Sunday, May 03, 2015

Broken Soil, Broken Hearts

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

This week, I prepared our small garden space, as I do every year, for the tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, cucumbers, and more than we'll plant in the coming days. It starts with layering on top of the ground wheelbarrows full of freshly composted soil (filled this year, thankfully, with earthworms and grubs), then working it into the dirt, breaking apart the soil and mixing it in with a rototiller. It's a violent process, but with the heavy clay content of our native dirt, it almost always needs to be done.

I always feel a sense of satisfaction and peace when I can look back upon this labor after it's done, even though it's a small and not particularly impressive bit of work. Still, in its little way, it makes me think about the necessary disruptions in any productive life. Sometimes the good that is natural to a thing is best revealed by attending upon its own rhythms and time--but other times, it has to be drawn out, with work. And sometimes, of course, that work is thrust upon us, without our choosing.

I thought about my rototilling in church today. All our regular meetings were cancelled, so we could instead attend a special stake meeting to hear from Elder Jeffrey R. Holland (a leader whom faithful Mormons consider to be one of God's chosen apostles), who ended up--in the midst of mission conferences and other responsibilities--here in Wichita, KS, this Sunday. Holland asked several people to bear their testimony of Christ before him, and then he spoke for a half-hour, picking up on what he felt was an unspoken theme in the others' comments. Launching into a litany of the thousand ways in which we can all feel burdened and broken up by life--haunted by the deaths of loved ones, handicapped by disease, struggling with finances, in despair over the challenges our children face, and so much more--Elder Holland plaintively insisted, again and again: "God loves broken things."

Speaking both theologically and agriculturally, Holland riffed on the great Baptist preacher Vance Havner, and talked about how brokenness was both tragic and essential to our mortal life. How can God not love broken things?, he asked. So much of His creation is broken. It is only from broken clouds that we are able to receive rain for our soil. It is only from broken soil that grain may be grown. It is only from broken grain that bread may be milled. And that bread, once broken, becomes the essential symbol through which we may partake of the Savior's own brokenness upon the cross, reminding ourselves of the broken heart and contrite spirit which we are commanded to seek. That heart, and that spirit, was exemplified by Jesus's own brokenness--what Holland called the Savior's own "contrition," the sorrow He felt, the hurt that God Himself feels, at the inevitable and terrible and fundamental pain and disappointment and disruption of this fallen world.

Opening his scriptures, Holland turned to an old and beloved story, one that fits in well with stories of fallen natures and elemental struggles:

And the same day, when the even was come, he saith unto them, Let us pass over unto the other side.

And when they had sent away the multitude, they took him even as he was in the ship. And there were also with him other little ships.

And there arose a great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the ship, so that it was now full.

And he was in the hinder part of the ship, asleep on a pillow: and they awake him, and say unto him, Master, carest thou not that we perish?

And he arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still. And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.

And he said unto them, Why are ye so fearful? how is it that ye have no faith?

And they feared exceedingly, and said one to another, What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?
(Mark 4: 35-41)

Storms are frightening, for certain, as are traffic accidents, sudden deaths, tragic realizations, disappointing news, economic downturns, unintended catastrophes, unlooked-for diagnoses, and so many other daily instances of brokenness. It would be easy to fall into a simplistic providentialism here, and wait on the healing which God promises to us all--and Elder Holland didn't entirely escape that tendency. But more important was his insistence, as I understood him, that it is not experiencing doubt or anguish or pain which shows a failure to do that work which our own brokenness and the brokenness which we confront in all our friends and families and congregations calls us to perform. It is fear, above all else, that we must seek the faith to overcome. Yes, there is an ultimate healing which awaits those who endure...but more important, I think, is the fact that there is that peace of mind, that solace of feeling--"the peace of God, which passeth all understanding"--which attends those who trust that there is an empathetic, loving God, weeping for and with us through and in the midst of all our storms.

Recently, a young person has come into our family from a background that is commonly referred to--fairly or not--as "broken." She needed a home, we provided one, and now we all find ourselves engaged, without have known what exactly any of us were choosing, in a good deal of sometimes painful and difficult and disruptive work. Perhaps something good and nourishing will grow from this breaking up of our family soil; perhaps we'll find our selves refreshed by the rain which the broken clouds are bringing into our home. Or maybe we'll all just end up muddy and wet. Either way, I took inspiration from Elder Holland's words: to not be fearful, and go about the work we cannot avoid doing, and look for the grace of peace along the way. It is a grace that will be there, in the tilled soil, and in the clearing which follows after every storm. I'm grateful to have been able to learn such things for myself, as I've broken up clods of dirt by hand...but, like everyone else, I need every reminder I can get.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Saturday Night Live Music: "Africa"

Is there nothing which the magic of an ex-Beatle can't do? Apparently not. Check out how Ringo Star and His All-Star Band shape what was probably the single-most mockable pop song of the whole 1980s into a sometimes jazzy, sometimes crunching, overall very cool rocker (and with Richard Page of Mr. Mister on bass just for fun!).

