What if . . .

More and more conservatives are starting to get the feeling the rest of us (including a number of conservatives) have had since last November, that is, that the world is going to be on a precipice for at least the next four years. Yesterday, with the news that North Korea now has both an ICBM and a nuclear bomb that will fit on it, Donald Trump said, on his vacation, “North Korea best not make any more threats against the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” A few hours later, of course, North Korea—the only nuclear country in the world with a leader more batshit than Donald Trump—answered that it was thinking about taking out Guam with “an enveloping fire.”

Which is exactly the scenario the rest of us knew was coming if Donald Trump became President, and why we voted for Hillary Clinton, even though a lot of us didn’t like her. After the two megalomaniacs made their comic book–worthy statements, stocks immediately plummeted, which, if that’s the worst that happens—a global recession, say—we can all count ourselves lucky. It’s not at all clear, though, that that’s the worst that will happen.

So I think it’s another good time to examine how Christian conservatives make their civil and political decisions. Because for some reason, a lot of them decided that, despite the likelihood of something happening like what is now happening, it would be even worse if they’d voted for a Democrat and Merrick Garland were put on the US Supreme Court. Many still think this is true. Sometime in the last forty years, Christian conservatives became so obsessed with one great evil out of all the millions of them happening in the world, that they voted for a demonstrably unstable reality television star for President of the United States in order to eradicate it.

If you don’t think abortion made that much difference in evangelicals’ voting, just imagine if there’d been a woman like Clinton in every respect except that she was anti-abortion. It’s a stretch—it’s actually impossible—but put your head around it. A former Senator, Secretary of State, liberal as the day is long in her economic views, her social views (other than abortion), i.e., gay marriage fine, affirmative action affirmative, strong supporter of Obamacare; also, rich from her speaking fees and book royalties, getting outlandish perks all the time and not particularly likable in her demeanor to boot. Calculating, careful. All of that. But she’s anti-abortion. Not just personally, but effectively. She promises if she’s elected she will preserve Obamacare but will do everything in her power to get Roe v Wade overturned. This fake person I’ve come up with can’t be harder to imagine than Donald Trump.

Ok now. Who would the evangelicals be voting for? I’ll tell you who. Fake Hillary.

Just think about this for awhile, because I’m going to start writing about abortion.

Oh . . . And a Russian jet just flew over the Pentagon. Think about those two things.

Shouting v Governing

Last week, after seven years of railing about the socialist evils of the Affordable Care Act and solemn oaths that they would tear it down beam by beam, with a majority in both houses and a President (a half bubble off level, true, but nonetheless) enthusiastically on their side in hating Obamacare, Republicans failed. They admitted that pretty much their whole “plan” since 2010 has been “Obamacare is bad,” and there hadn’t been serious thought in all that time about what might be good. It wasn’t quite a Monty Python sketch, but it was close. Nothing could demonstrate better how easy it is to burn down a house and how hard it is to build one.

Ironically, nor could anything demonstrate better what a mistake it is to deride politicians. Because for all the romance people have with outsiders and idealists these days, it’s the politicians who get things done. But all the Republicans have is screamers. And if Donald Trump’s six-month idiot show has proven anything, it’s that you don’t lead simply by screaming. You lead by working, and in a democracy that means by lots of talk, lots of listening and persuasion and horse-trading and compromise. The very thing we despise politicians for is what makes the country go. It’s called the art of the deal. “Career politicians” are exceptionally good at it. Making a career of something doesn’t automatically corrupt a person in government any more than it corrupts a lifetime construction contractor or a baseball player or an accountant. Sometimes you just get better at your job. A politician’s job is to represent his or her constituents (including those who didn’t vote for that politician) while working with other politicians who were voted in by other people to, all together, lead the country. Change things that don’t work, keep things going that do. It isn’t to crusade. It isn’t to pull up the drawbridge. Mostly, it’s unexciting compromise. As any adult should know who has had to settle an argument among six-year-olds, “compromise” is not a bad thing. It’s what separates the men from the boys, and a democracy from a dictatorship.

Now, while there’s a mad king in the White House, is actually the perfect time for Republicans and Democrats to work together. There’s lots they could accomplish that doesn’t separate them idealogically, starting with an investigation of the Russia scandal. If Republicans want to see what influence the Russians had on the Clinton campaign, sure, let them look into it, since the Russians were undoubtedly up to no good in every nook and cranny they could find. (But they have to investigate in good faith, and so far the evidence of collusion between the Clinton campaign and Russia amounts to about nil.)  Also taxes. Chuck Schumer announced he’s absolutely ready to work across the aisle on the tax code with the Republicans as long as taxes aren’t lowered for the rich—which I actually think should sound reasonable to most Trump voters. Donald also promised to do major work on the country’s infrastructure. He’s temperamentally  unfit for the task, so Congress—Republicans and Democrats—needs to take the lead.

