Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Disconnecting from Our Christian Ghetto

The longer I stay engaged with evangelicalism's conventional model of religion, the more I'm learning how weird it must appear to the unchurched.

I know that's not the way it's supposed to work.  The longer anybody acculturates to their conventional model of religion, whether it's Christianity, Islam, or atheism, its normalcy in our lives ordinarily makes us immune to seeing its peculiarities from an outsider's perspective.

But perhaps it's because I'm somewhat of an outsider to our North American evangelical ghetto, I have something of a vantage point to see what's happening inside, understand the lingo that helps explain what's happening inside, and yet still experience a level of detachment that many actors involved on the inside of evangelicalism don't.

When I started this blog, I called it "Outside, Looking In," which is where the "O-L-I" part of its URL comes from.  But then I suspected that it could make me sound like a socially perverted peeping Tom, or somebody who lives vicariously through the experiences of other people.

Now, however, I realize that my position is more than just social astigmatism or vicarious reality.

I'm not talking about whether corporate worship services should be contemporary or traditional, or whether the preacher should wear a robe or denim jeans.  I'm talking about our basic understanding of what church is, why we have senior pastors, why we construct huge buildings for ourselves, and why we then go out into politics and everybody else's business and try to tell them how to behave.

Now, hang on a minute:  Neither am I saying we shouldn't have corporate worship services, or preachers, or nice church buildings, or be involved in the surrounding culture and society.

No, what I'm saying is that it seems like we base our faith upon all of these things, instead of the Gospel.  Instead of Jesus Christ.  Instead of the Fruit of the Spirit.

Whenever evangelicalism has a scandal, we look at the people involved and compare their behavior against our own.  Sometimes we compare their behavior against Christ's, which is obviously the only Measuring Stick we should be using, but we still rate the impact of the scandal based on what we can see.  Will church membership drop?  Will we go into debt?  How do we look to the outside world?

Consider the scandal festering at Seattle's embattled Mars Hill Church, where the pugnacious Mark Driscoll has preached for years, or the scandals within any number of our "parachurch" ministries - like the ultra-conservative Bill Gothard and his Institute of Basic Life Principles.  Evangelicals try to assign blame, parse out punishment, and sop up the public relations mess like it's only the people involved who were at fault, and not the very way we evangelicals do business.

And yes, we're doing business these days.  Lots of business.  We're building huge not-for-profit empires we call "ministries," for pious-sounding religious reasons.  We're paying large salaries, developing a lot of products, marketing those products, and hiring swarms of people to deploy those products.  Many of us believe those products are what actually "save" the "lost."  That's why we create so many diverse products to sell:  everything from sermons and music and worship formats to clothing, books, political action committees, seminars, universities, and short term mission trips.  We compete against each other, since every church has a preacher, and most preachers like to believe their sermons are worth disseminating to as broad an audience as possible.  We all like short term mission trips because they're a convenient way to get an exotic vacation tax-free.  We build universities because nobody else could possibly teach our young adults the way we think they should be taught.  And on and on.

Meanwhile, there's still poverty in America.  But we say that's OK, because Christ said poverty would always be with us.  There's still racism, too, but we rationalize away racism as being a two-way street.  There's still greed, but we justify ours by saying the Bible says lazy people shouldn't eat.  Now we've also got gay marriage, and a mainstream media with plenty of fodder with which to mock our sanctimony and - paradoxically - our hubris.  We claim that we're entitled to flaunt our faith because this is America, and this is a Christian nation... whatever that means.

At some point, somebody in our Christian ghetto is going to realize that for a Christian nation, our Christians sure have an awful lot of problems they wouldn't have if they cared about their faith as much as they cared about what everybody else is doing wrong.

Even as one of things that's wrong is our own warped perspective of Christianity.

I heard somebody on our local news last night praising God and saying it was a miracle that their loved ones were able to catch the first flight out of Mexico after Hurricane Odile ravaged their vacation spot in Cabo San Lucas.


Really?  God orchestrated a miracle to get your healthy middle-class relatives out of their luxury resort and onto a plane, leaving behind hundreds of thousands of storm-stricken Mexicans to pick through the mess that is now their world?  You think that's the kind of religion that honors Jesus Christ?  Be thankful that your relatives are safe, and coming home, but don't credit God with extraordinarily blessing your relatives while forcing plenty of other people to live in misery.

Over in the Pacific Northwest, some die-hard members of Driscoll's congregation continue to defend their preacher, rationalizing that sure, he may be a bit gregarious, but he speaks truth from the pulpit.  Well, sure; he could be preaching that grass is green and Seattle's weather is rainy, and it would all be true, but is that the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

As the United States continues its transition into being a post-Christian nation, fewer and fewer of us will even bother to make an attempt at putting up with all of the evangelical fuss.  And some church folk will sputter that we're being persecuted, without realizing that we were never entitled to the social respect we've come to expect for the past several hundred years anyway.

Meanwhile, the Gospel of Jesus Christ never crashes and burns.  The Gospel of Jesus Christ never loses members, or money.  Neither is the Gospel of Jesus Christ ever genuinely popular, or trendy, or acceptable.  But a lot of Christians expect their religion, their preachers, their churches, and the marketing universe that has become their evangelical ghetto to be the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

So that's what the unsaved world around us presumes to be the Gospel of Jesus Christ, too.  And then they look at the mess we make of what we substitute for Christ's Gospel, and see a huge disconnect.

