Monday, July 21, 2014

Musings on Death and Remembrance

We all need somewhere or something in whose presence we can remember departed friends and loved ones.

A grave is ideal. We can go there and reflect on our relationship to the departed. I often did this on my way to visit my Mother in the nursing home. I would stop by the cemetery, only a few hundred yards from her, and stand by my Dad's grave and remember how much he loved me, how much I loved him, and how much I missed him.

Now when I go that site, I can remember both Mother and Daddy. She joined him in 2005.

I had the same experience visiting the grave of Eloise, my first wife.

Cremation means the ashes can come to us and be a focal point of reminiscence.

Tears flow in either case, and we feel better afterwards.

Certainly We Need More of This

A typo in the NYT in a reader response indicated that if we reduced unneeded military expense, we could have more of this:

"clean elegy"  research."   Who could disagree with that?

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Babies and Animals Don't Talk like Adults

I hate seeing babies and animals talk on TV. The first 99,999 times maybe it was cute, but now it looks like a cheap substitute for creativity.

McCain and Graham

Is everybody getting as sick of John McCain and his puppet Lindsay Graham as I am?  If so, say "Amen."

Only One A+ TV Commercial

Commercials are a necessary evil if we are to have free TV. Necessary but still an evil. There is one exception that is valuable in and of itself -- the Alka Seltzer  ad starrimg Ralph:

Rating an A and coming in second is the Holiday Inn Express series on staying smart:

Beyond that it's  mostly a wasteland.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Syria: All Options Bad, Well Maybe Not

Sometimes the choice is between better and worse. In Syria the choice is between bad and less bad.
This is why even Jim Wallis could not come up with much. His suggestions about how to proceed are weak. He makes a good case against military intervention, but his positive suggestions rely on moral suasion, international cooperation, and the like. Well and good, but will anything come of it? Not much is my guess.
Go to this address and scroll down to see the article by Jim Wallis:

My problem is trying to avoid despair and to find the least bad option. I do not know what that is yet. Like Wallis, I am wary of military intervention for the reasons he cites. My hunch is that in time the choices may become clearer. Meanwhile, the best we can do is muddle through.

I don't see how a military strike can be avoided at this point. I hope for the best and fear the worst.

PS Good news today  (9/9/2013): Russia has urged that Syrian chemical weapons be put under international control and Syria has responded positively. The Washington Post tells the story:

Syria ‘welcomes’ Russia proposal on chemical arms
The statement provides the first indication that a diplomatic solution to the international standoff may be possible.
Sometimes the news is good. Let us rejoice. Or, maybe as Fareed Zakaria suggests on CNN, it is just a Russian ploy to reduce support for Obama's threat to attack Syria. Time will tell.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Reinhold Niebuhr and Biblical Myth

Reinhold Niebuhr believed that certain central myths of Scripture should be taken "seriously but not literally, e. g., Creation, Incarnation, and Last Things. "Seriously" means that these myths convey truths and meanings essential to "biblical faith." Who determines what these truths and meanings are?  Reinhold Niebuhr, of course. So RN uses these myths as a vehicle for transmitting his view of essential biblical truths. He is no different from any other theologian. Theology is the expression of religious belief. The Nature and Destiny of Man, 2 vol. is the best source for Niebuhr's thought

Rudolf Bultmann thought that myth meant (1) prescientific cosmology, e. g., three-story universe, miracles, etc. and (2) use of spatial metaphors for transcendence. God is up in heaven means that God is transcendent to people and earth. He thought he had to find the religious meanning in the myth taken in non-supernatural terms,

RN thought that RB reduced biblical myth to Heidegger's philosophy of existence, specifically human existence. RB therefore lost something essential to biblical truth,  according to RN.

This is for my friend Ben Jordan and others who are interested.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Windows 8--Love and Hate

I have a new computer with Windows 8. It was not love at first sight. It is much different from previous iterations of Windows. The first reaction was dislike approaching something akin to hatred.

The major change is the elimination of the START  button. Instead you get a panel of installed programs and features. One choice is DESKTOP. That location is the familiar one, and you can proceed much as usual. But other surprises await.