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Saturday Night Live Music: "In the House of Stone and Light"

Something a little different this Saturday: no live video, just an audio recording. But this is such a fine recording of such a wonderful, haunting pop tune from the 1990s--one that's only available because Brian Weatherman, who is backing up Martin Page on this song Page wrote, recently found an old copy of the recording--that I have to make an exception. Enjoy.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

The Most Important Element of Tonight's Win for Marijuana Sentencing Reform

Tonight, a ballot issue here in Wichita, KS, to reduce the penalty for a first-time arrest for the possession of a small amount of marijuana won. Did it win big? Nope, but it did win decisively: 54% to 46% of the total votes cast. And that, frankly, may be the best possible result which we who supported this ballot issue could have hoped for.

Why do I think those result are better for the overall effort to challenge drug-war overreach than a blow-out win? Because this is just the first step. Now, here in Wichita, we will wait to see what our new mayor and the new city council will do as Kansas's Attorney General, Derek Schmidt, decides whether or not to make good on his threat to sue the city to force our government to ignore the results of the election, since it would involve Wichita police treating as an easily disposed-of criminal infraction the possession of a controlled substance which the state lists as a Class A misdemeanor, with heavy fines and a criminal record attached. If an injunction is laid upon the city, our government almost certainly won't fight it, and that will be that.

Except it won't be, because state legislators will be watching. They wouldn't be if the sentencing reform ballot issue had lost. And it's quite possible they also wouldn't be if it had won big--say, a 70%-30% blow-out. In such a case, it would have been very easy for the opponents of the measure to say to folks up in Topeka, "They won solely because they registered for this one issue a bunch of marginal, disaffected folk who can't possibly be counted on to vote normally." But they can't say that in this case, because the turnout in this election--with about 37,000 votes cast out of about 200,000 registered voters, or about 18% of the total--is unfortunately pretty standard for springtime city-wide elections. And moreover, if you look at the votes cast for the sentencing reform ballot and the only other city-wide contest--for mayor--the numbers are almost identical. Clearly, those who worked so hard to bring this reform issue to the voters did not manage a win by somehow flooding the ballot booths with thousands of disengaged, marginal, first-time voters. (If they had, voting totals would have been different, because they wouldn't have voted for mayoral candidates at the same rate, or else if they did the number of write-in ballots--which amounted to only 5% of all votes--for outright supporters of the sentencing reform issue like Jennifer Winn would have been much higher.) No, this ballot issue won a small but clear victory because thousands of standard Wichita voters were persuaded it was the right thing to do. And those are exactly the voters whom at least a few of those state legislators in Topeka will want to have on their side to stay in office.

So tonight, I'm feeling pretty good. My bet is that sentencing reform won't be allowed to happen in Wichita--but the people who will be frustrated by the state's actions in that regard are going to include thousands of ordinary voters in this mostly white, mostly conservative city, and that is the sort of thing that may really lead members of certain committees to wake up to not just a valuable reform in criminal justice, but an electorally beneficial one as well. This is how you build movements, folks. Door-knocking, signature-gathering, and vote after vote after vote.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Blessed Easter, Blessed Spring, Blessed Day

It's morning. Which means, as always, by God's grace, it's time to begin again.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Mid-Sized Meditations #7: Why Cities Ought to, Sometimes, Challenge Their States

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

On next Tuesday’s ballot here in Wichita, KS, voters will be able to, whether they realize it or not, directly contribute to an ongoing struggle over the meaning and operations of democratic government in the United States. Specifically, they may speak as a city against their state. What follows from that may be interesting, to say the least.

The specific issue is a ballot proposal which would order the city of Wichita to reduce the penalty attached to the first-time possession of a small amount of marijuana (currently a class A misdemeanor, resulting in a criminal record and a fine of up to $2500 and a year in jail) to an easily-paid infraction (a $50 fine with no permanent record). I've contributed in a few small ways to the effort to get this proposal on the ballot, and now that it's on, I hope everyone in my city votes “yes.”