And finally, Obamacare. Obamacare was a huge, complex effort at expanding medical coverage for the country that is a bureaucratic nightmare in part, believe it or not, because of the effort made at avoiding a single-payer system, which would have been  much simpler. (I’m not saying better, I’m saying simpler.) It was an effort to accomplish a national goal—like space exploration, like the highway system—using market principles and including the private insurance industry. It was an incredibly convoluted effort to do a big thing with political buy-in from a broad enough spectrum to get it done. It was bound to get things wrong. But the way to fix those things is not to burn it down and take coverage back away from tens of millions of Americans. The way to fix them is to fix them. And the only way to do that for something so big and so important is for Republicans and Democrats to work together.

Republican Senator Jeff Flake has just written a book in which he basically says Republicans have got to get their morality back and stop pretending they’re in an extended season of Game of Thrones. I disagree with almost all of his politics, but I agree with him  about that. Republicans have got to stop trying to Make America Republican, because that’s never going to happen. They have to start serving their country, which means they stop screaming and scheming, and instead sit down with people they don’t agree with, but work in the same chamber with, and figure out what can be accomplished given all the different kinds of people this country is made of. 

Otherwise, it will not just be the end of the Republican Party. It will be the end of America.

How do you get redeemed in America?

“Well ‘at’s it, boys. I been redeemed. . . . The preacher said all my sins is washed away. Including that Piggly Wiggly I knocked over in Yazoo!”

“I thought you said you was innocent a those charges.”

“Well? I was lyin’. And the preacher said that sin’s been washed away, too! Neither God nor man’s got nothin’ on me, now. C’mon in boys, the water is fine!”

O Brother, Where Art Thou

Two weeks ago, my friend’s mother, who had been a getaway driver 36 years ago for an armored car robbery, was denied parole. A guard and two police officers were killed, and though Judith Clark had not been the shooter, she had shown no remorse at her trial for her involvement, and refused a lawyer. She belonged to a radical group that planned on using the stolen money to fund a revolution. It wasn’t a surprise that the original sentence of 75 years didn’t include parole at all. Harriet has never known her mother outside of prison.

36 years is a long time. How are you different from who you were in 1981? Depending on how old you are, the big difference may even be that here you are and then you weren’t. Judith Clark changed over the years. It was slow. She was a very angry person when she got into prison, a true believer. It was complicated, because she had a baby daughter whom she loved very much, but she had radical politics and—somewhat perversely, in the way we all act perversely when we feel a need to prove something that doesn’t need proving—she was determined to show (herself) that being a mother wouldn’t make her abandon her hard-ass ideals.

Half a decade later, though, she began to re-think some things. In 1986, after she’d been in prison for five years and in solitary confinement for many of them, someone said to her, “I understand how you did this to yourself. What I don’t understand is how you did it to your daughter.” Harriet was six. Clark cried for the first time since she’d been put behind bars.

That was the tipping point. Her essential views about injustice in America didn’t change, but she began to recognize the damage she’d done, how her collusion in acts of violence had not been helping that cause. And then she began the long, slow process of atonement. She earned two degrees. She worked in AIDS education with her fellow inmates. She began attending Jewish services. She made public apology to the families of the victims. When a newsletter that had published one of her poems referred to her as a political prisoner, she refused the title. “I feel only enormous regret, sorrow and remorse.” For the majority of her time in prison now—this span that’s often called a “generation”—Judith Clark has been a very different person from the one she was at her trial.

*

Whenever friends start harping to me about how awful things that have been done in the name of Christianity, all the damage this religion has done, I agree with a lot of it. But I stick up for redemption. Redemption is the big gift Christianity has given the world. For anyone carrying a burden of guilt—and who hasn’t at least once in her life?—the news that our debt has been paid is utterly transformative. The problem is the disconnect so many Christians have with their faith about redemption in the here and now.

A number of participants in the Brinks robbery have long since been free. They all were arguably guilty of worse crimes than Clark, who drove a getaway car. Not even the getaway car. A backup. The principal driver, who also had a young child, got a good lawyer, pled guilty, and was given twenty years and paroled in 2003. Two others were tried as accessories and served less than ten years. Another got 43 years but was eventually released to serve the rest of her time in Italy, her native home, and was released there in 2006. The mastermind, Mutulu Shakur, is still in prison. The only way to explain Judith Clark’s extraordinary sentence—15 years longer than Shakur’s, no parole—is the attitude she displayed at her trial, which was particularly callous, particularly contemptuous of those who would decide her fate.