Another innovation is the touch feature. Mostly you can click or touch, but sometimes you can only touch and swipe. This is a modernistic feature familiar to users of smart phones, etc. My dumb cell phone only makes telephone calls.

I tend to forget that the first reaction  to every new computer is similar. You spend a lot of time getting rid of all the installed stuff you don't want. But 8 takes more than the usual reshaping to approach toleration rather than throwing the &^%$ thing out the !@#$% window.

After a week my distaste is weakening but has not disappeared. But I can feel a warm feeling that may yet blossom into appreciation. But accommodation to its demands requires patience. As you know, you do the adapting. It just does what it does do and you can come to terms with it or not. It is a literalist and does exactly what you tell it to do and not what you want it to do.  Such is the nature of computers.

This is a first report. I may yet fall in love with W8. Stay tuned.


PS1 I downloaded a free non-Microsoft program that restored the start button.

PS2 Windows 8.1 due in October will have the traditional start button-- a sign that Microsoft engineers have repented of the error of their ways.  Rumor (I just started it) has it that one of them had a dream about New Coke, awoke, and said "OMG, Windows 8.0 is New Coke."

Friday, February 01, 2013

Why is there a Mexican Immigration Problem?

 Answer: because of the massive subsidies to grain farmers in the US by the federal government. Go to Google, type in "immigration and corn subsidies," and check it out. The following are typical of what you will find:

Remember NAFTA?  That's when the big problems began.

Hmmmm! Why don't we cut off these subsidies?
a. failure of the political process
b. corruption of the political process
c. a and b
d. all of the above

Too simple?  Yes, and some progress is being made, But we are many years too late.

PS Senator Obama of Illinois voted consistently for corn subsidies. (Iowa and Illinois are the two biggest corn producing states.)

See also post of October 15, 2009.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Second Amendment Is a Curse

Whatever its historical merit,  the Second Amendment in 2013 is a hindrance  that we would be better off without. That every discussion of gun rights has to be mediated through this anachronism is an unmitigated disaster that serves no useful purpose.

Even if it were repealed, the legislatures of the land could not be counted on to produce laws that would help much. The problem is much deeper. It lies in our culture. In the final analysis, culture governs politics.

While Newtown may generate  helpful changes in laws and practices, the fundamental transformation that is needed awaits the dissolution of our perverse fascination with guns and our fanatical pursuit of individual rights to the neglect of social responsibility. It waits for the willingness to sacrifice a personal pleasure in owning and shooting instruments of mass murder like  assault rifles if it would reduce their availability to criminals and mentally and emotionally sick people.

I do not see any evidence of that basic reordering of ideas, habits, values, and practices yet. I expect that we will continue to be the worst example of child killing with monstrous weapons among the nations we would like to be compared with.

This is a form of American exceptionalism that we cannot be proud of. How many more Newtowns will it take to produce the kairos that is needed, that right and ripe moment when all the preconditions of  redemptive transformation are present? Enough, I expect to break our hearts many more times.

See also posts of  12/23/2012 and 1/22/2013

Monday, January 28, 2013

Letters and Logic: Fallacies Galore

Many decades ago a colleague of mine suggested that students in his logic class look in the letters to the editor section of the paper for examples of sloppy thinking. His advice still works.

It would take a textbook to cover all the errors in thinking. But read the letters critically, and you should have no trouble finding a treasure of  sloppy reasoning.

A common error  is identifying  correlation with causation. If a state with the death penalty has a higher murder rate than a state that does not, some take this to mean that the death penalty has no or little deterrent effect.  Maybe, but there could many causes that affect the murder rate in a given state besides the presence or absence of the death penalty.

Perhaps even more widespread is drawing too large a conclusion from too few facts, too big a generalization from too few particulars.  If the first ten people you see entering a new town are white, you might  conclude that the population is mostly white, whereas they might be the only whites in a village  with twelve  hundred blacks.

On and on it goes.

Thinking is hard work, and few of us do it well. Just take a look at tomorrow's newspaper.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Our Gun Aberration: Dangerous and Foolish

The United States is the country with the highest rate of civilian gun ownership in the world. (The second highest is Yemen, where the rate is nevertheless only half that of the U.S.) No civilian population is more powerfully armed.

