Friday, July 31, 2009

The Betrayal of the West

I have never posted something written by someone else before, but I found the following passage by Jacques Elull incredibly on point. Given the insanity of our world--an economic "recovery" where the banks we bailed out are making billions and giving hundreds of millions in bonuses while continuing to foreclose on people and driving them into homelessness, an environment that continues to collapse while we pretend it has nothing to do with us, a healthcare system and reform of same that does nothing to raise the deep questions around what is health, the morality of rationed care, and why corporations gets rich off the suffering of others, the escalations of our war in Afghanistan and the civil war that is replacing our war in Iraq (mocking the terrible sacrifices of all our brave soldiers), etc.-- Elull's words, written over three decades ago, need to be heard.

I found them (in a longer form) in this month's issue of Adbuster's magazine. I'd love to hear your responses to them.

"We see the mistakes we have made, but we continue to make them with an apparent blind obstinacy… We know the implications of pollution, but we go on calmly polluting the air, the rivers and the oceans. We know people are going mad from living in huge conglomerations, but we, like automatons, go on building them. We know the dangers of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, but we continue to use them in increasingly massive doses….

"Our speed is constantly increasing, and it does not matter where we are going. We are caught up in the madness and hubris of the dance of death: the important thing is the dance… We are no longer worried about what will emerge from it or about the void it points to. We are content to die of dancing. Our generation is not even capable of cynicism, it take a kind of terrible greatness to say, “After me, the deluge.” No one says that today; on the contrary, everyone is glutted with promises and regards the mad dance as a way to authentic renewal. Yet there is no goal, nothing transcendent, no value to light the way; the movement is enough.

"The nihilistic revolution has succeeded. Today’s political activists who still claim to be revolutionaries have nothing to put in nihilism’s place. Movement for movement’s sake, thorough study for study’s sake, the revolution for the revolution’s sake: that, they say, is the only way to escape the system. It is a remarkable thing, however, that this system renders mad not only those who are part of it but those who reject it as well. The system is now the god that makes us mad, but it is a god we have created with our won minds."

(From The Betrayal of the West by Jacques Ellul)

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Tisha b'Av 5769

Tonight at sundown we Jews mark Tisha b’Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av. This is the day on which the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, first in 586 BCE and again in 70 CE. This is a fast day for us, and a day for reading the Book of Lamentations. It is also the day on which the Messiah is to be born.

Tisha b’Av isn’t one of my favorite holy days. I have never been a fan of the Temple. As a vegetarian, I just don’t see how the slaughter of bulls improves my standing with God. And while it is cool that out of the ashes of the Temple rises the phoenix of messianic hope, it is too easy to focus on the latter at the expense of the former.

Just think what would have happened if the Temple had not fallen, at least not the second time? Imagine the Jews were never exiled and that Judea survived as a province of Rome. Imagine that the Temple survived along with the priesthood and animal sacrifice. What would Judaism be like today?

Sure the Pharisees would have continued to challenge the Sadducees and priests for the hearts and minds of the people, but even they couldn’t call for an end to sacrifice. The Torah makes it clear that God loves barbeque. And even though the prophets try to give a different image of God, one in which God is sickened by the stench of burning bull, and demands justice and compassion rather that literal blood and guts, the God of sacrifice continued to rule the minds of the people as long as the Temple stood. Today traditional Jews continue to recount the rules of sacrifice and pray for its return on a daily basis, suggesting that if the Pharisees couldn’t defeat the priests and the Temple after the Romans did away with both, they would have failed to do away with the Temple on their own.

If the Temple had not fallen and the exile had not happened, would Judaism be a sacrificial religion more or less tied to the Temple in Jerusalem? Maybe not. With the conversion of the Roman Empire into the Holy Roman Empire under Constantine and with the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Empire the survival of the Temple would have been a huge challenge to the claim that Christianity supersedes Judaism. Perhaps the Christian rulers of Rome would have destroyed the Temple and scattered the Jews as a sign that they and they alone are the heirs to God’s favor.

Or, if that didn’t happen, what would the Islamic empire do when they took Jerusalem? Would they allow the Temple to stand? Probably not, the sacrificial cult would be offense to them, and hearken back to a pre-Islamic paganism that was anathema to Allah.

So, one way or another, the Temple would have ceased to function, and without sacrifice the complex would have fallen into disuse, perhaps sold to a developer to be turned into a mall or a mosque. But maybe not, maybe something else might have happened that would have allowed Jews to remain bullish for sacrifice. How long would it be before the Jews themselves simply gave the practice up? Or would they? Santeria worshippers continue to practice animal sacrifice, so why not the Jews?

Truth is, the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jews probably saved us. Without the Temple and its sacrificial cult we had to invent a more portable way to be Jewish. Without a homeland where we could be rounded up and slaughtered, we could be hunted but never fully annihilated.

So what shall we do with Tisha b’Av this week? Fast and pray if you like. But take some time to think about our history and how we survived, and ask yourself what is ultimately in our best interest: centralization or dispersion, sacrifice or study?

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Play to Win

When it comes to religion, I just want to win. In the world of western religion winning means backing the right savior at the end of days. So I am hedging my bets until there is a clear winner. The way I figure it is this: if the end times happen during my lifetime as millions of Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe, I will look out my window and see whom it is God has sent. If it is the Twelfth Imam- I’m taking the Shahada (the Muslim affirmation of faith: There is no god, but God, and Muhammad is His Prophet). If it turns out to be Jesus—I will, without any hesitation or reservation, accept Him as my Lord and Savior. Or, if it turns out to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, I’ll burn my books by Spinoza and Mordecai Kaplan, grab my tefillin, and rush off to buy a black fedora.

You see it makes no difference to me who it is; I just want to win.

While this seems completely logical to me, many people with whom I share my strategy for salvation and eternal life in the winner’s circle find it disconcerting. Where is my loyalty? Where is my faith?

The way I look at it, there is no point in backing a looser. If I back the Rebbe, by all accounts a spiritual genius and very loving, albeit currently deceased, man, simply because I am Jewish, and then it turns out that Jesus is really God’s Son and God is really pissed at us Jews for not recognizing Him as such, God isn’t going to give me points for loyalty. He is going to roast me in Hell for all eternity. So it is better to keep an open mind.

I have some Jewish friends who are appalled by my thinking. They claim they would never accept Jesus as the messiah, but I think they are being unduly stubborn. It’s like going to the track, betting on your favorite horse, and then, after being informed that your horse has just died of a heart attack, cheering him on anyway: “Get up, boy! You can do it. Common, boy, you can still beat ‘em. Just forget you’re dead, boy, and run!” It doesn’t make sense. Bet on a different horse.

Now my analogy breaks down when you factor in the horseracing rule that says you cannot place a bet at the end of a race when the winner is clear. It is because of this rule that some of my Christian friends think my approach is doomed. God isn’t going to welcome me at the last minute. It is no great act of faith to believe in Jesus when Jesus suddenly returns to earth after a 2000 plus year hiatus. I mean that act alone sort of clinches things. But I disagree. Jesus’ parable about the laborers says that even those who come to God very late in the day receive the same reward as those who came on board at dawn. No penalty for waiting at all, so why rush things?

No, I think it is best to take a wait and see attitude: just wait and see who the messiah is, and then rush out to get His Name tattooed on your … well, I’ll leave that up to you. Anyway, I hope this little tip on avoiding eternal damnation is useful to you. After all, if you are going to play the religion game, you might as well play to win.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Off Line until next week

I am going to Portland to teach, work on the Holy Rascals film, and attend a pre-parliament meeting of the Parliament of World Religions.

I will post again next week.

Who is a Jew, British Style

According to a new ruling by a British court, Judaism is a religion (rather than a culture or ethnic group), and who is a Jew should be determined by one’s degree of religious behavior rather than by some claim to group membership or identity.

Clearly the British judges who made this decision, one of whom was Jewish, didn’t and don’t understand the nature of Jewishness. We are a tribe. One is born into a tribe, or marries into a tribe, or is welcomed into the tribe as a blood brother/sister by one method or another. As with any tribe there are people who are more observant of tribal tradition and people who are less observant, but no one would deny either a place in the tribe itself.

It may not be surprising that in a country like England where the Queen is the head of the Church government intrusion into the life of a people to set the standards of who is and who is not a member is unacceptable, and in fact detrimental to the future of the tribe.

Tribes, whether Jewish, Native American, or any other type, are often obsessed with the question of who is in and who is out of the tribe. This is part of what tribalism is about. Especially when the tribe has casino capitalism to protect as in the United States. The British courts should stay out of tribal business.

While I do believe there are foundational principles that define Jewish behavior (kashrut, Shabbat, tzedakah, reciting brachot/blessings to name but four), I also believe it is up to the individual to determine how these principles should be lived in her or his personal life.

For me, a Jew is a person who makes the Jewish tribe her primary though not necessarily exclusive source of communal identity (American Jew rather than Jewish American). I doubt I will change my mind about this. At least not until American Jews are granted casino rights as are American Indian tribes, at which point I might tighten up my definition to protect my assets.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Three Paths Through Torah

What do we do with the painful, misogynist, and genocidal passages of Torah? This was my challenge as I prepared to teach Torah yesterday at Isabella Freedman Retreat Center in Connecticut.

The passage in question is the Israelite slaughter of the Midianites. Moses and God demand the death of them all, and when the soldiers spare the women and babies, Moses is furious, ordering the soldiers to murder the survivors sparing only the baby girls and virgins whom the soldiers may take for themselves.

In the course of sharing my dilemma with colleagues three options for dealing with such texts emerged:

1. The way of justification: this was a time of war when the Israelites were taking the Promised Land from its inhabitants and they needed to cleanse the land from non-Israelite influences of both blood and religion.

2. The way of denial: this isn’t history at all. It just never happened.

3. The way of allegory: the text isn’t meant to be taken literally but metaphorically. The women aren’t women; the babies aren’t babies. All the characters in this genocidal drama are aspects of ourselves with which we must wrestle.

All three ways of dealing with the text have merit, but none satisfy me fully.

The Way of Justification. It is one thing to justify the actions of our ancient ancestors and another to celebrate them by reading their story over and over again each year. Since it is anachronistic to apply today’s morality to that of biblical times, there is no point to reading this text in the context of a sacred celebration of Shabbat at all. It should be relegated to the library where other history books are stored.

The Way of Denial. If we deny the historicity of the text and claim it is just a story, why read it (and texts like it) at all? I don’t read tales of gore and horror in any other form; why read it because it is in the Bible? And even if we claim it is fiction, the calling it sacred fiction and reading it as the word of God poisons the collective psyche of our people. What is the difference between pretend history and real history when both are so honored? And if it is pretend history, why pretend at all? Why pretend we were butchers when we were not butchers?

The Way of Allegory. If we claim the story is allegory, that it is about inner spiritual warfare rather than actual warfare, why use this allegory? Couldn’t we find more effective ways to explore and perhaps free ourselves from our genocidal urges that to interpret ancient fictions? And, if the history is not history but story as the way of denial and the way of allegory attest, what does this say about our claim to the Land of Israel today? The Jewish claim to the Land in the 20th and 21st centuries is based on the fact that God gave it to us in biblical times. If these stories aren’t history then our claim to Palestine is moot.

I understand the need to both justify and escape from the horrors of the Bible. Who wants to believer they come from such a people? I can understand why we would want to deny the historicity of the text and take refuge in allegory. But doing so scares me.

If we can allegorize our genocide against the inhabitants of the Midianites (and many others), won’t the German people someday allegorize the Holocaust? “No, no,” they will insist, “The Holocaust is an allegory. Nazis represent the darker forces of our nature and Jews represent ‘the other.’ There were no real Nazis and Jews, this is just a story we tell ourselves to work through the human fear of the other.”

How many centuries will it take for Americans to allegorize slavery and the genocide of the Native American? Perhaps there will be no Jews left when Nazism becomes an allegory, but imagine if there were. Imagine if you were among them. Would you be pleased to see your suffering denied and reduced to psychological struggle within the minds of the ancestors of your oppressors? The only reason we can get away with allegorizing the slaughter of the Midianites is that there are not Midianites left to protest our callousness.

