This creates illusory market pressures that seem to increase the value of a desired commodity beyond comprehension.

This explains how, for instance, gas prices skyrocketed during a period of low demand. History shows us, though, that such herd pressures are appallingly volatile. It takes only one herd member fleeing the bubble to create panic. Commodities, and the complex derivatives based on commodity values, go into freefall. And anybody who trusted financial trend-spotters to know what they were talking about takes it in the wallet.

President Barack Obama
The two biggest Dow point rises and two biggest drops ever occurred less than one month apart, in September and October of 2008. This market volatility, which continues less dramatically today, reflects the artificial pressures steering the market, particularly cheap money completely separated from any process of creating value. And it reflects political and economics elites’ attempts to keep the party going long after it should have burned out naturally.

May’s record Dow high, and June’s panicked Dow sell-off, prove that America’s economy has become estranged from the process of creating value. Attempts to preserve old ways of doing business have become a liability, because they demonstrate themselves unresponsive to real needs. But our entwined financial and political sectors won’t let their sick puppy die. Yesterday’s solutions can’t fix today’s problems. It falls to us citizens to demand something better.

On a related topic, see also:
High Noon for the Economic Assassins 
How the Economy Hit Bottom—and What Comes Next 

Friday, June 21, 2013

White-Knuckle Widow and the Open Road Serenade

Linda Crill, Blind Curves: One Woman's Unusual Journey to Reinvent Herself and Answer: What Now?

For the first two years of widowhood, Linda Crill followed all the standard advice: eat well, sleep plenty, keep up with friends and work. Blah blah blah. When nothing worked, and the grief still kept her sidelined, everybody gave her the same suggestions. Then, in a moment of anger, she declared her intent to learn to ride a motorcycle. That impulsive decision proved the turning point in reclaiming her identity.

Everybody who lives long enough experiences the moment of looking in the morning mirror and realizing: I don’t like the person I’ve become. Workaday compromises, social pressure, and the tendency to repeat past successes, conspire to turn us into ghosts of our former vibrant potential. We used to call this “growing up.” But Linda Crill, like an increasing number of Baby Boomers, no longer accepts decrepitude as inevitable with maturity.

As a suburban DC-area management consultant, Crill spent years coaching corporations out of indecision, stagnation, and walking death. But when it closed upon her, she admits, she enacted the same behaviors that doom corporations. She rationalized, she temporized, she clung to the familiar. And she maintained these behaviors right up to the moment she couldn’t anymore. Then, she did something dramatic to upset the fatiguing status quo.

John Lennon sang: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Crill admits that describes her perfectly. She thought she’d never work for big corporations, until she did. She thought she’d never marry a square-suited establishmentarian and become a mommy, until she did. And when widowhood caught her unprepared, this former greenie bicyclist learned to ride a chopper and joined a team descending the entire West Coast.

Crill’s spirited, surprisingly funny memoir unpacks the process by which most of us inescapably settle into vestigial lives. She never sought a beige corporate life, yet she found herself trapped by the façade she created. Suddenly single at an age when many women gear down for retirement, she could no longer sustain the person she’d become; but change is always painful, even when it’s necessary.

Then, in moments when she’s persuaded to quit the entire enterprise, Crill surprises herself with how much she has going on inside. She believes she’ll fail the road test, right until the moment she receives a perfect score. She assumes a fifty-something businesswoman will get hooted out of the bikers’ store, until she emerges from the fitting room in her new leathers and catches dozens of staring at her.

Perhaps her most daunting challenge was the “imposter syndrome.” I remember this from my teaching days: the feeling that you don’t really belong here, that everybody else has credentials you don’t share, that something will happen in the next moment to expose you as a fraud. This syndrome can be paralyzing. It’s impossible to realize, until you face it, that everybody has this same fear, sometimes, too.

At every turn, Crill’s head warns: “I can’t.” But her heart exults: “I just did.” She’s accepted the smallness of her life for so long that, when she repeatedly discovers the stronger, craftier, more adventurous woman waiting inside, her brain deflects the evidence. Time after time, she prepares herself to accept “good enough.” Then every time, the real Linda rears up and demands the world take notice.

As a business consultant, Crill has observed and described several common behaviors that stymie corporate movement. She talks, for instance, about “The Decision Pendulum,” by which leaders accept a good idea, but talk themselves out of it, then back in, then back out. Or the principle that “Failures Facilitate Change,” the reality that leaders won’t accept needed process revisions during good times. Only disaster overwhelms executive inertia.

She knew all this, yes, the way you know something you read in a book. But stepping outside her box, learning something new and dangerous, then flying cross-country to attempt a journey unprecedented in her life... That’s when she became the Linda she always dreamed about. She learned to apply her principles. And she learned that a widow pushing sixty isn’t preparing for death. Life happens because you take it.

Everybody, every day, accepts compromises that leave us living small lives. Too often, only personal catastrophe interrupts the “good enough” life we’ve come to accept. Linda Crill reminds us that we don’t have to just accept life. Like her, we have the power to choose. We never know how the journey will end, but we have the power to commence, if only, like Crill, we take it.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Deborah Landau and the Trouble With Silence

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part Seventeen
Deborah Landau, The Last Usable Hour

I love a poem like midnight Brooklyn blues, following strange frenetic languages down unmarked streets, ordering off menus we cannot read. Meaning peeks between lines, bold but never loud, announcing transcendence in lacunae between heartbeats. Deborah Landau plays English like Gypsy violins, drawing profundities from moments that first seem like collisions. Only when we hear the completed tune do we recognize her full and resonant music.

In dark midwinter, Landau’s narrators battle crushing urban ennui, struggling to reconcile fragile self-figurations with New York’s harsh realities. Her voices, multiple, bounce off one another, forming a veritable Greek chorus of Gothamite despondency, the white noise of eight million voices wondering. Why am I alone, they ask. Who am I without you. What gives me hope that tomorrow will outshine my long straight line of yesterdays.

Landau’s long, cyclic, interlinking poems form cycles that propel themes across different voices, different forms, different cityscapes. Thus she only offers four very long poems in this book—or maybe fifty-three short, untitled poems—maybe many poems, only four titles. It gets very meta. Themes build across several pages, drawing in allusions, thickets of knowledge, winks at moments of shared recognition:
In the middle of my wood, I found myself in a dark life.
The day was going toward the narrow place the blank.
No matter how many glasses of gin
it will get dark on this platform of earth.
When with your milk and fruit
when with your wine
when with your little mirror and your book
you sit tableside in the candlelit clearing
when with your warm breath
are you sick
are you all done flirting
have you lost your appetites
no longer a girl but slinking around nonetheless.
With verse like this we cannot seek the story. We cannot long for through-lines and marching dogmatic chronicles. Landau instead urges us to immerse ourselves, align our rhythms with the questing voices in her poems. Like Philip Glass, she doesn’t thrust obvious themes at her audience; instead, we listen for the patterns. She trusts us enough to let us find the message, rather than demanding, schoolteacher-ish, the correct answer.

This means sometimes her poetic voice declares absolutely something untrue or beyond proof. She tells us the answer and waits for the question. (And it usually feels like “she”—though we shouldn’t mistake the plural threads entwining these verses for Landau herself, her language has a preponderantly feminine lilt.) Even when she says something seemingly true, Landau’s persona invites us to share with her the experience of doubt:
the trouble with silence
is the high square room
hymnless and the window
opening on a blank
the trouble with silence is creation
farewell the glistening mouth
the trouble with silence
oh mother
the trouble
the harmless pleasures
and the ones that come to harm
in the fields
in the central city
the trouble with silence
is none ever was
Though Landau writes a deeply introspective tenor, caroming among dozens, the specific urban landscape shines through. She populates her verse with snow-blanked parks, mumbling thirsty streets, bedtime incandescence keeping the struggling soul from blissful sleep. Reading Landau, one tastes the soot and hears boot leather on pavement. No otherworldly vagueness here: Landau writes about specific people in specific places.

Landau primarily writes free verse, the common coin of modern poetry. Not that she’s averse to formalism, though she seldom adopts schoolbook forms just because somebody thinks she should. More like, she invents forms (which include little rhyme, and that only indirectly) as she needs them, to reflect the voices striving to emerge from her work. She seems especially fond of couplets, perhaps reflecting the dual nature of herself as observing poet and observed voice:

I am writing this to do as right as possible by Richard
think back to the bed consider the bar

the fragrant medicinal flasks
I don’t care to drink anymore because when I drink

it makes me hopeless
Richard, are you going to come back

to the bar where you belong
or just leave me here

here is a flask
I’m tired of being metaphysical
Schoolteachers love to ask: who knows what the author is saying here? But Landau doesn’t “say” anything, not in the way English teachers mean. Her poetry is more of an invitation. She invites us to join her on a complex journey, one without any single destination. She invites us to join her getting lost in streets that reveal their secrets only to the attentive. She invites us to simply listen.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Christian Leadership in an Authoritarian World

James C. Galvin, I've Got Your Back: Biblical Principles for Leading and Following Well

American society has a leadership fetish. Schools, business books, and seminars offer to instill “leadership qualities.” Employers claim to want “natural leaders.” With so much leadership, why isn’t anything getting done? James Galvin suggests that we need to reclaim “leadership” from the business gurus and return to an older model. Unfortunately, I like his ideas much more than his approach.

