The proverbial excrement is starting to hit the fan. The new Congress is beginning to enact much needed oversight. It's about time. That Bush is a lame duck and that 2008 isn't that far away makes the cynic in me think it's not happening just because Americans sent a message to Washington.
That said, I believe that the more progressive band of thinkers in government have the best chance of making some headway against the status quo. For me, this brings on a conundrum that generates a days-on-end, book-reading, gut wrenching, mull-it-over-and-over, walk-the-razor's-edge mental funk that can't be resolved with pat answers. The conundrum: It's difficult to practice the compassion and self-discipline necessary to heal and still allow myself to feel (and exhibit) the anger and betrayal I feel in a non-destructive way.
Let me offer an analogy. If I was a cuckolded spouse, my first reaction would not be to try to understand what led my spouse to this betrayal. I would throw dishes, cuss, and say things like: "How could you? Look what you've done. What were you thinking?" However, at some point I would have to face that spouse and decide how and if we would move forward together and repair a broken relationship.
Over the past day or two, supporters of Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison felt betrayed by his vote on the Senate plan to withdraw troops by early 2008 and held a protest sit in at his office. They wanted troops out of Iraq now and felt he should have held out for that end. Well, the troops aren't going to come home now'"it just isn't going to happen. I think Ellison made a brave and difficult choice in voting for a resolution that wasn't perfect but was the best option available'"the closest to his values and the commitments he'd made, and the only thing that had a chance. Even so, there are lots of folks who don't see it that way. They will be critical of Ellison's decision and there will be some fissures in the relationship.
I believe this Executive Branch has made every effort over the past six years to castrate the rest of government under the guise of the "War on Terror." They seem to believe that, as long as they're the executives, then executive power is near god-like. They've spent more time creating a "reign of terror" at home in order to frighten us into letting them get away with their power grab. They have been deceitful in promoting a holier-than-thou "values" platform while practicing what I consider to be a form of social Darwinism.
I'm embarrassed that our government is still arguing about the science of global warming rather than the best way to cut emissions and stave off its potentially devastating impacts. Like the cuckolded spouse, I want to throw a few plates and a few choice expletives at the guilty parties. I can't even stand to listen or look at them at times. That's not a good state of mind. Pretty soon I have to think about moving on and how best to do that.
Something in the metaphorical refrigerator stinks and we need to find out what's rotten. We need to hold people accountable and have consequences in order to maintain faith in government. I know there'll be a fight. And I know the danger is that the glass slipper of holier-than-thou will fit just as neatly on the foot of a progressive and tit-for-tat is a long standing habit of human beings that's codified in the Christian Bible as "an eye-for-an-eye."
So, how do we conduct a fair, forthright investigation and influence the desperate changes we need in running our country without being Machiavellian in the process? What can one citizen like me do to stave off the inevitable bitching, bickering, slandering, name-calling, demeaning slide into blue state/red state, Dem/Repub, left/right, us/them, brother-on-brother war on each other that we have been waging for a while now? George Will, writing recently about anger in America, noted that one well-known blogger described the blogosphere as "one giant primal scream." I wouldn't limit it to the internet. I've listened to talk-radio and watched Stewart, Colbert, and Maher.
I Sold My Soul on eBay
I recently read an article in Christianity Today about Hemant Mehta, a 22 year-old student, who has become known as the "eBay atheist." It seems that Hemant, who was raised in India and in the Jain religion, rejected belief in the supernatural at a young age. In America he continually met Christians who tried to convert him to their faith. So he decided to "sell his soul on eBay."
Hemant set up an auction on eBay where he promised to attend one hour of church for every $10 of the winning bid. His goal was to educate himself about Christianity by engaging with it and helping Christians understand his position as a non-theist. His efforts netted him national religious coverage, a blog [friendlyatheist.com], and a book deal: I Sold My Soul on eBay, soon to be released.
Hemant eventually attended 30 churches and agreed to write about his experiences. He talked with church members and pastors from a variety of branches of Christianity. He converted no one and no one converted him'"he is still an atheist. The experience was good for all involved. When describing to his atheist friends some of the sensitive discussions he had with churchgoers and pastors, they often said things to him like: "'I would love to be in your shoes. I would love to tell that pastor how wrong he is!" When that happened, Hemant would say, "I thought to myself, that's exactly why you're not invited. That's not what this is about."
Courage to Carry the White Flag
Reading about Hemant was particularly relevant for me as a non-theist in a family of evangelical Christians. I am also one of a tiny handful of progressives in my family. I was reminded of the wonderful Christian Carlon film, Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas), nominated for Best Foreign Language film in 2006. The film was inspired by the Christmas truce of 1914, when soldiers laid down their arms for two days of peace, came out of their trenches, and celebrated the holiday together. It is a moving tale of courage and humanness in the worst of situations.
It did not end well for those involved. The German, French, and Scottish commanders were relieved of their duties for fraternizing with the enemy, and the soldiers, who had been "tainted" by the experience, were replaced by others who could still see the enemy as subhuman. Dug in on one side, dug in on the other, they had the courage to take up the flag of truce and see the "Other" as human.
Were they tainted? Were they compromised? Were they patriots? It isn't easy or fun to carry the truce flag to the other side and try to listen and understand why people think and act as they do. This is certainly true for me as I consider out from my firmly entrenched position and laying down my arms. My conundrum is this: I'm too often like Hemant's friends. I want to tell 'em how wrong they are. Maybe that's why I'm not invited.
Working together, people typically create better solutions and arrive at more truthful answers. The difficulty is: How do I cooperate and collaborate and compromise when the "Other" makes my blood boil and a string of expletives float across my mind (if not my lips)?
Albert Camus said: "Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined." It has taken me a long time to know what he meant by that since I am a firm believer in reason and so was he. It's been a kind of koan to meditate on. I think he was saying that thinking abstracts; it carries us inevitably to generalizations and away from the firmness of individual, real-life situations. For example, it's easier to generalize and condemn homosexuality than it is to condemn your gay son or daughter or best friend. It's easy for me to use words like foolish, unthinking, and self-deluded when I talk about the abundance of people in America who say they believe in God, and even more so, those who want to tear down the wall that separates religious influence from the operation of governance. It's much harder to use those descriptive phrases when I plug in the name of one of my daughters, my mother-in-law, my sister or sister-in-law. I know them personally, and I know they do think and they still believe, and sometimes, they do doubt. Thinking abstracts but understanding brings things back together. Understanding doesn't come from pushing my ideas but from nurturing them while being willing to listen and try to understand the "Others."
When W stomps his feet because Congress wants to put real dates into the war plan, he's driven by the same fear, insecurity, self-delusion, and blind spots that I have. That's not an excuse. When Alberto Gonzales tries to duck accountability for the apparent politicization of justice, he's doing something I have done before myself (although my Dad taught me that it's better to confess and swallow your medicine than to tell a lie, be found out, lose trust, and have to take the medicine anyway).
It's so damn difficult to practice the discipline philosopher Baruch Spinoza set for himself: "I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." That sounds to me like wisdom.
Thinking abstracts, understanding brings things back together, and wisdom sees through the fog to the distant shore. Sometimes I need to throw platters and expletives and be absolutely clear where I stand. Sometimes we need to pull crap out of the fridge to find out what's rotted. However, I mustn't forget that most of the time I need to pick up the white flag, walk to the other side and listen, before I make my own self heard.
Then, using understanding, wisdom and compassion, strive to do what seems right and just, remembering that the holier-than-thou slipper would fit quite neatly on my own foot.