Last December,  though, New York governor Andrew Cuomo commuted Clark’s sentence, for “exceptional strides in self-development.” He did not free her, but made her eligible for a parole she wasn’t granted at her trial. In part, this commutation was due to the intercession of Elaine Lord, a prison superintendent who’d once had to have personal protection against the possibility of Clark’s associates attempting a violent jailbreak. Lord said she’d watched Clark “change into one of the most perceptive, thoughtful, helpful and profound human beings that I have ever known, either inside or outside of a prison.” I remember hearing this news and being dumbfounded that Harriet’s mom finally had a chance, after more than three decades reflecting on her actions—living a life, however confined, that engaged with her own culpability, did not turn away from it, where all her present moral decision-making was informed by her responsibility for one dark day—that she now had a chance to live out among other free citizens the lessons she had learned. 

But on April 21, the parole board denied her that chance. There are, understandably, many who remember the Brinks robbery, including the children of the slain men, who are not unhappy about the decision. Many in law enforcement opposed her release, and Republican state senators presented to the board a petition of 10,000 signatures not to let her go. From the New York Times, quoting the parole board: “. . . its members ‘respect and understand the governor’s lawful decision to exercise his unique discretion in your case.’ . . . [Their decision to deny] focused on the unique nature of her case and the message  her release would send to law enforcement. . . . ‘You are still a symbol of a terroristic crime.'” Obviously there was always the chance that the board would decide this way. The governor could have simply freed her, but the case was fraught, and he was expending lots of political capital already. He was going to spread either the credit or the blame around.

As astounded as we were, all Harriet’s friends, by the good news in December, I can’t say the bad news in April was a complete surprise. It was a gut punch, but it wasn’t out of the blue. In a country that elected a man who’s said, “Nobody’s safe. I mean, who’s safe?” the release of a prisoner who’s a symbol of terroristic crime would seem, at the very least, not to have found quite its political moment. And yet I was dismayed by the reasoning. Judy Clark will be eligible for parole again in 2019. But no matter how exemplary a prisoner she is in the meantime, how will she be any less a “symbol” in two years than she is today? I have learned since that denial of parole based on the nature of the original crime—rather than the changed nature of the prisoner—is actually not uncommon. A man who’d been denied parole for the tenth time last year, John MacKenzie, finally gave up and killed himself. I expect more than one of the many people who lobbied against his release were just fine with that. He’d killed a cop, and if the state had just executed him right after he’d done it in 1976, they could have saved the taxpayers the cost of 41 years’ room and board. Of course, they’d have saved us all a repentant man, too.  MacKenzie had long had a record that was (here’s that word again) “exemplary.”

So what about redemption? What are prisons for, and what’s justice?

After 9/11, I remember thinking that the punishment I’d want for anyone involved in that heinous crime was to make them sit down with a family member of each of the victims, a different survivor every day, for 3,000 days. And then over again, with a different survivor. Another 3,000 days. I never thought about how long I’d want this to go on. It was symbolic, anyway, not a real idea. Basically, it was just you wanting a man who’s done something terribly wrong to face the consequences to others of his action. Look his desolation in the face. Just killing a murderer doesn’t do this. I don’t just want the act acknowledged. I want the sinner changed. I mean, as long as we’re in the theoretical . . . that’s what I want.

Redemption.

I’ve wondered, among other things, how Judy Clark’s parole hearing would have gone if, rather than teaching prison mothers about pre-natal care and AIDS, and rather than becoming a practicing Jew, she had become an outspoken advocate for police and prison guards. How it might have gone if she had accepted Jesus as her Lord and Savior. This sounds a little cynical, I know—accusing a parole board of being picky about the kind of conversion a prisoner’s allowed to have, with no evidence whatsoever. Pure speculation. Yet still I speculate. Because if Judy is staying in prison because she’s a symbol, surely the kind of conversion she’s had is symbolic, too. And I can’t imagine it helping that her basic political perspective has not moved from left to right in the same way that, for instance, Eldridge Cleaver’s did. If she were out, there’s no question she’d be a Bernie Sanders voter. What if she’d converted to the Republican Party? Well, who knows, right?