Many won't, of course. There are multiple voice urging Wichitans to vote “no” instead for a multitude of reasons. The most persuasive--or so it seems to me as I speak to people I know--are those which are most reflective of the interests of the law enforcement and media establishment:  they oppose the ballot proposal not because they disagree that criminal penalties for marijuana possession are too great, or that the social costs of the drug war are experienced most severely upon those poor and more diverse segments of the urban population which most need fuller integration into the mainstream of city life, but because they simply believe its passage could force upon the city an unnecessarily complicated legal and constitutional problem. Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt has stated he would sue the city to prevent the ordinance from going into effect, and that’s a potentially expensive threat to deal with.

But I say: vote for the ordinance anyway. Why? Because forcing problems upon our elected leaders is one of the tried and true methods of moving policy conversations forward under our legal and constitutional system. Yes, as I've written before, a local change in marijuana laws might introduce a complicated inconsistency into the body politic. But that inconsistency would only reflect what democratic self-government often, I think, ought to mean.

I don't dispute that consistency in government is an important value; the old Hamiltonian argument about how executive "effectiveness" is really the only test for government (assuming it protects basic liberal freedoms) which matters has a certain persuasiveness to it. And in light of that argument, the issue appears rather cut-and-dried. Our state government here in Kansas--like all the other 49 state governments--claims authority over basic matters of law and order. That claim is supported by a fairly well-attested reading of the U.S. Constitution, which by implication clearly suggests that cities, as entities without any sovereign authority, are only allowed to wield that power which the states delegate to them. Until and unless the state allows the cities the power to make democratically-determined decisions about drug enforcement policy, they have no basis to claim it.

The problem with this conclusion, however, is that sovereign or governing “power” is far more than what is laid out in legal documents. It is also what practically operates in the context of actual case-by-case interpretation and rule-making; it is what we give our consent to through recognizing a law as legitimate. And "consent" itself is a tricky concept, involving such cultural and communitarian matters as identity and affection. If we believe in popular sovereignty, then presumably that power ought to be understood as resting in, or adhering to--and thus as being that which may be delegated from--those places where we, the people, actually reside.

Of course, that is easier said than formalized. For our residences are themselves nestled into other, larger, communities and associations of identity and allegiance, state and regional and national (and, for some, perhaps even global). Moreover, modern technology and economies have reduced--or, if you prefer, empowered--our many of our places of residency and labor so as to make over into nodes along vast networks, whether of roads or power lines or flows of financial data or corporate-issued information. And so perhaps there are good reasons, in a world of such fluidity, for a country like ours, with its established history both national and state governments, to reserve the legal, consensual exercise of democratic power to those governmentalities which have been specifically and constitutionally marked out. After all, don't forget that questions of scale, and the feasibility of commanding sufficient financial and material resources so as to even address any one of the many issues which complicate our borders come into play as well. Still, I would insist that all these concerns do not mitigate the earlier, Jeffersonian point: that if self-government ought to be place-centered, than there must be at least some times, and some cases, where we citizens should insist that, practically speaking, sovereign power really does belong to those localities where most people most immediately live. True, this could open the door to subdivisions ad infinitum. But speaking realistically, towns and cities, out of all such overlapping bodies in the United States, have a genuine historical integrity, as well as a recognized place in our popular imagination. As such, it seems eminently reasonable to support cities in their occasional "complication" of the smooth operations of other sovereignties, when those citizens who live there democratically wish it.

(On a long but highly relevant side note: a recent study of state-level allegiance in the United States makes the argument that, in contrast to the rhetoric of centralizers of both market and state varieties, large numbers of Americans still look to the distinct cultures and economic and geographic situations of their states as a source of identity, and thus consequently invest significant expectation in their state governments and constitutions as tools for the expression of that identity. Could the same be said for cities? Only in the case of the very largest and most notorious cities, the author thinks, not entirely consistently; after all, in making his defense of states he includes those with small populations--South Dakota or Wyoming or Delaware--while excluding many metropolitan areas which as such plausible sources of sovereign attachment whose populations dwarfs those states. He specifically names Wichita as a city where a distinctive political culture very likely could never emerge, and he may be right--but then again, the combined statistical metropolitan area of even a mid-sized city like Wichita is greater than that of the whole of Vermont, which of course, as a state, makes his list as a valid player in the dispersal of authority and attachment sweepstakes. He also suggests that cities can't work because they are rarely conceived by those who live there as "imaginary communities" (obviously invoking Benedict Anderson's classic work on the construction of national sovereignty here) in the terms which reflect their actually existing governing institutions. I would suggest that such a claim would require more study in how the residents of cities think about themselves--and in the meantime, would note that such an argument probably takes Connecticut or New Jersey out of his picture, since the folks who live there almost certain don't primarily understand themselves in relation to Hartford or Trenton, but rather to sprawling, unbordered the New York megalopolis. Ultimately, I think the only argument of his thoughtful analysis of state allegiance which can be consistently said to not apply to any cities of at least some significant size as well is institutional: city governments today, unlike the case of American cities in the 19th century, simply lack effective power. For the author of this study, who investigates the extent of state attachment mostly out of an interest in strengthening federalist and states' rights claims under out system, this conclusion simply supports directing our attention to those units of government which already have a formal constitutional place. But for those of us who are interested in enriching places of democratic self-government more than figuring out how to better balance a structure which doesn't especially prioritize that in the first place, the complaint about the lack of effective city power only brings us back to the original argument--isn't really so implausible that cities ought to, sometimes, strive to get it back?)

