Friday, March 7, 2014
Things seem to be moving fast in Ukraine, where Russia appears to be encouraging a revolt by ethnic Russians.
As pressure builds there, the United States and the European Union are talking economic concessions against Russia, and moving warships and troops closer to presumed battle stations around the Black Sea. In our media, platitudes about freedom are relayed from politicians through reporters and pundits to the American public, ostensibly to shore up support among voters in case our military, already war-worn from fighting two fruitless battles (for what we were told was freedom in Iraq and Afghanistan), is forced into action yet again.
We're told that freedom is worth such fights.
Meanwhile, over in North Korea, it is being reported that 33 people, believed to be evangelical Christians, will likely be put to death by the government. South Korean intelligence sources say that as Kim Jong-un, the North's increasingly brutal ruler, tries to consolidate his power, his patience with what is rumored to be a flourishing underground network of religious activity has worn thin. Currently, a Baptist missionary from South Korea, Kim Jung-wook, is being held on charges of sedition in Pyongyang. South Korea claims he was actually kidnapped while he was across the border in China. It is believed that the 33 North Koreans about to be executed had some sort of contact with Jung-wook, either during his current stay in Pyongyang, or perhaps on a previous trip he may have made to the closed country.
And while 33 may seem like a lot of people to us Westerners for the North Koreans to kill all at one go, experts say Jong-un ordered at least 40 mass public executions in 2013 alone.
Yet we don't hear much about any of that, do we? We heard about Jong-un killing his uncle, and his uncle's family. We've heard about his release of an American businessman, and an Australian missionary. But when it comes to Jong-un's apparent attempts to crush the threat he sees in his countrymen's embrace of religion, the Western media becomes remarkably silent.
Now, it must be said that while we're talking about denying North Koreans their religious freedom, Jong-un isn't targeting only Christians. Apparently, all sorts of religious undercurrents are swirling beneath the surface of North Korea's repressed society, including spiritualism and, according to ChristianPost.com, "superstitious practices."
As the brutality of the Kim regime drags on, North Koreans are increasingly searching for some sort of meaning in their lives. If, in their desperation, they're not finding it in Christ, just about anything else will do, it seems. And for Jong-un, that poses a serious threat to his authority.
So why aren't we freedom-loving Westerners doing more to stop Jong-un? Freedom is what we're all about, right? "Freedom isn't free, we're willing to die for our freedom, freedom comes with a price, we believe in freedom, freedom is worth it," yadda, yadda, yadda...
Except when it's inconvenient, perhaps?
Except when it's in the cause of religious freedom, which of all the subcategories of freedom, can get pretty messy?
Except when there's nothing really for Americans to gain from trying to win religious freedom for North Koreans, a country possessing no remarkable natural resources for us to plunder - I mean, purchase?
Okay, so maybe those are the unspoken reasons why some Americans seem hypocritical when it comes to "freedom." And, since the Kim dynasty has had three generations to really corrupt the minds of their people, and render them practically incompetent at rational thought and functionality in the modern world the rest of us experience, a conventional military war isn't likely the most effective way to introduce freedom to North Korea's 24 million sheltered citizens.
It would probably take the coordinated, patient, and long-term efforts of multiple countries to introduce the type of humanitarian hand-holding required to position a post-Kim-dynasty North Korea as a viable contributor to world affairs, or even unify it with South Korea. And even then, with China being dominant in that region, it's probable that America and Europe would be minor partners to an official Communist state in such an endeavor. How long do you think such an arrangement would last?
If you think about it long enough, and you try to corroborate the dilemma of North Korea with our conventional American allegiance to freedom, all sorts of discrepancies appear, don't they? If we're such freedom-lovers, we have to ask not only why we let North Korea get to this state, but also China. And Cuba. Would we have given up on Vietnam?
Let's face it: if we really believed what our politicians and political pundits preach to us - that freedom is worth dying for - then we'd be clamoring for the overthrow of governments like North Korea's. But our politicians and political class don't really believe that about freedom, deep in their own souls. It's more of a mantra for the perpetuation of civic enthusiasm here amongst their own voters and fans, rather than a dearly-cherished credo. We want freedom for ourselves, and we freak out when we think we're seeing some governmental intrusions into that freedom for ourselves. We'll even rally around the flag and cheer as our military men and women troop off into battlefields deemed worthwhile for America's foreign interests.