*

For people who talk up redemption so much on Sunday, Christians seem to me notoriously dismissive of it in the earthly realm. I know this parole hearing didn’t have anything to do with Christians, but this blog does, and really I’m just wondering about how much thought the average evangelical joe gives to crime and punishment in America. Whether the situation with American prisons bothers him the way, say, the persecution of Christians in the Middle East bothers him. Or her. Whether she knows that the land of the free has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prison population. Or that five times as many Whites use drugs as African Americans, but that African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at ten times the rate of Whites. That we have prisons in this country that are for profit, and which therefore have a financial incentive to get tougher sentencing laws.

If you sit and think a minute, what should justice look like? What’s the point of punishment and how should the scales be leveled? I mean, obviously I’m kind of invested in this because of a good friend. But if you’d feel one way about this if Judith Clark were your mother or daughter, and another way if she weren’t, maybe the point is not that one can’t judge well when one is too close to a situation. Maybe empathy could actually give some insight. It’s interesting that the parole board invoked symbolism in its decision. Because Judith Clark had been obsessed with symbolism once, too:

I thought of myself as a symbol of revolutionary fervor and commitment,” she said this week. “I didn’t think about my child. I didn’t think about the families sitting in that courtroom. Because it was all about symbols, and not people.”

No matter what one believes about justice, I would hope it’s obvious that it should be in the service of real people—the victims and the offenders both.

“My mother did not kill anyone,” Harriet said two weeks ago, “and it’s hard for me to understand who is served by making her die in prison, which is what decisions like this eventually amount to.”

It’s about who is served.

Those Damned Dems

Educate me

While the ultimate goal of this blog, of course, is to foment a secular socialist revolution in which all Christians will be sent to re-education camps and it will be legal to have sex with dogs . . . 

I’m also interested in getting conservative and liberals to talk to each other and, even more ludicrously, listen to each other. So in that spirit, I’m interested in being introduced to the conservative voices you wish a liberal like me would be exposed to. Just remember that I’m a liberal. So the firebrands who seem to you to be preaching the obvious undeniable Truth will likely fall on deaf ears—I’m not going to listen to a person who yells at me. But I’m always interested in someone with a different take on things who makes me think. So if you know of someone like that, e-mail me, or message me on Facebook (not on a public post, though), or text me, or if you’re feeling really retro, tell me in person.

Educate you

I thought I’d mention that the elite mainstream media does have a few conservative voices in its ranks. David Brooks and Ross Douthat, both at the New York Times, are two of them. They drive us liberals crazy. I mention this to correct the impression that papers like the Times or the Washington Post are just the Fox News of the Democrats, picking only stories that confirm liberal bias. 

Can a White Evangelical Be a Democrat?

I should really give this subject its own blog post, but I thought I’d just sneak it in here to start the discussion. At first, I wrote, “Can a Christian be a Democrat?” but aside from the patent silliness of the question, I thought I’d first bring to my white friends’ attention the news that African American Christians and Latino Christians and most Catholics of any racial/cultural group vote for Democrats. This is despite the fact that they’re against abortion and gay marriage. Within the religious community, it’s pretty much the white people—and the white evangelicals in particular—who vote for Republicans. If you’re white, I think you might want to think for a while why that is. And take a look at these political heretics:

Get Uncomfortable

 

Ta-Nehisi Coates, who called 9/11-responders “menaces of nature,” to speak at West Point

Now that I’ve written about things I learned from a Trump voter, I’d like to make a case for everyone getting out of their comfort zone the same way I got out of mine. Particularly, this means reading things you don’t agree with straight from the people saying them, and not quoted secondhand. Because if we’re not all doing this—liberals and conservatives, black and white—we’re just in our amen corners whipping ourselves into a frenzy at the same time we’re letting the country get weaker and more dysfunctional by the day.

The headline above is from Fox News. The kernel of the article is that West Point has invited a radical black man to address its cadets. The proof of just how radical he is is in the headline. That’s the sum total of the straight news. The rest is commentary. A general is quoted who expects the radical black man to get a respectful hearing in a way that conservative speakers have not been getting lately at liberal colleges and universities. No matter how cadets may disagree with the statement that the firefighters and cops on September 11 were “menaces of nature,” the general says, they will listen. And then respectfully disagree. This is probably true.

Now, I agree that college students are more unruly than military cadets, and a lot of them are dumber than a bag of hammers, but now for a little context . . .

