Friday, October 7, 2011

End of the Blog, A New Page

Since September of 2009, I have been blogging at this site on issues at the intersection of faith and law. It has been an interesting experiment. I have had many more readers and followers than I would have ever imagined. And I appreciate the time that each reader has devoted to stop by this site to read my posts and those of the guest bloggers. Thank you.

When I began this blog, I shared with readers my struggle to find an appropriate name. Ultimately, I chose “Progressive Christianity and the Law,” but I expressed that it was not a perfect fit. As time has gone on, I have felt less and less comfortable with the “progressive” moniker. I do think that term probably describes me fairly well in many respects, but not all. Many of my progressive friends think I’m pretty conservative in some respects.

But that is beside the point. The term “progressive” in this blog’s title is modifying Christianity, not me. And I have never believed my religion to be progressive, conservative or moderate, at least not in the political sense of those terms. Those politicized terms just don’t fit well with a faith based on the resurrection of the tortured Prince of Peace who ministered to outcasts, demonstrated respect for secular authorities but had no interest in acquiring their power, and instead taught about the Kingdom of God whose values were quite at odds with earthly priorities.

As I’ve contemplated this dynamic over time, I eventually felt that I needed to put this blog to bed and start anew. To that end, this is my last post on “Progressive Christianity and the Law.”

I will continue to blog on similar faith and law topics at a newly founded blog with a slightly simpler title: “Christianity and the Law Blog.” I invite you to join me at that new blog, which can be found at:

In the meantime, I thank all the readers, commenters, and guest bloggers of this site for your attention, your engagement and your contributions. Without you, this experiment in blogging would have been pointless. Without you, it would simply have been a personal journal. I encourage you to continue your engagement at the new blog.

Peace and blessings!

Ezekiel 36:11

And I will multiply upon you man and beast, and they shall increase and bring fruit. And I will settle you according to your old estates, and will do better unto you than at your beginnings; and ye shall know that I am the LORD.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Tibetan Refugee (2004)

I recently came across a short, low-budget documentary about Tibetans who have fled their homeland because of oppression by the Communist government of the People’s Republic of China. I must admit I have never followed the saga of Tibet that closely, so I gave this film a try because I wanted to learn more.

This particular film appears to have been made by novice filmmakers on a shoestring. As a result, I’m not sure I learned quite as much as I might have learned from a more expertly made film. Nonetheless, I was quite moved and would definitely recommend Tibetan Refugee to others.

The bulk of the film is simply spent interviewing Tibetans in exile in India. The vibe is less that of a documentary film, but more like a collection of Tibetans’ testimony to prove up the oppression that the People’s Republic of China claims is not happening. Common people--not celebrities--tell about their experiences in Tibet under Communist Chinese rule.

From children to young adults to older exiles, their stories are heartbreaking. Over and over again they tell of religious oppression and ethnic marginalization. Young kids tell of making the journey to India on their own because their parents wanted them to have a better life. Monks tell of torture and abuse at the hands of Communist authorities.

Over and over, inteviewees describe their dreams that motivated them to leave Tibet—they sought education and they sought the freedom to practice their religion. Those two dreams seem so simple, so basic to us in the United States. Our nation was founded on the dream of religious freedom. And despite the many serious problems we have in our educational system, there are a lot more educational options and opportunities in this country than people have in most places around the world.

I felt humbled and quite moved as I listened to the interviewees. I am not Buddhist, but I certainly sympathized with their cause. I cannot imagine being tortured for wanting to practice one’s religion openly. After watching the film, I felt gratitude that I could go to church, read my bible, display crosses in my home and talk opening about my faith. Those are privileges that not everyone around the world enjoys.

Psalm 119:134
Redeem me from the people who oppress me so I can keep your precepts.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Mary Harris Jones (a.k.a. “Mother Jones”)

After reading Mother Jones magazine for the first time, I became interest in its namesake and did a little research. I learned that “Mother Jones” (the woman) had a fascinating perspective, which in many ways is actually quite apropos to the focus of this blog.

Mary Harris Jones lived a long life from 1837 until 1930.

Mary Harris was originally from Cork County, Ireland. Her family were Catholics. They were tenant farmers in Ireland. She immigrated to North America with her family as a teenager.

Miss Harris received a Catholic education in Toronto, Canada. She later worked as a teacher in a convent. Eventually, she moved south to the United States and married George E. Jones of Memphis, Tennessee. He was active in an iron molders’ union.
Early in her adult life, Mrs. Jones tragically lost her husband and all her children in a yellow fever outbreak. She had had four children. They were all under the age of five when they died. What an unimaginable loss for someone to bear.

However, Mrs. Jones apparently did not wallow in her grief. Instead, she turned her sorrow into productive outlets by pouring her considerable energies into labor organizing. “Mother Jones,” as she became known, was active in helping to form unions and was affiliated with the Socialist Party of America. She is particularly remembered for her leadership in fighting against the exploitation of child labor.

Mother Jones was apparently an effective labor leader in part because she was such a gifted orator. She was famous for using humor and spirited rhetoric to inspire audiences. Some of her more famous quotes include:

“I'm not a humanitarian, I'm a hell-raiser.”

“If they want to hang me, let them. And on the scaffold I will shout ‘Freedom for the working class!’”

“Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”

“Some day the workers will take possession of your city hall, and when we do, no child will be sacrificed on the altar of profit!”

“Injustice boils in men's hearts as does steel in its cauldron, ready to pour forth, white hot, in the fullness of time”

“Often while sewing for the lords and barons who lived in magnificent houses on the Lake Shore Drive, I would look out of the plate glass windows and see the poor, shivering wretches, jobless and hungry, walking alongside the frozen lake front. The contrast of their condition with that of the tropical comfort of the people for whom I sewed was painful to me.”

Interesting quotes.

Mother Jones is remembered as a passionate fighter for workers’ rights. Many modern people think of her as a godless communist. However, in reality, she had pretty traditional beliefs. Indeed, in many respects one might say she was a “conservative.” For example, Mother Jones was outspoken against female suffrage. She was famous for having said:

“working men deserved a wage that would allow women to stay home to care for their kids.”

I also read that Mother Jones blamed neglectful mothering as the root cause of juvenile delinquency.

As I understand her biography, if she was a radical leftist, it was simply due to class-based, economic concerns. She was not consistently left-wing on all issues. Other famous Mother Jones quotes include:

“I have never had a vote, and I have raised hell all over this country. You don't need a vote to raise hell! You need convictions and a voice!”

“I preferred sewing to bossing little children.”

“That is, the wife must care for what the husband cares for if he is to remain resolute.”

In light of all this, Mary Harris Jones seems like a rather curious inspiration for the modern magazine bearing her nickname.

Deuteronomy 8:17

If you start thinking to yourselves, "I did all this. And all by myself. I'm rich. It's all mine!"—well, think again. Remember that God, your God, gave you the strength to produce all this wealth so as to confirm the covenant that he promised to your ancestors—as it is today.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Mother Jones Magazine

In the 1970s, an underground magazine took the name “Mother Jones.” Over the years, the magazine became more prominent and was no longer underground. For a period in the 1980s, Michael Moore (now known for his films) was affiliated with the magazine.

The magazine touts itself as a beacon of investigative journalism, a type of journalism I think we need more of these days. There is some investigative work in the magazine, but some of it is not very thorough. Much of it is heavily tinged with ideology, which makes the articles less than ideal in my opinion.

Nonetheless, I appreciate Mother Jones magazine. I may not always agree with its ideology or perspective. But despite what the right says, there aren’t really a lot of left wing voices in the media. With the rise of Fox News Channel and talk radio, I think that countervailing voices are important.

Unlike talk radio and FNC, which make lots of money, Mother Jones magazine is produced by a non-profit, the Foundation for American Progress. The magazine accepts donations to support its existence.

Deuteronomy 24:19

When you harvest your grain and forget a sheaf back in the field, don't go back and get it; leave it for the foreigner, the orphan, and the widow so that God, your God, will bless you in all your work. When you shake the olives off your trees, don't go back over the branches and strip them bare—what's left is for the foreigner, the orphan, and the widow. And when you cut the grapes in your vineyard, don't take every last grape—leave a few for the foreigner, the orphan, and the widow. Don't ever forget that you were a slave in Egypt. I command you: Do what I'm telling you.

Monday, September 19, 2011

“Political Lying” Article by Rick Perlstein

In the May/June 2011 copy of Mother Jones, which my mother shared with me, there was an article addressing some of the same themes I’ve been describing in recent blog posts. The article is called “Inside the GOP's Fact-Free Nation: From Nixon's plumbers to James O'Keefe's video smears: How political lying became normal.” You can read it at the link below.

The article isn’t necessarily a piece of objective investigative journalism, but I thought the author had some good food for thought.