 We have a thing about guns that sets us apart--to our shame and disgrace. The fact is that "guns are involved in a much higher percentage of deaths in the U.S. than just about any other place in the world. . . and guns are more likely than any other weapon to be involved in mass murder in the U.S."
However we argue about the exact statistics, the fact is that our  peculiar gun culture is a blot on our national moral character. 

I don't pretend to understand how this came about in our history.  I do fear that this character defect is not widely or sufficiently recognized.  The debate about guns is superficial until  the deeper issue angers our guts, stirs our hearts, and energizes our minds.

This has little to do with owning guns or hunting or sports shooting.  It has more to do with our values, habits of mind, attitudes toward violence and our toleration and glorification of  it in popular culture --movies, TV, video games, and the like.

The problem is not easily resolved. We cannot even begin to work at it effectively until  our fascination with guns and gun violence becomes a focus of our moral concern equal to that we have given to slavery, segregation, women's rights, workers' rights, and gay rights.

Better regulation can help, and wise laws and practices ought to be enacted. But deeper change awaits a profound and lasting cultural horror at the reality and extent of  gun violence in our midst that leads to repentance and the fruits that follow. It is a change deeper than mere laws, though law has a role.

As long as we argue merely about the government taking or regulating our guns, more Newtowns are in our future. I see little evidence of the deeper revolution of mind and conscience that is needed.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Newtown: Seeking Wisdom in the Words

                                     Accept Complexity
                                                    Marshall Schulman
                                               Amos 5:19
Words, words all around, but is there a drop of wisdom to drink? H. Richard Niebuhr claimed that defensiveness is the greatest source of error. There is plenty of that going around. A. N. Whitehead noted that a great source of error is making too large a generalization from too small an insight. Lots of that everywhere. Perhaps a "bits and pieces theory" of truth is the best we can do while devising helpful laws and practices in a spirit of bricolage.

Fallacies abound. Just because something worked in Australia or Norway doesn't mean it would work here in the same way or that it would be politically possible to begin with. Our history and culture are different. Statistical correlations become causal connections without regard for context. Absolute statements are commonplace. Things are said to work or not work, but they may work to some extent in some times and places but not or as well in others.

No general law or practice can prevent every specific act involving multiple murders. The NRA wants armed guards at every school. Sometimes that might save lives. But what will prevent one of them for unpredictable reasons from slaughtering a dozen first-graders before he can be stopped?  Unlikely, yes, but how likely was the Newtown massacre?

Better control of gun possession, improving the mental health system to locate and render harmless potential killers, making ammunition with mass-murder potential hard to get, having armed guards in our schools, and much more-- all of these and many other laws, steps, and practices large and small might help in some cases but will not likely be effective in all instances, even if they are possible in a locality or the country as a whole. Taken separately or together, they are not likely to prevent all future mass murders. Individual people kill with specific weapons at given times and places under particular circumstances with varying motivations. Some will get through every net of laws and practices we can devise. The next horror may be in a crowded church committed by a middle-aged female.

Are there any commonalities, any recurring patterns and profiles? Yes, of course, and we must look for them and devise remedies accordingly. We need to act on many fronts in many ways learning from the past and using what experience has taught us to make better what cannot be made perfect. But we can only do so where public opinion and political means make it possible.

Every measure has an opportunity cost, may have unexpected side effects and cause new and unforeseen problems. Bureaucracy will complicate and frustrate enforcement of well-intended laws. 

The Second Amendment is not the Word of God for all time but an anachronism that we might be better off without, especially given our present Supreme Court. Nevertheless, we could still permit responsible people to have guns for legitimate purposes though not without risking abuse and massacres. There is no fool-proof, risk-free system with or without the Second Amendment.

It would help if the absolutists and dogmatists would just shut up, but they won't, and they threaten to drown out calmer voices with modest proposals that have a chance of helping.
Finally, and most importantly, a fundamental issue is a cultural peculiarity in our society regarding guns rooted in our history.* We value individual freedom in this regard at a terrible cost, whereas an increased measure of social control might  promote the common good.