It's a disconnect we need to see, too.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Can One Live With Dementia?

What's it like to live with a dementia patient?

To answer that question, you have to consider all of the personality traits the dementia patient had before their illness.  Put them into a snowglobe like so many miniature white, plastic flakes, seal it up, and then shake the snowglobe as furiously as you can.

As the you hold the snowglobe still, watch the blizzard you've just created within it begin to settle down.  Those little personality traits will sort themselves out in ways that resemble the person you used to know, and slowly sink into place atop whatever stationary objects are anchored within the snowglobe.

But shake it up again, and while you can still recognize the tableau, the flakes won't land in the same spots.  Flat surfaces within the snowglobe, for example, that might have previously offered a resting place for those white, plastic flakes may be uncovered after subsequent shakes.

Tomorrow, take out one or two of those plastic flakes, and shake up the snowglobe.  Then the next day, take out one or two more.

Eventually, when you shake up the snowglobe, you won't have much of a blizzard at all.

Yesterday, I watched my father standing in front of his wide bay window, in his living room, looking out onto his deep front yard, and the suburban neighborhood beyond.  He compares the quiet, tranquil scene to his childhood in chaotic Brooklyn, where there was no bay window, no green yard, and no still street.  His block was literally a block of bricks, concrete, and mortar, with cars, delivery trucks, people walking, people shouting in play and anger, and bookies putting their profits in a small hole in a tree in front of the building where my Dad and his family lived.  He remembers men in big, fancy luxury cars coming by every now and then to collect the money that was wadded into that hole by their, um... "employees."  I once asked Dad if he was ever tempted to take the money he discovered those men would hide in that tree, and he said that even though he didn't know who the men were, he knew something terrible would happen to him if he so much as told anybody else about their secret hiding place.

That was the Brooklyn between the world's wars.  It's what my Dad remembers best, if he remembers anything at all.  Ebbets Field and the Dodgers, and Coney Island, and riding the subway at rush hour, returning home from school in Manhattan, leaning out the open windows and snatching the newspaper out of the hands of somebody standing on the platform, too close to the train.

Now, however, Dad reads his own newspaper two or three times a day - or more, never remembering that he's already read it.  He watches baseball games on television, and can call balls or strikes before the umpire does, but he doesn't know who's playing.

He does a frustrating number of ordinary things wrong.  He can't - or won't - pull his chair up close to the dining table when he eats.  Mom has taken to laying a towel over his lap to try and catch the food that drops between his plate and his mouth.  He can't work TV remotes anymore.  He's tinkered with what used to be his reliable grandfather clock so much, it's hopelessly out of synchronization, chiming the wrong time at all hours.  He frequently misplaces his glasses - which he often forgets to use - and his binoculars.  He has two pair of those - one for the front of the house, so he can spy on neighbors whose names he no longer remembers, and one for the back of the house, so he can watch the birds.

He can't drive, mow the lawn, take a shower by himself, wash the dishes, vacuum the house, or sweep the driveway:  all things he did regularly not even a year ago.  It's not just that we won't let him; he simply can't.  He doesn't have the logic and memory necessary to process the ordinary progression of steps involved in accomplishing basic tasks.  And, thanks to his fall earlier this summer, he hasn't regained the balance and strength these ordinary tasks demand, although he has improved somewhat as time has dragged by.

He argues now, but he never used to.  He complains, and he never used to complain.  He calls Mom a nag, and he never used to do that.  He pouts.  He tells bald-faced lies; although, frankly, sometimes it's hard to tell if he's intentionally denying the truth, or merely forgetting it the instant he does something.

He grouses about all of the blacks he sees playing professional sports.  He never used to do that.  Shucks, it wasn't until our family moved to Texas that I learned some people dislike blacks, but I didn't learn that from my parents.

His personality is changing before our eyes, every day, as one or two flakes of whatever it is that forms our attitude and perspective of life get taken away.

What's it like living with a dementia patient?  I've never been a parent, but I imagine it's similar to the inverse of raising children.  Except that with raising children, you should be able to reasonably expect that your child will eventually learn what you're teaching it, and be able to build upon that acquired knowledge towards bigger and better things.  With a dementia patient, it's the learning process in reverse.  It's not knowledge the dementia patient is acquiring.  They are losing knowledge.  They're losing the ability to think and process information.  Drawing correlations between similar actions and outcomes simply isn't going to happen.  They forget to use their cane, for example, no matter how many times you remind them - or nag them.  Oddly enough, they'll recognize that you're nagging them about the cane, but they still forget to use it.

I ask myself often:  what good is this type of life?  What benefit exists in the existence of a person with dementia?  They don't authentically love anymore; they respond to our affection, but they don't return it.  You can't carry on a conversation with them about anything other than what is taking place at this exact moment.

"Look, it's getting cloudy."

"Did they say it would rain?"

Then, about ten seconds later:  "Look, it's getting cloudy."

Wait for it:  "Hmm... it's getting cloudy."

"Did they forecast rain?"

Mom frequently shows Dad photos of his grandchildren, but while he'd long ago memorized the listing of their names, and can usually recite it with ease, he can't match the names with their photos.  He doesn't recognize any of them as his grandchildren when you arbitrarily present him with a photograph.  Sometimes he forgets he has grandchildren, or two sons.  Or his wife's first name.  Or mine.