And of course, to a certain extent, we Americans have the unusual ability to challenge encroachments into our freedoms here on our sovereign soil. And as a super-power, we have a certain humanitarian obligation to come to the aid of countries where freedoms are being marginalized. In fact, as much as I criticize some of our nation's recent forays into international warfare, I have to give my profound respect to our armed forces for their diligence, their desire to make a positive difference in our world, and their willingness to give their lives towards that cause. Their service to our country, our presidents, and our congresses often seems to be taken for granted by those elected leaders, and I believe God will hold our leaders particularly accountable for the lives they've sent into combat, and the reasons they did so.
But come on, now. For the most part, most of us Americans consider freedom to be a relative concept, don't we? We demand it for ourselves, expect it in other First World countries so we're comfortable when we visit, and blithely wish it for everybody else.
Yet even though we hate to admit it, those wishes of freedom for other people often aren't even worth the lives of 33 North Koreans.
Thursday, March 6, 2014
It's a story that writes its own jokes.
Today, the Securities and Exchange Commission filed felony fraud charges against executives of a former "big law" law firm. The firm was Dewey & LeBoeuf, the fairly recent amalgamation of two storied Manhattan firms with a combined total of 1,400 attorneys and hundreds of support staffers in two dozen offices around the world.
Although the firm was only created in 2007, by 2012 it had entered bankruptcy in a high-profile fall from grace that stunned America's legal industry. This was no simple default by a bumbling group of legal eagles. Dewey & LeBoeuf's top-flight client roster included corporate name brands like Disney, Dell, JP Morgan Chase, and Alcoa. At their height, annual billings topped nearly one billion dollars. Partners worked 60-hour weeks and took most of August off. They enjoyed base pay rates of one to three million dollars per year, plus bonuses, perks, and prestige.
Two of its top directors were gay, but that didn't bother anybody. One of them even had an authentic Cousin Vinny who was in the Mob, and actually put on trial for murder and conspiring to kill a judge. Once, the FBI asked this law firm executive to try and talk his jailed cousin into coping a plea - something the mobster flatly refused to do.
That particular director of the firm, among the ones indicted today by the SEC, is now a student at New York's famous Parsons The New School for Design. One website has already remarked that at least for him, "he’ll be happy to hear orange (the color of prison jumpsuits) is in this spring."
See what I mean about the jokes?
It's no laughing matter, however, that to date, D&L's bankruptcy is the largest of its kind in American history. And as details have emerged about the various factors that led to is demise, it's hard not to paint the whole story as one big, sordid tale of plain old greed. The SEC action claims that D&L's executives deliberately misled banks from which the firm was trying to obtain a line of credit, but lawyers for the, um, lawyers at D&L assert that no laws were technically broken. Apparently, according to them, it was all simply a matter of clients not paying swiftly enough to cover the extravagant payroll promised to celebrity partners.
Not that the former chairman of D&L will likely ever see the inside of a United States courthouse anyway. No, after recovering from prostate cancer, the former chairman took a job as chief legal officer to the government of Ras al Khaimah, one of seven semi-autonomous emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates. And conveniently for him, the UAE does not have an extradition treaty with the United States.
If he thought things got too hot in New York, he ain't seen nothin' yet in the Arabian peninsula.
For all the rest of the lawyers who had to abandon ship when D&L sank, it's unlikely that many of them were without employment for long. In fact, so many of them were bailing after the first cracks in D&L's hull became apparent, the outflow of talent became one of the reasons the firm couldn't survive. Mostly it was probably the secretaries, assistants, mail room clerks, and photocopy clerks who've been scrambling to find jobs in New York City's shrinking legal industry. If they're even interested in finding more work in that field.
Perhaps the biggest irony in all of this, however, can be found in the evidence released by the SEC in their indictments against the former leaders of D&L. Among other things, a treasure trove of allegedly incriminating e-mails has been collected from the defunct firm's IT servers, including the ever-so-subtle "I don't want to cook the books anymore" line, and "I don't see how we'll get past the auditors another year."
Adding to the irony is that some of the same guys writing and receiving these e-mails were the guys who used the firm's same e-mail servers to spy on partners within the firm.
How could smart people be so stupid as to use the same communication method to "allegedly" incriminate themselves that they used to dig up incriminating evidence on their co-workers?
When some right-wingers try to insist that America's One Percenters have earned all of their wealth - and virtually all of these partners were, and likely still are, One Percenters - cases like the collapse of Dewey & LeBoeuf cast serious doubt on that assumption. No matter how much money a person makes, there's still a big difference between earning it, and simply being paid.
Ever since the 1950's, when a long-time law firm in Manhattan welcomed the former governor of New York State, Thomas E. Dewey, to be a named partner (and become a precursor to Dewey & LeBoeuf), comics have reveled in the opportunity to name fictitious law firms "Dewey, Cheatem, and Howe."