An important prerequisite, then, is a change of heart, of ideas, assumptions, attitudes, values, sentiments, and feelings. Change is possible when a given system breaks down in the presence of an attractive alternative. Perhaps the horror of Newtown will be for us a kairos--a right and ripe moment when healing can begin. Our deep-rooted individualism and political culture lead me to expect only modest changes for the better in the near future. But we can hope for more.

Meanwhile we are on a badly damaged ship on the open seas that must be repaired where we are with what we have--bricolage.

 Consider the wise words of Alfred North Whitehead:

"Philosophy may not ignore the multifariousness of the world--the fairies dance, and Christ is nailed to a cross."

"Seek simplicity--and distrust it."


Cf. Japan at the opposite end of the individual freedom versus social control value spectrum:

Friday, December 07, 2012

We Need a Speculation Tax

Tax stock trades to raise money on speculators:

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Forbidden Words

The following cannot be used henceforth until further notice:

campaign trail
drill down
balanced approach
the American people  (especially forbidden to politicians)
fiscal cliff
we'll see how it all turns out
Season's Greetings
emotional (especially by TV journalists when something obviously emotional comes on)
exclusive  (especially regarding a news report)
Objectify (as in objectify women). Just substitute the definition and leave out this abstraction

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Oh, NO! Not That. . . . .

Jesus  just defriended  me on Facebook.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

It's Been One of Those Days -- so Far.

I am writing this from my hospital room.  When about about to go down some stairs, I glanced at a sign  that said, "Be Careful Going Down Stairs."

The above is not true, but it might have been. The night was full of weird dreams whose details I have mercifully forgotten. Sleep was interrupted by a mild anxiety attack accompanied by the illusion that a stranger was in the  room touching me.  Awakening two hours later than usual, Gloria and I went to "Eco Park" only to learn that it was the right day but the wrong hours to recycle a broken dehumidifier and leave some outdated medicines. I would have dropped off  some unneeded  clothes and a collection of old eyeglasses but we couldn't locate the glasses that we had put where we could be sure to find them.

The telephone company was supposed to come to see if they could find out why my defibrillator and pacemaker will not transmit  data to the doctor to indicate whether my heart is in trouble. They haven't even called. Maybe their phones will not work.

The garage door people are due shortly to reattach the piece that connects the door to the lift chain.

Stay tuned for updates, unless I fall down the stairs that must be descended so that I can fix my lunch. Hope my heartburn does not return.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Founding of Israel a Mistake?

I repeat an older post because it seems so pertinent at the moment.

Does Israel Have a Right to Exist?

Hamas is condemned because it refuses to accept the right of Israel to exist. A good case can be made for Hamas on historical and moral grounds. It may  have been a mistake to establish the state of Israel in 1947 by bringing in thousands of mostly European Jews to a land largely populated by hostile Arabs and where few Jews had lived until well into the 19th century. Jewish possession of the land had been lost for more than a thousand years.

The result has been constant hostility, hatred, wars, and violent conflict with no end in sight. It is the source of Muslim hatred of Europe and America,  constant turmoil, and a threat to peace in the entire region. The notion that Palestine belongs to the Jews on the basis of a divine promise three thousand years ago is plausible only to those who find it plausible, including Jewish and Christian fundamentalists. Granted, some solution was needed for the constant persecution of Jews in many lands including Europe and America, but in my opinion the formation of a Jewish state in Palestine was probably  not it.

 A distinction needs to be made between accepting the moral right of Israel to exist and the full acceptance of the fact that Israel does exist, will exist, and must be dealt with accordingly with all the implications thereunto appertaining.

For practical reasons Hamas needs to come to terms with Israel as a reality, no matter how much they despise the fact. But pragmatism does not flourish in the presence of deeply rooted ideology and hostility toward Jews. The refusal of Hamas to  accept  this inexorable reality practically, if not theoretically and morally, is fraught with dire consequence for Jews and Arabs. To contest the full implications of the actuality of Israel as a Jewish state is futile and will be the source of continuing bloodshed and hateful agitation on and on. Sending missiles to explode in the cities of Israel solves nothing and perpetuates hatred and retaliation.

