Wednesday, August 20, 2008

"Above my paygrade", amongst other things

I'm coming a bit late to the analysis of the debate (discussion?) that Obama and McCain had with Rick Warren at Saddleback. I must admit to having virtually stopped watching the news out of a sense of self-preservation (read: I find it too depressing).

First, I have deep reservations about the whole affair in the first place. Why aren't Obama and McCain having a "regular" debate? Why did both of them pander to fundamentalists by signing up for this event? My other question, to Obama, is why did you set yourself up for certain failure? There were many ways to take a moral high ground by not agreeing to this event and he did not take them. John McCain desperately needs to shore up the backing of evangelicals and fundamentalists, so I can understand his desire for participation. I'm starting to think Obama actually sees himself as part of this Christian heritage continuum (which gives lie to all the claims he's a crypto-Muslim). But what he continually misses is the sorry fact that these people want easy answers, stated with absolute conviction. I found McCain's statement that he'd "follow Bin Laden to the gates of hell" absolutely horrifying. His short answer to "When does life begin?": "At conception" was equally appalling, for I'm not certain, as with much of what McCain's saying these days, that he actually believes that at all, but he's having to throw his lot in with the extremists. And I'll add, just out of crankiness, that his saying that being rich is having 5 million dollars, and then laughing at his answer, was outrageous, especially given the fact that it's Obama who's been called the elitist.

I'm sorry that Obama's answer to "When does life begin?" was that answering the question was "above his pay grade". I immediately understood the joke, but it was not a time for joking. In fact, I was reminded of a South Park episode, in which the boys were faced with the dilemma of whether to help Grandpa commit suicide, which he couldn't manage on his own. They boys phoned in to Jesus's talk show (this is South Park, remember) and asked Jesus what he thought about euthanasia. Jesus said, "I'm not going to touch that with a ten foot pole." In effect, that's what Obama was saying. The truth is, while fundamentalists (and now McCain) may seen dead certain about when life begins, even the Catholic Church is not certain. The pope issued this on the subject: "The Magisterium has not expressly committed itself to an affirmation of a philosophical nature [as to the time of ensoulment], but it constantly affirms the moral condemnation of any kind of procured abortion."

But Americans like certainty. The Catholic Church may condemn abortion (and birth control) but I will say I appreciate that they say they don'tknow for certain the answer to the question of when life begins (or ensoulment, as they put it).

More than one commentator on the Web said that he was dissapointed that Obama joked when faced with the "most pressing moral question of our time." That a good amount of Americans think this is the most pressing moral question of our time is, frankly, terrifying.

I am sorry Obama joked. He had an opportunity for a teaching moment, but I dare say he's become scared off of these on account that he comes off too preachy. I would have loved to hear him say that he was not equipped to answer this question, or even object to it being asked of him (or any other politician). To answer is to give it weight (and may be another reason Obama chose to sidestep it with a joke). The question of when life begins (and ends)is essentially a religious question.

I'm sure many would love science to answer the question. The question itself is one for theologians and philosophers, and not hard science. And even if hard science weighed in with a definate answer, people would dismiss whatever answer they have as "just a theory". That aside, if Obama felt this question was not one he could, should or ought to answer, he should have explained why in no uncertain terms.

For me, the bottom line is my fear about the line between church and state becoming increasingly blurred, and this is another reason I'm sorry either candidate showed up for this event, even if Mr. Warren is a "nice" evangelical who wrote the kind of book that Oprah endorses (The Purpose Driven Life).

Y'know, I bet that book is actually pretty good. Just last night, I was telling a friend, that I truly believe that depression, at heart, is a spiritual problem.

But, I am frightened by the increasing religiousity of our politics and government. The separation of church and state is vital to our nation, and people need to be educated about what it means. How many people do understand the concept? The president of this country should be attending to other matters than philosophical/spiritual/religious ones. Interestingly, even though so many think that a president should address these concerns, he should do so from his "heart" and not from being widely read and educated. It is as if "we" have come to believe that everything is learned in the same way as a religious conversion experience. We "know", but we can't explain, and that's perfectly okay. I say it's not okay, not in the least.

I've really had it. Know-nothings run the country and elect our officials. We're suspicious of "intellectuals" and want our president to either be a regular Joe or a G.I. Joe.