Most recently, Tom and Ray Magliozzi, the affable brothers who created the "Car Talk" program for National Public Radio, put a New England spin on the humorous name by incorporating their enterprise as "Dewey, Cheetham, and Howe." Probably because car mechanics generally have just about as good a reputation as lawyers.
Do we cheat them? And how! Unfortunately, however, nobody's come up with a good rhyme for "LeBoeuf" yet.
Wednesday, March 5, 2014
Recently, I learned about a newly-published book advocating for racial unity within American evangelicalism.
Written by Trillia Newbell, United: Captured by God's Vision for Diversity calls for a renewed effort by Christ followers from different cultural backgrounds to worship together on Sundays. In the same church. Singing the same music. Listening to the same sermon.
In principle, I don't have any problem with that. Personally, I think one of the main reasons why such cross-cultural worship isn't already happening is because no matter our skin color or ethnicity, we all have our preferences about what corporate worship should look and sound like. We focus less on the purpose of corporate worship, and more on those preferences. So we churched folk end up separating ourselves by joining with only those like-minded people who share our opinions about our preferences. So when people like Newbell write books about how good it would be for us to worship together, we say, "yeah, well, that's a nice idea, but it's not very practical."
But there's another aspect to the reason why blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asians, and other people groups don't naturally embrace cross-cultural worship. In the same room. Worshipping the same God.
It comes from the white, American, pop-cultural mindset that produces movies like Son of God, the latest deific bio-pic by Hollywood's resident spiritualist, Roma Downey. Frankly, I hadn't really heard much about this movie until today, when two different friends of mine from two different paths of evangelicalism offered their opinions about it on Facebook. One friend, a guy who attends a non-denominational church, loved Son of God, while the other friend, a gal who attends a Reformed church, did not.
If they'd both liked it, or both loathed it, I probably wouldn't have paid much attention, since regular readers of mine already know that I'm not a movie buff. But to have such contrasting opinions - posted right next to each other, too, on my Facebook wall - sparked my curiosity.
Now, right off the bat, I'm predisposed against any movie about the life of Christ, simply because I'm not crazy about the idea of mortals trying to depict Christ's physical characteristics, which - obviously - is inevitable in video. After all, one of the Ten Commandments is that we should not make "graven images" to worship or allow to serve as substitutes for the One true God.
But not only do movies about Christ end up casting the role with a human being we'll come, during the movie, to see as the Son of God, but the men who are cast are usually handsome, and strikingly Caucasian.
For the handsome part, we know that's a huge error, because the Bible explicitly states that Christ was not good-looking by any stretch of the imagination. "He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to Him," according to Isaiah 53:2. "Nothing in his appearance that we should desire Him."
God's reason for that is pretty practical: We romantic mortals should love Christ because He is our Savior, instead of anything related to our conventional mortal relationships, like looks.
Yet when I watched the trailer for Son of God, I saw a pretty attractive actor playing my Savior. His name is Diogo Morgado, and in addition to acting, he's a model.
Oh, and speaking of the trailer, Jesus didn't necessarily have to touch the water and wave His hand in it for Peter's net to become full of fish. Christ simply exists. His power is greater than touch. It may be hard for directors to communicate that holy truth through video, but perhaps that means they shouldn't try. I've long suspected that the reason Christ walked this earth centuries before photography and videography is because His truth cannot be captured - and indeed, should not be artificially captured - by such inferior means of communication, relative to Who He is.
Christ also never said He was going to change the world, which is one of His lines in the trailer. Or at least, He never said that in so many words. Why should Christ change the world, anyway? He changes more that our world; He changes human hearts! I understand poetic license and cinematic theatrics, but we're not talking about just some guy who was out to "change the world" anyway. Jesus was, and is, and forever will be, the Christ, the Son of the living God.
Can I get a hearty "AMEN!"?
Maybe what we see in this movie is Roma Downey's interpretation of Christ, but that's the danger in these types of movies, isn't it? We're subjected to a graphic representation of a mortal's version of the Immortal. Except in this case, Downey herself is a questionable person from whom evangelicals are obtaining their visual representation of Christ. She claims to be Roman Catholic, which isn't exactly the worst version of Christianity she could claim, but she's also a New Age disciple. She holds a dubious masters degree in spiritual psychology from the University of Santa Monica, a hotbed of spiritualist mumbo-jumbo. When she married her third husband, Downey had Della Reese, her co-star in the TV show Touched by an Angel, officiate. And in what church are Reese's ordination vows? The Understanding Principles for Better Living Church in Los Angeles, which practices the teachings of New Thought spiritualist Johnnie Colemon.