On the other hand Israel needs to stop the settlements and withdraw to their 1967 borders. This swap of land for peace needs to be accompanied by some plan, probably internationally mediated, for compensating Palestinian refugees for loss of their homes and livelihood because of their expulsion from Israel in the years following Jewish statehood. Israel needs to start treating Arabs in their territory with decency, and full respect and guarantee them all civil and personal rights that Jews have.

This is not likely to happen on either side. This, after all, is the Middle East where too few are willing to say with Yitzhak Rabin “enough of blood and tears.” So "two communities of suffering" (Edward Said) will continue to suffer and bleed and hate  until reason or sheer exhaustion leads to a resolution tolerable  to both if not loved  or welcomed by either.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Update:The Importance of Geography

Note the following maps of three presidential elections. What stands out?

2012 Electoral Map

2008 Electoral Map

1860 Electoral Map

What strikes me most in these maps is the continuity of geographical pattern. 2012, 2008, and 1860 are much alike in terms of the states that voted for the Democratic and Republican candidates in these three elections. (Of course, in 1860 the parties are reversed, i. e., blue is Republican, and red represents Southern Democrats, but the regional pattern is similar with border states both illustrating and complicating matters.)

I will retreat from my thesis as brutal facts annihilate another beautiful theory, but I find it interesting to play with.

As I said to my daughter regarding a similar issue, "It all begins with climate and soil."  Cf. Montesquieu (1689 –  1755). Begin with cotton-growing dirt and favorable weather, add the invention of the cotton gin, and, Voila, you have important clues to the Civil War. Anybody likely to read this can spell all this out as well as I can.

Is this all there is to it? Does geography explain it all? Of course not, but it is often an important and fascinating element in the total picture. It reminds us that we are not pure minds contemplating the eternal essences but flesh and blood made from mud  (Genesis 2:7)  who are very much earth creatures. At the same time we have amazing capacities for inventing technologies and cultures that set us apart. Just don't forget geography, i. e.,  what we can learn from climate and location.
*The present-day pattern is evident also in 2004 though the continuity is a less evident than between 08 and 12.
Friday, May 25, 2012

A Geographical Theory of Same-Sex Marriage

The acceptance of same-sex marriage is coming. With a few exceptions it is coming and will come geographically: Northeastern states -- including New York and Maryland, West coast, Upper Midwest, and eventually the Southwest, and the Southeast. Mississippi or Utah  may be last. Of course, anomalies and deviations from this geographical pattern will occur, but overall it will generally hold. One could predict more accurately perhaps by using zip codes -- still a geographical factor.
Thursday, May 24, 2012

A Geographical Theory of Winning in 2008

Look at the electoral maps of 2000 and 2004. The geographical pattern is striking, allowing for minor exceptions. The blue Democratic states are the Northeast, the upper Midwest, and the states bordering the Pacific. The red Republican states are the Southeast, Southwest, lower Midwest, mountain and plains states. A pre-Civil War map showing free (blue) and slave (red) states and territories almost exactly matches the electoral map of 2004.

While electoral maps of many other years would not be this striking, a geographical factor is present, except in blowout years like 1936, 1972, and 1984. Look at it another way. Democrats won the large cities, while Republicans won the small towns and rural areas, with the suburbs split. Divisions are also noticeable with regard to income, education,, religion, race and ethnicity, age, marital status, and gender, but geography is relevant to many of these as well. Zip code is an important clue all by itself.

Since this is a blog and not a book, what can we learn from this? Geography is a useful clue to many other things -- history, economics, religion, and culture. The geography of the South, e. g., was conducive to cotton growing and therefore slavery, which has deeply affected its entire history. Geographical factors account in part for immigration patterns and the Protestant domination of the South.

Geography is a component of, if not clue to, how things work out in other areas with regard to economics, culture, and religion.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Muddling Through-- Now More than Ever

The best way to unite idealism and realism, on the one hand, with principles and practice, on the other hand, is to embrace a philosophy of "muddling through" (first known use 1864). Especially in matters of national concern and even more so in foreign policy, muddling through appears to be the best approach. Just review your own life to get the individual perspective.