What I've said so far may sound either like abstract philosophy or demographic hair-splitting, but it's neither; it is, rather, the governmental reality which drives any federal arrangement of authority. Power-sharing, and the shifting grounds of expressions of that power, with the specifics always being argued about, and pushed back and forth one way or another, over commerce authority or health care or immigration or same-sex marriage or any number of issues--that's life under a system which seeks to balance the many and various ways in which people organize themselves for purposes of collective self-government. That life is filled with legal and constitutional complications, to be sure. Yet are those complications themselves sufficiently frustrating to make power-sharing seem to be not worth it?

If not, then by the same logic, even if it lacks explicit constitutional warrant, such a tolerance of confusing borders and contested jurisdictions ought to applies to the arguments between cities and states. And--to get practical from here on out--this is already happening. Most notorious in recent news cycles has been the successful effort different citizens groups to gain support from portions of the business community and push through minimum wage hikes in their cities--but beyond cities acting on their own to raise the minimum wage there has been actions taken on fracking, abortion rights, restrictions on pornography, labor rules, and much more. States, noticing this reality, are fighting back, both predictably and appropriately so. Either way, the democratic and constitutional conversation goes on.

And it there is any topic about which such a city-involving conversation is needed, it has to be disputes over the low-end of the drug war, such as the issue of the criminal possession of marijuana. Larger arguments about the addictive power of the drug and what it's use by members of a community might represent are valid. But beneath that, down near the ground, there is the fact that the likely serious criminal deterrent of harsh penalties arising from first-time possession is minor, while the social costs--to foolish first-time users, to young and irresponsible low-income able-bodied workers, to families struggling to hold themselves together, to neighborhoods and communities which desperately deserve active political representation--as well as the fiscal costs--building jails, setting quotas on already busy police departments, etc., all of which lands primarily upon cities--is great. In recent years other cities have struggled against their states over this issue, with diverse results. Denver, CO, Grand Rapids, MI, even Lawrence, KS, all took local action to change their approach to marijuana penalties; some of those actions ultimately contributed to eventual state-wide changes, while others have been subject to multiple court challenges, and yet others have sometimes just been left alone. Does that betray a frightening inconsistency in executive effectiveness, such as to render the public debate and activism which led to it as worthless? Not if we recognize that democratic dispute is simply a feature, not a bug, in our system (it's not like the fact that the most recent steps in scaling back drug war were taken by states themselves hasn't stopped continuing arguments!).

In a state like Kansas, where our governor and legislature have shown relatively little respect of late for the particular interests of cities when it comes to handgun policy, education funding, and more, I think any opportunity to show Topeka that the people of Kansas’s largest city (even if it is only mid-sized!) can, in fact, think carefully about matters of drug enforcement, and come to reasonable conclusions about what it should consist of, ought to be supported. It’s not just good policy, if enacted--it would be, whether ultimately enacted or not, the sort of thing that active citizens who care about where they live, and about what kind of democratic action which the people who live in those particular places ought to have available to them, should do.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

I'm Getting Older Too

I saw Fleetwood Mac on their "On With The Show" tour here in Wichita last night. What a fantastic show it was! It was obvious that both the band and the sold-out crowd were all sharing in the same general feeling: that this was, rather than a concert, a generational event, a triumph of artistry and fun over time and all the vicissitudes of the human condition. That may sound pretentious...but then, Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks and Mick Fleetwood all, at different points during the night, delivered exactly that kind of light-hearted (yet obviously plainly earnest) pretension, turning autobiographical and philosophical and sometimes downright New Agey as they celebrated each other and magisterially presented one song after another. And none of those songs, I should note, lacked the full burning musical talent of the mature Fleetwood Mac behind them. Christie McVie (at 71 years old!), at the keyboards, had a glorious voice that still carried. Mick Fleetwood played and grooved and cackled behind his drum set like a deranged--bu immensely talented--Santa Claus. John McVie never said a word, and it was only rarely that his crunching blues sound took command, but his bass lines were always there. Stevie Nicks, without an ounce of apparent irony, did her Earth-Mother-Celtic-Goddness thing, her fringe spinning as he danced and swayed and sang like she did nearly 40 years ago. And Lindsey Buckingham? An absolute revelation to me. I knew he was a fine guitarist--but not that fine. His fret-work was astonishingly fast and strong, and his sound was clean and sharp, and he did it all as he leaped and kicked and yelped around the stage like Mick Jagger in his prime. Sometimes he got downright psychedelic--which perhaps was appropriate: whatever their English blues roots, this really still is a 1970s San Francisco hippie rock and roll band. Someone needs to tell Grace Slick and all the other former members of Jefferson Airplane who went slumming into Starship in the 1980s: this is the way it gets done.