Galvin takes a two-part teaching tack. In the first part, four college graduates facing abusive leadership work with a mentor. They explore what it means for Christians to live under worldly authority. Must they passively submit to every leader, as many scriptural interpretations suggest? Not so, their mentor replies; by becoming more astute followers, they prepare themselves for eventual leadership roles.

In the second, Galvin translates his narrative “parable” into a theologically based treatise on Christian leadership and followership. He expounds on how leaders abuse followers, and how “follower abuse” arises in modern technological society. His thesis in brief is that everyone follows someone, and that skillful followers make the best leaders. He underpins this with a mix of business acumen and scriptural foundation.

Galvin differs from other business consultants through his emphasis on narrative. Nearly three-quarters of this slim book (barely 200 pages) is a “parable,” a novella of characters similar to his intended audience learning the lessons Galvin hopes readers will take away. This emphasis makes sense. Many youth starting their careers are bombarded by talky academic advice; simply telling them a story probably reaches them more effectively.

Supposed gurus like Tony Robbins and Wayne Dyer present a very I-oriented world, where self-aggrandizement is our highest goal, and we achieve leadership to unlock our own potential. Galvin would rather have us lead for something. Whether to build our organization, improve our community, or serve God, Galvin presents leadership as a tool with a purpose. This makes a hearty antidote to today’s self-seeking culture.

This book suffers because Galvin uses characters to prove points; their challenges are circumscribed by Galvin’s message, their triumphs pat and weirdly concise. His characters don’t so much speak as discourse at one another. Galvin’s discursive passages run long, while his narrative examples run short. Characters spend entire chapters conferencing in the abstract, but their applications mostly run less than one page per character per chapter.

Not that Galvin says anything wrong. His spiritual take on individual roles and collective authority resonate with anyone who wonders what it means to be spiritual in today’s authoritarian world. Nicholas Wolterstorff and Obery Hendricks have written sagaciously on this topic. Galvin probably has a leg up on these more scholarly writers, in that he writes in plain English, not seminarian academese.

Unfortunately, Galvin isn’t an experienced storyteller. Not only do his characters speak in oddly complete paragraphs, explaining the author’s point in prose rather than dialog; he forgets important conventions of narrative. Characters hold forth in exceptionally well-developed peroration, tagged at the very end with “he said.” Galvin drops quotation marks and dialog attributions, forcing us to reread passages to understand what just happened.

Then, following his novella, Galvin restates his message in essay form. He reiterates everything we just read four students and their mentor discussing, sometimes verbatim. If Galvin could declare his points more briefly, in prose form, he should do so. This would free more page space for his characters to have nuanced encounters with leaders and followers, living out his principles in detail.

Jesus used parables to teach important spiritual lessons, which inspires Galvin’s narrative approach. But consider how Jesus told parables. He kept very short; even longer parables, like Lazarus and Dives, run only a few paragraphs. He focused on action and dialog, only explaining after he was done. When he needed to deliver a sermon, he delivered a sermon, not blurring the distinction between forms.

If Galvin delivered his essay portions as essays, then spent more time and detail on how his four students experience his principles, this would not only streamline his narrative. It would also allow readers, bombarded as we are today by self-appointed gurus, to see Galvin’s principles lived in real-seeming environments, not the friction-free neverlands self-help gurus apparently occupy.

Galvin makes solid points and backs them with robust evidence. Well done, James. But throughout the reading, his technique intruded on my learning experience. I wanted to like his ideas, but he never permitted me to do so. If he stopped talking about his principles, and showed us how they work, he would have had a more powerful book.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Sacred Vows to a Secular State

President Barack Obama
After NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed America’s unprecedented digital data mining operations last week, predictable accusations took flight. Congressman John Boehner and Senator Dianne Feinstein, hardly ideological coevals, both called Snowden a “traitor,” a world hardly supported by the constitutional definition of treason. But one particular expression has gained traction that reveals frightening assumptions under current national policy.

Pundits as diverse as Karen Finney and John Stossel have accused Snowden, who enjoyed top secret clearance, as having violated “sacred vows” to the government. Recycling the same language previously targeted at whistleblower Bradley Manning, who had similar clearance and identical moral qualms. These attitudes, and the legal bloodlust that have followed both whistleblowers, arise from an explicitly religious figuration of the American government.

Citizens taking oaths in America are required to take those vows on some sacred text. Even laying aside the question of religious affiliation, there is reliable evidence that correlating honesty with faith has measurable effect even on unbelievers. The controversy surrounding Representative Keith Ellison taking his oath of office on a Koran demonstrates how important the idea of vows having some external backing transcends sectarian differences.