Doctor after doctor he's visited this summer take test after test, and in terms of his physical health, Dad is doing remarkably well.  So we have no idea how much longer he'll live, and our family really doesn't talk about it.  But it doesn't seem like he's leading a productive existence, and in the eyes of our accomplishment-oriented society, Dad has become a drain, not a contributor.  It's a painful reality to contemplate, but it's impossible to ignore.

Why does God allow the mind to deteriorate like this?  And Dad's case isn't the worst of its kind.  Plenty of dementia patients out there are in far worse shape than Dad.  How does that glorify the Creator of all life?

Theoretically, I have to believe that life is more than one's mental health, or physical health.  Some experts can argue about the biology of life, but basically, from conception to last breath, life is that which is sustained solely through the force I believe to be the sovereignty of God.  So, regardless of what we consider to be the "quality" of somebody's life, as long as they are alive, they are alive by God's will.  And that is how God is honored.

So, can one live with dementia?  In some ways, living with a dementia patient is a lesson about life, and about what God allows that you and I probably wouldn't.  I don't necessarily see anything beneficial about dementia, but that's not God's fault.  We've become very sophisticated in our society, with technology, entertainment, education, politics, living standards, and quality-of-life metrics that can easily obscure the often uncomfortable reality that we who are alive today may not be tomorrow.  So we want as full and rich of a life experience as we can possibly achieve - now, as soon as possible, without delay.

That's how most of us determine how useful we are, or how productive and worthwhile our life is.  Meanwhile, dementia patients go from day to day, or five minutes to five minutes, or distant memory to distant memory, and God keeps them alive even though we don't think He's being very resourceful with that person.  After all, God created that person with abilities that now seem to be wasting away in the snowglobe of ever-diminishing returns.

But we're the ones who look on outward appearances, right?  We're the ones who measure people by their accomplishments.  God's the One Who looks at the heart.

In a spiritual sense, but also in a literal, mortal sense.

For His glory, whether we understand it or not.  

Friday, September 12, 2014

Cruz and Goodell Exploit Their Fans

Here's a fact:  Playing to your core constituency doesn't make you right.

Consider the public examples of Ted Cruz and Roger Goodell this week.

On Wednesday, the junior senator from Texas addressed an advocacy group for Middle Eastern Christians in Washington, DC, and right off the bat, made a sweeping portrayal of Israel as a country worthy of everyone's unwavering support.  He was booed off the stage by vociferous members of his audience, an audience comprised of many people who do not view the heavy-handed politics of modern Israel in the same beneficent light as many evangelical Christians do.

After all, major differences exist between the people of Israel as God's "chosen people," and today's nation-state of Israel.  Those differences are profound in their implications both for Biblical eschatology and ordinary diplomacy between sovereign nations, and they represent a frustratingly tangled web of social and military objectives.

Apparently, none of that matters to Cruz.  He relished being the hard-spoken antagonist.  He basked in his opportunity to portray himself as a defiant defender of Israel, and he didn't seem to care whether the Israel he was talking about is the one of cultural Judaism, religious Judaism, or political Judaism.  Nevertheless, watching footage of the event online yesterday, it was easy to see his likely presidential campaign using that same footage in a calculated appeal for votes from the religious right.

What's dismaying - no, disgusting - about Cruz's misguided little stunt is that anybody can visit the website of the organization hosting the meeting Cruz addressed, and learn about its intentions.  The group is called "In Defense of Christians" (IDC), and their mission is fairly straightforward:

"IDC seek[s]... to protect [not only] the human rights of Christians, but all religious groups.  These rights are universal, applicable to all human persons.  In this sense, 'Christian' refers not only those who confess the Christian faith, but also Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, Baha’i, and even the freedom to confess no religious belief at all."

Now, we can take exception to the group's liberal interpretation of the term "Christian," but their message is still the same.  Basically, IDC is a group of people who are working for religious freedom in the Middle East.  Religious freedom for everyone.  Right now, as most of us know, there really is no religious freedom in that part of the world - not even among the various interpretations of Islam.

In addition, as far as the "Christian" in this group's name is concerned, it's important to realize that not all Christ-followers around the world are thrilled about the political Israeli state, and how it operates.  Even here in the United States, support for the modern nation of Israel among evangelicals is not universal.  Yet Cruz is either unaware of that reality, or doesn't care about it.

On the one hand, inviting a right-wing senator from Texas like Cruz to speak at such an event seems a bit awkward, since Cruz is not known for having the ability to parse political nuance like IDC appears to be doing.  After all, how many Texas Republicans, when they hear the term "Palestinian," think of Christianity at all?  To many of us in the Lone Star State, Palestinian is Muslim, anti-Israel, and pro-terrorism.  Period.

That's the limited mindset Cruz was hoping to exploit, and he was successful.  Right-wingers reacted with glee at what they claimed was Cruz's bravery and staunch political incorrectness, which to them, is a badge of honor.  What a leader he is, to be so forthright in the face of anti-Israeli sentiment!

Yeah, right.  In reality, not only was Cruz belligerent and insensitive, he appeared to willingly project an alarming lack of intelligence regarding the Middle East and Christianity's history there.  Not exactly desirable qualities for an American president who's going to inherit some staggering problems in the Middle East in 2016.

