Today’s Iraq, From a 2005 Post

What I thought was going to happen in Iraq now that we are leaving and other things, from a July 2005 post:

A hallmark of Ba’athist regimes is minority rule. In Syria, the Alawi al-Assads have ruled a predominantly Sunni country for many years. In Iraq, the Sunni Saddam Hussein had ruled a predominately Shi’ite country, one which he thought nothing of plunging into an extended war with the most important Shi’ite country, Iran.

Now the U.S. presence there and its push for democracy has resulted in majority rule, and that majority is Shi’a, which help from the Kurds. This has not sat well with Sunni Muslims either in Iraq nor their foreign friends, especially those from their neighbour and the heart of Sunni Islam, Saudi Arabia. The U.S. presence has obscured this; it’s much easier to hate us now and deal with other Muslims later.

However, when the day of U.S. withdrawal comes, a Shi’a dominated Iraq will naturally turn to Iran. That’s why the Iranians are busy supporting terrorists in Iraq; the sooner they induce loss of nerve in the Americans, the sooner they will have the upper hand in Iraq. That event will trigger a serious tilt in the balance of power in the Gulf, one that the Saudis have tried to avoid for years.

There are many reasons given why the first Bush didn’t invade Iraq in 1991. My own personal idea is that the Saudis didn’t want him to; they knew the long term result of that would be Iranian hegemony in the land between the rivers. That’s why they were unenthusiastic about this war as well. The last thing the Saudis want to see is a strengthened, Shi’a Iran at their doorstep.

The Saudis position is, as usual, weak. They are in the middle of a succession problem in the royal family. They have a young population with high unemployment and the discontent to go wth it. They have a sizeable Shi’a population of their own, as do the Gulf states. And, contrary to their own pronouncements, their oil production may be peaking about now. The oil revenue, of course, is what floats their internal money-favouring (which perpetuates the House of Saud) and their external Wahabbi madrasses and mosques, designed to feed Muslim fanaticism and careerism. It is also financing their ongoing acquisition of nuclear weapons from Pakistan, something many people are in the dark about while focusing on Iran’s program.

The U.S. believes that bringing democracy to the Middle East will dull the impetus for terrorism. On paper this is correct, but in societies where autocracy has been the rule making a democracy is easier said than done. (Just look at the example of the French and the Russians to understand this.) We are too enamoured with Napoleon Hill “Think and Get Democracy” type thinking to realise that real, functioning democracy requires some preparation of the people themselves, and that takes time.

In the meanwhile, we are seeing a setup for a major Sunni-Shi’a rivalry across the Gulf. Having the great forces of Islam more worried about each other than us is a potential boon for the West, but until we find the best way to make the transition to that state, any thought of using that to the West’s advantage will remain a dream.

Maybe We Need Some Christian Imams

As the leaves start to fall on campuses here in Tennessee, we are treated to the ongoing spectacle of Vanderbilt University using its nondiscrimination policy to progressively ban Christian student organisations from campus.  There are so many logical nonsequiturs to this move that it’s hard to know where to start: will they extend this to Muslim groups?  Is anyone forced to join these organisations?  How can they say with a straight face they’re welcoming to all of their students while they are banning groups?

I have no desire to divine the mind of Vanderbilt’s administration.  What I would like to do is pose a more immediate question to my Christian readers: what are we going to do about it?  The usual first reaction is to sue.  The results of previous lawsuits have not been encouraging.  Given the style of mind prevalent in our upper reaches, this is unsurprising.  To take this in another direction, I’d like to start by turning to the religion that always seems to get a pass these days: Islam.

Let me begin by going back to a 2005 post (which also deserves to be reread in view of the current situation in Iraq and the Gulf):

One of the most interesting people I have ever known was a fellow graduate student (mid 1990’s) from the Sudan. A warm and open person, we were able to spend a lot of time discussing Christianity, Islam and many other subjects.

One of the first thing I found out about him was that he was a Sunni imam. He had been elected same by some of his fellow students while studying engineering at the University of Khartoum, leading their studies of the Qur’an.

I still find this fact amazing.  A group of students elected one of their own to be their religious leader, and we as Christians spend so much time trying to figure out how to compensate our ministers and set up all of these fancy ministries to reach out to people.  As I pointed out, that informality of organisation–a hallmark of Sunni and Sufi Islam–was and is one of the roots of groups such as al-Qaeda.  Nobody (other than them) likes the result, but we need to appreciate the fact that there is a result.