Proverbs 14:1

Every wise woman builds her house, but the foolish one tears it down with her own hands.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Texas Democrats

I have always heard of Mother Jones magazine, but never actually read it until recently. In my next post, I am going to recommend an article from that magazine. It is an article that seems pertinent to the recent thread of posts to this blog. But in the meantime, it is sort of interesting how I even came to read an issue for the first time.

I tease my mom that if you look up “flaming liberal” in the dictionary, one might find her picture. This is funny to me for a number of reasons, one of which is the fact that she lives in Texas. My home state doesn’t exactly have a reputation for being the home of flaming liberals.

Indeed, when I was practicing law in Texas, I was a semi-closeted Democrat. With regard to non-GOP political affiliations, within my social circle, things were generally on a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” basis. Everyone assumed everyone else was a Republican, and you didn’t volunteer your political tilt if you were not.
In our family, there is an infamous anecdote that exemplifies this experience. At a neighborhood cocktail party in early 2001, my husband mentioned in passing that I had voted for Al Gore. I still question how that fact was at all relevant to anything that had come up in the conversation. And I have always been unsure why he only mentioned the person for whom I had voted. Indeed, my husband had also voted for Mr. Gore. Nonetheless, for whatever reason, my husband innocently and naively spilled the beans—inadvertently outting me at the neighborhood cocktail party.

When he did so, I was several yards away chatting with some other neighbors. It was like one of those old E.F. Hutton commercials from the 70s. Everyone in the room stopped and looked at me with dropped jaws. One gentleman was sincerely flabbergasted and asked in a loud, puzzled tone, “Claudine, why would you have done such a thing?” He just couldn’t fathom. And from then on, the neighbors seemed to think I was a nice but misguided woman.

Interestingly, during the same time and up to the present, while in the same state, my mom surrounded herself with senior citizen women with a decidedly progressive bent. That just astounds me. When we lived in Texas, we only knew a couple other Democrats. Indeed, there were so few in our community that on one primary day, I showed up at the Democratic polling place and the election workers were so delighted to just have someone come to vote. It was almost closing time and they had only had a handful of Democrat primary voters all day. It had apparently been a boring day.

After I voted, they asked if I wanted to sign up for the local Democratic Party distribution list. They were going to have a potluck so folks could meet one another. My gosh, there were so few of us that we apparently would all fit in one family’s living room!

Anyhow, my mom must have a sixth sense for finding Democrats because she has quite a few friends who are openly progressive. They are sweet ladies who do volunteer work with the homeless, participate in walks to raise money to fight hunger, sew quilts to donate to soldiers’ families, and went to hear Bill Clinton when he came to town for a lecture.

On a recent visit to our home in Arizona, my mom brought me a stack of magazines she had finished reading. She included a copy of Mother Jones with the address label of a friend of hers. The friend is apparently a subscriber. I had heard of the magazine, but did not know much about it and had never seen it on sale anywhere. I just had this vague sense that it was an ultra-left wing periodical that was probably only read by people who wear clothing made from hemp, are into composting, and bake their own granola. As a result, it surprised me that I first received a copy of the magazine via a straight-laced senior citizen who lives in suburban Texas. That should teach me to not think in such stereotypes!

2 Chronicles 1:10

Give me wisdom and knowledge so I can lead this people, because no one can govern this great people of yours without your help.”

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Prayer On 9/11

Dear Lord,

Thank you.

Thank you for our lives.

Thank you for the privilege and blessing of being able to live in this country.

Thank you for the sacrifices our forbearers made to establish and preserve a representative form of government. Thank you for the abundant natural resources and natural beauty of our land. We live a life of relative bounty compared to our brothers and sisters around the world. We also have more input in the governing of our nation than most in human history. We thank you for our material blessings and our good fortune to not live in a nation of tyranny. We thank you for entrusting us with the responsibility of living in a democratic nation.

Lord, thank you also for the diversity of our people. Thank you for the various cultures that have made their home in this land. Thank you for the native peoples, the people who came here in hopes of creating a better life, and the people who were kidnapped and brutally forced to work the land to the enrichment of greedy men. I thank you for the sacrifices all of these people have made, the endurance they have shown, and the brilliant contributions they have made to create a country like no other in the world. When I have traveled in other countries I have been particularly cognizant of the richness our multicultural heritage has given us. We take it for granted when we see faces with different shades of melanin in a single family or in a school or a battalion of soldiers. We take it for granted when we hear different languages spoken in the same community. Jazz and Country & Western. Dim Sum and Creole. Ballet Folklorico and Clogging. Our diversity sets us apart from other natiosn and makes us infinitely richer. Thank you.

Lord, thank you for the people who lost their lives on 9/11. We thank you for the time they had on this earth, and we thank you for welcoming them with open arms to the eternal reward of being reunited with you. We thank you for their bravery and heroism. The firefighters who ran into burning buildings so that others might find safety. The police who tried to instill order when chaos reigned. The school teachers who guided their young students to safety, risking their own lives and bringing comfort to scared children’s hearts. The ordinary people on Flight 93 who stood up to violence and hatred, refusing to be victims and giving us all amazing examples of democracy and heroism. We thank you for the many less known acts of bravery and compassion in New York, the D.C. area, St. John’s and countless places across this land on 9/11 when our nation was in the chaos of a surprise attack and we weren’t sure where the next act of terrorism would occur. Thank you for the courageous voices after 9/11 who preached peace and counseled against pointless acts of violence as a response to the unspeakable evil we had encountered.

Thank you, Lord, for the wondrous plans you have for our nation and its people. I thank you for the courage, wisdom and guidance you bestow on us to carry out your plans. Help us to stay faithful to you and become the people that you intend. Help us to be good stewards of the riches you have entrusted.

In your name we pray. Amen

1 Chronicles 29:11-13

To you, LORD,
belong greatness and power,
honor, splendor, and majesty,
because everything in heaven
and on earth belongs to you.
Yours, LORD, is the kingship,
and you are honored as head of all.
You are the source of wealth and honor,
and you rule over all.
In your hand are strength and might,
and it is in your power to magnify
and strengthen all.
And now, our God, we thank you
and praise your glorious name.

Jeremiah 29:11

I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the LORD; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Is There Bias in the Mainstream Media?

Many political and social conservatives decry an alleged liberal bias in the so-called “mainstream media.” Concerns of such bias have led to a backlash that has led to the success of conservative talk radio and Fox News Channel.

To a point, I understand and agree there is a bias in the mainstream media. As someone who runs in a variety of different social circles—from conservative Christians to liberal idealists to pro-business capitalists—I actually think about this point quite a lot and have for a long time.

Many of my friends and acquaintances believe adamantly that there is a left-tilt in the mainstream media and it ticks them off. I also have plenty of friends who completely relate to the cultural perspectives shared by many mainline journalists, so it would never occur to them that there is anything wrong with the mainstream media’s worldview. As a consumer of such media who is fairly sensitive to each of these perspectives, I personally have for years had my antennae up listening and reading for evidence of such liberal bias.

In my observation, most journalists in the mainstream media seem to come from fairly homogenous backgrounds culturally. They seem to be college educated. Many are from the East Coast (but rarely from the South). Religion does not seem to be of much importance to them. And they seem to think they’re pretty clever.

I pick all this up from a plethora of fairly subtle things. NPR stations encourage listeners to contribute to support the “intelligent talk radio” on NPR. Such statements seem to be code for: “Yes, we are technically a type of ‘talk radio’ but we’re not blathering idiots like Rush, Glenn and their ilk.” I get the sense the point they’re trying to express is that Terry Gross and Diane Reem are qualitatively superior to the right wing windbags.

In mainstream media reporting, I’ve also noticed that acceptance of the Theory of Evolution is a given; no sane person would admit to Creationist sympathies. The unspoken assumption seems to be: “We are well-educated and smart; well-educated, smart people are always Darwinists.”

When religion is covered in various stories by the mainstream media, I often get the impression the people reporting are really thinking “WTF? Can you believe such crazy people exist?” Sometimes it is the tone of the reporting. But a lot of my impression is based simply on the type of stories that are chosen. We always seem to hear the stories of the religious bigots who are burning someone else’s scripture, or folks who are believing in something that defies scientific or other logical proof. It gives one the impression that if you run into these journalists at a cocktail party, it might be wise to not come out of the closet as a Christian.

I think that homogeneity in the culture of American journalism and perceived cultural bias is likely why Dan Rather (a native Texan) played up his regional accent and even added flaky colloquial phrases later in his career. I don’t know that for sure. That is just my gut reaction. But frankly why else would he start using those odd colloquialisms?

Indeed, some of those little witticisms were so darned wacky, I was truly embarrassed as a fellow Texan. (Classics: “Bush has run through Dixie like a big wheel through a cotton field.” “If [Gore] doesn’t carry Florida, Slim will have left town.”)

Clearly, Dan had not spent a lot of time in the Lone Star State in recent years. I don’t know anyone these days who talks like that. It was like a 40 year old stereotype of how Texans express themselves. But when he was still on the air, my assumption was that Dan spoke like that to appeal to the “common folk” and appear less of a New York liberal. I don’t know who he thought he was fooling, but I guess he thought it was worth a shot. For those who are unfamiliar, the link below has an article from 2000 about Dan’s “down-home witticisms.”