But this is a far cry from saying that the government itself has religious import, or correlating whistleblowing with apostasy. Snowden and Manning both caught the government engaged in activity that was, at the very least, unethical, unseemly, and anti-democratic. Trying to bury these tipsters in quasi-liturgical language only compounds the transgression. Because even if America is a Christian nation (which this Christian doubts), the state is not God.

Edward Snowden
American society has grown accustomed to use of religious language in public life. We accept the blurry line between knowing when to stand or kneel in church, and knowing when to salute the flag or rise for the national anthem. And for good reason: while faith addresses relationships with God, religion addresses relationships with each other. Governmental pseudo-religion binds the community together. But official religious trappings do not make the state God.

The American military’s oath of enlistment requires soldiers to affirm “that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me.... So help me God.” But even this oath has limits. History teaches that “just following orders” is not a legal defense. Enlisted soldiers under command have a legal requirement to refuse unlawful or unethical orders. God’s help does not cover malfeasance.

Consider the most common “sacred vows” citizens engage. Married couples enjoy certain legal privileges, particularly that citizens cannot be compelled to testify against their spouses, and spousal communications share the protected confidence of medical or clerical confessions. But this protection is not absolute. If your spouse commits a crime and you don’t report it, you’re an accessory. If your spouse intends to commit a crime, you’re legally required to prevent it.

Speaking of clerical confessions, many people, even priests, misunderstand what confessional confidence protects. If I approach my priest with a penitent heart, and confess my sins, intending to reconcile with God and abandon my wrongdoing, my confession is absolutely protected. If I approach my priest unrepentantly, declaring crimes in progress and my intention to continue, my confession has no protection. My priest is permitted, even obligated, to warn the law.

If this holds for spouses or parishioners, how much more so for governments. Straying husbands and struggling sinners may do painful damage to those they love, surely. But few individuals have the power to order drone strikes with little to no legal review. Your spouse doesn’t have a fleet of stealth bombers capable of dropping thermonuclear payloads. Citizens must hold governments to account simply because governments are so damn big.

Bradley Manning
Requiring citizens to shield crime behind “sacred vows” stinks of the hypocrisy that plagues the Catholic Church’s sex scandals. The Church uses its simple physical mass and holy purpose to squelch ordinary believers when they protest injustice. But the church cannot claim holiness while nurturing venality, as recent outrage has affirmed. The Church, like the government, must uphold its own ideals if it expects its vows to mean anything.

Nearly 3000 years ago, Samuel prophesied that any human king would inevitably demand the deference due only to God. In 1914, sociologist Émile Durkheim, an unbeliever himself, wrote that, as faith became increasingly distant from technological society, governments would accrue the forms of liturgy and holiness to themselves. With the pushback to today’s political scandals, we see both warnings come true. The final payout cannot advance free society.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

War is Hell On Other Planets, Too

Jason Sheehan, A Private Little War

Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War used space opera conventions to explore Haldeman’s Vietnam experience. Not only did the heroes cross measureless space to face an enemy they hadn’t seen; when they returned to Earth, the effects of relativity meant they returned to a world that had advanced centuries while they hadn’t aged. Its classic symbolism unpacked the implications of a war the combatants couldn’t understand.

I couldn’t help remembering Haldeman’s 1974 classic while reading Jason Sheehan’s debut novel, because Shehan does nothing, I mean nothing, that says this book needs to be science fiction. Sheehan serves a slumgullion of images salvaged from better-known authors: you’ll recognize Ernest Hemingway, Richard Hooker, and Tim O’Brien among others. He’s just leavened his blatant rip-off with Depression-era pulp sci-fi images, who knows why.

On distant Iaxo, Commander Ted Prinzi and Captain Kevin Carter are officers for Flyboy, Inc., a contract air force. They fly raids for the human government, which wants to seize swaths of land for human development. They hope to accomplish this by turning one group of indigs (natives) against another. But the mud-dwelling indigs refuse to die. So to cover its losses, Flyboy washes its hands of its pilots just as scrutiny turns to outrage.

I get Sheehan’s intent here. Blind kittens probably get Sheehan’s intent. His blatant parallels with America’s use of private proxies in foreign theatres (we’re looking at you, Blackwater) is admittedly timely as Barack Obama, the Drone Ranger, has unified left and right in outrage. The image of humans as alien invaders conveys Sheehan’s point appropriately; never mind that SG Redling did it better barely a month ago.

Sheehan says “Iaxo was a war without cliché.” Baloney. Start with the airplanes themselves: Captain Carter and his Flyboy pilots somehow fly alien skies in planes that would make sense over Verdun. Carter himself flies a Sopwith Camel, just like Snoopy. His men fly Fokkers and Junkers. Seriously. Biplanes with open cockpits. Sheehan attempts an explanation about public scrutiny and plausible deniability, which confuses more than it clarifies.