For American evangelicals who enjoy being entertained, movies like Son of God, or the recent Downey product for the History channel, The Bible, or Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, may not corrupt their faith. But how well do these Hollywoodesque stories reinforce orthodox faith? Evangelicals who dismiss questions like mine as pious complaints rationalize that "people are coming to faith" after watching these dramatizations, but to what faith are they coming? A faith reflexively stimulated by watching an emotional video? Is there enough Biblical theology in these adaptations of Bible stories for the Holy Spirit to use in bringing lost souls into God's Kingdom?
It's easy to point to Philippians 1:18, and agree with the Apostle Paul that "the important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached." But still, the question needs to be asked: Is Christ being preached by New Age spiritualist Roma Downey? And the model Diogo Morgado?
Oh, yes - getting back to the whole cross-cultural worship thing. Do black people see Christ the same way we whites do? Is Christ's skin as light in the minds of blacks as it is in ours? When black people, or Hispanics, or Native Americans, or Asians, or biracial people go and see a movie where somebody like Morgado is playing the role of Jesus Christ, how many degrees of separation from the One, true Christ do they experience?
Granted, we know that Christ is Jewish, and that for the most part, Jews are Caucasian. But not all of them, are they? Jews also can model a range of skin tones, hair types, eye colors, and other physical features that make them less like WASPS, and more like dark, swarthy Middle Easterners.
So, which is more important to us evangelicals? Getting to see an attractive, light-skinned guy play Jesus on the big screen, or shunning physical depictions of our Savior so that Christ can become even more personal to those whom He has saved?
Perhaps the fact that I ask the question - knowing how most of my fellow white evangelicals will answer it - doesn't bode too well for black author Trillia Newbell's altruism.
Tuesday, March 4, 2014
There's not much he says with which I can heartily agree.
But in an essay he wrote for Libertarian website LewRockwell.com regarding the escalating tensions between Ukraine and Russia, political agitator Pat Buchanan makes a lot of sense.
As we've watched conditions deteriorate in Kiev these past couple of months, and Russia exerting more and more pressure on Crimea just within the past several days, the international community has begun to lay the political groundwork for some sort of participation in whatever military conflict might erupt. And, as has become a hallmark of our current American administration, the signals being sent by our president and secretary of state ring hollow and not entirely informed.
Ukraine, after all, is one of those regions of the world that has never been a bastion of peace and harmony. Even the most casual of historical research on the topic of diplomatic relations between Ukraine and Russia reveals people groups proud of their heritage and fiercely loyal to their homeland, rather than the state. A brittle form of democracy currently serves the people of both Ukraine and Russia, but the rampant corruption and sloppy enforcement of civil rights in these two countries mock the concept of political choice more than they honor it.
For his part, Buchanan sees the way Ukrainians have deposed their duly-elected president as reason enough for the United States and the international community to keep our noses out of their problems.
"In Crimea and eastern Ukraine," Buchanan summarizes, "ethnic Russians saw a president they elected and a party they supported overthrown and replaced by parties and politicians hostile to a Russia with which they have deep historical, religious, cultural and ancestral ties."
He points out that even in that region's relatively recent history, American leaders - both Democratic and Republican - have stayed out of conflicts there that have been quite brutal, including Russia's killing of 50,000 Hungarians in 1956, during which Eisenhower refused to commit American soldiers. What happened in Kiev's Maidan Square last week may have simply been the latest salvo from a perpetually angry culture where power convulses, as it has for generations, from one agitated band of fighters to another.
"Crowds formed in Maidan Square, set up barricades, battled police with clubs and Molotov cocktails, forced the elected president Viktor Yanukovych into one capitulation after another, and then overthrew him, ran him out of the country, impeached him, seized parliament, downgraded the Russian language, and declared Ukraine part of Europe," chronicles Buchanan. "To Americans this may look like democracy in action. To Moscow it has the aspect of a successful Beer Hall Putsch, with even Western journalists conceding there were neo-Nazis in Maidan Square."
How legitimate an overthrow is it when a band of disgruntled citizens physically force a democratically-elected president out of office? Isn't there some constitution in Ukraine that spells out the recourse its citizenry has for recalling elected officials or calling for new elections? How much of this bloodshed stemmed from impatience, or impertinence? I wrote a couple of weeks ago about my hesitation to support the uprising, since I didn't believe either impatience with government reforms or impertinence against playing by Ukraine's constitutional redress of grievances provided sufficient Biblical justification for revolt. From what I saw and read about the crisis, it seemed to me as though democracy was only tolerated in Ukraine when it fit what people wanted from it. Otherwise, they were willing to choose violence over democratic due process.