I am not saying that allegory has no place. But it cannot be used to replace history—real or imagined. If we pretend to be genocidal murderers, if we celebrate the death of our enemies and the innocents who simply happen to be in our way even if we are only imagining them, what does that do to those of us who hear these tales week after week, year after year?

I am not sure the text is history. There is much debate over this and I am inclined to follow those scholars who say this is story rather than history. But it is a story that frightens me. I don’t want to imagine my ancestors this way. So I have two choices: One is I can cease to read fiction that is so dark and evil (just as I refuse to see movies or read books about serial killers or the rape and torture of innocents), and seek more modern means for dealing with the darkside of my psyche. The other is that I can take these texts not only as an opportunity for inner exploration and healing, but also as opportunities for communal grief and soul searching.

There are many great rabbis who do the former, but I have yet to see anyone do the latter. When we read about our genocides against our “enemies” let us stop and mourn for them and for our ancestors—real or fictional—who felt the need to either do these things or pretend to do them. Let us take responsibility for our people and our stories, true or fanciful. Let us confess our sins, if nothing else the sin of wanting to be the murders we were not.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

On Retreat

I will be on retreat and most likely off line until Monday the 20th. Talk with you all when I get back. Shalom.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Being God is Hell

Judaism has a saying, “Everything is foreseen, and free will is given” (Pirke Avot 3:19). This is supposed to answer the paradox of an all-knowing God and a free-willing humanity. If you are free to do what you want, God cannot know in advance what you will, and hence is not all-knowing. If God is all knowing and knows in advance everything you will ever do, then you really aren’t free to do otherwise.

Some people try and finesse this by saying that since you don’t know what you will do, you still have to make a choice, even if God already knows the choice you are going to make. This makes free will conditioned on ignorance. While you may not know what choice you are going to make, God does—not because God willed it, but because God knows the future. It might be the best we can do, and while this may solve the problem from the human perspective, it doesn’t do God any good at all.

What must it be like being God and knowing in advance everything that is going to happen? You get up one morning and plan to look in your friends to see what they are up to, but then you remember that you already know. The same is true of your enemies, the weather, politics, and cosmic disasters. You know everything that will ever happen long before it actually happens. Everything to God is a rerun. God is stuck with eternal life without a single surprise. That is hell. God is trapped in eternal boredom. Why would anyone invent a God like this?

If I were going to invent a God I would imagine one who didn’t know what was going to happen from one minute to the next. Sure s/he might make predictions based on the past, but the opportunity for surprise would always be there. This might make each day worth creating. If you knew how everyday would turn out I advance you probably wouldn’t bother making any day at all.

No, my God wouldn’t have a clue. Much like the God in the Hebrew Bible. He never seems to know what the people are going to do. And when he takes action he is often surprised at the results. Sometimes he wishes he never created humans in the first place. He loves people and he hates people, and he is having a ball blessing and cursing and saving and killing.

Free will on the part of humanity would be irrelevant to my God. All that he would have to do is make sure he didn’t know what was going to happen next. Even if we were totally pre-programmed, God’s ignorance would save him from the boredom of our programming. But it might be hard to create the world and then forget what you had in mind, so my God would create people with free will. This doesn’t mean we can do anything we want, it only means that every once in a while we do something out of character, and that makes it fun for God to watch.

It’s like NBC’s Law & Order shows: even though I know that 99 times out of 100 the good guys win, there is always that one percent where the bad guy gets away with the crime, and that makes the show exciting.

In my theological fantasy God creates the world to be entertained. God loves stories (another Jewish saying), and wants to be surprised. Loving stories only works if you don’t already know they end before you’ve read even the first chapter.

Weather or Not

According to the National Weather Service there is a 20% chance it might rain here tonight. Do you know that means? A lot of people don’t.

A recent study of college students by the University of Washington in Seattle shows that many completely misunderstand the notion of “probability-of-precipitation.” Some imagine that a “20% chance of rain” means that 20% of their town will get rain and 80% won’t. Others understand it to mean that it will rain 20% of the day. Can we be that dumb?

To find out, I walked out among my neighbors and asked them to explain the meaning of today’s forecast. Here are just some of the answers I received:

“It means that there is a 20% chance that God is going to flood the earth tonight.”

“It means that 20% of the people want it to rain tonight.”