And not only that, but Cruz betrayed a shameful ignorance of both basic Christianity and Judaism for not only a right-wing evangelical, but the proud son of a Baptist preacher.  "Christians have no greater ally than the Jewish state," Cruz proclaimed, ignoring both the Christian reliance on God's sovereignty, as well as the Jewish belief that Jesus Christ (the Namesake of Christianity, remember) hasn't been born yet.

Oh well.  It's not like Cruz's constituency cares too much about these other technicalities, either.  To them, it's enough that Cruz said what he said with a flourish and was booed off the stage by a bunch of Muslim sympathizers.  Only the liberal media is calling those people "Christians," and the liberal media doesn't know what a Christian is anyway.

Oddly enough, it's Cruz's constituency who like to blast liberals like our mainstream media for believing that truth is relative.  But Cruz and his ilk are also saying the truth is relative when they attempt to frame reality within their brittle partisan perspective.

It's like another topic we Americans have been more enthusiastically following this week from the National Football League, after media outlet TMZ obtained and released that atrocious video showing Ray Rice punching his then-fiance, Janay Palmer, unconscious in an Atlantic City elevator.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has been raked over the coals for what many people believe to be his insensitivity regarding domestic violence, and a punishment for Rice that a lot of people considered to be too light.  Rice has since been dropped by his team, the Baltimore Ravens, but questions persist in the media regarding what Goodell knew about Ray's behavior towards Janay, and when he knew it.

Goodell's critics then take the Rice video and lump it in with so many other questionable calls the Commissioner has made over the years that appear to have immorally benefited the league, it's players, and its owners.  There seems to be a pattern here.  TMZ seems to have had no trouble obtaining this elevator video, but Goodell says the NFL never could.  What's the real story?  Was the NFL hoping for a cover-up?  Shouldn't this be the final straw against Goodell and his hubris at trying to control his spoiled and uninhibited players?

Last night, the Ravens played their first game without Rice, and judging from how their fans reacted to the Rice controversy, Goodell knows how to play football's fans.  Reporters covering the game were amazed to see both men and women proudly wearing souvenir jerseys with Rice's name and number.  Many fans were of the opinion that Rice may have done something wrong, but he needs to be given a second chance, especially since the woman he knocked out eventually married him.  If she's OK with it, why can't everyone else be?  Why does he need to be dropped from the team?

Again, the fact that Goodell knows how to spin things for his organization's fan base doesn't necessarily mean that the NFL's fans are right, does it?  Since football is as violent a sport as it is these days, who's to say that football fans are the best judges of what's too violent, even in domestic abuse cases?  It's no secret that sports fans tend to idolize their favorite players, and the NFL seems particularly adept at exploiting that phenomenon at the expense of conventional morality and ethics.  Remember Michael Vick's dog fighting?  Don't forget the NFL's adamant denial of football's inherent dangers to brain health for its players, despite mounting evidence to the contrary.  How about the "bountygate" scandal by the New Orleans Saints?  Then there's Josh Brent of the Dallas Cowboys, who killed a fellow teammate while he was driving drunk.  Effective crisis management is a desirable quality in any chief executive, but Goodell seems to be particularly willing to rule in favor of perpetrators instead of any moral code.

And he knows his league's fans will love him for it.  Michael Vick is back in the game, and has gone on to be one of the NFL's highest-paid players.  Josh Brent is coming back, too, even though the teammate he killed never will.  For Goodell, it's all about "second chances.''  Not just second chances at proving players learn something from the slaps on their wrists, but a second chance for the NFL to make even more money off of these guys.

After all, fans have short memories.

That's why appealing to your core constituency doesn't mean you're right.  It simply means you know how they think.

Or don't think, as the case may be.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

From Terror's Teaching, Lord Deliver Us

Photo taken by me, riding in a helicopter, in 1993

Can you believe it's already been 13 years since the Twin Towers fell?

For the superstitious, the ignominy now associated with today's date likely carries compounded angst.  For the rest of us, however, simply having President Barak Obama issuing what sounded like a war cry against ISIS on the eve of September 11, 2014, is uncomfortable enough.

While some conspiracy theorists continue to push for further trials, investigations, and truth-telling on the part of secretive Washington insiders, we know enough about the original 9-11 to understand that most of Obama's speech last night was hollow rhetoric.  This new brand of terrorism cannot be bombed into the Stone Age - most of the world's new breed of terrorists already live there mentally.

Basically, with a straight face, Obama said last night that he wants to attack Syria while it's in the middle of a brutal civil war, and he's depending upon Iraq and Saudi Arabia to help flush ISIS out of the Middle East.

Like any of that has any chance of being productive in terms of America's interests.

Syria's besieged Bashar al-Hassad was likely the most capable person to thwart the original opportunity ISIS had of forming in his country.  But the Obama administration wanted to fight against him, because they were still under the impression that American-style democracy can simply be imported into the ancient, feudal cultures of the Middle East.

And speaking of feuding, what help can Iraq possibly give anybody these days?  They can't stop ISIS, their own military - that we've supposedly trained - is in shambles, and Christianity is being suffocated while the world watches, thanks in large part to intra-Islamic tribalism.

And Saudi Arabia?  Last week, at least 28 expatriates living in Saudi Arabia were arrested for holding a Christian-based Bible study in a private residence in the Saudi city of Khafji.  Their current status is unknown by human rights groups who keep track of religious intolerance in the kingdom.  And it's unclear whether anybody in the Obama administration is taking this egregious violation of civil rights seriously, since Saudi Arabia is considered such a key ally for America.

