Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Gingrich and Obama on Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party, Respectively: A Study in Contrasts (Oh, and Love Your Enemies)

If Ralph Waldo Emerson is correct in asserting that, "There can be no high civility without a deep morality," Newt Gingrich may have provided us with some priceless insight into his character at last weekend's Thanksgiving Family Forum in Iowa.
     The nastiness of modern American politics might fairly be compared to a football scrum, and no one emerges with the ball, so to speak, without throwing a few elbows. But still there remain some standards of decency--however relative they may be. For example, Rick Perry's bald-faced lie that Obama called the American people "lazy", would probably hurt his campaign if it was still viable. And Representative Joe Walsh recently learned that screaming at constituents is generally looked down upon. Another rule is that one should save his harshest punches for fellow pols, treating more magnanimously groups of citizens who don't share your philosophy.
     Which brings us to this demonstration of incivility from a man who will, thankfully, never be the president of the United States:


In comparison, President Obama's analysis of the Tea Party's significance certainly seems like "high civility":


     But since Obama is indeed a politician, and not without his own transgressions, let's conclude with some pertinent advice from a more pristine source:
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
-Jesus Christ, Matthew 5:43-48

Friday, November 18, 2011

Gingrich's Climate Change Reversal is Not at All "Inexplicable"

Until very recently, it's been easy to ignore the two Catholic Republicans running for president. That's largely because Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum so tidily fit the stereotype of conservative Catholics: faithful to the Church on social issues, and at odds with the Church on just about everything else. Add to this clich√© the fact that neither will be the next president, and it becomes difficult to gather the inertia to pay them serious attention.
     But now that recent polling has confirmed Gingrich's status as the right's flavor-of-the-month, his questionable character and penchant for making objectionable statements take on added import.
     While earning the distinction of 'the intellectual' amongst a field of candidates like Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Michelle Bachmann may be somewhat dubious, the former House speaker did demonstrate passing intelligence (and decency) when he urged bold action on climate change in this 2008 ad with Nancy Pelosi:


     Last week, however, Gingrich seemed markedly less brilliant as he tried to explain this conservative heresy on Fox News:


     His explanation for the "the dumbest single thing" he's done is that it was simply "inexplicable." But the decision to film a commercial advocating-- alongside a political nemesis--a policy violently at odds with a majority in your party is not the result of a momentary lapse in judgment. It's a decidedly deliberate decision--and actually quite explicable.
     Gingrich is an intelligent human being who, when unbound by the pressure of appealing to an anti-science conservative base, is capable of seeing what is demonstrably true: that there is an overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity is substantially contributing to a markedly warming planet. Gingrich rightly points out that the "vast majority" of the National Academy of Sciences' members hold this view; he could have also mentioned the plethora of other national science academies that concur, or made note of the lack of a single national or international body that dissents. In any case, there is no rational cause for the 99% of us who are non-experts in climate science to deny the probability that the experts are right.
     This is why Gingrich made the ad with Pelosi. It is why John Huntsman advocates this position even though it reduces to zero his chances of making a plausible run for the Republican nomination. It is why Mitt Romney and (former candidate) Tim Pawlenty once advocated regional cap and trade programs. Like Gingrich, they've subsequently seen the light.
     Gingrich will never reclaim the power he once held as Speaker of the House, but if he tells the truth about his noble motivation for making this ad, he can recover some of his integrity.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Did Thomas Merton travel through time to witness this year's Republican primaries?

Any blogger worth his salt will quote extensively from far superior writers to buy a little time until his next post. Thomas Merton's body of work may represent the most poetic, world embracing, and broadly appealing Catholic rhetoric of the 20th Century. I'm not sure if anyone like him exists today. If so, let me know.
“We have to recognize that a spirit of individualism and confusion has reduced us to an ethic of ‘every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost.’ This ethic, unfortunately sometimes consecrated by Christian formulas, is nothing but the secular ethic of the affluent society, based on the false assumption that if everyone is bent on making money for himself the common good will automatically follow, due to the operation of economic laws.

An ethic of barely disguised selfishness is no longer a Christian ethic. Nor can we afford to raise this to the national level and assume that the world will adjust itself if every nation seeks its own advantage before everything else. On the contrary, we are obliged to widen our horizons and to recognize our responsibility to build an international community in which the right of all nations and other groups will be respected and guaranteed. We cannot expect a peaceful world society to emerge all by itself from the turmoil of a ruthless power struggle – we have to work, sacrifice and cooperate to lay the foundations on which future generations may build a stable and peaceful international community. Every Christian is involved in this task, and consequently every Christian is obliged to seek information and form his conscience so that he may be able to contribute his own share of intelligent political action toward this end.” - From Peace in the Post-Christian Era

Thursday, November 3, 2011

In Indifference (Almost) to Occupy Wall Street and in Praise of Alec Baldwin

Not my favorite Occupy Wall Street tactic
    Here are a few reasons why I won't share many words about Occupy Wall Street. First, I'm a big fan of coherent arguments. I can sympathize with them, learn from them, or be enraged by them (perhaps enjoying that last option too much). But I, along with everyone else, can glean no clear set of positions or demands from these protesters. Perhaps this will come with time.
    Second, I'm actually quite a fan of capitalism. While I am dumbfounded by the intensity of the faith many have in the free market, in the absence of any semblance of a credible alternative, I'm willing to give capitalism its due.
     My next point works in tandem with the last: I advocate arguments and movements that--resting on the premise that most people we disagree with are fundamentally decent--avoid needlessly demonizing groups or individuals. Offering up the richest 1% as scapegoats for all that ails us is a tantalizing proposition. But I won't assent to it.
     And last, as a person of deep faith, whenever I come across a complex issue or situation, one question guides my response: "What would Alec Baldwin do?" Okay, I'm mostly joking about this one, though after his polished performance in the midst of a thicket of Zuccotti Park squatters, I may be ready to endorse him for president in 2020 (giving him ample time to first make the requisite run for U.S. Senate).


    One minute and twenty-four seconds in, Baldwin hits the nail on the head: "Capitalism is worthwhile." It's not perfect. It's not a panacea. It's not precious or holy. It's worthwhile. And sometimes worthwhile endeavors need course corrections--or someone to "throw the flag," as Baldwin puts it.
     While the Occupiers so far lack lucidity and reasonableness, they have accomplished something really important. They have finally highlighted a long known, but little reported fact: income disparity in the United States is far greater than the average citizen would guess--and it has only been growing. It's not demonization therefore, to suggest that the 1%, whose combined wealth is substantially greater than the entire bottom 90%, should pay marginally higher tax rates as one element of a deficit reduction program. This new appreciation of the wealth gap has likely contributed to the possible softening of congressional Republicans' absolutism regarding new revenues.
     Not all have been made aware of this reality, though. I'll end by linking to yesterday's post by the Atlantic's James Fallows, who highlights what a sweet deal Rick Perry and Herman Cain offer the ultra-wealthy with their flat(ish) tax plans. It's not so sweet for the rest of us, as you'll see. Fallows also provides the following chart from the Congressional Budget Office, which demonstrates the inequality of income growth over the past three decades: