Saturday, September 20, 2008

Palin - Does it really matter what she believes?

The latest scuttlebutt about Palin is her pastor's background as a witch-hunter in Kenya. While it has roused a number of eyebrows among those who are unfamiliar with Pentecostalism, the Christian Science Monitor is one of the few that have explained it in a context that, while still disturbing, at least is a recognizable part of something that occurs in many places other than the wilds of Alaska.

More typical are stories like this from Keith Olbermann. While I generally like his hard-hitting commentary, it is clear that these folks have not bothered to talk to the people who, in my part of the world, are some of my neighbors and parents of my children's friends, who are faithful members of the Assembly of God and whose beliefs about witches and demons are just under the surface of their often successful campaigns to rid the public schools of Halloween celebrations. This isn't National Enquirer stuff -- this is everywhere, and the line between Pentecostal fundamentalism and the more retrained varieties is not all that clear.

Rather than take on all the fundamentalists (whom I suspect would not be shocked by these revelations, even if they might not buy into the whole Pentecostal mapping and demon-targetting practices), I would suggest that maybe those of us who do not want a McCain-Palin presidency should stop gasping in horror at these things (it makes us little different, after all, from those who were upset about Rev. Wright), but rather look, if we should bother to focus on Palin at all, at how she has used her religion in politics.

What seems to have escaped a lot of people was this early Time magazine article on Palin and how she interjected fundamentalist religion and her views on abortion in mayoral politics in Wasilla. Here's an excerpt:
In Stein's view, Palin's main transgression was injecting big-time politics into a small-town local race. "It was always a nonpartisan job," he says. "But with her, the state GOP came in and started affecting the race." While Palin often describes that race as having been a fight against the old boys' club, Stein says she made sure the campaign hinged on issues like gun owners' rights and her opposition to abortion (Stein is pro-choice). "It got to the extent that — I don't remember who it was now — but some national antiabortion outfit sent little pink cards to voters in Wasilla endorsing her," he says.

Vicki Naegele was the managing editor of the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman at the time. "[Stein] figured he was just going to run your average, friendly small-town race," she recalls, "but it turned into something much different than that." Naegele held the same conservative Christian beliefs as Palin but didn't think they had any place in local politics.

"I just thought, That's ridiculous, she should concentrate on roads, not abortion," says Naegele.
That was not the end of it. Even after serving two years as mayor, abortion continued to drive mayoral politics:
When Palin, who went on to win re-election by a landslide, was forced out of the Mayor's office by term limits in 2002, her husband Todd's stepmother Faye Palin ran for mayor. She did not, however, get Sarah Palin's endorsement. A couple of people told me that they thought abortion was the reason for Palin not supporting her family member — Faye, they say, is pro-choice, not to mention a Democrat. A former city council member recalls that it was a heated race, mainly because of right-to-life issues: "People were writing BABYKILLER on Faye's campaign signs just a few days before the election." Faye Palin lost the race to the candidate that Sarah backed, Dianne Keller, who is still mayor of Wasilla.
Ibid. at Time.

This, I contend, is what should scare the crap out of all of us. Personally, I'm anti-criminalization of abortion and feel strongly that the law should be neutral (in that sense, pro-choice), but I also respect those who think that abortion is horrific and should not be considered simply as one among many choices of birth-control. Someday I hope that people will be able to talk civilly to each other about the issue and do something positive together. But, in the meantime, whatever anyone thinks about abortion and what role, if any, the law should have in prohibiting or restricting it, I think that for anyone to interject this raw, heart-wrenching moral issue into local municipal politics and to exploit it, all for the sake of becoming mayor of Wasilla, is, well, just about as sleazy as it can get. No one, no matter what their views on abortion, should want this kind of opportunist to hold any kind of government office.

I do not even question the sincerity of Palin's religious beliefs. I do not think that anyone's religious beliefs can or should ever be entirely set aside when making public policy decisions in government. But when those beliefs are used, not to form character and inform moral thinking, but rather to inflame emotions and divide the electorate for the purpose of short-term political gain, they cease to be a force for moral action, no matter where they come from.

Finally, bottomline, what is more critical to moral behavior than telling the truth? Granted, the truth is hard to come by. But sometimes, just the facts will do. We need more of them. Lots more. Here's one great story of an Alaskan named Doug who is keeping it simple. See Palin Lies: One Man's Protest, reported at Mudflats by akmuckracker (one of my favorite Alaskan bloggers and a seeker of that elusive truth).

I, for one, think the country can be best served by digging for the truth of what Palin has actually done or not done as a government official. I don't care what her pastor says, or, other than for their sakes, what her children and their friends do. There is plenty to look at in Palin's record as mayor and governor, including the continuing efforts to flat-out refuse to answer questions from the Alaska legislature about her decision to fire Commissioner Walt Monegan and the McCain "truth squad" that is twisting and turning the facts so quickly that it makes one's head spin (first he made an authorized trip to Washington D.C., then it was authorized, but he obtained permission under "false pretenses" to try to get federal funds to combat rape and violence against women in Alaska).

We need the facts, the real facts, and the truth as best we can discern it. Those who oppose the truth want nothing better than to see us Libruls get caught up in the smokescreen of witches and demons and our disdain for those who believe in them. Let's not give them the satisfaction.

Friday, September 19, 2008

McCain Campaign Hits New Low

Not that you haven't heard this before, but this is remarkable, even for this campaign.

First a caveat: There's already been a lot said about the lies in this year's campaign ads. Some expert recently said on the radio that the worst of the ads generally are shown in only a handful of local markets for the purpose of getting the media talking about them (for free) -- thus gaining more circulation than they would have had if they paid to air them nationally. That's been done in the past, but it is worse nowadays because of how circulation explodes once the ads hit the internet and get transmitted and shared through sites like YouTube.

So, I really hate to even mention this ad, but I cannot forget that someone who claims to place Country First and have that mean something good and noble would do this. I will not link to the video ad, but you get the gist from this photo in this CNN article. It features a photo of former Fannie Mae CEO Franklin Raines (who happens to be a black man) overlaid with one of Obama, creating a visual of Raines speaking in Obama's ear. The ad suggests that Raines is an advisor to Obama on mortgage and banking policies. It then shows a photo of an elderly white woman who has been supposedly "stuck with the bill" as a result of "extensive financial fraud" at FannieMae. Needless to say, Raines is not and has not been an advisor to Obama or his campaign.

The full text of the ad reads as follows:
[I'm John McCain and I approve of this ad]

Obama has no background in economics.

Who advises him? The Post says it’s Franklin Raines, for "advice on mortgage and housing policy."


Under Raines, Fannie Mae committed “extensive financial fraud.” Raines made millions. Fannie Mae collapsed.

Taxpayers? Stuck with the bill.

Barack Obama. Bad advice. Bad instincts. Not ready to lead.
Of course the point of this has nothing to do with the "facts" that can be checked or considered. It's all about the image of two black men -- one supposedly ignorant, the other some kind of criminal, who together will snatch away money from poor, unsuspecting, elderly white women. It's not about economics or advice. It's about race and fear, the deepest, darkest kind.

This makes the Willie Horton ad in the 1988 presidential campaign look restrained. If this is what it takes to win an election in the U.S., God help us all.

Blue Genes

I happened to catch an interview (audio available here) with Christopher Lukas yesterday on The Diane Rehm show. Lukas talked about his new book, Blue Genes: A Memoir of Loss and Survival.

For those of us who have struggled with family relationships in general and with severe depression in particular, Lukas offers some insights and compassion. What struck me in particular in interview was when he said that as much as he loved his brother, he could not forgive him for having committed suicide. One has to understood what he said and what he meant in context, but for those who might not have grasped it, he discusses it at some length late into the show in response to a question from a caller. The upshot was that this event was, for Kit (Christopher), one in a series of abandonments (including his mother's suicide when he was a child).

It is difficult for me to put into words, but there was something about this story that went well beyond the history of an unhappy family (or, rather,a family of unhappy persons, some suffering from debilitating mental illness and some ending their lives in suicide). Despite its long, dark shadows, the story speaks of real love, despair, connections, disconnections, of both human limits and the yearning to transcend them. For me, it hit home, deeply.

There are no truths, only stories

I've been thinking a lot the last few days about the current financial crisis and some of the moralizing that has been expressed by persons all across the political spectrum. Someone or someones are lacking in "moral leadership" and have succumbed to greed - not us, but the politicians, the stockbrokers, the S.E.C. Really? I wonder. As we still drive our cars, buy where we can as we can (whether it be the local Walmart or supermarket chain), buy what we can (produce, meat, all kinds of products transported by oil from across the world), when the little we may earn from our bank accounts or retirement funds (if we have any) depends on market games, and when we work for companies who must play their own part in the overall game, are we, even those near the middle and bottom of the economic ladder in the U.S., just innocent lambs, really innocent prey to the wolves on Wall Street, or are we all creatures, big and small, who share in the fault?

Not having the answers to these questions, I tend to fall back on trying to listen to the experts, those who have studied and critiqued the structural problems in the markets and have practical solutions based on a clear, possibly objective view of the realities of the world we live in. And as for morality, I suspect there's just as much wrong with "us" as "them." So maybe what is needed is figuring out how to set up the best controls for self-interested behaviors, since we are not about to end or curtail those any time soon.

Yet, in the midst of technical talk about market structures, regulation, profit and loss, I still try to remember that there are real people affected much worse than me, not just here in the U.S. but throughout the world. Who or what really is at risk when the markets play their games? Chomsky gives the following view from the (once) radical Left:

Markets have inherent and well-known inefficiencies. One factor is failure to calculate the costs to those who do not participate in transactions. These "externalities" can be huge. That is particularly true for financial institutions.

Their task is to take risks, calculating potential costs for themselves. But they do not take into account the consequences of their losses for the economy as a whole. . . .

The unprecedented intervention of the Fed may be justified or not in narrow terms, but it reveals, once again, the profoundly undemocratic character of state capitalist institutions, designed in large measure to socialise cost and risk and privatize profit, without a public voice. . . .

Noam Chomsky at BBC News.

There may be some important truth in that, but is the realistic solution an enlightened vision or perspective that puts the good of the whole first? -- the resort to the tired out -isms of socialism or communism as the counters to capitalism? Is it indeed always a matter of the rich vs. the poor, the bad and powerful vs. the poor and helpless? Is it x vs. y, class against class, one political or economic theory over another, or rather an enormous failure to see the human face of our many societal problems? Will we ever do anything but move around the players and the playing pieces, just mixing up the game, rather than ever really giving up the desire to move up and ahead of others, seeing and serving the least among us?

I stumbled across this passage from an article written by one of my favorite authors, Jim Harrison. It doesn't speak to the current financial crisis but rather another back-burner political issue in the current election cycle - immigration. It reveals the angst many feel over the lack of clear, simple solutions to seemingly intractable problems yet insists that people do not divert their gaze away from those who suffer so terribly when caught in the midst of ideological and economic warfare. Unlike the "stories" sometimes told in campaign soundbites, this speaks to the kind of story that reveals perhaps the only truth we can ever really know:
Frankly, I have no mind for rational solutions to these immense problems. Nothing I ever hear from Washington, D.C., has any relationship with the reality I know down here. I’m seeing delirium, hunger, acute suffering, which are not solved, assuaged or aired by the stentorian fart breath of the House and Senate.

I’m also wondering if it behooves a writer to try to be right. Yeats warned about cutting off a horse's legs to get it into a box. Simon Ortiz, the grand Acomo Pueblo poet, said that there are no truths, only stories…

A historian might very well consider the validity of the Gadsen Purchase, wherein we bought my locale for fifty-two cents an acre from a group of Mexicans that had no right to sell it. The United Nations would question our right to take all of the Colorado River’s water, leaving the estuarine area in Mexico as dry as the bones their people leave up here in the desert. A true disciple of Jesus would say that we have to do something about these desperate people, though this is the smallest voice of all. Most politicians have the same moral imperative as a cancer cell: continue what you’re up to at all costs. Meanwhile the xenophobes, better known as the xenoids, merely jump up an down on the border screeching, surely a full testament to our primate roots. Everyone not already here must be kept out, and anyone here illegally, if not immediately expunged, should be made as uncomfortable as possible.