I could help but think as we looked at these Social-Security-receiving (the youngest of the core group is Buckingham, at 65) musicians, consummate professionals all: how much pop and rock has changed in my lifetime. The fact that so very many of the best, most famous and influential bands from the 1970s and 1980s (which, as I have noted, was when my radio-smitten musical tastes were mostly formed) haven't changed is sort of the point. I can remember, as I first became acquainted with pop music as an adolescent, listening to these titanic (or so their appeared to me) gods of pop and rock--one of whom was, of course, Fleetwood Mac--realizing the shadow that they all played in: the real giants, the real pioneers, were out there, sometimes still stalking the earth, and being reminded to them--much less seeing them--was an occasion of amazement, awe, and often outright, even irreverent, disbelief.

Nowadays, of course, more than 30 years after people joked about 40-year-old rock stars, it seems like every person who is remotely serious about pop music and their dog has seen at least one these dinosaurs live, because they're everywhere. The Rolling Stones, at it for more than 50 years, are going back on tour. But forget about those pioneers; look at second and third generations of rock and pop bands, of whatever genre, and the longevity of the most successful of them. U2 will be 40 years old next year: still active, still recording, still touring. Metallica, 35 years old next year: the same. Pearl Jam, 25 years old: the same. All of this is by now, you might think, normal. Watching Fleetwood Mac, I heard and saw great performances, but I also couldn't help but be impressed by the huge, complicated business it was (our seats were high enough and nearer enough for us to be able to see behind the backdrop and the stage risers) to put on one of these shows. It was like a massive--but well-oiled and efficient--moving art installation project. There's a routine to it; these artists and the hundreds they employ with the millions of dollars these tours generate understand how to make it happen. And watching these experienced musicians move smoothly around the stage, it was undeniable that they buy into it. They're performers, and this is the way they deliver their performance. Why not keep doing it as long as mind and body allow; why walk away from your vocation, when the money and fans are still there? It gets to the point where you really wonder if Led Zeppelin or The Police or R.E.M. were perhaps just strange anomalies: successful bands that broke up and actually stayed broken up (for the most part, anyway).

As my friend Michael Austin always reminds me, it's all about us: we're the ones in our 40s and 50s, now in possession of some genuine buying power, who are willing to pay significant amounts of cash to see these talented folk whose tunes were so important to us 20 or 30 or more years ago. My friends and I swapped stories about who we'd drop serious coin to see. All of the ones named were bands and artists from decades ago. And, almost without exception (my friend who voted for Queen is obviously a bit out of running, unless a replacement for Freddie Mercury miraculously appears), it's all still possible. Capitalism may be responsible for any number of things that I dislike, but how can I fault a market system which smooths the way for folks with real talent to continue to deliver, even to me here in Wichita, Kansas, well performed music decades after I ever could have normally had any reasonable chance to see them live? Well done, you big beautiful impersonal technology-driven age-defying economic machine; well done indeed.

(Though honestly, Lindsey, would it have killed you to play "Trouble"? C'mon, man!)

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Should Mormons (or Anyone) Hope to Change the World?

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

For many decades at least--and maybe, depending on whose history you most trust, maybe ever since our beginning--the dominant American Mormon mode for thinking about this thing which the scriptures and those who claim to be able to authoritatively comment upon them tend to call "the world" has been to, if not completely flee it, then at least stand at a remove from it: to be "in the world, but not of the world." There's a deep scriptural truth to this formulation, reflecting as it does one of the final statements attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of John. But just as many Christians--and, of late, more and more Mormons--have been equally inspired by the tradition of the Great Commission: that we are called to go about into the world, and change it for the better. This means evangelization and missionary work, of course, something which the Mormon church has embraced from the start. But it also means many other kinds of service and charitable works as well--something which, to our credit, we've done our best to get caught up on in recent years.