Evangelicals pride themselves in having jettisoned so much “churchianity” such as the priesthood and the liturgy, and yet are still mired in a compensated ministry paradigm that both robs the laity of its God-given role and forces too much of the system to revolve around the compensation rather than the ministry.  American Evangelicals also are very dependent upon “official” recognition of one kind or another to operate in the manner they are accustomed to.

But the truth is that, when you have enemies in high places who think you’re an existential threat, your ability to operate in the open will be restricted whether you like it or not.  To some extent that drives the situation in Islamic countries.  People say that Islam is a political religion, and no one knows that better than Muslim leaders.  Saudi Arabia has as little (or less) use for al-Qaeda than we do, and they have the tough security apparatus to back it up.  To allow these groups to operate in the full open is potentially suicidal, as Hosni Mubarak found out the hard way.  When you can’t operate in the “official” open, you do it some other way.

In spite of legal successes, Christians in the U.S. need to understand that, as tolerance spreads to others, it will be cut off for us.  Part of our response needs to be to prepare ourselves organisationally to operate in a more informal–and under the radar–way, especially in institutions such as universities.  That involves training our people more thoroughly in the basics of the faith so that they can lead others in situations where our anointed/compensated (there’s a difference, but that’s for another post) leaders cannot get in and official recognition would only lead to trouble.  Universities always provide places for students to “hang out,” where official recognition isn’t necessary.

In other words, we need “Christian imams” such as I described earlier, and I don’t mean Chrislam either.

It’s true that operating in this way won’t show up on your resumé on earth.  But it will in heaven.  May show up on someone else’s, too, and that’s the whole point.

It’s Not Equality After All

It’s hard to believe that the Old Grey Lady has finally broken down and admitted the truth:

IT’S a puzzle: one dispossessed group after another — blacks, women, Hispanics and gays — has been gradually accepted in the United States, granted equal rights and brought into the mainstream.

At the same time, in economic terms, the United States has gone from being a comparatively egalitarian society to one of the most unequal democracies in the world.

The two shifts are each huge and hugely important: one shows a steady march toward democratic inclusion, the other toward a tolerance of economic stratification that would have been unthinkable a generation ago.

I had to pinch myself.  Just about every running rant I’ve had–the dominance of the Ivy Leagues over the White House, the blindness towards growing economic inequality in the face of “equality” of just about everything else, the growing socio-economic stratification of the country, all of it, here.

I dunno, maybe it’s the ghost of Karl Marx, but I can’t bring myself to believe that any push for equality without economic equality is a farce.  To leave large segments of the population behind in the name of equality is, as my father used to say, a “no fit.”

I doubt that this will have much impact on NYT readers.  After all, most of them are beneficiaries of this system.

One thing I would take issue with the the characterisation of gays as “dispossessed.”  By and large, that’s never been the case.  But I’ve commented on that before too.

Gaddafi’s Death and the End of the Nuremberg Idea

The Russians are right about this one:

As politicians in Western capitals were taking quiet pleasure in the capture and killing of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi yesterday, opinions elsewhere were divided.

In Moscow, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that the Geneva Conventions had been breached with the killing of Colonel Gaddafi.

“We have to lean on facts and international laws,” Mr Lavrov said. “They say that a captured participant of an armed conflict should be treated in a certain way. And in any case, a prisoner of war should not be killed.”

Back in the old days, war was simple: the victors took everything, usually killed the losing leaders, and that was that.  (The Romans went through a triumph both to rub their victory in everyone’s face and to bolster the political position of the victorious general.)  With World War II, things supposedly changed.  The victorious Allies put German and Japanese leaders on trial for war crimes and meted out justice after some kind of due process. The best known example of this were the Nuremberg Trials.  To some extent the process was artificial, but it gave the idea that there was a rule of law internationally and that leaders were responsible to adhere to it.  That’s supposedly been the way it is ever since.

Until now.  Gaddafi’s death, and Osama bin Laden’s for that matter, along with the numerous examples of death from the sky ordered by the current Occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, have put us back in the “old days.”  Not many people (in the West at least) think these people are heroes, but in short-cutting the process Barack Obama (and his colleagues in Libya, whose conquest is largely at the initiative of the French) have begun the process of undermining any legitimacy international law might have.