Which brings us back to 9-11, doesn't it?  Do you remember that in the days immediately following the attacks, when American air space was officially shut down?  Do you remember hearing that the Bush administration had the FBI fly members of Osama bin Laden's family to secret destinations in Texas, and then to the nation's capital?  When America's air space reopened, the bin Ladens were on the first flights out of the United States.  Most of the bin Ladens are Saudi nationals, and at the time, critics of the Bush administration claimed that the president was trying to minimize the bad PR Saudis would likely face as details about the people who perpetrated 9-11 came to light.

And sure enough, we would later learn that 15 of the 19 men identified as ringleaders of 9-11 were Saudi nationals.  Technically, bin Laden was born a Saudi, but stripped of his citizenship in 1994.  But we humble Americans cannot offend the Saudis, because they control so much of our economy with their oil, and they provide token support for our national and human rights interests in that part of the world.

Meanwhile, ISIS is getting its money and technical expertise from somewhere, and it's not Syria or Iraq.

It's easy to see that the easiest way to diffuse the threat of ISIS and extremist Islam is by reducing our dependency upon Middle Eastern oil.  Right?  But until we do so, there's little any American president will be able to do to "protect the homeland" from Islamist terrorism.  We've known that ever since those somber days immediately after 9-11, and the release of the 9-11 commission's report, and the years we spent living with the specter of repeat attacks.  Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld convinced Bush to invade Iraq, we've ended up wreaking more havoc in Afghanistan than the Russians did before us, and perpetual dithering by Obama has his foes on Capitol Hill circling like vultures - but it's hard to tell whose carcass Obama's foes are waiting to devour:  his, or the threat of terrorism.

Why do the heathen rage?  Why do the people plot in vain?  Kings of the Earth and rulers take counsel together against the Lord.  And what does God do?  He Who sits in Heaven laughs.

If there's ever been a time in human history when the messes we mortals make for ourselves truly look insurmountable, wouldn't this be it?  Or at least, one of the top five?  So as we contemplate 9-11 from yet another year afterwards, and since we're no closer to resolving the causes of that fateful day than we were on September 10, 2001, may God remind us that we really aren't as wonderful as we often like to think we are.  Yet His own can still call to him, and He will hear us, and answer us.

Unbelievers dismiss such faith as the superstitious delusions of desperate people.  And they think world leaders like President Obama offer any better hope?

O God of Earth and Altar

O God of earth and altar,
bow down and hear our cry,
our earthly rulers falter,
our people drift and die;
the walls of gold entomb us,
the swords of scorn divide,
take not thy thunder from us,
but take away our pride.

From all that terror teaches,
from lies of tongue and pen,
from all the easy speeches
that comfort cruel men,
from sale and profanation
of honor, and the sword,
from sleep and from damnation,
deliver us, good Lord!

Tie in a living tether
the prince and priest and thrall,
bind all our lives together,
smite us and save us all;
in ire and exultation
aflame with faith, and free,
lift up a living nation,
a single sword to thee.

- G.K. Chesterton, 1906

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Elite Luxury, Now in Parking Spaces

If you're a liberal, socialist-leaning Democrat, are you sitting down?  The news I'm about to share with you may sound like an egregious example of self-indulgent capitalism run amok.

If you're a right-wing, free-market Republican, however, this same news will probably strike you as little more than what it literally is:  the new benchmark for the price of parking spaces in Manhattan.

And the new price now being asked for a parking space in Manhattan?  How about a cool, round $1,000,000?

Yes, that's right:  One million dollars.

For a rectangular patch of concrete on which you can park your car.  In the yet-to-be-built condominium project called "42 Crosby Street" in SoHo.

Granted, nobody has actually paid $1 million for one of these parking spaces yet.  So far, the highest price a parking spot has ever commanded in Manhattan has been $345,459, paid in April, 2012, for a parking spot in deeply trendy TriBeCa.  Two other parking spaces, being sold as a set to compliment a $50 million Greenwich Village penthouse, are priced at $1 million for the pair, but both they and their associated condo are still on the market.  So it remains to be seen if the parking space market in SoHo will actually have any takers at $1 million for one space.  After all, per square foot, that price is more than what the luxurious apartments are going for up above the garage.

At least these are garage spaces, sheltered from New York's sometimes dangerous streets, with their car thieves, petty vandals, and clueless drivers, many of whom play bumper-cars with other vehicles already parked along a curb just so they can get their car into a parking space.  The market for off-street, sheltered parking has been climbing for years, but the current average across Manhattan runs about $136,000 per space.  Indeed, high-density New York has a demand for such a product, and you might also be surprised to learn that there are actually about a dozen cars being made right now with pricetags of at least $1 million.  So it's not like paying $1 million for a spot to park your $1 million automobile is all that unrealistic.

Especially considering New York's already famous excesses.