“It means that the weather girl only looked at 20% of the map.”

“It means that only 20% of the town will get wet.”

“It means that you are a dumb Jew-bastard who has yet to accept Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior and who has a 100% chance of going to Hell.”

OK, I made the last one up. Well, no, I didn’t make it up exactly, I simply transposed it from another conversation to this conversation about weather. The prior conversation was about whether or not I was going to Hell, so you can see how easy it was for me to make the leap from “weather” to “whether” and from one conversation to another. Homonyms are our friends.

The Seattle study found that if the weather forecaster added the probability of no rain along with the probability of rain, people understood things better. So if you say to someone, there is a 20% chance that it will rain tonight and an 80% chance that it won’t, there is a 20% chance that the person will understand what you are saying. So I tried that and got this:

“Do I have a choice? If I do, I’ll take the 20% ‘cause we need the rain. If I don’t I’ll take the 80%. Either way it don’t rain in the Hell hole you Jew bastard is going to lest you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior. Jew bastard.” I’m paraphrasing of course.

Now you may be as confused about the weather as the people in my survey, so let me make it simple. On any given day there is always a 50/50 chance it will rain. It will either rain or it won’t rain. On or off, that’s all there is to it. It will rain or it won’t. It will snow or it won’t. We’ll be hit by an asteroid or we won’t. Jesus will return today or he won’t. It is always 50/50. That’s why I buy lottery tickets: I always have a one in two chance of winning whether or not it rains.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

It's All About Me, and Perhaps A Bit About Thee

Researcher George Barna’s new book, The Seven Faith Tribes, offers an interesting if not exactly surprising portrait of American Jews. Here are his main findings, and some quick reactions of my own. After reading this post your comments: Does this sound like Jews you know? Does this help you understand Jews better? If you are a Jew, does this sound like you? If you are not a Jew and this sounds like you, do you want to become a Jew?

1. Being Jewish is more about belonging to a community than adhering to a faith (p. 56). Our motto is, “Two Jews, Three Opinions.” We would never have lasted these past 4000 years if we had to agree about things. Family trumps faith almost every time (Orthodox Jews sometimes excepted).

2. Jews view themselves as tough, relish a good argument, enjoy verbal jousting (p. 61), and are more comfortable with argument than any other tribe. (p. 57) I appreciate a serious argument over issues, and find that I learn more from such discussions than from simply affirming or rejecting fixed ideas—even my own. We even delight in helping our opponents strengthen their arguments to provide us with a greater challenge. We love seeing all sides of an issue, as long as that issue has nothing to do with Israel and the Palestinians, in which case we are often blind as bats.

3. Jews score lowest of all tribes regarding happiness, joy, and feeling at peace. (p. 57) Happiness is overrated. I worry about people who are or want to be happy or joyous all the time; they seem cut off from the suffering of the world. I follow Ecclesiastes; there is a time to be happy and a time to be miserable.

4. Jews embrace education more than any other tribe. (p. 58) Education, and by this I mean critical thinking, free inquiry, and a trust in reason and logic, is far more important to me than accepting the tenets of Judaism. In fact, any religion that resists such honest inquiry is suspect in my eyes.

5. Jews are more willing to take risks than any other tribe. (p. 58). Intellectually this is true of me, but not in any other way.

6. Jews’ dominant desires are health, good education, close family and friends, personal integrity, and to be knowledgeable about the world. (p. 59) Add being able to fit into size 34 Levi’s Silvertab jeans, and I’m in.

7. Few Jews care about having a close relationship with God, (p. 59) which is why only 2% rate faith as a high priority. (p. 60) Jews are more likely to trust science, reason, and logic than ancient sacred documents or teachings based on faith. (p. 63) That’s me, for sure. Though the more I know about science I don’t trust that either. As far as God goes, it depends on how you define “God.” For me God is reality and you can’t get much closer to God than that.

8. 80% of American Jews doubt the existence of moral absolutes. (p. 60) Sure, absolutes of any kind shut down free inquiry. Of course free inquiry can become an absolute, so be careful.