So Ana Claudia crossed with her brother and child into Indian country, walking up a dry wash for forty miles, but when she reached the highway she simply dropped dead near the place where recently a nineteen year old girl also died from thirst with a baby at her breast. The baby was covered with sun blisters, but lived. So did Ana Claudia’s. The particular cruelty of a dry wash is that everywhere there is evidence of water that once passed this way, with the banks verdant with flora. We don’t know how long it took Ana Claudia to walk her only forty miles in America, but we know what her last hours were like. Her body progressed from losing one quart of water to seven quarts: lethargy, increasing pulse, nausea, dizziness, blue shading of vision, delirium, swelling of the tongue, deafness, dimness of vision, shriveling of the skin, and then death, the fallen body wrenched into a question mark. How could we not wish that politicians on both sides of the border who let her die this way would die in the same manner? But then such people have never missed a single lunch. Ana Claudia Villa Herrera. What a lovely name.

- Jim Harrison, "Life on the Border" (Men’s Journal, July 2001)
Quoted in Commonplace at

I do not have the answers to any of these problems, either. But I keep listening, to both the experts on the machinery and the artists who see the souls caught in between.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Economy Hits Home - Empire Falls

Good Morning America apparently is doing a "Whistle Stop" series across the U.S. They recently visited Rome, New York. City officials are NOT happy, according to today's newspaper story in the O-D (that's Observer-Dispatch, BTW). They are responding to this briefest of video clips from GMA. (Haven't heard such outrage at a media portrayal since -- yesterday, when Cindy McCain dissed The View - see CNN).

Seriously, I think the initial comments section of the O-D sums it all up well. One points out:
Sad part of all of this is, it's not just Rome it is the whole area. Open your eyes and drive around the area it is depressed runned down and basically every third house is for sale. Utica has literally become a dumping ground for refugees since 1990's. Herkimer County lost all their manufacturing as well as Oneida County, over regulative state government with all the overburdening laws and taxes has chased many away. There isn't too much that is positive. You can't blame Good Morning America for the troubles we face. If it is any consolation we can slightly point our finger of blame at NAFTA and Government regulations, and high taxes.

What is amazing now is the whole country is starting to feel just like we all have been through for the past 25 years.
The situation regarding taxes and regulations may be more complex than that, the bottomline is that this is everyday reality for us.

Not long after I first moved here in 2001 I went to Rome (church event, cross country race?). I got lost downtown where several roads meet together in the center near the Fort Stanwix monument (recalling its role in the infamous Battle of Oriskany). No place around here is a model for a booming economy, but Rome struck me as one of the most depressing places I've ever visited -- areas with vacant homes boarded up, debris in places, no constraints on commercial signs or development that I could see. While there are certainly similar looking areas in Utica, Rome is different in that some properties were vacated after the air force base left rather than part of a long-term decline of inner-city neighborhoods.

In any event, this is the reality both our politicians and our church leaders need to confront. Grabbing earmark government money here and there for local pet projects is not going to fix things. Nor is pretending that local parishes are not struggling, being very short on people, money, and sound buildings, for reasons that have nothing to do with church politics, theology, or anything but local conditions.

Bottomline, whether you live in Wasilla, AK or Rome, NY or Washington D.C., we all need the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Rep. Les Gara - McCain brings D.C. style politics to Alaska

Rep. Les Gara, Democratic Congressman from Alaska and former Attorney General, is speaking up about the way McCain political operatives are turning Alaska upside down. Whatever one thinks of Palin and the unfortunate family circumstances behind the whole Troopergate affair, the way the McCain campaign has handled the matter speaks volumes about their so-called commitment to good government, ethics, and reform. Rather than have Gov. Palin and her staff speak the truth about what happened, as she first promised to do, and let her Republican legislature decide what response, if any, is required, the McCain people are not willing to trust the people of Alaska or the rest of the U.S. with the facts.

Rep. Gara writes about this events in two recent columns in The Huffington Post. The latest begins:
Since Monday the McCain camp has stepped up its personal attacks against Alaskans. They've continued their D.C.-style tactics against neighbors in this small state....
Round 2 of Troopergate Stall: Part Karl Rove, Part Laurel & Hardy, following up on his earlier report:
As an Alaskan I'm not really angry at our Governor for this mess. I do blame John McCain for the ugliness he's brought to our state this week. His folks have come to my small state to attack my friends, and people I respect, for political gain. In my book, that's not OK. We all mess up time to time. But this crosses the line.