Of course, I'm no expert on that region of the world. And frankly, I doubt Buchanan is, either. But I was surprised to read his appeal for reason and perspective, even as our mainstream media continues to fret, and clamor for President Obama and the European Union to stick our noses in Ukraine's mess. I would even have gone a bit farther than Buchanan, and wonder out loud if President Obama, with his posturing over Ukraine, is still smarting from Russia's welcoming of secrets-spoiler Edward Snowden, and Putin's power-brokerage in Syria.
Sure, there are concerns about ordinary civilians who have likely already been - and indeed, may still be - killed as a result of this violence, and Russia's flexing of its military muscle. But America has gone down this path before, most notably in Iraq, where logic - along with Iraq's national sovereignty - was utterly ignored as some of the worst men ever to advise a president gleefully orchestrated an attack on a country that hadn't attacked us, deposed its leader, and in the process, gutted the religious liberties, women's rights, utilities, educational system, and economy that had made Iraq one of the most stable countries in the Middle East.
And those warmongering hawks in George Bush's cabinet had the temerity to push their boss out onto the flight deck of an aircraft carrier underneath the appalling banner reading, "Mission Accomplished."
Yeah, right. Tell that to the thousands of military personnel who've since died in Iraq.
Buchanan actually does not believe that the international community should simply walk away and let Russia do whatever it will with Ukraine and its people. I don't believe we should do that, either. But at this point, there's nothing to suggest that Russian President Vladimir Putin isn't fully aware of the risks to his country and himself by taking too much advantage of the discontent Kiev's demonstrators have handed him on a silver platter. Right now, there's plenty of sabre-rattling going on, and while Putin may be appear to be gambling like a drunken sailor, and maneuvering troops recklessly, Ukraine's reformers haven't employed the best tactics in their pursuit of the changes they desire, either.
Some pundits have suggested that Kiev's demonstrators staged their little stunt when they did to see how much they could get away with as Putin prepared to host - and then personally attended - the Sochi Winter Olympics. And Putin, as crafty and powerful as he was to deliver an Olympics experience that was violence-free, likely isn't stupid enough to swagger mercilessly into Ukraine.
However, if he is, then we'll take stock of things like we always do, and evaluate our options. But if the United States wants to play peace police, Ukraine hardly needs to be at the head of the line.
Over the past three weekends, 74 Nigerians have been murdered and dozens more injured by Boko Haram militants in northeastern Nigeria. That's almost as many as the number of protestors killed in Maidan Square. These attacks are part of a religious slaughter that has been going on there since 2009, in which Boko Haram has killed three to four thousand people, mostly cultural Christians. And what has the Obama administration done about it?
Just last fall, the State Department officially designated Boko Haram a "foreign terrorist organization." And, um, that's about it.
Yet more proof that America is willing to wait... until we can figure out how our intervening in another country's political strife can work in our favor. And even then, as in Iraq, things can backfire horribly.
The old saying keeps proving itself: those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it. With Ukraine, as Buchanan asks, what's the hurry?
Monday, March 3, 2014
Today's a day for playing catch-up.
Three topics about which I've previously written have recently experienced notable developments. So let's touch base with them and see what's going on.
For example, did you know that the Australian evangelical being detained by the North Korean government was freed today? John Short is the 75-year-old missionary who was arrested in Pyongyang on February 19 for passing out Bibles in the Communist country. This evening, however, without advance notice, he arrived in Beijing, China, after the North Koreans released a video purportedly showing him apologizing for "insulting" the Korean people with his proselytization.
Short's release comes despite continued concern for an American businessman currently being held in North Korea, Kenneth Bae, and a Baptist missionary from South Korea who is also being detained. No new insight on when these two men will be freed was given by the North Koreans. Of course, we need to remember that detainees from America and South Korea ostensibly hold more political import to their captors than somebody of Australian nationality. Short's age, too, was mentioned by the North Koreans as a factor in what they described as a humanitarian act on their part.
Bill de Blasio
You might recall an essay I wrote last fall bemoaning the imminent selection by New York's voters of Bill de Blasio as their next mayor. A lot of people think I'm a liberal, but if you're one of them, you don't know de Blasio. He's a liberal's liberal; a left winger for whom "right" is a four-letter word. After two decades of relatively conservative leadership in New York City, in which business interests were perceived by some residents as having a more receptive audience in City Hall than social welfare issues, de Blasio appears eager to roll back the tide of economic advancement that has helped to re-cast the city as a desirable place to live, work, and visit.
Well, none other than the New York Times has started to cautiously voice a note of concern about the type of people with which de Blasio is stocking his new mayoral cabinet. According to the Times, "the mayor...has built a team filled with former activists - figures more accustomed to picketing administrations or taking potshots from the outside than working from within."