9. Jews are less inclined to watch violent television or films than other tribes. (p. 60) While I am proud to belong to a people who oppose violence rather than sex in popular culture, it doesn’t fit me at all. I rate movies as good or bad based on the number of exploding space ships per minute. I want big and frequent bangs for my buck. For me, sex on the screen is just a distraction between battle scenes.

10. Jews are “notoriously liberal” in their politics, (p. 62) more likely than most Americans to be “riled up about injustice,” (p.61) and resist government policies limiting personal behavior and legislating morality. (p. 62) This finding makes me very proud to be a Jew.

11. Most Jews “perceive the Bible with suspicion.” (p. 64) Of course! We wrote it! The Bible is a human document, and all human documents should be greeted with suspicion.

12. Only 36% of Jews imagine God in ways consistent with the Torah, and most Jews do not believe God is involved in people’s lives. (p. 65) Thank God! That Guy is a Crazy Person!

13. Only 20% believe there is a satanic force in the world. (p. 66) Here I side with the minority. I do believe in evil. And while I do not believe in a separate satanic force outside of the human psyche, the evil within it is scary enough.

14. Only 25% of Jews say Judaism has been a transformative force in their lives. (p. 67) As a Jew who grew up in the synagogue I get this, and as a rabbi I am partly responsible for it. That 75% of Jews find Judaism less than life transforming says to me that we have to reinvent the rabbinate. Too bad the 25% who like things the way they are run the rabbinic institutions.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Faith & Values, Rutherford Style

The Lifestyles section of my local newspaper is subtitle, “Religion: Rutherford Faith and Values.” Rutherford is the county in which my town is located. What are Rutherford values? What is Rutherford faith? Here are few highlights from the Lifestyle section:

Under GOOD IDEAS a local pharmacist warns us that the sin of America is “the abomination it truly is to God,” and urges us to repent and follow the example of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately she doesn’t define the abomination. In this town the abomination could be abortion, homosexuality, occultism, or voting Democratic.

The main article, “Letters to God,” is about a movie being made in Orlando, FL. inspired by a Rutherford boy whose faith in God helped him and his community deal with his cancer.

Beneath the fold is an essay called “Share your faith with humility” in which we learn that “Sharing your faith isn’t an easy gig… Most of all it requires you to abandon all assumptions that you know what’s best for someone else.” Really? I thought the whole point of proselytizing is that you have the truth and the other person doesn’t. If you don’t know what’s best for me, then why bother me with your faith?

The rest of the Lifestyles section deals with various church fundraisers, Bible camps, and faith programs, a complaint to Abigail Van Buren from a guy whose girl friend wears see-through cloths and no underwear, advice on how to say “no” to a wedding invitation, the comics, a listing of 125 churches—I counted— and their upcoming worship services (the town’s mosque and Hindu Temple do not list; we have no synagogue), and the daily horoscope…

…. Wait for it… DAILY HOROSCOPE!!!!!

What kind of faith and values is this? The Bible is clearly anti-horoscope: “When you come into the land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominations of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, or one who practices witchcraft, or a soothsayer, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who conjures spells, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. For all who do these things are an abomination [detestable] to the LORD…” (Deuteronomy 18: 9-12)

While the constant invoking of Ronald Reagan by God-fearing Republicans might be considered calling up the dead, it is the fact that interpreting omens, which includes the stars, is an abomination to God that really matters to me.

Remember the local pharmacist’s concern about abomination and how she failed to make clear what abomination she was talking about? Now we know why she didn’t make it clear! The newspaper itself is promoting abomination by printing the daily horoscope! She clearly had the horoscope in mind, but could not say so for fear of having her “good idea” removed from the paper. If we are to repent we have to get this abomination removed from our newspapers. I don’t know about you, but I will get on this very soon.

Not today, though; my horoscope said this was a bad time for me to take up new causes.

Friday, July 03, 2009

July 4th 2009, part two


Who wrote the Declaration of Independence?

Who is in charge of the Executive branch of the US government?

What is the supreme law of the land?

How many justices sit on the Supreme Court?

These and similar questions were asked of a group of Arizona high school students in a recent Goldwater Institute survey. The aim of the survey was to find out if native-born Americans knew enough about America to pass the citizenship test given to those seeking to become American citizens. The result: 96.5% of the students failed the test.