Muddling through means to do the best you can with what you have at the moment. You do so without forgetting your ideals but embrace a realism  which acknowledges that noble ideals are daily crushed by brutal facts. You hold steadily to your principles but compromise them for small gains when the available alternatives are worse. Or you take the least bad when all other options are badder.

Revising Lucy from Peanuts,  this is my old and continuing philosophy.

For today think Libya, Egypt, Yemen,  Israel, Syria, Pakistan, Palestine, Iran, and on and on. Or think about many choice you have to make in your own life where the only available l paths have major consequences you wish to avoid  and you  have to to muddle though somehow, someway.

And don't forget that sometimes life is really, really good.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Why I Struggle over Blog Writing

It finally dawned on me why I have trouble writing some of my blogs: I can't decide whether I want to write  an op-ed or a scholarly article.

On the two following items I started out simply to state that Paul Ryan is Joseph Townsend in modern garb. Then the professor in me awakened, and I tried to show some awareness of the serious literature with all its scholarly apparatus.

When I had a real life working for (receiving?) an income, I was both a teacher and a preacher, but now when I'm writing blogs, I can't make up my mind which to be. 

Sometimes I end up being a messy mixture of both.

Paul Ryan and Joseph Townsend: Moral Theory of Poverty Alive and Well

Joseph Townsend in his Dissertation on the Poor Laws (1786) said, "Hunger will tame the fiercest animals, it will teach decency and civility, obedience and subjection, to the most perverse. . .  .  In general it is only hunger which can spur and goad the poor to labor."  

Sadly, we have not come as far as one would wish from that dastardly sentiment. George Gilder in our generation asserted that the poor need the spur of poverty in order to succeed. His 1981 bestseller Wealth and Poverty was popular in the Reagan administration

Republicans, including some of my relatives and friends, are not far from Townsend and Gilder. The idea is that the poor are poor or have no work  because they are shiftless, lazy, good for nothing idlers unwilling to put in a hard day's work for whatever someone is willing to pay them.

Conservatives tend to think that the unemployment problem would go away if people were only sufficiently eager to work,  make good personal choices, would work at available wages, and go where the jobs are. Their mega-solution tends to be "Personal responsibility."

Besides, that's the way the market works; not much the government can do.

 Karl Polanyi quotes Ludwig von Mises as saying if workers "did not act as trade unionists, but reduced their demands and changed their locations and occupations according to the requirements of the labor market, they could eventually find work." Polanyi's response is apt: "It is not for the commodity to decide where it should be offered for sale, to what purpose it should be used, at what price it should be allowed to change hands, and in what manner it should be consumed or destroyed." Karl Polanyi, The Great Tranformation,  176.

Witness the latest "abomination of desolation" -- the offering of Paul Ryan as a candidate for vice-president.  He is at heart a Townsend wolf redvivus though in more politically expedient sheep's garb.  He breathes the air exhaled  by von Mises,  Friedrich Hayek The Road to Serfdom, and  (gasp!) Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged.  See Paul Krugman, 

Alas, the moral theory of poverty is alive and well. We can only hope that it does not come to reside in the White House.

Why the Poor are Poor: Muticaualist Theory Needed

The Role of General Theory

Economic conditions and cultural patterns* tend to have persisting effects on individuals.  Change may be produced by a transformation of values that  have economic effects. This I take to be the import of Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. 1904-5. Changes in material and technological conditions--the production and distribution of  goods and services --have political, social, and cultural consequences. This I take to be the import  of  the work of  Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and their followers. This ancient debate takes new forms but continues old themes on the causes and cures of poverty.

*For immediate working purposes, let culture mean what humans add to nature, including language, meanings, values, norms, and symbols.

Contemporary theorists bring into play both the values and behavior of the poor and the structural economic forces that shape their lives. The debatable questions have to do with the priority, sequence, and causal relations between them. The players have changed since I investigated the discussion in my The Passion for Equality, 1987, but I am not aware that the terms of the argument are substantially different. The nature, extent, and causes of the "underclass" have received a lot of attention since then.