The end result of this for dissenters in this world will be the old Chinese model.  You rebelled with one of two results: either you won and became the Son of Heaven, or you lost and were executed and added to the roll call of bandits in Chinese history.  We’re not as far from that model as we’d like to think.  When our Founding Fathers stated they pledged their life, fortunes and sacred honour, they weren’t kidding: the British were as brutal as anyone in dealing with rebellion, as the Canadians found out in the following century.

There are those on both the right and the left who are disturbed by the lack of legal backing for these killings.  And then there are those who only care for the results.  It’s going to be a different world under the “new” (really old) rules.  Are you prepared for the change?

Book Review: Laurence Leamer’s Madness Under the Royal Palms: Love and Death Behind the Gates of Palm Beach

One day while growing up in Palm Beach, I stopped to visit my grandmother.  As I’ve documented numerous times on this blog, I frequently found myself on the wrong end of Palm Beach’s brutal social system (well, the young part of it, at least.)  In response to my complaints about the place, she, in some ways embodying the “old Palm Beach,” said that the town was a place that grew on you and you’d always want to come back to.

As the years pass, in some ways I find she’s right, although Palm Beach, like some other places in the world, doesn’t have a “right of return.”  More to the point Palm Beach is a place that doesn’t leave you once you’ve internalized it.  The world never looks the same once you’ve lived and moved and had your being in a town that is, for many of the most successful in this world, the ne plus ultra of communities.

It is with more than passing interest, therefore, that I picked up a copy of Laurence Leamer’s Madness Under the Royal Palms: Love and Death Behind the Gates of Palm Beach.  Leamer, who has written extensively about the Kennedys (another Palm Beach fixture,) went one better than many people who write about the place: he actually has a residence there and moved socially amongst the residents before putting his thoughts, experiences and interviews to book form.  How he manages to show his face in the place after this is his problem, but for me a documented journey through the island was an opportunity to reflect on my own experience and to see what had changed and what had not.

The best place to start is the title.  There’s no doubt that Madness Under the Royal Palms was intended to be provocative.  But is the way the social system works in Palm Beach really a generalized form of insanity?  A true Palm Beacher would simply come back in this way: is there any other way to run a social system?  Like many places in the world, Palm Beach runs on its own internal logic, which makes sense to the participants even if it defies the conventional wisdom of outsiders.  But one of the first lessons of life under the royal palms (or the Australian pines, or the banyan trees, or behind the ficus hedges) is that you’re not on this earth to conform to the conventional wisdom of the unwashed.

Leamer’s chief explanation of the ostensibly bizarre doings on the island is that the system is entirely driven by money, especially its disposition.  At one point in the book he compares the destructive results of the system to the One Ring of J.R.R. Tolkien.  A more relevant ring analogy would be Wagner.  Palm Beach has more than its share of Alberichts who have forsaken love for gold, and that fact leaves more conventional wisdom about human relationships behind as well.  In the end, however, things are more complicated.

In the midst of his chronicle of the present reality of Palm Beach, Leamer does provide some background.  Palm Beach is originally a product of the Gilded Age, a place meant to be both the pleasant geographical terminus of a nation and the end game of success and upward social mobility.  His account of the family affairs of Henry Morrison Flagler, the real founder of the place, is intended to be compared to the escapades of his current characters.  To some extent the career of Addison Mizner, the gay architect whose Mediterranean creations defined Palm Beach for many years (and much of whose work has been lost in the “level and rebuild” craze that has taken the town by storm the last thirty years) is paralleled with the current situation of that community in Palm Beach.  But Palm Beach, although a world unto itself in many ways, is influenced by the changes taking place in American society at large, and Leamer’s book documents those changes without really coming to grips for an explanation.

One of the important variables in the way people move up socially is determined by the rate of ascent.  As long as that rate is moderate, it’s possible for those who at the top to begin with to properly assimilate those who are moving up, both by marriage and by enforcement of the rules of society.  When that rate is very fast, however, the assimilation problem breaks down, and you end up with most dreadful result possible: tasteless nouveaux riches making a statement and getting away with it.