But our kids aren’t stupid. Ask these same students to list the ingredients of a Big Mac and they do quite well, thank you very much. The issue isn’t smart versus stupid; it is a question of what really matters to them. We know a lot about what matters, and nothing at all about what doesn’t matter. And as long as McDonald’s matters more than McCarthy (Joseph, not Charlie) Americans will be driven by fat and fear for years to come.

Who took civics out of the high school curriculum? How can we raise a free people when we have no idea what freedom is, and how our system of government was created to secure and maintain it? What hope is there when you ask kids about “moon walk” and they talk about Michael Jackson rather than the Apollo astronauts?

Yesterday I wrote about the racism being preached on right-wing commercial radio. I wrote how frightening it was to hear such ignorance spewed across the airwaves and to know that the vast majority of listeners didn’t know it was ignorance. The Goldwater survey makes it is clear that this isn’t going to change anytime soon.

Tomorrow is the Fourth of July. Most of us are going to stuff ourselves with pork by-products, and “oo” and “ah” over fireworks. Fine. But let me suggest that the best way to celebrate the Fourth of July is to sit down with friends and family to read and discuss the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. I’d say we should read the entire Constitution, but that might be too much for one day.

I worry that the United States is well on its way to becoming a failed experiment. Democracy requires more effort, civic education, and moral courage than most of us seem to possess or are willing to pursue. True, I am a pessimist. And while I would love to proven wrong, I suspect I won’t be.

So have a happy Fourth of July. And, just for fun, see if any of your kids or friends know whose buried in Grant’s Tomb.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

July Fourth, 2009, part one

Driving to a lunch meeting in the Boro this morning I turned on our local FM talk radio station to learn that almost all black people hate white people, that President Obama is a racist, and a foreign-born Moslem sympathetic to Iran and jihadists, and that the primary goal of the Obama administration is to wrest power from the white race and give it to blacks and Hispanics.

I arrived at my meeting shaking with a mixture of anger and fear. Anger that such stupidity gets commercial airtime, and fear that most people listening to it do not think it stupid.

I remember the last time we had a Democrat President. Right wing radio was apoplectic, but the talk wasn’t this vile. Sure the Clintons murdered members of their administration, were secretly Communists trying to set up single-payer healthcare, and the President could not keep POTUS Jr. in his pants, but I don’t remember it being this emotionally charged. Sure, Rush kept count of how many days American had left in Clinton captivity, but this was no more absurd that Keith Oberman continuing his count of days since Bush’s Mission Accomplished moment on the aircraft carrier off the coast of Iraq.

But there is something different about the Right this time around. And, given that President Obama isn’t doing anything of things that I wanted him to do (end discrimination against the LGBT community, stop funding dictatorships, put real pressure on Israel and Palestine to make peace, withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan, cease the bailout of today’s robber barons, put real incentives behind green technology, and a host of other things that should rightly make the right crazy) the difference can’t really be political. Obama is a centrist, but he is a black centrist and that makes all the difference.

True it is hard to argue that America is a racist country when we have a black man as president, but it isn’t hard to see that those who are so afraid of his policies are not really afraid of his policies but his color. No one suggested during the Clinton years that the President was planning to give America over to poor rural whites in Arkansas.

The guest on this morning’s radio broadcast was an African American preacher in town for this weekend’s Republican Tea Party in Nashville. See, the Right is saying, we aren’t racist. Here is a black man speaking for us. Except it was this black man who told us that almost all black people were racists. It is one thing if some honky makes this claim—I can right it off as racism—but when a black man tells me that black folk hate me ‘cause I’m white then you just gots to believe!

Not only is Obama trying to sell America out to the black race, the radio host and his guest explained, it is trying to convince good Christians that Jesus was black. This Muslim in Christ’s clothing is trying to tell us that Jesus wasn’t white! How can that be? In my neighborhood not only is Jesus white, he spoke King James’ English! The fact that Jesus was a brown skinned Aramaic speaking Palestinian Jew seems to escape everyone’s notice.

As we prepare to celebrate the Fourth of July we would be wise to remember what this country stands for: White God, White Christians, and White Power—with a couple of black folks tagging along to ease our conscience.