A good summary of recent  research theory can be found in the Godkin Lecture at Harvard by William Julius Wilson,"The American Underclass: Inner-City Ghettos and the Norms of Citizenship" 

More recent research is cited by Thomas Edsall in

I have been impressed with Wilson's work:
The Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions (1978). 
The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy (1987), 
More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City (2009),

He has argued that  class is more useful than race in explaining black urban poverty today. He does not deny the destructive behavioral patterns in the ghetto but believes that the primary source lies in the underlying economic structures (loss of good-paying industrial jobs in black neighborhoods, e. g.) that resulted in a high rates of unemployment among black men, which makes them undesirable mates for black women. Today we would need to add the facts about the   incarceration of young black males related to our misguided, abhorrent drug policies that magnify the problem. This compounded with the lack of political commitment by either party to sufficiently robust structural changes that would benefit the poor and middles classes across racial lines makes for a discouraging situation with no end in sight.

It is difficult to know much to stress economic and structural factors as determinants of cultural practices and values.  In my opinion, it works both ways in a complex dynamic of interactive influences mutually reinforcing, limiting, or taking precedence over each other in ways that no single theory is likely to get just right. I hold all theories tentatively, skeptical of all claims that "at last we've got it." It is not easy to get  the full reality of things in a general theory, no matter how sophisticated and nuanced it is.

Urban poverty, specifically that of the black ghetto in the old industrial cities gets the most attention, but I have always been equally interested in rural poverty, among both blacks and whites, especially in the South, including Appalachia.

Liberals generally favor basic structural economic factors and social causes. Conservatives tend to

(1) have an excessive individualism that minimizes the general  socio-economic  conditions--lack of opportunity, and high rates of unemployment, etc.--where the poor reside. They ignore the destructive effects of familial, social, and cultural conditions on children growing up that work against the development of  the personal responsibility that is  their overarching moral principle or

(2) fall into  a defeatist, despairing cultural theory. This approach stresses how behavior, attitudes, and values trap the poor into  economic failure over generations.  They follow this theme regardless of and independently of how appalling structural economic factors may be productive of the cultural framework thus generated. (See the lecture by William Julius Wilson previously mentioned for an excellent summary of the trajectory of the "culture of poverty" thesis.)

In short, they may ignore the social conditions that work against the development of individual responsibility, or they may proffer a "culture of poverty" thesis that makes the situation so hopeless that no government action will be effective enough to matter much. A variant is Lawrence Mead who thinks that the poor  value work but are defeated and discouraged by their situation. He argues that personal responsibility should be enforced by requiring recipients to work in order to receive benefits  ("the new paternalism"). See The New Politics of Poverty: The Nonworking Poor in America (1993). His work is behind the reform of welfare in the Clinton administration.

Conservatives and liberals, like Heinz products, come in 57 varieties. Many of all persuasions ignore the role of luck or the absence thereof in individual success or failure.

The Importance of Individual Stories
Stories are concrete and may  capture more of the full reality than abstract theories, although stories can leave out much as well, i. e., not tell the whole story. Here are a few samples:

From  Joseph Loconte:
Consider a homeless man named Walter. . . .  who had just received a supply of new needles, courtesy of the taxpayers of New York.

Walter admitted to me that he wasn't using the needles himself; he was selling them on the street for bags of heroin. (Lots of other addicts at needle-exchange programs do the same.) I asked him if he could picture his life without drugs. Could he imagine himself clean, employed, married, maybe a homeowner? I'll never forget his answer: "I'm way past that," he said. "The best thing I do is getting high ... Just put me on an island and don't mess with me."