Leamer is certainly aware of the effects of vast sums of money showing up all at once, and its effect on society:

At the top of the milieu Shannon (Donnelly, the Palm Beach Daily News’ society columnist) covered was a new breed of billionaire and near-billionaire who set themselves apart and above from the old elite.  For the most part, they did not join the clubs, and they held themselves separate from the community.  The gods of irony or unintended consequence had played a cosmic joke, giving them money beyond human imagination, money so grand that there were no pleasures expensive enough be beyond them; yet in having everything they cared for nothing. (pp. 153-4)

The fundamental disconnect between money and the positive human attributes that most Americans associate with material success isn’t new in Palm Beach.  The whole concept of “more money than brains” is an old one there.  The realization of that disconnect is one of those things that sticks with a product of Palm Beach more than just about anything else.  It’s a major reason, for example, for my instinctive aversion to prosperity teaching, an aversion that’s next to impossible to explain to people.  (I see that my fellow Palm Beacher George Conger has a similar aversion that that theology, although he, like most, couches it in Biblical terms.)  What’s changed, however, is a) the size of the fortunes being made and b) the fact that most of the people who have them have ostensibly come by the wealth in the first generation, which implies that they’re responsible for its accumulation even when there’s no obvious reason why they should be.

The inrush of that kind of money has changed the landscape of Palm Beach more than anything else, both physically (to the extent that those who want to build can get past the preservationists) and socially.  At the vanguard of that change is Donald Trump, whose transformation of the Mar-a-Lago estate into a private club, with the concomitant opportunity of the clubless arrivistes to have their own place in the sun free from the constraints of places like the Everglades Club, the Bath and Tennis (B&T) Club, or even the Palm Beach Country Club.  (As an aside, my gut tells me that Leamer has overplayed his hand on the formal stuffiness of the B&T.  Palm Beach is full of institutions which set ridiculous rules and people who ignore them when the situation calls for it.  The B&T was the place, for example, where one Palm Beach Day School classmate asked me at a dance, “Are you experienced?”)

Mentioning the Palm Beach Country Club brings up another ongoing transformative aspect to Palm Beach life: the island’s Jewish community.  Jews have come to Palm Beach since the beginning, in the early years readily mixing with their Gentile friends.  (For numerous reasons I prefer my mother’s term for the non-children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob over Leamer’s “WASP.”)  The whole saga of a Jewish community that is socially (and to some extent physically) separate from its Gentile counterpart began in 1944, three years before the founding of the State of Israel.  At that time Jewish entrepreneur A.M. Sonnabend offered to purchase a large tract of land and buildings which included the Biltmore Hotel and the original Flagler mansion.  Just as their Zionist counterparts needed an Arthur Balfour to facilitate their return to the Promised Land, so also did the Jews who wished to come to the island.  They found one in Claude Reese, scion of a pioneer family in Palm Beach County and an eminent realtor.  (The Southern Scots-Irish have always been the great interlopers between Jew and Gentile, and always with unexpected results.)  The Gentiles were furious at such an invasion, so Reese, mindful of his commission, came up with a plan.  Knowing that Sonnabend was undercapitalized, he offered to the residents the option to buy out his contract before he could come up with the money.  They could not bring themselves to do so, and Sonnabend was able to make the purchase.

The subsequent quasi-two-state history has pretty much paralleled its Middle Eastern counterpart, albeit with more money per capita on the table and less bloodshed.  (My brother did get a fractured jaw out of the conflict.)  The Gentiles fulminate and moan about the Jews and their ways, but with each passing year the Jewish presence in Palm Beach increases and the Gentile decreases.  Without enough fresh Gentile blood and money (and without the Palestinians’ death penalty for selling property to the Jews, we sold our house to a Jewish couple when we left in 1972) Palm Beach is transformed into a predominantly Jewish town, gripes about the Shiny Sheet looking like the Jerusalem Post notwithstanding.  (Personally I think that the paper’s coverage of Jewish holidays and other religious events is one of the best things they do.)  In the meanwhile Palm Beach life goes on with separate clubs, charity balls and other social events.  It’s a situation that doesn’t fit into anyone’s “politically correct” paradigm and Leamer has received criticism for discussing it.  But he is spot-on in his description.  I first commented on this state of affairs in 2005; its perpetuation isn’t really a credit to anyone on the island.