Instead of the professional administrators and business executives from a variety of political philosophies whom Michael Bloomberg, for example, appointed as directors of city departments, the Times almost complains that, "in Bill de Blasio’s City Hall, it seems more and more, there is only a left wing."
Of course, it's still quite early in de Blasio's fledgling administration, and so far, most of the policy squabbles have centered on how well residents believe he's handling the crippling blizzards which have repeatedly slammed the metropolis. But as spring thaws get closer and closer, it may be that the warm glow of New York's liberals will turn frosty if their new mayor's cabinet is better at criticizing leaders than being in leadership.
Then there's the case of the German family that was seeking political asylum in the United States because the Germany government won't let them homeschool their children. With six youngsters to educate, the Romeike family believes that homeschooling is a human right, and that they were eligible to seek refuge in America since the German government does not permit it. Today, however, by deciding not to hear their appeal, the US Supreme Court effectively ruled that homeschooling is not a human right, and that the Romeikes need to return to Germany.*
It was a six-year battle for the Romeikes and their supporters, all of whom fervently believe that any and all government-supervised education is intrinsically inferior to what and how parents can teach. Unfortunately for them, however, not one court in the United States has held that view, other than the initial immigration court that originally granted temporary asylum to the family.
Back in 2010, I wrote about this case, and opined that as valuable as homeschooling may be, and regardless of how bad some public schools are, homeschooling is not, in and of itself, a human right. It may be desirable, convenient, and effective, but it is not essential. I wouldn't want it to be outlawed, or particularly regulated, but it's not something for which political asylum should be granted. By extension, it's not something over which we should fight a war, or seek the overthrow of another government, either. For honest-to-goodness human rights, we've done such things in the past.
One of the reasons homeschooling is not allowed in Germany stems from that country's hideous past with fascism. Ironically, most homeschoolers in the United States perpetuate the practice of homeschooling out of a fear of big government, but in Germany, the government wants to limit the ability of neo-Nazis to re-establish any semblance of power. And homeschooling was seen as one of the ways bigotry could be propounded outside of the government's purview.
So, in a way, homeschooling can appeal to both sides of a political spectrum. Americans may say it's a religious issue, which makes it a civil rights issue in their favor, but in Germany, it's a civil rights issue because it could engender religious persecution.
As these three stories demonstrate, in their own ways, the tension between authority and the individual takes many forms. And will continue to do so.
*Update: Today, March 4, just one day after the Supreme Court declined to hear their case, the Department of Homeland Security offered the Romeike family "indefinite deferred status" allowing them to stay in the United States.
Friday, February 28, 2014
Evangelicals, thou dost protest too much, methinks.
I borrow this phrase from Shakespeare's Hamlet after reading two scathing condemnations of Arizona Governor Jan Brewer's veto of SB 1062. One of them is by World magazine, written by Leigh Jones, and entitled "The Vetoed Bill That Never Existed." The other, by Jennifer Marshall for the Gospel Coalition (TGC), is entitled "When Tolerance Turns to Coerced Celebration."
Both pieces claim that Arizona's bill wasn't about denying service to gays. But at the same time, both pieces screech alarms about Christians having to give up their rights for gays.
Frankly, the duplicity on display here is embarrassing. If Arizona's SB 1062 was merely the i-dotting, t-crossing legal formality to an existing law, like both Jones and Marshall want their readers to think it was, then why are they so upset that it didn't become law?
"Contrary to opponents’ claims," Jones writes for World, "the bill would not have given restaurants or retail stores, businesses open to the general public, the right to refuse to serve gay customers." And then she goes on to describe how Christian businesses could now be left open to lawsuits by dissatisfied gay customers.
"Minor clarifications to existing law got lost in an avalanche of gross mischaracterization," Marshall writes for TGC, "as national pundits predicted the bill would usher in a 'homosexual Jim Crow' regime with rampant denial of services by business owners to gays and lesbians."
And then she goes on to admit that yes, in fact, "one reason for the clarification was to protect Arizona citizens from the kind of government action brought against Christian businesses elsewhere when they declined to use their talents to celebrate same-sex weddings or commitment ceremonies."
So... which is it? Was it a bill that never existed, or was it a bill that coerced gay wedding celebrations? Was it an innocuous bit of legislation, or was vetoing it a horrible miscarriage of religious liberty?
Both writers appear to be basing much of their consternation on the same bit of evidence that was proffered by a group of legal scholars at the 11th hour of Governor Brewer's deliberations over the bill. That evidence is a letter discussing various aspects of SB 1062's legitimacy as an amendment to Arizona's current Religious Freedom Restoration Act. But even the authors of that letter admit they didn't all agree on whether the governor should sign it or veto it.