So, yes, Virginia, I do believe the mainstream media has certain biases. I think all of us do. If I’ve learned nothing else as a lawyer over the past decade plus, I’ve learned that human objectivity is a myth. We are all shaped by our life experiences and the attitudes we’ve been exposed to. We should try to be objective if we are lawyers or journalists. But we should also be aware that subjectivity is always going to seep into anything we do. We should be aware of that tendency so we can fight against it as best we can. If we’re not even aware, then we won’t be successful in that struggle.

Frankly, I think it also helps to listen to different perspectives. I always encourage my students to listen open-mindedly to different opinions and points of view. We learn and grow that way. But hearing other perspectives also helps us to realize the biases that we carry around.

I imagine the newsroom of most mainstream media outlets to be composed of people from roughly similar backgrounds and values. They seem to have group think a lot of time. They don’t seem to realize many people in this country have different life experiences and belief systems that (gasp!) may be valid or at least deserving of equal respect. (See the November 19, 2009 post to this blog for some discussion of the media’s reaction to Jimmy Carter’s expression of his Christian faith in the 1976 election.) I think such work environments could benefit from less group think and more diversity of opinion. I’m not saying CBS and CNN should just hire a bunch more registered Republicans. That is too simplistic. Instead, I think that a real diversity of life experience and perspective would add a lot.

Now I want to make clear that even though I do believe there is a sort of cultural bias in the mainstream media, in my long-time, critical observation, I don’t necessarily perceive political bias in the stories that are typically reported. Even though I think that the mainstream media is likely dominated by secular, college-educated Northeasterners, I don’t typically notice that the mainstream media is more supportive of Democratic politicians and policies than Republican politicians and policies.

Indeed, the backlash against alleged media bias really ticks me off. For a long time, I have perceived the media to be rather meek and tepid to ask the hard questions. (See the May 18, 2011 post to this blog for a discussion of the media’s interaction with Lee Atwater.)

This kind of spinelessness has gone on for a long time, but the culmination, in my opinion, was the way the media essentially became George W. Bush’s cheerleaders after 9/11 and refused to ask tough questions in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq.

Our country is about to observe the tenth anniversary of the horrific tragedy of 9/11. Many of us have not gotten over the shock and anguish of that awful day. Honestly, it is just impossible to get our minds around it fully even so long after the fact. The events of that day were just unimaginably agonizing.

You cannot make sense of such evil and such resultant human suffering. People who did nothing wrong and were just going about their business died unexpectedly in unthinkable ways. But you and I are still here. We cannot bring back the victims of the 9/11 attacks, but I think we have a duty to honor their memory. In my opinion, one way we do that is by keeping our democracy strong. Part of that involves challenging those in authority, asking inconvenient questions and holding our leaders accountable. If we fail to do that, we become no better than a totalitarian state.

Mark 3:27

No one gets into the house of a strong person and steals anything without first tying up the strong person. Only then can the house be burglarized.

Friday, September 2, 2011

“The Objectivity Bias”

I’ve mentioned before in this blog my admiration for the radio program On the Media, and I wanted to mention a report they did this past summer. It was called “The Objectivity Bias” and was aired on July 29, 2011. It is available at the link below.

The report involved modern American journalists’ strong fears of being perceived by the public as biased and partisan. The report examined how that fear impacts journalists’ ability to do their job. Specifically, the fear is that the public will think the media is biased toward the Democrats and are overly critical of the Republicans. It was a very thought-provoking report.

James 3:17 (King James Version)

But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

"Trash City" Photographs

I came across a short article and photo essay recently, which seemed apropos of recent posts to this blog. It documented life for hundreds of human beings in a dump outside the capital of Mozambique. The link below will pull up the article and photos.

In one sense I'm hesitant to share the article and photos in this forum. We Westerners often have a stereotyped view of Africa, that it is just a continent of human misery and hopelessness. I have already posted several heartwrenching articles about the dire famine in Eastern Africa. I'm torn between wanting to raise awareness of the suffering of others in our human family, and not wanting to perpetuate these stereotypes.

Personally, I have a real love and admiration for Africa and Africans. I have never been to the continent, but have read books and seen documentaries. I am well aware of the beauty of the land and its diverse peoples. It is my dream to one day spend time in Africa in some capacity.

There is a lot of human suffering in Africa, but that is not the whole story of Africa. Human suffering is also occuring on every other continent. I've seen stories about people living in garbage dumps in Central America and India. People elsewhere--and in our own country--live by collecting what others throw away. It is a truly profound difference in the standard of living among the members of the human family.

The photographs in the link above are difficult to look at. You can see how filthy the people are, how their skin is not healthy, and how desperate they are to attend to just the most basic human needs like quieting a hungry stomach or fending off the cold. The images of children and the elderly are particularly difficult to see.

There were two parts of the article that most made an impression on me.

First, the photographer talked about the generosity of the people he encountered at this trash dump. He said, "Despite all the circumstances of how they live, they keep on showing their kindness and happiness and hospitality. We don't find these human qualities in many places in the world."

Later, in conclusion, the photograph said, "The life we waste everyday because we want a better one or because we are never satisfied with it, is the life that many wish and yearn to have and would give everything to have it."

I think these two points are very profound and worth pondering.

Luke 6:21, 25
Blessed are ye that hunger now, for ye shall be filled. Blessed are ye that weep now, for ye shall laugh.
Woe unto you that are full, for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now, for ye shall mourn and weep.

Friday, August 26, 2011

More on the Victims of Famine in East Africa

As a follow-up to the prior post, another article about the plight of our brothers and sisters in Eastern Africa recently got my attention. The article involves the horrific choice parents have to make to leave sick and dying children behind to try to get siblings to relief centers.

The article is available at the link below.

I don’t really have anything to add. The anguish of a parent forced to make such a decision is unimaginable. My heart breaks at the suffering of my brothers and sisters.

Luke 10:30-37

Jesus replied, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. Now it just so happened that a priest was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’ What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?”
Then the legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

Friday, August 19, 2011

High Salaries for Celebrity Journalists

Apropos of my recent blog posts, I came across an article about the amazingly high salaries of the celebrity journalists who bring us the “news” in the major media outlets. The article is available at the link below.

On the very same day, I saw an article about desperate mothers in Kenya physically fighting other desperate mothers to get food for their starving children. As a mom myself, I couldn’t begin to imagine the horror of watching my own children starve before my eyes. That article is available at the link below.

I was talking recently with a colleague who mentioned that he could imagine I would be a real “Mama Grizzly” if anyone ever threatened my kids. When I read this article about the moms in Kenya, I thought about that “Mama Grizzly” comment. To the best of my recollection and with the possible exception of some minor naughtiness as a young child, I’ve never physically assaulted anyone. I cannot conceive of harming another human being like that. But if my children’s survival were at stake, I can imagine that might begin to be an option. It is horrifying to consider, but the love for one’s children is strong. It would kill me to see my children’s lives in danger and I would probably do just about anything to protect them. It would fly in the face of every value I embrace and I would hate myself. But the anguish of watching your child waste away is unthinkable.

The irony of the two stories appearing at the same time struck me. I don’t begrudge anyone good fortune and a windfall. There will always be people who earn outrageous salaries while others live in deprivation. These rich “journalists” are not alone in receiving such compensation.

But the services provided by these celebrity “journalists” is relatively cushy. They are in temperature regulated studios in places like Manhattan and Northwest D.C. They wear expensive suits and are well-coifed. They bathe regularly and have people who fuss over getting their make-up just right.

By comparison, the investigative journalists who bust their butts and often risk their lives to bring us the news from places of instability and violence are often unsung heroes. Tom Odula is the person who wrote the article above about mothers dealing with horrific drought in Kenya. Frankly, I’ve never heard of him before. I googled him and was not able to learn much. I could be wrong, but I’m assuming that he is making considerably less than Matt Lauer this year. However, to me, Mr. Odula is performing a much more important public service than Mr. Lauer’s hosting of the Today show.

I suppose the same sort of inequality exists in other professions. I began my professional life as a grade school teacher in an underfunded church school in a neglected part of town. The salary I earned that first year probably would have put me below the federal poverty level. The teachers at the best public schools on the other side of town made several times more than I did. Teachers at prestigious private schools in other more affluent communities also would have made many times more than I was making that first year.

When I was in practice as a lawyer, I was very fortunate and made more money than I could have ever imagined. Partners at big firms made a lot more, but I couldn’t complain. I made much more than the lawyers in my community who defended indigent clients to avoid deportation or incarceration. I also had a much nicer office in which to work.

Similarly, the plastic surgeons who play on the insecurities of various people perform tummy tucks and breast augmentations, for which they earn lucrative income. By contrast, the doctors who live in rural communities serving underserved populations often with substandard facilities live a much less opulent lifestyle.