While discussing communities in Palm Beach, Leamer documents the rise (or more accurately the revealing) of another group: the gay community.  Until the 1990’s the existence of same was largely an open secret in a town where open secrets are plentiful.  But, in parallel with developments elsewhere, the gay community has come out in force to the extent that Leamer proclaims that Palm Beach is as gay as San Francisco.  (But does it rival Atlanta?)  As is the case with just about everything else in Palm Beach, the results don’t match conventional wisdom.  To begin with, Leamer had more difficulty getting gays to talk about their life in Palm Beach more than any other group, and in some cases was forced to use pseudonyms, something that strikes me as “old school Palm Beach” as much as anything he touches upon.  Beyond that, rather than creating a new paradigm for life on the island, “(w)hat the gays in Palm Beach have produced is largely a society that replicates the straight world with the same preoccupations the same narrow preconceptions and judgments.  They play same games with charity and go through the same struggles to get their Botoxed features in the Shiny Sheet.” (p. 253)

If group documentation was Leamer’s main device to chronicle Palm Beach in the decades straddling the turn of the millennium, it would probably make for a dull book.  Leamer’s technique, however, is to use selected people to illustrate the state of the island.  He weaves his characters skilfully like a good novelist, which is good to hold your interest, and of course it’s always a good idea to keep up with the key players (which he struggled to find in some cases, especially when it came to the Gentiles.)  Novelists, however, are forced to resort to artifices to keep the narrative moving, and although Palm Beach is this country’s small town par excellence, he runs the risk of either missing something or someone really important or having to bend his narrative to keep his story together.

Through his characters we see the various aspects of life in Palm Beach: the houses, the Worth Avenue shopping, and the charity balls.  These last are not to be underestimated; they define both the season in general and those who attend them.  They are part of the race to the top that Leamer likens to a greyhound race (an analogy I used in my piece Running Rusty.)  Although these have doubtless raised money for worthy causes, the whole spectacle of the things tends to sour the long-term observer to charitable giving as a whole, which is something else that’s hard to explain outside of Palm Beach.  But perhaps the sincerity of the givers and guests should not be underestimated.  Leamer’s epilogue is the aftermath of the collapse of Bernie Madoff’s scheme, which drained funds from both the Palm Beach Country Club and a good portion of its membership.  In the wake of that collapse, one lament many of his Jewish victims made was that they were no longer able to give to charity, something that struck me as heartfelt.

The one place that hit home more than any other was the effect of Palm Beach-level wealth on family life. It was painful to read many of the accounts.  This is one place where Palm Beach has changed very little.  Children are still victims of acrimonious divorces and abductions that would land lesser parents in prison, in between being shunted off to boarding schools and raised by the help.  Leamer’s account of Fred Keller, which ended up in Keller murdering his wife and going to prison while his son Fredchen blocked him out of his life, was one of the more riveting—and gut-wrenching—things to get through in the book.  But if Leman had gone back a generation or two, he could have found equally squalid accounts.

That, of course, brings me to an aspect of Palm Beach life I am all too familiar with: Palm Beach Day School.  His description of the school (with the exception of a few details) could have been made when I was there:

The Day School teachers are often excellent, and they try to teach the children about the world beyond Palm Beach, but it is difficult.  Ten-year-olds have their hair colored and go in for weekly manicures and pedicures.  The private school children learn how to judge another person by his clothes, his car, and his address.   Many of them are brought up more by nannies than mothers, and only toddled occasionally to be displayed to dinner guests like a new bibelot.  Many of the children, especially those who are the children of divorce, have their own therapists with whom they discuss their problems.

They live on their own island of children within the island of Palm Beach.  If things go according to plan, they go to prep school and then to the Ivy League, and from there perhaps to Wall Street.  As long as they live in this pocket of privilege, they are smart and adept, but step across the bridge into what most people call America, and they are confronted with a world about which they know nothing. (pp. 24-25)

At the start I considered the book’s title, Madness Under the Royal Palms.  It’s time to consider the subtitle: Love and Death Behind the Gates of Palm Beach.  Leamer rightly describes Palm Beach, behind the three bridges that both connect and separate the town from the mainland, as the country’s first gated community.  It is a place at the pinnacle of this country’s life, and its residents—past and present—know it.  For all intents and purposes they might as well inscribe on all of the bridges’ the street lights the same motto the Romans had for the Straits of Gibraltar: ne plus ultra, there is no beyond.  And it’s not only gated from the outside world, but within there are many gates and walls that keep people from each other as well, barriers more than what we see “beyond the gates.”