Still, selling a parking space for one mil mostly makes for a splashy, provocative angle to pitch these new apartments.  42 Crosby Street's developers need some gimmick for their project to stand out in Manhattan's hyper-competitive housing market.  These extra-high-dollar parking spaces aren't located in some run-of-the-mill parking garage; they're in an exclusive building being built on what's currently - ironically - a parking lot.  And there are only 10 spaces available; one for each apartment in the building.  These apartments average around $9 million apiece in price, except for the building's $25 million duplex penthouse.  So we're not talking about dozens - or hundreds - of buyers in a skyscraper being wooed with million-dollar parking spots.  Still, these boutique buildings like 42 Crosby Street are all the rage right now, and they tend to all look the same.  This project's developers have already gone through two other designs for their building, and they spent $16 million on that old parking lot.  They've gotta get some cash coming through the door to start paying these bills that are beginning to pile up.

So, who would pay that kind of money for a parking space?  All things considered, with New York's residential real estate market being as hot as it is, the prices for apartments in 42 Crosby Street seem fairly realistic, but it likely won't be traditional wealth buying them.  Most old money already owns comfortable real estate holdings in Manhattan, and rich people who've lived in the city for years tend to leave their personal automobiles at their country homes, and let chauffeur-driven vehicles get them around Gotham.  And as far as needing to keep one's personal vehicle close at hand, a lot of people buying into this price point have employees and staffers who can fetch the family's Bentley down the block at a moment's notice.

Can you say nouveau riche?  Because that's the market 42 Crosby Street is likely targeting.  Who else but new money would jump at such an opportunity?  SoHo has become the place to be and spend for sassy technology entrepreneurs and young Wall Street bankers, as well as Russian and Chinese tycoons who are looking at foreign real estate as a reliable place to park some of their cash.  To people like this, $1 million for a parking space isn't illogical, but a bragging point, and something with which to dazzle both one's poorer family members, and one's desired peer group, further up the social ladder.

Hey - for centuries, New York City has been built by and for these people.  In a way, this is simply the next era of conspicuous consumption for the capital of the world.  "Capital" in more ways than one.

Still, can you imagine living in an apartment building filled with people willing to pay $1 million for a parking space?  It's a good thing there are only 10 apartments at 42 Crosby Street - any more, and the hedonistic narcissism of its residents would likely make the place utterly unbearable.  What would these people do if there was a fire in their building?  Who'd get out first?  What about the parties they'd likely throw, and all of the demands they might make for customizing their apartments in ways that inconvenience other tenants?

Of course, all of this is pure speculation.  Shame on me for being so cynical.  Some people would say I'm simply jealous of rich people.  So, perhaps there are ten families worth millions of dollars who are entirely nice, quiet, kind, selfless, easy to get along with,  and are looking for just the right apartment in Manhattan where they can protect their family minivan regardless of cost.

Yes, I'm sure there are plenty of .01 Percenters out there who are perfectly wonderful people.  But what makes them wonderful people almost certainly are qualities that would otherwise prevent them from spending $1 million for one parking space.

Liberals would say that no self-respecting humanist would waste that kind of money on a patch of concrete to park a fossil-fuel-burning machine.  And right-wingers would say it's none of our business, as long as whomever purchased those parking spaces can afford to do so.

Meanwhile, moderates like me say "just because you might be able to, that doesn't mean you should."

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Sorry, Janay; You're a Victim
Janay and Ray Rice in May of this year

Does Janay Rice have the right to deny that she is a victim?

Janay is the wife of former Baltimore Ravens football player Ray Rice.  Security video from Atlantic City's now-closed Revel Casino documented a confrontation between the two in February when Ray appears to punch Janay into unconsciousness while they shared an elevator ride.

The two were engaged at the time.  They're now married.

Entertainment outlet TMZ presented the incriminating video yesterday, and the Ravens fired Ray, who was already on suspension for earlier footage TMZ had released showing Ray dragging an unresponsive Janay from the elevator.

In the longer version of TMZ's video, Janay and Ray can be seen approaching the elevator bank, and the two are waving their arms at each other in a swatting motion, but it's difficult to tell if they were having an argument, or if they were playfully goofing around.  Janay, who reaches an open elevator first, does not seem to mind that Ray follows her inside.  If she was angry with him, or fearful of him, wouldn't it have made sense that she'd have tried to either keep him out of the elevator, or rush back out to get another one?

Once inside the elevator, TMZ's extended video shows Janay again swatting - or swinging her fist - at Ray, and that's when he strikes her and knocks her out.  She falls limp to the floor, and when they eventually reach their floor, Ray unceremoniously drags her from the elevator, her shoes coming off of her feet, her buttocks nearly visible.  Very careless, undignified, and crude.

The Associated Press eventually presented another video featuring better resolution and audio, in which the couple can be heard yelling obscenities at each other in the elevator.  Janay also spits at Ray, before he slugs her.  When Ray drags her out of the elevator, a couple of hotel staffers are in the hallway, and ask him if she's drunk.  And then somebody says "no cops."

But it was TMZ's grainy, silent video that first spoke volumes yesterday as it worked its way through the World Wide Web, with viewers reacting in shock and disdain.  That's when the Ravens realized they had a public relations disaster on their hands, and they swiftly released Ray from his multi-million-dollar contract.

Then this morning, none other than Janay herself posted on Instagram that she's "hurt beyond words."  But she's not hurt by the way her then-fiance treated her; no, she's hurt by the media's exploitation of their episode in the elevator.  Janay blames the media for getting her husband fired, and for taking unfair advantage of a private matter between the couple.

So, can Janay do that?  Logically, can she say she's not a victim?  Can she say that what happened between herself and Ray is none of our business?  And, speaking of business, does she have the right to be upset that the standard of living she apparently expected to enjoy from her husband's promising career now seems to be gone forever?  Because we've all made such a fuss?