I think it is interesting to note the way that market forces sometimes overcompensate services of lesser social value and undercompensate services of greater social value.

Galatians 5:13

You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


In October of last year, it was announced that Juan Williams was fired from NPR. Mr. Williams had been an analyst for NPR for years. Hosts would bring him in to provide analysis of the day’s news stories. However, he was also working as a commentator for Fox News Channel in recent years. He appeared on FNC programs to share his opinion on the day’s news stories. Mr. Williams was fired by NPR because its management objected to things Mr. Williams had said on FNC in his commentator role; they believed it compromised his analyst’s role on NPR.

There was a lot of fall-out and debate after Mr. Williams’ firing. Many conservatives cited it as illustrative of the liberal political correctness and intolerance of differing perspectives on NPR. For a variety of reasons, many on the left wrung their hands in angst over the departure of Mr. Williams and his full-time defection to the dark side of FNC.

I heard one news report during that time that was interesting in putting the whole affair in perspective. It explained the different roles Mr. Williams had played at the two media outlets. For NPR, he had been an analyst, which meant that after someone else provided the supposedly objective facts of the news, Mr. Williams explained the significance and repercussions of those facts. Per the report I heard, a news analyst is supposed to still retain journalistic objectivity and not inject his own views on the news. But for FNC, Mr. Williams had been a commentator, which meant that he was paid to give his own opinions and debate the opinions of others.

After listening to that report, I thought a lot about these two roles: news analyst and news commentator. Initially, I was skeptical about the need for either in news programming. But after more consideration, I now understand that just straight reporting of the news may not be enough. For viewers/listeners/readers to understand the reported news facts, context may be necessary. For example, to understand the significance of a particular presidential veto, we may need to understand the legal and budgetary repercussions of the failure of the legislation to be enacted, the history of the bill in Congress, the political rivalries that may have played out and prompted the veto, the frequency with which a particular president uses his veto and a host of other facts. I can appreciate that news analysis may be necessary, but I also recognize that it may be difficult to maintain one’s journalistic objectivity when providing such analysis. It can be a fine line between analysis and commentary. I can imagine the line might even be illusory at times.

But I remain unclear why supposed news programs need commentators. Why in America do we pay the same relatively small group of people big bucks to sit around constantly debating their opinions? The Sunday morning talk shows, the cable news shows, the talk radio programs and others simply expose us to the same folks spouting their opinions over and over again on a number of topics. Why do we always have to hear from the same people?

If we have to have these opinion-based shows, why don’t we at least bring in more folks to share their opinions so we will have more perspectives to hear? That might challenge us more and it could be enlightening. But that is not what such programming is all about. Again, such programming masquerades as news but is simply entertainment.

We end up with these little cults of personality. People love to quote Rush or Glenn or Jon or Keith. But these gentlemen do little to inform us of what is going on in the world and they rarely give us a challenging new perspective. Right wing audiences listen to Rush or Glenn spout what they want to hear. Similarly, left wing audiences listen to Jon or Keith for similar reasons. It is just a depressing state of affairs.

When the whole Juan Williams brouhaha was going on, my in-laws were visiting our family in Arizona. I like to hear the perspectives of different people, so I asked my father-in-law what he thought of the whole thing. His reaction was surprising and quite interesting.

My husband’s family is from a small town several hours from the nearest urban center. There were only a couple of radio stations available when my husband was growing up, and until the advent of cable, they couldn’t really watch much TV. My father-in-law told me that before the firing, he had never heard of Juan Williams and had never listened to NPR. My in-laws are well-educated and intelligent people. I was surprised they had never listened to NPR even once, but my father-in-law indicated they didn’t get NPR in their town. As a result, it was hard for him to put in context the whole event.

I suspect that that was not an uncommon reaction. When our family has gone on road trips, my husband and I sometimes have trouble finding an NPR affiliate in remote areas. Though the media pundits were obsessed with the firing of Mr. Williams for a while, I’m sure that a lot of Americans were like my father-in-law and didn’t know who the heck Juan Williams was. We in urban centers often have no clue what life is like in more rural areas of our country. The popular media seem to share and reflect that same ignorance.

Proverbs 11:29

He who troubles his own house shall inherit the wind, and the foolish shall be servant to the wise of heart.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011


Abruptly in January of this year, Keith Olbermann announced he was no longer appearing on MSNBC. There has been speculation why. Months later, it was announced he would be appearing on the Current TV channel, to which few people seem to have access. But don’t cry for Mr. Olbermann, he is going to receive a multi-million dollar raise.

Mr. Olbermann is a man of strong opinions and strongly-worded opinions. I happen to agree with many of them. Nonetheless, I’m not a fan. When I have watched his program, he is simply a left wing version of Bill O’Reilly, with whom he has had a public feud.

Such bombast and on-air confrontation is in my opinion the verbal equivalent of wrestling in the WWF. It should never be confused with journalism. People like Mr. Olbermann and Mr. O’Reilly give viewers little new information. They are a form of entertainment. The audience is supposed to listen to them spout their opinions in self-righteous style and berate anyone with whom they disagree. We rarely get new information from that type of broadcast.

I have always hated WWF wrestling. People with silly costumes pretending (?) to violently inflict pain on other human beings while embracing ridiculous personas to either cultivate audience support or audience antagonism. Why would anyone be interested in such senseless violence? I’ve never understood it.

But it seems to me that the same base appeal is used to lure people to watch Mr. Olbermann and his ilk. And that is tragic. We need to recognize that such shows are simply entertainment, not truly news. Again, there are only so many hours in the day. Time spent watching such programming means that we are likely foregoing opportunities to really learn what is going on in our world and to be truly informed about issues of importance.

Proverbs 10:14

Wise men store up knowledge [in mind and heart], but the mouth of the foolish is a present destruction.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Meredith and Katy

In my opinion, one example of the decay in American journalism is the fact that the movement of journalists from one program to another has itself become news. When a journalist is fired or resigns or takes a new position, that journalist often makes the rounds on other shows and is interviewed about the move. The journalist is the news.

This phenomenon is part of our current focus on so-called “celebrity news.” The journalists themselves have become celebrities, so events in their lives are considered celebrity news in this day and age. But when a journalist is the news, it detracts from her ability to deliver other news objectively.

This summer two media stories received a lot of attention. One involved Meredith Viera’s departure from the Today show. The other involves Katy Couric’s departure from the CBS Evening News, her initial indecision about the next stage of her career and her eventual decision to host an afternoon talk show. I rarely watch TV, but when I turned it on this summer, I saw an awful lot of attention paid to these two news stories.

I am not even clear why we consider these stories to be newsworthy. Plenty of people make career changes. In modern America, it is indeed a frequent occurrence. When a journalist goes from one employer to another, it should not distract from learning about budget battles on Capitol Hill or the details of the violence in Syria.

But people like Ms. Viera and Ms. Couric are celebrities, so their career changes are lumped in with other celebrity news. To me, people like Ms. Viera and Ms. Couric don’t really seem like journalists any more. The line has been so blurred between journalism and celebrity. These big name “journalists” earn millions of dollars each year. Those big paychecks are not doled out for straight delivery of the news. They are doled out because these “journalists” have become entertainers, and like many entertainers in this country they earn the big bucks.

As fate would have it, on the day that turned out to be Meredith Viera’s last day on the Today show, I was under the weather. Confined to my bed, I turned on the TV and watched a bit. Frankly, I don’t think I watched the Today show the whole time Ms. Viera was co-hosting. On that last day, I caught a montage of what were apparently her finest moments on the show. The montage was accompanied by her on-air colleagues singing her praises. In the montage, she was shown in past appearances making goofy faces, playing jokes, dressing in costumes, and showing compassion to guests. Her on-air colleagues praised her warmth and sense of humor. They gushed at how she brought so much of herself to each interview.

I was horrified. Why are these thought to be laudable attributes of an alleged journalist? How does bringing so much of oneself aid the objectivity that is supposed to be the hallmark of good news programs? I was particularly horrified that the montage included clips of interviews where Ms. Viera was clearly shown sympathizing with a particular guest. This was seen as a good thing because she was being so compassionate. What about the other side? Aren’t there always at least two sides to every news story? How do we know the guests’ position was the best to support?

Even though I was a semi-captive audience due to my illness, I turned off the T.V. I couldn’t bear to watch any more. Despite the wildfires in Arizona, the devastating drug war in Mexico, and the cruelty of Qadhafi’s attempts to retain power, real news was being ignored to celebrate ad nauseum the five years Ms. Viera had been on the Today show.

The attention this summer to Ms. Couric’s next career move was also demoralizing to me. The news stories focused primarily on her ability to attract viewers and the changing realities of attracting ratings in the age of the 24/7 news cycle and internet updates. Even on NPR, real news was ignored and time was spent debating whether Ms. Couric’s talk show will be successful from a ratings perspective.