Coates’ controversial statement about the responders comes from a book called Between the World and Me that he wrote in the form of a letter to his son. It won the National Book Award. I read it last year. The title is a line he pulls from James Baldwin, a great American 20th-century writer whom many white people have not read. (Raise your hand if you’ve even heard of him, some of you.) Baldwin had also published a letter to his nephew back in 1962. Coates and Baldwin are trying to prepare these two young people for being men in the world, and in particular, black men. Coates wrote his long letter soon after a good friend of his named Prince Jones was killed at his own front door by a police officer. Jones was black and had a car the same make as a suspect. That was why the officer shot and killed him. The cop was crooked but was exonerated. So Coates wrote this book, basically telling his son that as a black man he was going to always have to watch his back. He was justifiably angry. In the wake of the death of his friend—who was basically seen as nothing but a Young Black Man, and that seemed enough to shoot him—he wrote: “I could see no difference between the officer who killed Prince Jones and the police who died, or the firefighters who died. They were not human to me. Black, white, or whatever, they were the menaces of nature; they were the fire, the comet, the storm, which could—with no justification—shatter my body.”

If cops saw no difference between bad black men and good black men, why should he see any difference between bad cops and good cops? Ok, disagree with him, but disagree in context. More context? The cop was black, too. It’s very complicated. You’ll find plenty to disagree with. But by the way, reading this blog still doesn’t give you the right to disagree or be horrified. Disagree with the source. Read the whole book. It’s 152 pages, you can finish it in an evening or two. Or read James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time. Even shorter, and it’s a classic. You may then disagree to your heart’s content, and that will be ok.

The thing is? The guy who wrote the Fox News piece almost surely didn’t read the book. Ten to one, he picked up the quote from a conservative column by David Brooks. So if you only read the Fox News story, you are reading Coates not secondhand, but thirdhand. This is how wars gets started, folks. People hearing what they want to hear from people they agree with already, and getting mad as hell.

I write this in the same week the white President of the United States has, citing no evidence whatsoever, accused the black former President of the United States of tapping his phone, after accusing him for years of not being a US citizen. On, apparently, the evidence of his funny name. (Surely not the color of his skin?)

The next time the thought enters your head that some African Americans are way too touchy and need to move on, remember this.

Confessions of a Trump Voter

I have changed my mind before. In college—at Bible college, in fact—after voting for Gerald Ford in 1976, two years later I changed my registration to the Democratic Party. Ever since, I’ve been very aware that I don’t know everything, and that as I have new experiences, meet new people, read new things, I may have to change my mind again now and then. In the almost forty years since I first changed my registration, Americans of either political stripe have seemed to become only more and more sure of themselves, less and less apt to think they may be ignorant of anything.

So it was good for me today to find this story this morning in one of my usual liberal propaganda rags, the Confessions of a Trump Voter. We need to listen to each other, and I listened to this. I think the guy was mistaken in his faith in Trump—I haven’t changed my mind about that—but it reminds me that Obama wasn’t Jesus Christ, and that we need to learn from our mistakes.

Step One. Silence the Media

Ok, here’s where I compare Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler. You knew it was coming. You may now roll your eyes.

The central problem is that we’ve been comparing Presidents we don’t like to Hitler since at least Richard Nixon. In retrospect, “Nitler” was more like Wormtongue—he was just unsavory and vindictive. There was a lot of talk of George W. Bush being like Hitler, but he was (I’m sorry) just not bright enough for the comparison. People calling Obama Hitler—that always threw me, but I guess with Obamacare you could say there was something National about it, and though I’d call it far short of Socialism, that’s what some of you were calling it that, so . . . National, Socialist. I guess. Suit yourself.

So comparing Trump to Hitler can pretty much sound like nothing more than sour grapes. Except that it’s clear that in his willingness to Do Whatever It Takes to get done what he wants to get done, Trump is absolutely different from any person who has held the office before, and in his attempts to go around the newspapers and television news outlets he doesn’t like, he’s doing some pretty scary stuff. Yesterday, he barred the New York Times and CNN from his briefing room. He let Breitbart stay, but not the NY Times. No matter what you think of liberal bias, the Times is a major paper of record for the country. If you don’t like what they say . . . well, in America, as opposed to Russia or China, you argue your case, or you spin it your way, or you ignore them. When you decide you’re just going to cut them out, you’re taking a step toward state-approved media.

This isn’t a liberal/conservative issue. Any demagogue from the left could do this, too. One of the people most worried about what Trump is doing is John McCain.

Which is where I refer you to an article about Hitler. There was a newspaper in Munich that during the 20s and 30s that just really got under his skin. He decided to cut them out. Now, granted, he was Hitler. But the lesson is disturbing, and I urge you to take a look. It’s a longish read. I hope that doesn’t mean you’re just going to toss it. Truth is long sometimes.

Hitler and The Munich Post