From William Julius Wilson:
Godkin Lecture, loc. cit.
Curtis .. . . has been working for several years as a dishwasher for different employers. He now cooks, mops, and washes dishes for $4.85 an hour. He has held this job since February of 1985 without taking a single day of vacation. His supervisor has made it crystal clear to him that he is expendable and that if he takes too much, that is, any vacation, they will not keep him. On the day of the interview, he had had a molar pulled and was in great pain, partly due to the fact that not having any money and having already borrowed cash to pay for the extraction, he could not buy the prescribed pain-killers. Yet he was extremely reluctant to call his boss and ask for an evening off. . . .
He has not taken any steps to get further education or training, mainly because his work schedule and lack of resources make such planning quasi-impossible. . . . (H)e frequently finds himself without any money: 'Yeah, like today. I had to get my tooth pulled and I had to go out and rent money.' When this happens, he borrows small sums, about $20 from friends and associates: 'I just try to hang in there, whatever I do.' People in the neighborhood often find themselves out of cash too, and the result is that illegal activities are fairly routine in this section of Grand Boulevard: 'Oh, man some of them steal, some of them, uh … It's hard to say, man, they probably do anything; they can to get a dollar in their pocket. Robbing, prostitution, drug sale, anything. Oh boy.'. . .  Curtis's life as he described it to me was a real wreck, and he was evidently quite desperate, with no perspective of improvement in sight.
 ABC News report on Appalachian poverty:
At the start of his senior year,  Shawn Grim, 18, led the state of Kentucky in touchdowns. The star of his high school football team, the Johnson Central Golden Eagles, hoped to use his football prowess to win a scholarship to college.
Grim's family lives in a hollow in Flat Gap, Ky., where thievery and alcoholism are rampant. He was so eager to break away that he moved out of the family's trailer.
"The whole entire hollow is nothing but family, and all of them hate each other, so it's all fighting," he said.
He wanted to be the first in his family to graduate from high school.
"I want to go out here and I want to make everybody proud of me," he said. "And I want to make everybody happy that I'm actually trying something and doing something with my life, and I don't want to mess up."
See Wes Moore, The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates (2010). This is the story of two young black urban men who turned out quite differently though sharing many similar personal and social circumstances.

Such is the complexity of life with its interweaving of heredity, physical and social environment, personal life history, and personal choice along the way. There is usually more in reality than in any of our interpretations of it.

I am guided by Alfred  North  Whitehead:
 "Seek simplicity and mistrust it."
"Philosophy may not ignore the multifariousness of the world--the fairies dance, and Christ is nailed to a cross."

Sunday, August 05, 2012

The Olympics: Nationality, Race, Color, and Ethnicity

At the Olympic Games we have witnessed a dramatic change of color. The first week we saw mainly faces with a European and Asian heritage. Think swimming, diving, and gymnastics. Since Friday and from now on we will see a great many athletes with African and Caribbean ancestry, most notably in the Track and Field Events. This is especially true in running events. Not many black faces last week, with notable exceptions, including the delightful  Gabby Douglas, but they will be much in evidence until the closing ceremonies!  Interesting and worth pondering.

Hoover, Romney, and the Economic-Political Equation

Some skeptics doubt Mitt Romney when he claims that his business experience uniquely qualifies him to improve the economy if elected president. Why, just remember Herbert Hoover. He was a successful business man. And we all know what happened to the economy after he became president.

Does it need to be added that running a company and running a country are two different things? Possessing acumen in the former does not necessarily transfer to the latter. Presidents need political skills that business executives may or may not have.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

The Chick-Fil-A Matter

The better reason for not patronizing Chick-Fil-A is that some of the profits go to support abhorrent anti-gay causes.  The bigoted owner is entitled to his opinions, but I am entitled not to contribute indirectly to his awful anti-gay projects.  I did think the gay kiss-in was a capital idea.

Vidal Gore: Best Quote

There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party ... and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat. Republicans are a bit stupider, more rigid, more doctrinaire in their laissez-faire capitalism than the Democrats, who are cuter, prettier, a bit more corrupt — until recently ... and more willing than the Republicans to make small adjustments when the poor, the black, the anti-imperialists get out of hand. But, essentially, there is no difference between the two parties

I would claim that the differences are more important than he suggests, especially today with tea party ascendency.

Daffy Definitions: Paradox


Two physicians

A Contradiction when used by a theologian

Two printed items side by side

A sad mortician at a $50,000  funeral

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Salvific Potential of Baptists

Will Campbell, prophet extraordinaire, once said:

"Baptists are the hope of the world, now if we could only find some."

The ideal Campbell Baptist may be scarce, but about the closest thing to it I know are those related to the Alliance of Baptists.

In the preceding blog I have put a copy of their Covenant. Check it out. Go to their site and look up the churches who support the Alliance. 

Best thing going for Baptists in our time.