In small states, like small towns, people who act like the McCain folks apologize. Until that happens, I'll keep defending three public servants who deserve better.
Karl Rove in Alaskas - McCain's Spin and Intereference with Bipartisan Troopergate Investigation.

These are must reads.

UPDATE - More on Monegan at Alaska Real.

Fear of frailty

Wendy Lustbader has written some extraordinary things about aging, especially about fear of frailty and the dependence it engenders. I hope to soon read her book, Counting on Kindness. An excellent discussion of the book can be found in "Counting on Kindness - The Dilemmas of Dependency," an article by P. Jones in Aging, Spring 1996. Excerpts include:
"Engaging life requires an active decision; letting ourselves languish requires little effort," Lustbader remarks, but she also cautions that "we must stop clinging to independence as if it were the only meaning of strength."
.... Lustbader quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson's observation that "we do not quite forgive a giver. The hand that feeds us is in some danger of being bitten."

.... While some of the book emphasizes ways to detoxify emotions and solve problems relating to power and dependency, many chapters also discuss the possibilities for emotional or spiritual revival that illness and frailty hold. Lustbader comments that for most of our hurried pressured lives, "obliviousness comes down around us like a curtain" and there "are very rare moments when the curtain is pulled aside and we are graced with a vivid sense of aliveness." She notes that Virginia Woolf called these interludes "moments of being," which Lustbader believes many people may experience for the first time, or more frequently, in their 70's and 80's. There is time to notice the intricate patterns of tree branches on winter afternoons, to linger over a fine sentence or passage in a novel, to be touched by someone you have only recently met. "Moments of being," of aliveness, are what make life worth living, and they can become more possible as life slows down after retirement.
Westbader summarizes the dilemma of dependency in a short article, variously titled "At the Mercy of Strangers" [Yes Magazine, 2005[ and "Thoughts on the Meaning of Fraility" (Almost Home). She writes, in part:
We have come to fear frailty more than death. We imagine being “put” in a nursing home, like a jar on a lonely shelf. Will a parade of paid strangers take care of me someday? Frailty coupled with abandonment has become our most dire existential dread.
. . . .

Unless I can let my caregivers know who I am, the eyes looking at me will merely reiterate my physical deterioration. They will perceive only my gnarled fingers and the stark metallic fact of my wheelchair. Just another old lady. Much is presumed on the basis of such surfaces. I know I will recoil from my helper's singsong voice, that well-meaning tilt of her head, her every gesture that exudes kindliness. All of this will consign me to a category, “the frail,” the boundaries of which will be difficult to breach. Are there ways to maintain the self in such situations? Perhaps we have the most to learn in the places we least want to reside. The “difficult people” in nursing homes are those who refuse to be diminished. I have watched them demand, threaten, and rage until their requests are heeded. Their dignity causes trouble in systems of care meant for efficiency. They insist on the prickly assertion of self in places where idiosyncracy is inconvenient . . . . .
Her writings express so well what I have observed and struggled with over this past summer and fall with my mother, who, at various times has refused to eat any food that is not a favorite or not cooked the way she wants, raged at caregivers and physical therapists (even the best and most compassionate of them), and lain awake at night loadly moaning or crying, even when she knows that no one will respond (supposedly because there is nothing that can be done for her pain beyond what they have done) and when she knows it will disturb others' sleep -- not to mention the way she uses my brother and I, trying to force us into a game of "good cop - bad cop" or turn us against each other, one being appealed to for sympathy and support and the other cast as an onerous taskmaster -- roles or allegiances switching depending on her mood of the moment.

Part of the solution to these kinds of problems is supposed to be better communications and understanding among the frail, the caregivers, and the family. Easier said than done, especially when the dependent person is so wrapped up in rage and denial that she does not want to deal with anything or anyone realistically or when the family or caregivers are at the end of their rope. But, of course, it works both ways, and it can be really difficult to fully comprehend the nature and extent of the dependent person's frustration and need to assert herself in anyway she can, even when it ends up hurting more than helping her obtain any practical results or improvement in the situation.