It is so sad that we allow ourselves to be sidetracked from more pressing matters to focus on such trivialities. The news is frankly now just viewed as another form of entertainment. Moreover, the presentation of the news has become just one segment of the entertainment industry. Thus, we pay attention to how many consumers it will attract because that is what drives the bottom line. We don’t pay attention to how well the news is being delivered and how much information we are getting about what is going on in the world around us.

Proverbs 9:6

Leave off, simple ones [forsake the foolish and simpleminded] and live! And walk in the way of insight and understanding.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Decline of CNN and Hard News

In our country, our news is delivered largely by for-profit media businesses. Their reporting is driven by the need to attract customers, i.e., readers, viewers, listeners. I’ve been worried for a while whether that model is compatible with the need for a well-informed citizenry. We as an electorate need to know what is going on in the world, in our country and in our communities so that we can form prudent opinions about policy and cast our ballots accordingly. But in the current age, we just aren’t getting enough information.

People blame the media, but in a for-profit model, the news outlets give us what we are most inclined to consume. If we prefer reading rumors about Jennifer Anniston’s love life or watching a report on a chain-smoking baby, that is the sort of thing the media will try to give us more frequently. By comparison, if we don’t tune in to learn more about the current humanitarian crisis along the Kenya-Somalia border or the structural issues causing unsustainable increases in our health care costs, then news outlets won’t give us as much of that. They give us what we’ll consume. And besides, it is more expensive to send reporters to remote regions in Africa or to investigate complicated economic issues than it is to pay some paparazzi to stalk celebrities.

I’m not saying that government funded media is the solution. Certainly, that approach has its own set of issues. But the profit-driven media approach we have is problematic and flawed.

I was particularly reminded of that point recently when I listened to an NPR report on the plight of CNN. The report is available at the following link:

Our family canceled cable years ago and we don’t watch much TV except when we travel. I hadn’t realized that CNN’s ratings have become a casualty of the clash of the Fox News and MSNBC echo chambers. Per the report, CNN has tried to stay neutral and focus on actual reporting. Their forte is apparently delivering news. But apparently people aren’t tuning in for that. They would rather opt for the loud, bombastic talking heads of Fox News and MSNBC.

This really depresses me. As consumers of news and as citizens of the world’s oldest modern democracy, we can’t allow this situation to continue. We are so incredibly fortunate to live in our country. With great blessings come great responsibility.

Luke 12:48

“For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more.”

Thursday, July 14, 2011

“On The Media” and “Echo Chambers”

Another “On the Media” show recently was really fascinating. It involved the concept of “echo chambers.”

For those who are unfamiliar with it, the World English Dictionary defines the term “echo chamber” as follows:

“Also called: reverberation chamber a room with walls that reflect sound. It is
used to make acoustic measurements and as a source of reverberant sound to be
mixed with direct sound for recording or broadcasting.”

The term “echo chamber” has been used in recent years to describe the concept that in our modern society people have so many choices about where to get information, and they are often choosing to get their information from sources that express beliefs or perspectives that are similar or identical to their own. Per this use of the term “echo chamber,” people who are disgruntled right-wingers listen to Rush or Bill to get their news because those gentlemen will put a conservative spin pleasing to their audience. Alternately, such members of the public may read books by Glenn or Ann for the same reasons. Along the same lines, the concept is that liberals will listen to Steven or Jon, or read a book by Al, or watch a film by Michael to get a spin on world events, with which they agree.

Previous discussions I’ve heard on the “echo chamber” concept essentially blame the news consumer. The standard antidote is that we should consume news from sources that at least try to provide a more objective presentation of events. It is also advocated that we should make a conscious effort to listen to viewpoints with which we do not agree.

However, the recent “On the Media” program on echo chambers explored the possibility that there may be behind-the-scenes efforts via the internet to personalized content such that there may be an echo chamber effect that we do not even realize. Despite our best efforts, we may not be escaping our own echo chamber. It was a fascinating program. The link below will allow you to access the report.

Job 5:3

I have seen the foolish taking root [and outwardly prospering], but suddenly I saw that his dwelling was cursed [for his doom was certain].

Saturday, July 9, 2011

“On the Media” and “Internet Facts”

Recently, “On the Media” examined a sensational, horrifying news story that traveled quickly around the world, but turned out to not be true. The “On the Media” piece explored the increasingly blurry line between television news reporting and social media. In internet-based “news,” fact-checking standards are often much looser or even non-existent. But the public is not always savvy about that. In that context, something that is completely false can become widely recognized as a “fact,” thus the coining of the term “internet fact.”

In listening to the “On the Media” report, it seemed to me that as news consumers we are often too believing. And it seems that is even more the case when the “news” source is one like social media. We need to be less trusting and we need to think critically about the media we consume—regardless of its source. But we need to be particularly skeptical when the source is an informal one where the authority in question may or may not have thoroughly investigated the claims it is making.

The transcript of the “On the Media” report is available below.

Proverbs 14:18

Foolish dreamers live in a world of illusion; wise realists plant their feet on the ground.

Friday, July 1, 2011

“On the Media” Radio Program

I’m usually running around on the weekends, but sometimes when I’m in the car running errands or if I’m cooking in the kitchen, I turn on NPR and catch some of their weekend programming. One of my all-time favorite NPR programs—but one that I catch least frequently due to its afternoon weekend broadcast timing—is the “On the Media” program with Brooke Gladstone.

“On the Media” is an hour long radio program that analyzes how the media report the news. As the show’s website declares:

“On the Media” explores how the media 'sausage' is made, casts an incisive eye
on fluctuations in the marketplace of ideas, and examines threats to the freedom
of information and expression in America and abroad. For one hour a week, the
show tries to lift the veil from the process of "making media," especially news
media, because it's through that lens that we literally see the world and the
world sees us.


I love the way that paragraph sums up the show. Because the media has such a critical role in shaping how we all think about different topics and ultimately the political policies we do or do not support, it is important for us as a society to think critically about the way the media do their job and how news is presented to us.

But the paragraph above is not just a bunch of clever words. The radio pieces are insightful and I often think about them for long periods of time afterwards. The next couple of posts will flag “On the Media” reports that I found particularly thought provoking.

Isaiah 21:6

This is what the Lord says to me:
“Go, post a lookout and have him report what he sees.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Climate Change: The Media’s Role in Shaping Public Perceptions and Opinions

Very timely. As I’ve been reflecting recently on the role of the media in shaping public perceptions and our opinions on various policy issues, I recently heard a report on Morning Edition about that very topic.

In the context of the 2012 presidential election, the report addressed the growing public skepticism about climate change. At the same time, scientists are more confident than ever that climate change is happening and it is probably cause by humans. An obvious explanation for this discrepancy is that Americans reject science and/or are skeptical of what scientists tell them.

However, the Morning Edition report indicated that was not necessarily what was going on. The report interviewed Professor Anthony Leiserowitz of the Yale University Project on Climate Change Communication. He did a poll that indicated that Americans have an “overwhelming trust” in scientists, but are just not aware of the strong consensus in the scientific community about the reality and cause of climate change. The report cited cable TV and the reading of blogs for the lack of knowledge; from those sources, Americans are getting a more “conflicted view” of the scientific community’s views on climate change, which does not accurately reflect the strong consensus.

It was an interesting report and is available at the link below:

2 Corinthians 4:2

Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Role of Journalism in Shaping Public Perception and Public Opinion

The news is important. It is how we learn what is going on in the world. That knowledge helps shape our political views. If we hear that the employment rate has hit a certain percentage, we may believe that certain policy choices should be taken by our elected representatives. If we find out that the government is spending a certain amount on a particular program, that information may lead us to the conclusion that either more or less should be spent on it. In turn that conclusion may influence our decision about whether taxes should be raised, lowered or kept constant.

Most of us are busy earning a living and taking care of our families. We are not in the halls of Congress when bills get passed, we’re not in the streets of Damascus as Syrians protest against their government, and we’re not in the death chamber when Texas executes another inmate. Journalism is the primary vehicle for bringing the news to us.

The World English Dictionary gives us four definitions for the term “journalism”:
1. the profession or practice of reporting about, photographing, or editing news stories for one of the mass media
2. newspapers and magazines collectively; the press
3. the material published in a newspaper, magazine, etc: this is badly written journalism
4. news reports presented factually without analysis

The fourth one I find particularly insightful. Our ideal of journalism is that a person presents facts to us objectively. We are then left to make our own decisions based on the facts presented. Per our idea, the journalist is an objective third party who tells us impassionately what is going on--without inflicting her own opinions on us.

When I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, I remember learning in school about the concept of “yellow journalism.” We learned that yellow journalism was problematic in our country in the late 1800s. Press titans like Hearst and Pulitzer tried to sway public opinion by their manipulation of the way news was presented. The sense we had in reading our history books was that this issue of yellow journalism was a problem our country had dealt with in the past. When our parents went home and watched Roger Mudd or John Chancellor, they were getting the straight forward truth of what was going on in the world. At that time, it was a very different situation for our Cold War enemies. TASS was the media mouthpiece of the Soviet Union and did not exactly present an unbiased perspective of the day’s events. But growing up, I took it for granted that our press in the United States was independent and gave us that straight scoop.