To have grown up in such a place was and is an experience both defining and dissatisfying.  There has to be better, one tells oneself, even as people pay exorbitant prices for large houses (only to replace them in some cases) on tiny lots to have their address on the island.  Some of that beyond can be found in that wide world beyond; in that respect, the efforts of my Palm Beach Day school teachers paid off (maybe too much.)  But when you’re in the “centre of the universe,” there is ultimately only one plus ultra that can satisfy:

And so Jesus, also, to purify the People by his own blood, suffered outside the gate. Therefore let us go out to him ‘outside the camp,’ bearing the same reproaches as he; for here we have no permanent city, but are looking for the City that is to be. (Hebrews 13:12-14)

The China Currency Bill is Not the Answer

John Boehner is correct about the nature of this, which is about to clear the Senate:

Defying Chinese anger and White House warnings, the US Senate was set Tuesday to approve legislation to punish China for alleged currency manipulation widely blamed here for costing American jobs…

The Democratic-held Senate was due to approve the measure after 5:30 pm (2130 GMT), shifting the spotlight to the Republican-led House of Representatives, where Speaker John Boehner has condemned the “dangerous” bill.

“You could start a trade war. And a trade war, given the economic uncertainty here and all around the world — it’s just very dangerous, and we should not be engaged in this,” Boehner said recently.

Students of the last Depression know that legislation such as the Smoot-Hawley tariff only made matters worse.  Irrespective of the way in which the Chinese have kept the value of the yuan down, starting a trade war is only a spectacular example of cutting off our nose to spite our face.

It’s interesting to note that both Smoot and Hawley were Republicans, the tariff was passed under Republican President Herbert Hoover.  Evidently some in our party have learned something from history, including Tennessee Senator Bob Corker:

U.S. Senator Bob Corker, R-Tenn., today continued to voice his strong opposition to S.1619, the Currency Exchange Rate Oversight Reform Act, sponsored by Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). Earlier today, the Senate voted 62-38 to position the “China currency bill” for a final vote. Corker opposed the measure.

“There’s no question that China manipulates its currency, but I don’t believe this bill would bring any production to the U.S. or create one job here in America. This approach is a typical Washington, cut-your-nose-off-to-spite-your-face response that would prove counterproductive,” said Corker. “We’ve seen this play out before. In 1930, in a moment of populism, Congress reached for simple answers to complex problems and passed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act. The result was a deeper depression and a decade of increased joblessness.

“If we want to do something productive regarding China, we should focus on pushing the Chinese to end preferential procurement policies, addressing China’s disregard for intellectual property rights, encouraging the Chinese to make investments in manufacturing plants in the U.S., and ensuring that America maintains access to the 1.3 billion Chinese consumers. These are the right policy responses toward Beijing. Unfortunately the bill currently on the Senate floor does none of this, but instead would be the opening salvo in a new dynamic of hostile relations.

“To me, one of the most shocking aspects of this debate has been the Home Alone syndrome at the White House – a total lack of leadership from this administration on an issue of great international importance.”

The core of the current economic malaise is inappropriate credit allocation, both in quantity and in quality.  We need to address the issue that got us here rather than creating diversions to create more problems than we already have.

Belt Your Old Man in the Mouth

The whole “Occupy Wall Street” protest movement–and some comments from family who are closer to the event than I–have reminded me of something I heard a while back and have meant to post but haven’t.  Hopefully timing will be everything and some will find this strange story helpful.

My old family business marketed some of its products through a network of specialised distributors.  One of the more interesting stores was our distributor for the Washington, DC, area.  The branch manager was quite a character and made doing business interesting, to say the least.  One day he related a story about one of his employees who complained about the fact that the family who owned the business, for some mysterious reason, always ended up taking what he felt was a “disproportionate” share of the revenue and exercising the privileges of ownership every now and then.  The complaints were endless; finally, the branch manager stopped the whining long enough to make a point.

“You know what you ought to do about all this?” the branch manager asked.

“What?” the employee replied.

“Go home and belt your old man in the mouth,” the branch manager shot back.  That was a conversation stopper; the employee was almost speechless.  The branch manager went on to explain the strange rationale behind his idea.  The basic problem was that the guy’s father hadn’t started a business or had some other kind of successful career, which forced his son to have to work in a place where grease and outdoor work were the order of the day.  The guy needed to quit blaming the owning family and put the liability where it “needed to be.”  The suggestion was obviously absurd (well, hopefully obvious) but the point was made.