Carter and Prinzi march listlessly through the kinds of scenes readers recognize from other books. Sheehan’s story isn’t necessarily anti-war so much as anti-banality. Despite some long descriptions of combat missions, Sheehan, like Joseph Heller, spends his greatest time on the long, dispiriting spells between actions, and the ways pilots stave off boredom. His description of recreational strafing runs feels exactly like a key scene from Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.

Sadly, neither Carter nor Prinzi are as interesting as Yossarian or Private Joker. Their actions are so repetitive, so non-dimensional, they belong in a Sgt. Bilko episode, minus the humor. They confront every setback—corporate micromanagement, indig insurgency, combat death—with the same mix of Patton-esque cynicism and stony resolve. Even when Carter’s big secret explodes at the novel’s midpoint, his reaction never varies. These men desperately, fiercely need a beer.

War feels like something that happens to these characters, not something in which they participate. They don’t even show ambition enough for passive aggression. This slow, joyless novel desperately needs a Hawkeye Pierce to call bullshit. Without such initiative, the characters fail to give their story direction; it becomes a novel about passive people failing to pilot their own lives. Maybe that’s Sheehan’s point, but at 480 pages, ermahgerd, that’s long.

And again, why is it science fiction? The science, technology, and alien landscape have no impact on the story or characters. Despite its Iraq War trappings, Sheehan blends images from nearly every American war for the last 200 years. Joe Haldeman used sci-fi to examine war from new, amended angles. If Sheehan had set the story in the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, it would make as much sense.

Sheehan wouldn’t need to serve in war, as Haldeman, O’Brien, and Heller all did, to write this book. Stephen Crane and Pat Barker didn’t serve. But they spoke with veterans, studied history, and verified their stories. Sheehan apparently memorized images and scenes from other books, reassembling them into a mess that broadly resembles every wartime book you’ve ever read. It doesn’t feel so much familiar as tired.

To imagine the experience of reading this book, remember every novel about cynical wartime banality you’ve ever read. Remember Catch-22, MASH, The Things They Carried, A Farewell to Arms. Now throw them in a blender with Flash Gordon and Terry and the Pirates, and spread the resulting jam across nearly 500 pages. It’s about that flavorless, and those 500 pages feel a lot longer.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Privacy For the Highest Bidder

President Barack Obama
The Obama administration has received much-deserved criticism for recent revelations of its data mining from Americans’ phone, internet, and other digital records. Americans expect a democratically elected government to show its people sufficient deference that it won’t seize their business transaction records without solid, demonstrable need. Obama, however, evidently believes himself so above reproach, he makes George W. look submissive and subtle.

“Privacy” has become the watchword for the digital generation. We cower in fear of “identity theft,” and demand that government and industry keep their noses out of our business. But such demands ring hollow considering how thoroughly we’ve surrendered our privacy to for-profit businesses, especially social media and digital retailers. Ideas, principles, and preferences we once shared only with our closest confidants now get broadcast digitally for nigh-universal consumption.

We must abandon the conceit that Google, Verizon, and other digital platforms are philanthropic charities. These companies exist to sell ads, create a sense of want you didn’t previously share, and direct your attention to some purchase to supposedly bandage your bleeding soul. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has faced criticism for submarining status updates that transgress his political views. As Frank Schaeffer puts it succinctly: “the big tech companies aren’t run by nice people.”

According to Sasha Issenberg, massive databases store your every transaction—every Bing search, YouTube subscription, Amazon purchase, or Facebook like. Every time you Google porn while logged into YouTube, it creates a digital footprint. Plus-one this essay, and it’ll go on your record. Your credit score, buying habits, any transaction that leaves a record, goes in these databases. This information gets collated, tranched, packaged, and auctioned in absolute secret.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg
Entrepreneurs built these databases to calculate your receptivity to specific ads, and ensure those ads go only to audiences likely to buy. Thus, if you “like” the TV show Defiance on Facebook, say, ads for the Defiance online RPG start intruding on unrelated websites. No longer must advertisers chunk thirty-second spots into the TV ether and pray for rain. They can assure one-to-one correlation between ad and audience, streamlining the money flow.

Once exclusive domain of for-profit business, political parties discovered these databases during the Bush administration. If you’ve felt, in recent election cycles, that direct mailings and phone calls spotlight your personal hot buttons with eerie specificity, you aren’t wrong. Purchase anything on plastic, or log onto any site that has your real name, or pay your church tithe by check, and parties can purchase such records of your interests and beliefs.