Sometime in my late teens I began to hear people complain about bias in the media. In particular, there were complaints that the media had a liberal bent. I didn’t particularly see it, but then again I’ve always been left of center.

In my adulthood, the complaints of liberal bias became more and more pronounced. People turned away from traditional media outlets. Plenty of people I knew were enthusiastic about new media like A.M. Talk Radio and eventually Fox News Channel.

I have tuned in to such outlets on many occasions over the years because I have felt that it was important to know what sizeable segments of the population were listening to in order to help shape their opinions. I always try to be open-minded, but was frequently demoralized when listening to such programs. They typically provided little in the way of news. Few facts were provided. And when facts were provided, there was often little or no attempt to be objective. There seemed to be a lot of whining about certain facts.

I suppose the people who produced such programming felt that the traditional media was biased and that justified their own biases. The difference seemed to be the amount and transparency of bias. If the traditional media was subtly biased, these new conservative media were explicitly biased and often did not hold any pretense of being objective. But such media degrade to gripe fests and the indulgence of like minded people giving each other verbal high-fives. Listeners are exposed to opinion, but little to no new facts.

The left then responded with their own explicitly biased media. We had Air America, which didn’t last long. MSNBC has emerged. Oddly, Comedy Central has become a news media outlet for some with their Daily Show and Colbert Report programs. More recently Current TV has come into existence. It has received more attention as Keith Olbermann has signed on to host his show on that channel.

Such explicitly liberal news programs are more palatable to me than their conservative counterparts, but just barely so. I am repulsed by the jump-on-the-bandwagon, bash-your-opponent mentality. The other side is always wrong and vilified. Let’s get angry and yell about our opponents for hours on end. Alternately, let us point out how stupid, arrogant or corrupt the other side is, then we’ll ridicule them mercilessly.

Whether conservative or liberal, such programming is a waste of time in my opinion. We only have so many hours in the day. If we opt to tune in to such programming, we likely are not making time to read articles or listen to programs with a more objective approach and with a greater focus on providing information. This sorry state of American journalism is dumbing down our political debates. We make up our minds without a lot of factual information. We often just parrot whatever our favorite pundit has publicly opined. Truly, that is a tragic, worrisome state of affairs. It makes me pessimistic about the future of our republic.

Mark 4:24 (Amplified Bible)

And He said to them, Be careful what you are hearing. The measure [of thought and study] you give [to the truth you hear] will be the measure [of virtue and knowledge] that comes back to you--and more [besides] will be given to you who hear.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story (2008) (Life Lessons About Appearances & Perceptions)

In addition to reflecting on the futility of seeking power, in watching this documentary I was also struck by the futility of worrying about appearances and the opinions of others. I have no idea if the allegations in the film were true that in his final days Mr. Atwater told many that he was a frequent reader of the Bible, but never actually took his own Bible out of the cellophane. For the sake of argument, just assuming those allegations were true, that alleged hypocrisy is instructive and worth reflection.

Maybe the rest of us are not facing a terminal illness while under media scrutiny and worrying about public perceptions of us as we head into eternity. But that does not mean we are immune from the same type of pointless vanities that were alleged in the documentary. Such concerns are just on a smaller scale for most of us.

It seems to be human nature that we worry about what others think of us. Am I liked? Am I popular? Am I respected? From an early age, we are preoccupied with such things. But if we step back, we realize how silly and what a waste of time such trivialities are. It can make us feel good to be liked or to have others think well of us. Alternately, it can make us feel sad to be rejected or disrespected. But at the end of the day, how other people perceive us and what they think of us are really irrelevant.

Imagine that it is true that Mr. Atwater was more concerned that other people thought he had found God, but was not interested in actually finding God for himself. How tragic would that have been? As one is heading into eternity, it could not be less important what other humans think of us. What really matters is what God thinks. How sad it would be to spend one’s final hours on this planet cultivating public and private opinions instead of preparing for eternity with God. What a tragic waste. What a colossal juxtaposition of priorities.

If most people believe something about an individual—whether it is a positive or negative belief—it does not alter reality. Even if large numbers of Americans thought Barack Obama was born in Kenya, that would not make it true.

And particular gauges (e.g., class rankings, employment reviews, US News & World Reports rankings, etc.) are not always reflective of the reality that many believe. A student who ends up with the lowest score in a class is not necessarily someone who is lacking in skill or knowledge. Such a person may have mastered the course material quite well, but is forced by a mandatory grade curve to get a sub-par grade because others did relatively better on an exam.

If a person graduates second in her class from a third tier school and goes to work at a company in the Fortune 100, who really cares? In reality, those are pointless labels that simply reflect various elitisms and petty pecking orders. Such things always strike me as incongruous in a nation built on democratic values.

I would never dispute that that others’ beliefs and those types of gauges can have a huge influence on the decisions that people make. And some of those decisions have huge economic repercussions. Such perceptions can determine which house a person buys, which candidate gets a job offer, and which employee gets a raise, among other things. As a result, it is important for economic self-preservation to be aware of such economically important perceptions and to do one’s best to make sure perceptions are positive when they are associated with you.

But when economic repercussions are not at stake, we should realize that others’ opinions of us are just not important. If others don’t like you or think ill of you, who cares? Each of us should strive to be the best person we can be, but if others don’t appreciate who we are, tough cookies. As I have gotten older, I’ve realized that more and more. It is freeing to have that epiphany. I feel very fortunate to not be in my teens or twenties anymore!

Even when there are economic repercussions of others’ opinions, we should not become consumed with what others believe about us. We don’t have complete control over what others will think of us. Everyone has baggage. People may make judgments or prejudgments that negatively impact us and over which we have no control whatsoever. If one obsesses over what one cannot control, one will be unhappy and waste a lot of time.

We should never lose sight of the fact that perceptions are not necessarily reflective of reality. We should not buy into labels that ultimately are just words and may be quite different from whatever lies beneath. As Christians, we should always seek the truth and recognize that some will try to deceive us. Truth is not always easy to discern. It can take effort and time. Labels are easier. But that does not always make them true.

Proverbs 8:13

All who fear the Lord will hate evil. Therefore, I hate pride and arrogance, corruption and perverse speech.

Luke 6:22

What blessings await you when people hate you and exclude you and mock you and curse you as evil because you follow the Son of Man.

1 John 3:18

Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions.

1 John 4:18

Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story (2008) (Life Lessons About Power)

At the end of the day, this film taught me more about what people thought about Lee Atwater than what Mr. Atwater actually believed or experienced. I’m still not sure what his core values or beliefs (if any) were. But maybe that doesn’t matter. I still came away from the film with several lessons that may or may not have been particularly applicable to Mr. Atwater’s personal experience, but are nonetheless important truths for any of us.

First, I was struck by the futility of seeking power. Mr. Atwater lived his life in a profession focused on seeking to amass power. I’ve never found that appealing. As I’ve already mentioned in a prior blog post, I discerned early on that I’d not be a good fit for politics. I do not make a living by getting others elected and I have never run for any public office. Indeed most of us don’t do those things. But that doesn’t mean that we are immune from the thirst for power that allegedly consumed Mr. Atwater and tempted him to do unscrupulous things. We should not sit on our high horses and look down our nose at his choices.

Mr. Atwater’s quest for power was on a huge scale most of us cannot even fully image. But the rest of us face similar temptations on much more modest scales. Maybe it involves the possibility of stabbing a co-worker in the back to curry favor of a boss or management. Maybe it involves trying to get on a particular committee of a church or HOA to make important decisions for the community. Maybe it involves an intra-family power struggle to be the one to make decisions for the family or for a loved one. Just because we are not strolling the corridors of power in the capital of the free world does not mean that we are immune from the seductive attraction of power.

As humans, we want to be in control. It seems innate. We want to control our children’s decisions, our career trajectory, the remote control, and what we have for dinner. But the truth is, we have limited control over most things. We may work hard as parents and employees. But at the end of the day our kids will have opportunities to make decisions when we won’t be around to have any direct influence. And bosses and clients will have a lot of influence over our career and they are going to be guided by some factors beyond our control. We cannot control the weather, how long we’ll be in traffic on Monday or even the people with whom we will work. It is part of the human condition that we need to learn to accept that we have limited control in many important parts of our lives. Ultimately, God is in control and we have to learn to trust his plan.

And as Christians, we are called to love God and our brothers and sisters. As many theologians have noted, love and power are not equivalent. Indeed, one might assert they are mutually exclusive concepts. Choosing to love means a loss of control and a loss of power. Those who love are particularly vulnerable. That comes with the territory.

Watching this documentary about Lee Atwater was a good reminder to me about the futility of seeking power. That is a reminder we all need, even if we live far from the Beltway and are not involved in politics.