Now, I'm no fan of Governor Brewer. I'm no fan of any politician. Neither do I believe Christian business owners should be forced to provide services in the cause of something their faith teaches is morally wrong. But with all due respect to the people who put SB 1062 together, it was too open-ended and ambiguous regarding its legal ramifications, and the extent to which people could manipulate such ambiguity. For all of the protestations World and TGC are raising after the fact, claiming that the media distorted the legislation's true nature and intent, it seems even more likely that evangelicals who hoped it would pass are fomenting a similar level of distortion over what its veto means to people of faith in Arizona.
My dear brothers and sister in Christ: this is a debate for which legislation that is obviously open to interpretation simply cannot suffice. Isn't it? Why is that such a hard thing for God's people to admit?
Okay, so now we know what the governor - and a lot of other people, like me, who opposed SB 1062 - are looking for in such legislation. In their complaints about Governor Brewer's veto, neither Jones nor Marshall really address the fact that one of the primary reasons Brewer ruled against making it law was that SB 1062 was too broadly-worded. That means we're looking for a fine-tuned statement of protection for people who do not want to be forced into providing a service that conflicts with their religious beliefs. Going back to the drawing board shouldn't elicit such howls of protest, should it?
If Arizona's lawmakers can't come up with something like that, then we all will have the right to be righteously indignant. Otherwise, since open-ended ambiguity isn't exactly a hallmark of our faith, why should we get all bent out of shape when open-ended ambiguity haunts laws that get vetoed?
Protesting too much makes us appear to be poor losers. But losers of what? SB 1062 wasn't our last stand. However, it's our integrity that we stand to lose if we keep kicking dust up onto the gay marriage lobby's shoes.
Thursday, February 27, 2014
In case there was any doubt, Spike Lee wanted to eliminate it completely.
He hates gentrification. And he went off on a profanity-choked tirade during a Black History Month event at Brooklyn's Pratt Institute, my Dad's alma mater, to prove it.
"You just can’t come in the neighborhood," Lee bellowed to his audience. "I’m for democracy and letting everybody live, but you gotta have some respect. You can’t just come in when people have a culture that’s been laid down for generations, and you come in, and now s--- gotta change, because you’re here?"
Suffice it to say, this was about the longest stretch of his soliloquy that was devoid of an f-bomb. The man may know how to make popular movies, but his personal vocabulary leaves a lot to be desired.
Nevertheless, he got his point across. He resents all of the wealthy interlopers into neighborhoods that have been struggling to survive for decades. Particularly in Brooklyn, where the tidal wave of gentrification has caught many of the borough's crime-worn residents off-guard. For years, they assumed gentrification was something that happened in Manhattan, or maybe on the fringes of Brookyn Heights, the borough's historic silk-stocking district, where gas lamps still light brick-paved streets. Having wealthy white folks suddenly snatching up property and paying unheard-of sums for rent in neighborhoods like Bedford-Stuyvesant, Fort Greene, and Bushwick - neighborhoods whites abandoned more than half a century ago - is more than bizarre.
Lee, and plenty like him, think urbanism's latest twist is unfair.
But is it? No matter how marginalized a neighborhood may have been, or for how long, gentrification is a product of supply and demand, and incorporates both benefits and drawbacks. In a city like New York, where most of its poorest residents rent, gentrification can seem particularly punitive, since property owners benefit most from rising property values. The trick is to make a neighborhood's transition worth the extra costs for those who paid their dues in other ways, back when nobody else wanted to live there.
After all, gentrification indicates opportunity. It's what happens when, for a variety of reasons, an aging neighborhood becomes attractive to newer residents who are richer than the ones currently living there. Taken as part of a city's cycle of life, gentrification is usually the flip side of deterioration and dysfunction, two phenomena that became a hallmark of white flight more than fifty years ago across urban America.
Back then, after World War II, and the invention of the mass-market suburb, inner city neighborhoods that had been home to many white Americans experienced an unprecedented transition in their social, political, and racial composition. As a combination of racism, classism, and the desire for more space to raise one's family helped to spur middle-class whites out of cities, the neighborhoods they left behind filled with poorer blacks and Hispanics, who have now spent multiple generations in those same neighborhoods. These are neighborhoods that have generally decayed more than they've thrived, with crime, unemployment, public assistance, slumlords, and political corruption holding sway over sustainable economic and social vitality.
Now, however, as younger generations of mostly white twentysomethings from the suburbs have grown up on TV shows like Seinfeld and Friends - shows that portrayed city life as vibrant and trendy - the inner city has become hip. Bored with suburbia, and educated for white-collar professions, they're flocking back in droves to the crumbling cores of the cities their parents and grandparents fled decades ago.