Nothing separates advertisers’ and political parties’ daily doings from Obama’s scandals, except that the administration didn’t pay for it. The administration only wants information you’ve already surrendered freely, from corporations that, if they didn’t give it to the government, would sell it at substantial mark-up. And if, like me, you get twitchy when you can’t check your Facebook feed or blog stats regularly, you have nobody to blame but yourself.

As Jonathan Franzen notes, “privacy” is an emotional resonance, not a principle. Before the Internet, you did business locally, where neighbors knew which plain-brown-wrapper magazines you bought, and when you bought drinks for somebody who wasn’t your spouse. Privacy, in the sense of keeping secrets from people who have the ability to judge your actions and hold you to account, is at an all-time high.

If digital privacy truly merits such public umbrage, we might ask whether our own actions haven’t created the vulnerability we now regret. Our modern digital conveniences make life temporarily simpler, but we’ve turned our lives into marketable commodities, over which we have no commercial control. To halt the state’s drift into information autocracy, let’s start by not giving our information to corporations who don’t have our best interests at heart. CEO Jeff Bezos
Arguably, giving the administration information we’ve already surrendered may be better than leaving it to corporations. House Democrats face re-election in seventeen months, giving them a drop-dead deadline to hold President Obama accountable. Corporate CEOs have no small-d democratic safeguards over their terms, turning corporate autocrats like Mark Zuckerberg into the honey badger of modern capitalism: Zuckerberg don’t care. Zuckerberg don’t give a shit.

Don’t take me wrong. The administration’s apparent principle of treating citizens collectively as implicit terrorist suspects makes my skin crawl. Their approach besmirches the high-minded principles that got Obama re-elected seven months ago. But we citizens together have created the environment in which this administration operates. And if we really care enough to find this behavior offensive, let’s care enough to take our information back.

Selected Sources:

Friday, June 7, 2013

Law of the Concrete Jungle

Micheal J. Burt & Colby B. Jubenville, Zebras and Cheetahs: Look Different and Stay Agile to Survive the Business Jungle

Burt and Jubenville claim they devised this book after hearing the Guns’n’Roses classic “Welcome to the Jungle.” Any fan would wonder how closely they listened to the lyrics, which describe a city of moral degradation where one survives by constant hustling. Though cube farm life may seem hairy, it certainly doesn’t justify that comparison. But I suspect that’s retrospective reasoning. This book’s reality is much worse.

Rather than advocating Tarzan-like preparedness in facing the “concrete jungle,” these authors expect managers to corral workers into “collective passion.” This means exactly what it sounds like, and perhaps makes sense from a profit-and-loss perspective. They want managers to push workers into levels of accomplishment they’ve never seen before. But Burt and Jubenville commit little slips that reveal their implicit assumptions.

Nearly every page contains buzzwords so abstruse that I scarcely get through three paragraphs without teeth-grinding frustration. Free tip: any philosophical precept that needs more than a one-sentence definition is probably hiding something. Take this favorite, “dominant aspiration.” That aspiration is not yours, or even your manager’s, it belongs to your company. That means their aspiration dominates you.

In some environments, this makes sense. Both Burt and Jubenville are former pro coaches. In sports, the team wants to win, so the coach wants to win, so the players want to win. But unless you’re an athlete or entrepreneur, consider your company’s goals. Do you share them, too? If that aspiration, separate from your paycheck, motivated you, would you leave your spouse, children, and home to spend eight (or more) hours pursuing it daily?

Probably not.

I want to weep when I read passages like: “Tribe members want to know what their future with the tribe will look like.” First, the word “tribe” may have positive connotations (the Tribes of Israel), but mainly reflects colonial attitudes. European empires said “tribe” to diminish and subjugate Indian and African nations. Calling your workers a “tribe” basically acknowledges their conquered status.

Second, no they don’t. Workers want their work to matter. In traditional skills, we measure outputs: a well-framed house, healed patient, or bountiful crop. Futures are assured and rewards secured through hard, skillful service. The Bible says, “Thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things.” But white-collar sweatshops have no quantifiable outputs. This statement only makes sense when individual effort vanishes down a hole.

But this book essentially endorses such meaninglessness. It repeatedly describes workers as tribe members, herd animals, and children. Presumably, the authors don’t expect workers to read this book, because even hardened capitalists cannot miss the implication: shut up and accept the hierarchy. Success comes not from doing well, but from conforming to outsiders’ expectations.

From a distance, some sections seem more sympathetic. For instance, Burt and Jubenville advocate nurturing workers’ “body, mind, heart, and spirit” to maximize their potential. But they don’t really want to make workers better people; they want workers to “buy in to the dominant aspiration of the tribe”—that is, accept corporate goals as their own. They explicitly define success as workers submitting to arbitrary corporate structure.