1 John 2:15

Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you.

1 John 4:16

We know how much God loves us, and we have put our trust in his love.God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story (2008) (Struggle with Cancer and Deathbed Conversion)

The final part of this film of course deals with Lee Atwater’s struggles with brain cancer beginning in 1990.

Tucker Askew describes Atwater as being consumed with fear during this period. Askew also noted that fear had been a staple of tool chest in politics. Ironically, when the gravity of his illness became apparent, Atwater had an attitude of sheer terror with respect to the imminence of the after-life.

In an interview in the film, Ed Rollins indicates that as Atwater’s health deteriorated, he and Atwater reconciled. Atwater asked for his help and indicated Rollins was the only person he could trust as others were trying to get him out of the RNC.

It was also noted that during this period of his life Atwater went on a frantic search for spiritual meaning, and had clergy of many faiths waiting in the halls to meet with him in the hospital. One friend indicated that Atwater told all of the clergy he was on board with their beliefs in the thought that if one of them were right, he’d be ok.

Another friend indicated Atwater told him he had never read the bible until his illness. He indicated he was consumed with the verse from the New Testament: “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?”

Despite the “boogeyman” person he cultivated, Ed Rollins expressed in the film the belief that Atwater was not evil, he was just insecure. His whole life was spent trying to gain power and prestige, and when he achieved it, Rollins believed he was terrified of losing it.

Mary Matalin expressed disgust with the misrepresentation of Atwater’s death bed conversion stories. I found this to be a fascinating attitude, but unfortunately it was not explored sufficiently in the film and I am not sure what exactly provoked her disgust.

The final scene in the film involves footage from the interview with Ed Rollins who explained that Atwater had indicated that a Living Bible was what was giving him faith in his final days. Rollins states that he said to Mary Matalin after Atwater’s death, "I really, sincerely hope that he found peace.” In the film, Rollins states, that Matalin responded, “Ed, when we were cleaning up his things afterwards, the Bible was still wrapped in the cellophane and had never been taken out of the package.” Rollins add that that fact “just told you everything there was. He was spinning right to the end."

That was certainly a fascinating way to end the film. However, I was left with certain questions.

Earlier in the film, Rollins had indicated that he himself was a former altar boy, but politics was not a field that typically recruited altar boys. Rollins also described with an incredible tirade of profanity his reaction to Atwater’s betrayal of him and the threats he made against Atwater at the time. Thus, it was evident in the film that Rollins had an extremely negative view towards Atwater and still held a lot of anger for him. Nonetheless, he later professed in the film that his anger for Atwater melted away when he saw how sick he was. The bottom line of all this is it is unclear to me whether one should even believe Rollins’ story about the cellophane.

Maybe Matalin made the statement, maybe she didn’t. Again, it is not clear in the film what provoked Ms. Matalin’s disgust at the deathbed conversion stories. Maybe it was because she had found a bible in Mr. Atwater’s office and it was in the cellophane. Perhaps Ms. Matalin’s disgust was prompted by her belief that Mr. Atwater’s deathbed conversion was insincere. But perhaps something else provoked her disgust. The reaction inside the Beltway towards Mr. Atwater’s tragic illness and death were enough to provoke disgust in plenty of people.

Indeed, that cellophane statement just seems odd to me. I myself own more bibles than I can count. Some were gifts, and others I bought myself at various times in my life. I’m not sure any of my bibles ever came wrapped in cellophane.

Even if Matalin did make the statement and even if it were true, it is not clear that it has the significance that Rollins suggests, i.e., that Atwater’s conversion was insincere. Like me, perhaps Atwater owned multiple copies of the bible and the one in the cellophane was one that he didn’t make use of. That doesn’t mean that he wasn’t reading another copy (or copies) regularly. Many people don’t do the bulk of their bible study at work. And it seems unlikely that Mr. Atwater would have been at his office much in the latter days of his life anyhow.

Although I own a lot of bibles, I have a few that I read more than others. I have one at my office at work that I have consulted most over the years for a variety of reasons. It is pocket size and has a bookmark ribbon that I find helpful. I have another bible with a different, more modern translation that I keep on my nightstand to read before I go to sleep. A third is one that I tend to use when I take a bible to church or when I go to our church’s small group meetings. Many years ago I tabbed the books in that particular bible, so I can find particular passages very quickly. A few other bibles of mine get read occasionally, but others are frankly rarely (if ever) opened. Though none of my bibles are wrapped in cellophane, if you judged my devotion to the bible based on the frequency these latter bibles are opened, the judgment would be skewed.

In the end, it is not for any of us human beings to judge the sincerity of Atwater’s death bed convergence, the sincerity of his statements of religious devotion he made to friends, or the frequency of his bible study. It does not really matter to me. That is not my place.

I disagreed with many things Mr. Atwater did in his earthly life, but I hope and believe he is at peace in the afterlife. As a Christian, I view God as merciful even when we are undeserving—and we all fit that description. Jesus taught us that God is not a vengeful god, he is the joyful father of the prodigal son.

To me, the ultimate take away from this film was that those who generally work in politics do not have the kind of values or ethics that I would aspire to embrace. I cannot ever see myself working in a political capacity. I cannot imagine ever deciding to run for public office or working in more than a casual manner (e.g., stuffing envelopes) for a politician.

These are not conclusions I have come to simply by virtue of watching this particular film. Experiences I had growing up in DC also underpin that decision. That does not mean that I am apathetic about politics or I’m disengaged. I think civic engagement is important. But I don’t have any illusions about politicians and those who get them elected. Even when I agree with the positions they take, I am not always convinced of their sincerity and I frankly doubt their integrity. Perhaps that is a horribly cynical view, but that seems to be a basic truth of the political process. I’m disappointed in the electorate that we’ve allowed that to be the case.

Acts 26:8
Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?

Romans 14:9
For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story (2008) (Manipulation of Journalists, Appeals to Superficial Patriotism & the Use of Fear)

Multiple times in the film, interviewees explain that Mr. Atwater argued that perception is reality, and thus in politics one could create one’s own reality. That is a frightening assertion, but it unfortunately makes sense in the context of Mr. Atwater’s career.

Numerous members of the media are interviewed, and they frankly come off as rather lame. They explain how Mr. Atwater was charming on a personal level and befriended journalists. This made them vulnerable to manipulation as they unwittingly helped to spread innuendo and falsehoods as news stories.

For example, the film includes footage of Lee Atwater calmly telling an incredulous reporter repeatedly that he had no ad featuring Willie Horton. A friend of Mr. Atwater’s then recounts an occasion when Mr. Atwater showed him a tape of the notorious Willie Horton ad, and the friend urged him (unsuccessfully) to not use it.

It is also noted that due to the tremendous press attention it received, the infamous Willie Horton ad received more attention than it would have simply for the number of times it ran as a political commercial.

There are also interviews describing how the media knew that Republican leaders were lying about Iran-Contra, but the media not being willing to confront them publicly about it. The film describes the Washington press corps as being cynical and their reporting as being shallow.

In the film, the late Robert Novak stated at one point that Republican politicians just want to win elections; they are not ideologically committed. By contrast, he said Democratic politicians tend to have sincere beliefs about the causes they support. Novak, a conservative, laughed and added disparagingly that he thought Democrats’ beliefs—although sincere--were misguided. I found Novak’s perspective intriguing. His explanation is one that I’ve frankly often suspected as I’ve followed politics over the years, and I have even heard other progressives voice that same suspicion. But heretofore, I had never heard a conservative voice that perspective.

Tucker Eskew also made an interesting comment in the film. He talked at one point about people voting against their own interest because patriotism was stronger. That comment was made in the context of the issues the film notes dominated the 1988 presidential election: flag burning, mandating the pledge of allegiance in the schools, and perceived threats to gun ownership rights.

Eric Alterman also made several interesting comments. In the same context as Mr. Eskew’s statement, Mr. Alterman stated that people vote their fears, not their hopes. His point was that Lee Atwater recognized that reality and masterfully exploited it. Indeed, the film noted that in the 1988, polls indicated that voters were turned off by the negative campaign tactics. Nonetheless, the tactics worked for those who initiated them in the Bush campaign. They turned some voters against Dukakis. Further, they discouraging other would-be voters from going to the polls; voter turnout was low in 1988 and low turnout favored Republicans.

Mr. Alterman also described the Republican Party as a “stealth party.” He noted that the GOP deliberately tried to appeal to the common man in elections, yet in power deliberately provided all the benefits of power to a smaller group of the electorate: the wealthy. He also noted that the GOP advocated high levels of morality, but exhibited other behaviors in private.