I sorely wish Obama would stop trying to shield the public from his intellectualism and just own it, challenging us to see how important it is to have a more nuanced and changeable mind. That his reception in Germany terrified the masses of America is something he could have spoke about, too. But I suspect he's running a bit scared, which dissapoints me.

Obama does seem to wander into tangents when he's speaking extemporaneously. His pauses seem like moments of confusion, whereas I would guess they are just moments of thought (but unlike the late William Buckley, Obama doesn't make some weird humming sound nor stick his pen into his mouth to signify he's thinking).

Thinking, anyway, is rather suspect these days. What is John McCain actually thinking when he says in uncertain terms that he'll follow someone to the gates of hell for revenge? Is this what we want? Knee-jerk histrionic threats straight out of the type of thinking about the world that plays like it's straight out of a bad Shakespeare re-make? We've had enough of that with Bush Junior.

I was going to end this post here, but I want to address how we got ourselves here. A friend asked me what I thought about that last night. How did we get to the point where Americans know nothing about geography, care nothing for understanding other cultures (or the destruction of our own), know near to nothing about our own history and government, and even celebrate their right to ignorance?

I said "I don't know. There's much that brought us here." I'm not a historian, a sociologist or even much of an intellectual. I do have one observation and it's one that's usually heard from conversatives; our expectations of education are abysmal.

Even when I was in High School, classes in history were optional and only recommended for advanced placement students. From elementary school through High School, instead of history, we learned "social studies". Instead of learning about how our goverment worked or actually reading the Constitution or Bill of Rights, we had "current events" (at least we had them; most schools have dispensed with this topic). Learning a second language was an elective presented when we were already in Junior High School, and not at an age where learning a second language is known to be most effective, in the lowest grades. We take it for granted that the rest of the world is bilingual and can speak English along with whatever their native language is. What if the consensus shifted and everyone started to learn Chinese? It's not impossible. Where would we be, in a country where we are conditioned to think that we are so powerful that we don't need to learn much?

I firmly believe that understanding the basics of how our government works, having a basic grasp of our country's history, and knowing something of the rest of the world, too, is imperative for an informed electorate. The dumber we are, the more easily we can be lead (and mislead). I'm appalled at the way politicians are sold like products because the general populace can't digest information any other way. The power of persuasion should be through reason and ideas, not clever advertising.

In 1968, at a rally in Memphis, the late Robert F. Kennedy, against advice, decided to deliver the horrible news of Martin Luther King's assassination to a mostly black crowd. He opened by extemporaneously quoting Aeschylus:

"Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God."

For the moment, I'll put aside my reservations about church/state issues. What I want to point out is this: Can you imagine any politician quoting a Greek playwright in this day and age? I can imagine our President, if he was standing on the same stage as someone who deigned to, shifting uncomfortably in his chair like a small boy who's itching to get out of his seat in school. Remember how Bush made fun of a reporter for having the audacity to speak French when addressing the French president at a news conference? Here we are, in 2008, with folks nervous about Obama because they don't like that Europeans like him. I think this fact is wonderful. I look forward to the day that we are again a member of the world community. The fact that non-Americans look forward to that day, too, is a very good thing. It's hopeful.

Today, I'm not feeling hopeful. My father, who's 93, says he's never been so optimistic in his life about the future of the world. He's seen a lifetime of immense progress, and for his generation, it's never abated. He started life in a world that still reeked of the 19th century (quite literally, with more horses in the streets of New York City than cars). Now he e-mails and plays chess with people all over the world. He lived through the depression and World War II. This doesn't make his optimism the "correct" way of seeing things. In fact, some have called his generation the luckiest generation in history.

As for now, and the immediate future, I am wary. I'm afraid fear will drive voters to McCain. I'm nervous about the escalation of wars around the world. But at heart, I am still an optimistist in one way - I think even if the doomsday scenarios do play out, in the end, the best of the human spirit will survive. I really do.

Image note: Fresco from a cubiculum nocturnum (bedroom)
Roman, Late Republican, ca. 50–40 B.C.
From the villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale, near Pompeii

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has a wonderful room of Pompeiian frescoes and artifacts. I consider myself lucky that during my childhood I spent many a Sunday roaming the halls of this extraordinary museum, learning about history by being intimate with the objects of history. This is no small thing.

Addendum: I recommend this opinion piece on the Saddleback talks.

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