Beyond literal words, consider what a manager becomes in that environment. Instead of leading, making decisions, or having power, they wrangle workers, persuading them to share company goals. But managers have no authority over the message, and little authority to make meaningful decisions. This book implicitly requires managers to be as broken-spirited as their subordinates.

Matthew B. Crawford, writing about “The Contradictions of the Cubicle,” says that “authority becomes smarmy and passive-aggressive, trying to pass itself off as something cooperative and friendly; as volunteerism.” We see that played out in real time with this book. Instead of demanding anything of leaders, or making them demand anything of the team, it camouflages dependence and subservience as democracy.

At heart, this book describes a plan for cheerful self-abnegation in an environment where workers don’t own their work, output, or time. It privileges forms of order over mechanisms of production, and would, I believe, precipitate immediate rebellion in any environment manufacturing concrete goods. It represents abstract management in a milieu of abstract work creating abstract stock.

This book in itself makes me angry. But worse, it represents the result of quasi-capitalism, a philosophy of social management contending that workers should achieve personal fulfillment by accomplishing others’ goals. It disguises its message in glittering generalities. If you ever wonder why you work hard and never get ahead, look at this book, and others like it, and sigh.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

How To Work At Work

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part Sixteen
Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work

Matthew Crawford has a BS in physics and a PhD in political philosophy, and worked for a time in a major K Street think tank. But he gave it up in 2001 to become a self-employed motorcycle mechanic, the opposite of popular upward mobility. In his first book, Crawford explores how American society has denigrated the process of creating stuff. When did we decide producing goods we can hold was menial work?

Human beings consistently define ourselves by our work. We proudly ballyhoo job titles and recognitions. But very few of us make our living actually creating tangible goods. Office environments shuffle responsibilities, while factories have so spread the manufacturing process that no person or group really produces or improves anything. No wonder shade tree mechanics, home brewers, and other private creators have seen their numbers multiply.

Once, the process of making stuff and the process of making discoveries went hand in hand. But today’s economic structure separates thinking from doing, alienating value creators from goods producers. Crawford writes: “the tradesman must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where one's failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away. His well-founded pride is far from the gratuitous 'self-esteem' that educators would impart to students, as though my magic.”

As a political philosopher, Crawford applies years of study and an impressive body of knowledge. He shows particular fondness for Aristotle and Heidegger, unsurprisingly, since both expounded earthy philosophies of “being” in the world. But as a mechanic, he has little patience for windy jargon, and demonstrates his points in anecdotes often laced with coarse, vulgar outbursts. As philosopher, Crawford writes for everyday readers, not tenured specialists with opaque dialects.

This dual career track makes Crawford essentially bilingual. If you don’t understand epic discursions on transcendent philosophic truths, wait a few pages; he’ll translate himself in terms of dismantling an obsolete Japanese intake manifold. He helpfully bolsters his machine shop tales with careful illustrations for overeducated yawps (like me) who little understand mechanical concepts. Crawford writes half memoir and half manifesto, tying high-minded truths to practical comprehension.

Late corporate capitalism has moved power over common manufacturing out of workers’ hands. Managers now not only make important decisions, they have exclusive rein on core knowledge. Engineers and designers know how stuff works, while workers put stuff together, a gulf that would have been unthinkable a few generations ago. It’s a gulf that Crawford himself bridged through his own business, though it remains instrumental in today’s acquisitive economy.

The process of reducing meaningful work to repetitive processes, perfected in heavy industry a century ago, has not stopped at the factory door. Crawford unpacks his own sojourn in a white-collar sweatshop, which is increasingly becoming the common destination for college graduates entering the workforce. Far from opening doors of social and economic mobility, education has become a path into new forms of penury—as I’ve learned all too well.

This arc even offers an explanation for the rise in adjunct college instruction. Where once universities prized their responsibility for creating new knowledge, many, especially public universities, have adopted the essential mentality of a tool-and-die shop. Jeffrey Selingo, in one of his more unguarded moments, even refers to colleges as manufacturers, and students as raw materials. Independent professors conducting self-directed research make lousy factory drones.

The problem Crawford describes started out in the workplace, but has become ubiquitous elsewhere. Public high schools have long channeled students into “career” and “college” tracks (Mike Rose has written eloquently on this Manichaean split). But many school districts have phased out woodshop, auto mechanics, and other costly classes. Too many youth will have no opportunity to discover hands-on adult roles until they venture into the workplace.

Not that it matters much. Fewer people know how to use and maintain the stuff they own—how to change their oil, or refurbish their houses, or grow their food. Pop the hood on many European cars, and you’ll find the engine encased in a shell; you physically cannot change your oil. Replace the battery on your own iPhone, and you automatically void the warranty. You aren’t supposed to understand.