Mr. Alterman did not elaborate what he meant in the film, but I think it is fairly obvious. At least since the 1980 election, the party has pandered to cultural insecurities and resentments of white folk at middle and lower socio-economic levels. In the last presidential election, this approach was focused on “Joe the Plumber” (or “Joe Sixpack” as he was sometimes called). But folks like Joe get ignored when the GOP gets into power. They are supposed to wait for “trickle down” economic benefits that never seem to trickle down. Moreover, when it comes to social issues, such voters are supposed to be patient (and frankly just shut up) when their supposed political allies never come through on their campaign promises to outlaw abortion or adopt a constitutional amendment forbidding same sex marriage.

Indeed, the GOP touts “family values” and embraces religion publicly, and such campaign tactics are directly responsible for many of the votes they receive in elections. However, despite Christ’s own teaching against divorce, many of the GOP’s most prominent leaders and allies have been divorced (some multiple times): Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, Bob Barr, Rush Limbaugh, Phil Gramm, Mary Matalin, Bob Dole, Dick Armey, Pete Wilson, John Warner, John McCain, Ed Rollins, and George Will, among others.

Similarly, some conservatives currently accuse President Obama of not being a Christian and chiding him for not going to church regularly. It is interesting that such folks didn’t have a problem with President Reagan’s absence from the pews. But then again, I’m not sure he technically ever publicly professed to be a Christian in his political life. Perhaps it would have conflicted with Mrs. Reagan’s devotion to astrology.

Exodus 18:21

But select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain—and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story (2008) (Bigotry, Deceit & Hypocrisy)

Early in the film, some time is devoted to Mr. Atwater’s early days in Southern politics. There is mention of exploitative, divisive “push polls” that suggested slanderous things about opposing candidates or invoked bigotry. In that vein, there are claims that Atwater exploited anti-Semitism in the Bible Belt to win an early election. It is also asserted that Atwater had said that in a prior era Southern politics required extensive use of the n-word to win, but that day was past and one had to be more subtle. In that context, it is asserted that Reagan’s use of the term “welfare queen” became code for the n-word.

In a similar vein, it was also observed in the film that in 1980 Ronald Reagan began his presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi. It was a small town off the beaten path, but was known internationally as the site of one of the most egregious, racially charged crimes. Three civil rights workers were killed there in 1964. Reagan famously used the term “states rights” in his speech in Philadelphia. The film asserts this campaign ploy was pandering to the basest instincts in the electorate.

The film portrays Atwater as a workaholic striving for power and recognition. Interviewees stated he had an amazing work ethic, working 7 days per week. People who worked closely with him when he first came to D.C. said they were shocked to hear eventually that he had a wife and child. Interviewees also described Atwater as devious, manipulative, and insecure. They expressed the belief that he was trying to prove himself; he was cynical about politics and not idealistic.

Along those lines, Ed Rollins described his betrayal in 1984 at the hands of Atwater. Mr. Rollins expressed in the film that he had been warned by those around him to not trust Atwater, but he did not heed that advice. Mr. Rollins did decide to trust Atwater, but he indicates he came to regret that decision bitterly. Rollins described Atwater as cold-blooded. He also noted that Atwater’s younger brother had died when they were little children in a tragic, grotesque kitchen accident. It was asserted that early childhood experience warped Atwater, proving to him that God was unmerciful.

The film described that the Bush family treated Atwater dismissively and viewed him as the “hired help.” Barbara Bush allegedly disliked Mr. Atwater’s vulgarity. George W. Bush was apparently assigned by the family to keep an eye on Atwater. The film asserts that George W. Bush ultimately became a fan and admirer of Atwater, learning much about politics from him.

There were a number of interviewee comments about the 1988 election that were interesting. One charged that Ronald Reagan desperately needed to prevent the Democrats from taking over the White House to make sure he did not face investigations and possible prosecution for the Iran-Contra Affair. The plan was to keep Dukakis constantly on the defensive; in such a context, even if you did nothing wrong, you seem guilty if you always have to defend yourself.

One of the things I myself remember about the 1988 campaign and found most insulting at the time was the obvious manipulation of image, which the film attributed to Atwater’s genius. Dukakis was the son of immigrants who had had to work hard for all he had achieved. Nonetheless, Dukakis was successfully portrayed as an elitist by the Bush campaign. By contrast, George H.W. Bush (who was a prep school grad, the son of a respected politician and well-entrenched in the aristocratic Yankee elite) was paraded around in fancy polished cowboy boots eating pork rinds.

As a native Texan whose family has been in the state for many generations, I had found that parody to be deeply insulting at the time. Even worse, I was disappointed that we Texans allowed this quintessential blueblood Yankee New Englander to briefly put on the most stereotypical of Texas costumes to pretend to be something he clearly was not. If you were born in Massachusetts, you were educated in elite private schools in Massachusetts and Connecticut, your home is actually in a place like Kennebunkport, you only came to the Lone Star State as an adult to exploit its oil resources, and your speech does not naturally include the word “y’all,” you are not a real Texan in my book. Nonetheless, the Bush family continues to be quite popular in Texas—much to my dismay and disgust.

The film interviews Mike and Kitty Dukakis. Sadly, Mr. Dukakis seems to still be kicking himself for the decision to stick to the moral high ground and not respond to the baseless negative campaign ads ran against him in 1988. In the interview with Dukakis, the film noted that the Massachusetts prison furlough program, with which the GOP pummeled him in the campaign, was actually initiated by other political leaders such as Governor Ronald Reagan of California.

Psalm 26:4 (New International Version)
I do not sit with deceitful men, nor do I consort with hypocrites.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story (2008) (Overview: The South and “Liberal Elites”)

Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story was a fascinating documentary and quite different from what I was anticipating. I thought the film would be a straight-forward description of Mr. Atwater’s embrace of dirty tricks to win campaigns and his deathbed terror at the prospect of having to account in the afterlife for such misdeeds. That was certainly part of the documentary, but the film actually told a much more complex story.

A number of folks from varied backgrounds were interviewed in the film to tell Mr. Atwater’s story—admirers and detractors, Democrats and Republicans, blacks and whites. The film interviewed politicians, political operatives, journalists, as well as non-political, unsophisticated average Joes who knew Mr. Atwater in his home state of South Carolina. The famous people interviewed included Robert Novak, Ed Rollins, Mary Matalin, Tucker Eskew, Mike & Kitty Dukakis, Eric Alterman, and Sam Donaldson, among many others.

There were a number of points in the film that I found fascinating. I’ll explore those points in several different blog posts. The first I’ll address is Mr. Atwater’s intimate understanding of Southerners and his exploitation of that knowledge for political purposes.

Many of the interviewees early in the film focused on the significance of Mr. Atwater’s Southern roots. The interviewees made insightful comments about the role of the South in modern politics. They noted that the South was the only part of the United States that had ever been defeated and humiliated in war, and that experience fostered a backlash and resentment against so called “liberal elites.”

The interviewees mentioned the long-held perception that liberal elites think they are very smart and are generally better than Southerners (who are viewed by the liberal elites as being stupid). One white Southern interviewee asserted that liberal elites are biased against white Southerners in the same way that liberal elites accuse white Southerners of being biased against blacks. The film suggested this lingering resentment against liberal elites was well-understood by Mr. Atwater; he exploited it to his candidates’ advantage.

I think this is an important point of which “liberal elites” should take note. I never supported any of Mr. Atwater’s candidates, but this point about “liberal elites” even rang true with me. Throughout my life, I’ve spent a fair amount of time with folks from the Northeast, and have experienced such attitudes first and second hand. Though the title character in Forrest Gump had an intellectual disability, it has often been my impression that many people raised and/or educated in the Northeast believe the character Tom Hanks created is typical of all white Southerners. A while back I read an interview with Stephen Colbert (another native South Carolinian) who pointed out that when he was growing up popular culture always portrayed Southerners as dummies. This prompted Mr. Colbert at an early age to consciously neutralize his own speech to avoid being lumped in with such stereotypes due to his accent. Of course, it is hard for even the most enlightened of human beings to not find such stereotypical portrayals (and the underlying attitudes they betray) to be offensive and downright annoying.

What is even more irksome to many of us, however, is the more subtle attitude that white Southerners are all racists. I am very much aware of the extreme levels of violence that have been directed against African Americans in the South for several centuries. And despite the formal dismantling of Jim Crow several decades ago, I would never assert that racism is ancient history and no longer a problem in the South. I know there has been huge progress, but deep problems certainly still exist. Nonetheless, in my experience, there is currently as much racism in other parts of the country. This is true though folks in other parts of the country often get self-righteous--acting like the South is uniquely racist but places like Newark, Boston and Philadelphia are harmonious examples of racial tolerance.

I try to be open to and tolerant of all of God’s children, but I must confess one demographic that is particularly difficult for me to stomach is white, politically liberal Yankees with an educational pedigree. I struggle against prejudging people in that demographic; at times it is a real challenge. We may vote the same in most general elections, but such people typically have little else in common with me.
And to the extent that such people dominate or appear to dominate the Democratic Party and major media outlets, such an attitude is a real problem. If such institutions are at times even alienating Southern folks like me, they need to recognize that as a very serious problem and address it.

Proverbs 16:18

Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.