Jesus taught the eternal value of changing lives through loving service, and that is more than enough for most Christians. Mormons, though, might imagine that there is an additional endpoint to all that going out into and changing of the world, one which which distinguishes us from many (not all, for certain, but nonetheless many) other Christian groups: the ultimate aim of building up the kingdom of God upon the earth and establishing Zion--which for Mormons like me means a community and/or state of being where all are of one heart and one mind, dwell in righteousness, and no one is poor.

There is much which can be said about the theological, ecclesiastical, political, and cultural aspects of this argument--or is it a dialectic?--between Christian resistance to "the world" and the (utopian?) Mormon hope for a real, actual Zion of unity, equality, and love, and no Latter-day Saint in the past century has written about the topic more provocatively and powerfully--if not always persuasively--than Hugh Nibley. (I've written and spoken some about Nibley's ideas here, here, and here.) Last year, though, another voice was added to this ongoing argument: Joseph Spencer's For Zion: A Mormon Theology of Hope. In his smart and short book, Spencer explores a very specific philosophical matter which pertains to how worldly Mormons like myself think about Zion: how can we hope for something which is, by all apparently and historical experience, impossible to achieve? That is actually a truly vital question, and Spencer's wrestling with it is genuinely challenging, something I didn't notice at first. My belated realization of how good a book it is should be of no surprise to those who read Mormon blogs--just see here or here if you've missed out, somehow--but I'm happy to say it here: if you've ever thought about the why of the Christian call to change the world, or of the Mormon call to consecrate one's time and talents on behalf of such an ideal goal, Spencer's book is one to be read.

Note I said why, though: not how. Spencer's book is directed towards shifting our philosophical appreciation of what it means to hope for something that lies utterly outside our experience, relying heavily upon a reading of the apostle Paul's letter to the Romans, and the entwined concepts of faith, love, and God's gifts. "[H]ope gives up on the world in joyful affirmation that it can--and will--be otherwise," writes Spencer; we must understand, he argues, that Jesus's life and death ushers in the possibility of a hope that "refus[es] to trust in the supposedly self-sufficient, in the supposedly inert and fixed, and in the supposedly total and unchangeable [character of the world]" (pgs. 22, 51). Moreover, Spencer argues that such a "hope against hope" is essential to understand Joseph Smith's fullest teachings about Zion. A "genuinely Christian hope" is that which frees us from (Spencer quotes the philosopher Gabriel Marcel here) "the 'radical insecurity of Having,' from the self-liquidation of every economy of property," and since Smith's law of consecration--which Spencer insists is still fully in force for every member of the Mormon church--obliges us to own our property "as though" we don't, we need to be able to grasp such an unworldly hope if the motivation to act as other-directed, charitable stewards, rather than accumulators and profit-maximizers, is going to have any kind of chance (pgs. 63, 128, 141). I'll say it again: that's a vital shift, and writing a thoughtful book about it is thus a worthy and important thing.

But it is also, I think, a limited thing. It is an argument which insists that we ought to look at ourselves in the mirror and recognize "not only that things can change despite the fact that they present me with an objective impossibility, but also that...I can be an agent of such change" (pg. 27)--a great message! It repeatedly underlines Adam Miller's insistence (including at the very beginning and the very end of the book) that the responsibility faithful Mormons have to work out the means by which they will put that economic, communitarian, charitable hope into practice is finally and ultimately a personal one: "[i]f you do not work things out for yourself, they will never get done" (pgs. ix, 153)--again, a great message! But they both sound to me like individualistic ones, inward ones--which is why I've suggested (both in the review I linked to above and in a too-long, rambling philosophical post here) that Spencer's book strikes a quietist tone to me.

Jim Faulconer--an old teacher of mine, my respect for whom is pretty immense--takes issue with this judgment. "I’ve seen Joe accused of a kind of quietism of thought, but this book proves that charge untrue," he writes. "For he shows that the law of consecration has remained, from beginning to now, a matter of providing an inheritance for the poor of the Church, and he argues quite firmly that the law has not been rescinded, not even temporarily." He quotes Spencer's summary of the law (as he presents it as presently existing) in its all hopeful fullness:

To obey the law is to remain the technical or legal owner of one’s property while (1) deeding away all excess (everything more than is “sufficient” for an appropriate stewardship) in order to outfit the poor Saints, (2) maintaining what remains in one’s possession as a stewardship for which one is responsible to God and for God’s stated purposes, and (3) giving whatever excess accrues subsequently through wise use of one’s stewardship either (a) to benefit the poor directly or (b) to ensure that the institutional Church has the resources to do other work necessary for furthering God’s purposes (pg. 142).