American alienation from the work we do has become pandemic, though few understand why we feel this way. The problem seems very vast and abstract, yet somehow entirely earthy. As someone who has studied the issue from both directions, Crawford has a unique ability to put a name on this widespread feeling. His words feel familiar because we want to work, even when we can’t.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Olson's Guided Tour of Haunted Hollywood Hotspots

Melissa F. Olson, Trail of Dead: Scarlett Bernard, Book 2
This review follows Olson's Practical Primer in Ordinary Human Magic
Why do soap opera characters talk about dead enemies? Surely they’d learn that talking about them conjures them back to life. Scarlett Bernard, whose mere presence negates all magic, spent so much time in the prior book invoking her dead mentor Olivia that she almost had no right to act surprised when Olivia showed up, transformed into a vampire. Now it seems Olivia has one more lesson to teach Scarlett.

Melissa Olson’s first novel broke new ground in the overworked urban fantasy genre by shifting focus off the wizardry, onto human relationships. Scarlett, who makes her living keeping Los Angeles’ volatile supernatural community off the living world’s radar, overturned expectations by relying on her ability to love and form bonds, which the undead around her don’t share. This book doesn’t break the same ground, coasting on momentum, while remaining enjoyable.

Olivia, like Scarlett, was a “null” when she was alive: magic failed in her proximity, witches couldn’t penetrate her sphere, werewolves and vampires turned human when she passed. So how could she now be a vampire? The Count should have been rendered powerless by her presence. Scarlett must figure how how Olivia accomplished the impossible, while Olivia’s body count moves ever nearer, threatening everything and everybody Scarlett holds dear.

Detective Jesse Cruz stumbled into Scarlett’s world in the last book; now he finds himself serving as the Old World’s reluctant LAPD liaison. Los Angeles has built a strange truce among witches, werewolves, and vampires, a peaceable kingdom virtually unique in a world noted for medieval blood feuds. When vampire Dashiell, LA’s Old World capo, dragoons Jesse to stop Olivia’s bloodbath, he already knows he’s out of his depth.

The Godfather-esque implications Olson packed into her first book become amplified here, as Scarlett pushes the ethical envelope, and Jesse recognizes himself for a made man. But they rationalize (barely) their compromises as necessary when confronted by superhumans who fear revivals of feudal inquisitions. Moral squishiness is necessary when the pretty bad have to stand guard against the truly awful.

In such a milieu, leadership takes on new implications. Vampire Dashiell doesn’t so much lead, as play the part of leader, while everyone else plays followers to stave off anarchy. Witch princess Kirsten, who doubles as a suburban soccer mom, governs her people through a mix of politics and being stronger than anyone else. Werewolf alpha Will is prepared to kill anyone who strays. Power is playacting; civilization is a role.

Olson, a film industry veteran, does a good job embodying what it means to keep secrets in a city built on illusion. Scarlett and Jesse, the youngest and least adept members of LA’s Old World, find themselves fumbling through a succession of snafus because they haven’t yet learned to play their roles. Every encounter becomes a balancing act between saying what needs said, and maintaining necessary public façades.

Behind the pomp, Olivia knows her lines better than anyone. Unlike her naïve former apprentice, Scarlett, Olivia is a master manipulator, keeping the diverse communities chasing each other when they should unite against her. Scarlett and Jesse, the only players free to speak the truth, stand uniquely positioned to stop her onslaught. But they only get one bite of the apple.

In her ruthlessness and delusion, Olivia invites obvious comparisons to Hannibal Lecter. Yet on second thought, perhaps her mix of charm and sociopathy more closely resembles Chelsea Cain’s villainess, Gretchen Lowell. Both Olivia and Lowell share the ability to convince rational people that their moral qualms don’t matter. They both exude a twisted perversion of love. And they both brook no impediment to reach the people they consider “theirs.”

This volume does feel somewhat more predictable, proceeding as it does from the story Olson initiated in her first novel. Whether this means Olson has a distinctive voice that we can follow, or that Olson doesn’t blaze new trails this time out, only individual readers can decide. There’s a fine line between “comfortable” and “formula.” While I liked this book, and look forward to the next one, not everyone will agree. Individual taste matters.

If this book isn’t as innovative as the prior, if it doesn’t subvert genre archetypes with the same graceful aplomb, that doesn’t make it any less fun. Olson maintains the rocketing pace that she set, pushing LA’s notorious “live fast, die young” ethos onto characters who have already died, though that hasn’t slowed them down. While first-timers may prefer to start with the prior volume, this is a more-than-adequate sequel.