After all, drug abusers, dog fighters, and drunk drivers who kill fellow teammates in DWI accidents can get reinstated in the NFL.  But can woman-beaters?  The NFL tolerates a lot of bad behavior, but look at how quickly the Ravens pulled the plug on Ray.  Over something that happened in February.

Some experts have theorized that Janay suffers from the Stockholm syndrome, a bizarre condition in which victims end up supporting their abuser.  A lot of other people surmise that Janay is little more than a gold-digger who tolerated Ray's abuse so she could share in his wealth, and is now upset that all of her agony apparently has been for naught.

To a certain extent, Janay is correct in insinuating that we don't know a lot about her personal, private relationship with Ray.  Maybe they really have changed, since they've been in counseling this summer.  Maybe the two of them had developed some sort of mutual understanding that their relationship was going to be more violent than an average romance.  Maybe they both come from family backgrounds where physical abuse was common.  Maybe she's got a temper worse than Ray's, and she's afraid that the more the media investigates, the more unflattering things we'll learn about her.

Yet still, when anybody - whether it's a man or woman - gets punched so forcefully they're knocked unconscious, isn't that person now a victim?  That's clear abuse, isn't it?  If Janay had punched Ray unconscious, he'd have been the victim, right?  You don't get to change the definition of victim just because you are one, do you?  You don't get to change the definition of victim just because "victim" doesn't fit the narrative you want for the situation, or for your life.  Do you?

One thing neither Janay nor Ray get to deny is the fact that his career makes him a celebrity, and celebrities - for good or bad - become role models in almost any society.  The only reason Ray was being paid millions of dollars is because football players work in front of a live audience on live television.  The more famous you are, the more money you command.  You don't even have to be good at what you do:  just look at the Dallas Cowboys, who, despite their dismal record, are the second-most-valuable sports franchise in the world.

No matter what team they're on, NFL players are usually among the highest-paid people in whatever city they're playing, and they're admired by kids and other impressionable people for both their gridiron prowess and their off-the-field charisma.  If you don't want to be a celebrity, then there are plenty of other careers where you won't be one.  If you love football so much, then there are plenty of youth coaching jobs where you'll get to train kids to love the game as much as you do, and be paid by job satisfaction, not dollars.

Meanwhile, there are many other women out there getting beaten by their date, boyfriend, fiance, husband, or ex-husband, and they're watching this Rice tragedy unfold in the media, wondering if maybe they aren't a victim after all.  Look at Janay, they may think, and she says she's not a victim.  She's upset at the way her husband is being treated.  Shucks, he came out today and told CNN that "I'm being strong for my wife."  Some people are mocking his duplicity, but doesn't his quote mean they love each other?

For anybody out there who can relate to Janay's experience in that Atlantic City elevator, listen to this:  Janay is a victim, whether she admits it or not.  She's not a victim of the media, or of the Ravens, or the NFL, or the general public.  She's Ray's victim.

How can any of us say that?  After all, none of us were in that elevator that night.

Janay, we can identify you as a victim because men of integrity do not strike out at anybody hard enough to knock them out, even if that person has just spit at them.

Men of integrity do not encourage relationships with women to be built around aggression or violence, even if they think they have an understanding about mild slapping and hitting.

Men of integrity, if they see anybody in distress, call for help.  They don't try to disguise anybody's distress to hotel employees who are in a position to provide immediate aid.

Men of integrity do not drag their fiances out of elevators like the woman is an obstinate dog, or a bulky box.

Men of integrity do not let their unconscious lady simply lie on the floor, disheveled and exposed, like she's anything other than a human being.

Men of integrity do not pretend as though they're the magnanimous ones for standing by their lady when she's upset that people think he's abusing her.  After a summer of counseling, Ray should know better than to frame his position in this narrative that way.

Nevertheless, Janay writes on Instagram that she and Ray are "going to show the world what real love is."

Let's hope that happens.  Because it hasn't yet.

After all, victims are often the last ones to realize how much they've been hurt.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Media Sees Silver Lining in NBA Race Drama

What is racism?

Racism now seems to be a ratings cow for America's media machine.  Simply witness the media's infatuation with Bruce Levenson, currently owner of the NBA's Atlanta Hawks, who's being forced to sell because of an e-mail he sent to fellow team officials regarding tactics for better marketing the Hawks to a white audience.

Google "Bruce Levenson" today, and most of the entries you'll find have the term "racist" in them, referring to Levenson's e-mail.  But was Levenson being racist, or merely racial?  After all, there is a big difference.

Don't believe me?  Then read Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's astute op-ed on the media's precocious outrage over Levenson.  In bullet points, this is Abdul-Jabbar's take-away from Levenson's memo:
  • "His worst crime is misguided white guilt."
  • "Levenson is a businessman asking reasonable questions about how to put customers in seats."
  • "If his arena was filled mostly with whites and he wanted to attract blacks, wouldn’t he be asking how they could de-emphasize white culture and bias?"
  • "He wasn’t valuing white fans over blacks; he was trying to figure out a way to change what he thought was the white perception in Atlanta so he could sell more tickets.  That’s his job."