In addition to trying to teach persons on all sides more empathy and understanding, Lustbader talks about the need for spirtual life and how and why dependency or fraility does not have to be a death sentence. Although supposedly out of date, a lot of Aging experts (and laypersons who think they know best) focus on getting "seniors" active and engaged. While not bad in itself, when activity and independence become the sole goal of "successful" aging, it ignores differences in individuals, the fact that some will eventually be forced to become less active and more dependent, and the degree of personal autonomy available may be severely limited by economic and geographic factors. As one author has written,
A second major theory of aging, referred to as "activity theory", proposed that people age most successfully when they participate in a full round of daily activities, that is, keep busy (Lemon, Bengtson & Peterson (1972). This theory seemed to explain the surge of volunteerism and senior activism in the 1960s and 1970s and may have been partly responsible for public policies which underwrote the development of senior centers and other recreational facilities in that period. Today, the theory has been discarded by gerontologists who view it as too narrow in its implied advocacy of one particular lifestyle. Empirical research has demonstrated the heterogeneity of older people, including many people who prefer less structured lives or do not have the health or means to pursue a full schedule of activities. Nevertheless, activity is widely touted by older adults themselves as the key to successful aging, so much so that gerontologists have dubbed this philosophy "the busy ethic" (Ekerdt, 1986).

. . . .

Diverging from works of the 1980s that emphasize "maximizing independence" or "enhancing autonomy" in the frail elderly, Lustbader (1991) described the possibilities for finding satisfaction and meaning even in a state of dependency, including moments of vivid aliveness, true intimacy between family members, and spiritual revival. . . .
From Successful Aging: What does the "good life" look like?
Vol. 1, No. 3, Summer 1996, Concepts in Gerontology, by Lucille B. Bearon, Ph.D.. reprinted at NC State University, Forum for Family and Consumer Issues.

It truly is not for me or my brother to decide what is best for our mother, but it seems that when dealing with someone in a situation where dependency is inevitable (for someone often not strong enough to get in and out of bed or go to the bathroom by herself, even as she used to with a walker), there must be more than just pushing to try to make her as self-sufficient as possible. It must be very difficult for her or anyone, especially in our self-reliant American culture, to turn to others for help and accept the frustration and sometimes humiliation that comes with total dependency, but, how is happiness or joy of any kind possible if one cannot trust some caregivers, accept help without shame or anger, and, finally, have some trust or faith in God to see one through?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Izzy and Lenore

This is a plug for a new book by Jon Katz, Izzy & Lenore. From the description at that author's website:
Izzy was an abandoned three-year-old border collie whose sketchy past and nervous disposition reminded Katz of the dogs he has been closest to over his life. As Katz taught this newest denizen of his animal menagerie to calm down and embrace the rhythm of life on Bedlam Farm, Izzy exhibited an uncanny sensitivity to, and tenderness toward, humans who were troubled, ailing, or ill. It was Izzy’s special receptiveness that led Katz to a pursuit he’d often pondered but never seriously considered: volunteer hospice work....

Lenore was a glossy jet-black Labrador Retriever puppy known as the “Hound of Love”....
For more about Izzy, including some marvelous photos, see in general, and in particular, the photos and text at Jon's hospice journal at See also "A Patient's Best Friend" at Slate.

[Hat tip to Ray Bepko, head of our local Mohawk Valley for Obama campaign, who, needless to say, has no time for blogging now.]

Rev. Howard Bess - Brick of the Day!

From an article in Salon:
That is what scares the Rev. Howard Bess. A retired American Baptist minister who pastors a small congregation in nearby Palmer, Wasilla's twin town in Alaska's Matanuska Valley, Bess has been tangling with Palin and her fellow evangelical activists ever since she was a Wasilla City Council member in the 1990s. Recently, Bess again found himself in the spotlight with Palin, when it was reported that his 1995 book, "Pastor, I Am Gay," was among those Palin tried to have removed from the Wasilla Public Library when she was mayor.

"She scares me," said Bess. "She's Jerry Falwell with a pretty face.

"At this point, people in this country don't grasp what this person is all about. The key to understanding Sarah Palin is understanding her radical theology."
Read more at, story by David Talbot.

Hat tip to The Immoral Minority.