Once again, this is a great--a challenging, sobering, inspiring--message. I do not--not when I truly think seriously about my and my family's needs and wants, and the needs and wants of those I see all around me in my ward and city and world--consecrate all that I could. I don't act like the steward I probably ought to be; we don't have many excesses in our family, but we have a few, and we treasure them, and the prospect of giving them all away to the poor or donating them all to the church to use as it sees best rests hard upon my heart. To the degree to which Spencer's arguments must be understood as a plea for ordinary (and comparatively speaking, quite wealthy) American Mormons like him and me and everyone who reads his book or this blog to gird up their loins, be hopeful, and work towards that demanding--though perhaps also liberating--personal end, then surely Jim's response is correct: this isn't a retreat from action, but rather a charge directly to the heart.

But that doesn't resolve every concern I have, because "quietism" doesn't simply mean "inaction." Rather, quietism suggests a non-antagonist, non-confrontational, accepting attitude towards the world; it suggests a posture of acceptance, rather than engagement. Spencer's book, insofar as we think of one's personal understanding of what it means and what it involves to hope for and work towards a better, more equal, more loving world, is hardly lacking in hows. On the contrary, it is filled with them. But those hows never extend beyond his heart, or my heart, or yours. It is the how of Mother Teresa entering the slums of Calcutta, of Zacchaeus coming down from the sycamore tree and giving half his wealth to the poor, of Ebeneezer Scrooge's reformation. It is a call for everyone, on their own, to figure out how better to love and serve their neighbor. For the fourth time--that's a powerful and needed call! But not a comprehensive one--in fact, it's the opposite of comprehensive: it's piecemeal, it's particular. I like the particular; I think it's vitally important to involve oneself and to prioritize over other allegiances the local. But note what's happening there: involvement and allegiance. Which means other people, all of whom are organized one way or another in reference to the world they (and we) are part of. To engage with any of those organizations, however hopefully, may well obligate us to make choices and experience alignments and disagreements with others--in other words, to say something to or about or sometimes even against the world.

I would never label Spencer's book a call to some kind of spiritual individualism or atomism; that completely misunderstands his many, strong arguments pointing out our absolute dependency upon God's gifts. Yet I fear his analysis at least allows for such a conclusion. He carefully and forcefully argues against the Mormon tendency to put the utopian demands of consecration in our distant 19th-century Utah past or our unknowable, millennial future, and I couldn't agree with him more. But he does this in part by attacking the idea of any kind of "systemization" of consecration, insisting instead that seeking Zion is simply something that each of us, on our own, need to be doing right now, since, after all, there's no "divinely orchestrated communism on the horizon" (pg. 145).

Of course, that's not entirely true, as we still have the model of Joseph Smith's communism, not to mention the model of dozens of experiments with communal economics under Brigham Young, to say nothing of hundreds of other Christian examples of Zion-type arrangements the whole world over. But Spencer's arguments give me the impression, at least, that he feels that if, in our hopeful workings, we decided to critically engage in a changing the worldly systems and organizations we and our loved ones are part of, in the hopes of moving them in the direction of something more Zion-like, we'll actually be getting hope wrong. Invoking the--one more time!--powerful and thought-provoking idea that conditions in Zion ought to be understood as similar to those economic and social relations which obtained among medieval monasteries, he deepens his commitment to an abiding, waiting, "as though not" framing of hope, suggesting that the truest and wisest realization of Smith's efforts to build a Zion community was that "the law of God and the laws of the land" should be "neither directly opposed to each other nor regarded as potentially working in perfect concert" with each other (pg. 140). In other words, the hope for Zion should involve that which does not challenge worldly laws, nor that which makes use of worldly laws. Truly, monastic models of community have much to teach us...but as regards the whole debate over Christians not being "of this world" as opposed to Christians "changing the world" I mentioned earlier, and what a better grasp of hope may tell us about that matter--well, this sort of presentation does seem to stack the deck in favor of the former, don't you think?

Thinking through these issues puts me in mind of another excellent book, James Davison Hunter's To Change the World, which is a fascinating survey of--and a thorough criticism of--the many ways in which Christians throughout history (though mostly American history) have articulated their challenges to the world. There is--just like is the case with Spencer's book!--a great deal to learn from Davison; his unsparing analysis of the presumptions he sees operating in favor progressive change on the part of the "Christian Left," and in favor of cultural preservation on the part of "Christian Right," and even in favor of the "neo-Anabaptist" rejection of both of the above, is both trenchant and mostly persuasive. But only mostly...because, after all, if the power of God's call is to be experienced in this world as not one which makes peace with the world, but also not one which seeks to change the world this way or that, that how can it be anything except, well, a private, personal mystical experience? Hunter's call for Christians to exercise "faithful presence" is wise one (and one whose parallels to the patient world of Christian monasteries supplements Spencer's arguments), and I certain wouldn't say that I've fully internalized all the good things I can learn from it. But I also can't help but agree with Andy Crouch in this review of Hunter's book, which observes that one cannot build a "presence" alone: "movement[s]...require partners."