I never figured out the animus people who work in a family owned business (generally, I thought, by choice) sometimes develop towards the family.  One of the more memorable moments in my negotiations with the trade union was the committee chairman’s remark that the one event that got him into trade unionism was when he worked at another family business and the ownership had the temerity to hire a relative.  He thought that was unfair and it inspired him to join and support the union, which basically takes away both employment at will and the employer’s right to promote in the sequence they see fit.  Family businesses can rise and fall on the relatives they hire, but to say it’s unfair (it is a family business, after all) is a stretch.

Make no mistake about it: our economy and financial system has many faults.  It allocates credit badly; it’s too much of a mandarinate to allow people of merit (such as dearly departed Steve Jobs) to rise to the top the way they used to; the regulatory system is too cumbersome and expensive; the tax code is too complex and contradictory for most taxpayers (to say nothing of the IRS) to know what it means.  But those who are attempting to occupy Wall Street won’t touch any of these problems.  Their idea is ultimately to redistribute wealth, which will supposedly make everyone happy.  Ultimately the underlying assumption is that everything that is wrong with our economy is someone else’s fault, like the underlying assumption of the griping employee near Washington (esprit de corps?)

But there are two sides to this issue.  Those who are on the “wrong end” of the economic system, before they starting pinning the blame, need to ask themselves a question: what can I do to make things better for myself while waiting for the system to figure it out?  Are my wasteful ways just feeding the people I hate?  Can I change the management of my own assets to make them go further?  Can I try to get off of credit, which lines the pockets of those at the top faster than anything else?  Can I change my work habits or even what I can do to broaden my income generating possibilities?    That process is a lot easier when we have churches which encourage their members to fill the God-shaped void in their lives with the Son rather than stuff, but I guess that’s one reason why those who profit off of profligacy don’t like churches like that any more.

There’s no evidence in history that purely collectivistic solutions lead anywhere but either a) universal poverty or b) the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the “vanguard” of the poor.  And it’s interesting to note that many of the woes of our economic system are created by the condition of our political one, where’s it’s really easy to basically bribe your way to the top.

It’s easy to think that protest movements such as this one will make a difference, but the difference they make may not be the one they think it will.  It may only transfer ownership of the society from one small group to another, while those who blamed one group of people merely shift their disdain to the new masters without thinking how they got there.  It’s a recipe for failure, and it makes no more sense than for those in the streets to go home and belt their old man (if they can find him) in the mouth.

Choose Life, Choose Death, Choose Surrender

If the pro-life movement has a “theme” or “banner” scripture, it’s this one:

Consider that I have set before thee this day life and good, and on the other hand death and evil: That thou mayst love the Lord thy God, and walk in his ways, and keep his commandments and ceremonies and judgements, and bless thee in the land, which thou shalt go in to possess. But if thy heart be turned away, so that thou wilt not hear, and being deceived with error thou adore strange gods, and serve them: I foretell thee this day that thou shalt perish, and shalt remain but a short time in the land, to which thou shalt pass over the Jordan, and shalt go in to possess it. I call heaven and earth to witness this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing. Choose therefore life, that both thou and thy seed may live: And that thou mayst love the Lord thy God, and obey his voice, and adhere to him (for he is thy life, and the length of thy days,) that thou mayst dwell in the land, for which the Lord swore to thy fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that he would give it them. (Deuteronomy 30:15-20)

It’s one pro-life people use frequently.  It even turns up on albums such as this one from the School Sisters of Notre Dame (the title track, based on the passage above, is here.)  It’s unlikely that the Sisters didn’t have this application in mind when they put this out.

Nevertheless it’s equally unlikely that an anti-abortion statement is the principal meaning of this declaration, the horror of sacrificing children to Moloch and other pagan gods notwithstanding.  The Israelites were about to enter the land that God had promised them; their first duty was to adhere to the worship of Yahweh their God and to keep the entire law that he had given them in the wilderness.