Upwardly mobile Americans, after all, are rarely content with ordinary used stuff. It's one reason they left America's aging city centers to begin with. Things have to be either really, really old and kitschy to be trendy and desirable, or completely new and fresh. And with suburbia having mostly been built dispassionately and cheaply, hard-coded with design motifs that became dated quickly, there's a lot for young strivers to dislike about their parents' subdivisions.
It's worth pointing out that while those dated subdivisions and strip malls lose their allure to whites, they're being back-filled once again by people more desperate for housing than prestige. The poorer blacks and Hispanics who've been populating urban America have, to a certain extent, begun their own migration from those old city neighborhoods into what are now the aging cores of America's original suburbs.
Problem is, not enough poor folks are leaving those inner cities and creating more space for wealthier whites who want to move back downtown. So, while gentrification itself shouldn't intrinsically be a bad thing for urban neighborhoods, it tends to be when it creates an imbalance between what newer arrivals with more expendable income can pay for housing, and what the same neighborhood's current residents can afford.
However, as far as Spike Lee is concerned, it doesn't sound as if he's particularly upset by the money being spent by gentrifiers, as much as he's upset about their skin color. He complained about whites infiltrating Harlem, but he conveniently ignored the affluent blacks who've rechristened many of the dilapidated brownstones in the originally Jewish neighborhood with far more opulence than they've ever had. Now it's the brownstones in Brooklyn's tattered outliers newcomers are after, but it's the skin color of these newcomers that apparently prompted the vulgarity contained in Lee's unscripted speech at Pratt. The introduction of a greater level of prosperity into an existing neighborhood seems distantly secondary to him.
If gentrification is purely an economic conundrum at its core, and if greater levels of prosperity instigate corresponding increases in social expectations by the people holding that greater level of prosperity, then perhaps some of the problems Lee identifies could be resolved through greater intra-neighborhood dialog. For example, if a street party celebrating Michael Jackson is something longtime residents want, what's the harm in newcomers simply chalking up such events as part of the price they pay for urban living? After all, nobody's ever claimed Brooklyn is as quiet as the 'burbs. However, if Lee is going to claim that a Michael Jackson memorial street party is a black versus white issue, then how much have we progressed since the days of white flight?
Oddly enough, not all neighborhoods experiencing new waves of wealth are experiencing gentrification. Some neighborhoods, like Manhattan's Upper East Side, have been in a perpetual state of ever-increasing affluence since they were initially built, so the term "gentrification" doesn't apply to the stratospheric rise in the cost of apartments there, even despite the new class of super-luxury condo towers commanding prices of up to $100 million. Few current residents of the Upper East Side may be able to afford such trophy apartments, but they're not exactly being displaced by such developments, nor is their standard of living being pinched economically by them.
Of course, most current Upper East Siders are white, and most of the people purchasing those high-dollar apartments are also white, so there's a lot less tactile acrimony for agitators like Lee to work with in pitting people groups against each other. Skin colors come in many more shades over in Brooklyn.
Even so, Lee did have one good point to make. He called out the city's real estate professionals and developers who've taken it upon themselves to unilaterally re-name gentrifying neighborhoods that used to have woefully negative reputations. Simply applying artificial new nomenclature to these transitioning 'hoods is supposed to make them more appealing to newcomers willing to pay inflated rents in what used to be crime-washed ghettos. But what about the folks who still live there, and have called the neighborhood by its original name for generations?
Neighborhoods have enough on their plate sorting out all of their new racial and economic diversity without Realtors arbitrarily changing their names as well.
When it comes to the questions Lee asked about the uptick in sanitation, police, and public education attention that gets paid to a black neighborhood after whites start moving in, however, the answers nobody voices are ominous. Precisely because nobody says them out loud. There are elephants in the gentrification room that people don't really want to talk about, and part of the reason is because people like Lee already have their prejudices about prejudice, and have the temerity to infuse their prejudices with obscene diatribes that only inhibit rational discussion.
Meanwhile, how much gentrification would be taking place if black property owners weren't selling their homes and businesses for top dollar and moving on to other parts of the city, the suburbs, or a long-desired retirement? Nobody's forcing beleaguered property owners to sell out, after they've spent decades trying to protect their property so they could raise their families and run their businesses as best they could during urban America's dark days. Blame the newcomers for their arrogance if you want, but if gentrification is as vile as Lee claims it to be, it's not white folks who are cashing in and moving out.
Oh, so has the race card suddenly become unwelcome, Mr. Lee?
Then drop your use of it, and let's start this dialog again. Otherwise, it looks like history may be repeating itself, only with the colors reversed.