Is Levenson's a perfectly-scripted e-mail completely devoid of sloppy assumptions and pristine political correctness?  No, because it's not an official policy statement; it's a marketing memo, and guess what:  these types of questions have been asked for years in all sorts of companies and industries, only the colors have been reversed, with blacks and other minorities as the customer base being wooed.

As Abdul-Jabbar points out, to be competitive these days, a for-profit enterprise has to exploit every avenue of revenue, and find hidden consumers.  And in the case of Levenson's executive team - and not just his, probably - he's recognizing that they've done a good job of marketing their product to their local black audience.  He's not complaining about that, is he?  Instead, he wants to know how they can make their NBA franchise more multi-cultural.

And the media has a problem with that?

Maybe the media is taking its cue from the NBA itself, and its relatively new commissioner, Adam Silver.  Silver was fresh into his job when the ugly transcripts from Los Angeles Clippers co-owner Donald Sterling became public.  Yet, as Abdul-Jabbar and others have already pointed out, Levenson is no Sterling.  There's a big difference between pointing out racial factors, and being a racist _____.

Unfortunately for the NBA, Commissioner Silver screwed up the Sterling fiasco as well, and introduced an ugly suppression of First Amendment rights in his vilification of Sterling.  To make matters worse, Silver dramatically forced Sterling to sell his share of an otherwise marginal NBA team, and who came up smelling like roses?  Not the NBA, or Silver, or any of the black players and fans Silver acted like he was protecting.  No, it was Sterling himself, by earning a reputed $1 billion from the Clippers sale.  A sale he likely wouldn't have been able to negotiate - and certainly not for the sale price he got - had Silver not over-reacted like he did.

The issue here isn't whether or not racism is bad, wrong, unprofessional, unprofitable, or anything else negative and antisocial.  The issue here is whether or not racism can be freed from its own abuse by the media and such public actors as Commissioner Silver.

You see, addressing the evils of racism, and overcoming them, is hard enough as it is without people who should know better exploiting the theme in a misguided display of sanctimony.

From what we Americans have learned about Sterling, he was no angel before his latest scandal broke.  He knew people didn't like him, and he didn't care.  His own wife didn't care that he was sleeping around.  And now he's $1 billion richer than he would have been if the NBA - even before Silver's commissionership - had held him accountable for what we've learned was his long-standing, pugnacious pattern of racism.

So for other racists here in America, what lesson have they learned from Sterling's example?  They've learned that if they're wealthy enough and powerful enough, it doesn't matter how sleazy they may be; young women will still sleep with them.  And, if you get caught, there are still ways to come out smelling like a rose.  Why?  Not because racism is OK.  But because the appearance of propriety and political correctness is more important to many people than dealing with the roots of racism.  Deep-seated roots people like Sterling aren't being encouraged to relinquish.

Maybe it's this nuance between getting caught and repenting of wrong that a lot of people in the media find too difficult to define.  It's something that doesn't fit into a glib headline, or a compelling tweet.  It certainly won't generate a lot of page views.  Getting caught is usually a specific point on a timeline, which makes it easy to report.  Repenting of wrong can take time, and the media runs on deadlines.  Learning to value human beings for qualities beyond the color of their skin isn't a flip-the-lightswitch process.  It's not quick.  Some people spend years - or indeed, their entire life - coming to the point where race is merely a check-box on a census form.  And when people like Sterling bubble up to the froth in our media's incessant headline stew, the incentive for the rest of us struggling with negative attitudes towards people who aren't like us gets diminished.

Meanwhile, where's the racism from Levenson?  Where's his hatred or resentment of blacks?  Is Levenson complaining that blacks outnumber whites at his home games?  No, he's merely exploring the reasons - some of which he admits are foolish ones - for why more whites don't attend, and why he can't make more money off of his NBA franchise.

You'd think Silver would be pleased to see such dialog taking place by one of his franchisees.  After all, the NBA is primarily a business these days, just like all other professional sports organizations.  If anything, Silver could have issued a word of caution about some of the wording Levenson used in reaching some of his unofficial, unscientific conclusions.  It makes one wonder, however, what kind of e-mails might be floating around the NBA's back offices regarding strategies for retaining black fans.  Or cultivating an Asian fan base.  Or Hispanics?

Besides, Silver needs to acknowledge that Levenson isn't the only person asking these types of questions.  In 2011, several media outlets, including the Daily Beast, NPR and Business Insider, acknowledged that whites fans are losing interest in the NBA.  Earlier this year, the Washington Post ran a salacious article about white players being payed less than black players in the NBA.  People are already talking.   There are real race-based issues in the NBA that the league and its owners need to address.  And of course, the media wants in on the action.

How are concrete, constructive answers going to be cultivated for these issues if people like Silver perpetuate an atmosphere of misguided knee-jerk intimidation on the topic?

Maybe Silver himself doesn't get it.  Maybe the NBA has already given up on whites, and decided that its future lies with a disproportionately black fan base.  Kinda like the National Hockey League - a sport that has only seen 72 black players, and has a fan base that is overwhelmingly white.  Is the NBA satisfied in being for blacks what hockey appears to be for whites?

That would help explain why Silver seems to be so hyper-sensitive to racial issues.  But racial issues don't have to be racist issues.  It's another distinction even the media seems to struggle with, especially since the media can generate a lot more attention with racist controversy than racial dialog.

People like Levenson become mere collateral damage.

Along with the rest of us who want to see true racial reform in our country.