This charge was pronounced at the start of their time in the land; at the end of the first phase, the prophet Jeremiah recalled it as follows:

And to this people thou shalt say: Thus saith the Lord: Behold I set before you the way of life, and the way of death. He that shall abide in this city, shall die by the sword, and by the famine, and by the pestilence: but he that shall go out and flee over to the Chaldeans, that besiege you, shall live, and his life shall be to him as a spoil. For I have set my face against this city for evil, and not for good, saith the Lord: it shall be given into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall burn it with fire. And to the house of the king of Juda: Hear ye the word of the Lord, O house of David, thus saith the Lord: Judge ye judgement in the morning, and deliver him that is oppressed by violence out of the hand of the oppressor: lest my indignation go forth like a fire, and be kindled, and there be none to quench it, because of the evil of your ways. Behold I come to thee that dwellest in a valley upon a rock above a plain, saith the Lord: and you say: Who shall strike us and who shall enter into our houses? But I will visit upon you according to the fruit of your doings, saith the Lord: and I will kindle a fire in the forest thereof: and it shall devour all things round about it. (Jeremiah 21:8-14)

In the face of the oncoming Chaldean onslaught, his message was simple: it’s time to surrender and go into exile, and by doing so preserve our life and the life of our nation.  Needless to say, that wasn’t what his contemporaries wanted to hear, and they weren’t shy about letting him know that too.

We’d like to think that, since we know now that Jeremiah was right and his prophecies are part of the canon of Scripture, we’d agree with his message if it were given today.  But, as Jesus pointed out to his contemporaries, that isn’t the way it works with prophets, past or present.  About the only passages of Jeremiah, whose “gloom and doom” prophecies used to be proverbial, that get quoted these days are the flashes of hope that pierce the general darkness of his message.

To put it more plainly, Jeremiah’s message to his contemporaries is not only too negative for our sensibilities, it’s downright unAmerican.  He’s advocating surrender to a culture where winners never quit and quitters never win.  Even in our post-Biblical elite culture, how many times does one see “perseverance” as a cardinal virtue?  How many times do we talk up those who keep “pursing their dream,” even when they might be better off doing something else?  How enormous are the resources we pour into efforts that play to our sensibilities but really doesn’t accomplish anything?

I don’t think that the Bible endorses the opposite idea either, i.e., throw up our hands at the first sign of resistance.  But, as Kenny Rogers immortalised in The Gambler, the key is to know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em, and in Jeremiah’s day the latter was in order.  Israel had strayed from the covenant and the worship that God had set before them, either for craven reasons (as was the case with Manasseh) or to keep up with the Joneses of the era (as was the case with Ahab and Jezebel, who was one of the Joneses).  Israel had also sanctioned the social injustices that went along with absolute monarchy, the centralisation of power and wealth which led to the marginalisation of everyone else.  (I’ll leave it to you to decide whether we should have a Tea Party rally or a Jim Wallis event in response to what’s going on these days).  After a few centuries of this, it was time for God to pull the plug, and Jeremiah was God’s reluctant proclaimer of that message.

Today we’re conditioned to plough on no matter what in just about any circumstance.  We’re also conditioned to discount the moments when God pulls the plug on us, be they individual or collective.  But that doesn’t change reality that sometimes the choice of life involves the choice of surrender, surrender in some cases to those who are not to our taste.  But the complete understanding of the Scriptures involves grasping the hard truths along with the easy ones, and the sooner we understand that, the better.

Oh, Just Buy a Cup of Joe If You Want to Stimulate the Economy

The coffee place is at it again:

Starbucks hopes customers will be willing to pay at least $5 more when they stop in for their morning cup of Joe.

Starting Nov. 1, Starbucks will begin collecting donations of $5 or more from customers to stimulate U.S. job growth through its “Jobs for USA” program. The Seattle-based coffee chain is collaborating with the Opportunity Finance Network, a nonprofit that works with nearly 200 community development financial institutions to provide loans to small businesses and community groups. Starbucks says 100 percent of the donations will go toward loans for firms and organizations that can add jobs or stem job losses.

Those of you who know me know that I am a Starbucks fan.  But this is ridiculous.  In all fairness, though, they’re on to something important: credit for small businesses has dried up since 2008.  That’s one reason (along with the regulatory maze) why our economy cannot find its footing these days.  Our banks consider small businesses as too risky to loan to as they go another around of shaky real estate loans.

The credit system is skewed badly, which is the reason why we got into this mess and a major reason why we cannot seem to get out of it.  What we need to do is to fix our credit allocation system rather than beg for $5.00 donations along with the $4.00 latté.