Partnership, friendship, community, collective sacrifice, building and eating and reaping and sharing in ways that tied and supported and protected the saints all together: all of that was central to Smith's original social, economic, and ecclesiastical vision. Spencer's book takes nothing away from any of that. But it also constructs a notion of hope that I think may, however insightful it is, lead some of us to believe we have good theological reasons to hesitate to orient our hope towards the collective possibilities and gifts always around us, and that it would be truer to God's revelations to focus on the--admittedly!--great and needed and loving work we can do, on our own, in our own way, as we hope to get our hearts right. I would never judge another's vocation. But I have to end my simply saying that my preference (without concurring every postmodern claim he makes) is to see we faithful, we hopeful saints, as Scott Abbot did: "we will own up to our stewardship as creators, and not just stewards." A proper hope for Zion may begin with my shifting my heart to a willingness to embrace those gifts from God which enliven the objectively impossible, but it doesn't end with a refining of that self-embrace; it looks for tools and partners and, yes, even systems and programs and suggestions and criticisms by which the whole community, perhaps even the whole world, can be embraced as well. If not that, well, then, what was the Commission for?

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Saturday Night Live Music: "I'm Still Here"

Yep, believe or not, I'm still doing this. Other things too, of course, but also this.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Power, Sex, and the Real Story of House of Cards

Be warned: spoliers follow.

I finally finished season 3 of House of Cards late last week, and I have to say that I was, at first, disappointed. It was superbly made and consistently entertaining television, to be sure, but it didn't advance the story in ways that I think season 2 had set it up to do, instead giving us viewers a lot of mostly irrelevant--though admittedly compelling--foreign policy shenanigans, and then prolonged excursions through Doug Stamper's and Remy Danton's souls. So honestly, I wasn't sure I was likely to binge on season 4 next year. But after thinking about it over the weekend, I decided: no, I'll give it another shot. But mainly on one condition--that Kevin Spacey's inconsistently vicious President Frank Underwood be sidelined somewhat, so that the story arc of Robin Wright's First Lady Claire Underwood can take center stage, and be recognized as that which really pulls House of Cards fully together.

I don't know what percentage of Netflix's HoC viewers were fans of the original British House of Cards, but I was, and I don't think I was at all alone in approaching the Netflix series in comparison to that small masterpiece. At its center was Francis Urquhart, a truly brilliant Machiavellian literary and television creation brought to life by Ian Richardson. The first season of the BBC HoC is simply tremendous storytelling, because through Urquhart the series' creators managed to explore--in the context of a deliciously compelling story of media manipulation, outright bribery, sexual blackmail, and (most of all) bureaucratic maneuvering--not just the heart of an ambitious and amoral politician but the twisted logic by which ambition operates in a parliamentary system. Urquhart's assent to the top of his party, then to near unchallengeable authority over the machinery of power throughout the United Kingdom, made a spooky amount of sense; it was, in short, not only fun to watch but plausible to contemplate, in a way which Frank Underwood's machinations through Washington DC's various chambers of power have really never been.

The level of intricate and devilish plotting which the original BBC series laid out wasn't maintained, in my opinion; in the subsequent series about Urquhart's political career (To Play the King and The Final Cut), he relied crudely on the drumbeats of war--the terrorist threat of the Irish Republican Army, to be specific--to mask increasingly fascistic moves as prime minister, making him over into a less complicated stand-in for everyone who hated Margaret Thatcher. At the same time, his occasional feelings of regret over the murder of Mattie Storin seemed arbitrarily dropped into the plot, in a clumsy attempt to humanize him. Whereas in the case of Frank Underwood, season 2 of the Netflix HoC was a real step up from the already excellent season 1. Once Frank was in the executive branch, a heart-beat away from the presidency, the opportunities were presented for the writers to get really gonzo in the telling of this story, and did they ever. Killing Zoe Barnes, railroading Lucas Goodwin, silencing Jaimie Skorsky, intimidating Tom Hammerschmidt, turning the tables of Raymond Tusk....this was great, crazy, conspiracy-minded television! Sure, the actual politics which the writers were making use of were, in contrast to the case with the BBC HoC, pretty much baloney--but it was cool baloney, and I loved it.

Hence my disappointment with season 3--Frank wasn't making his snarky asides to the camera nearly as much any longer, and while there was some true nutso audaciousness on display in how he wielded the powers of the presidency (twisting the arm of FEMA so as to use earmarked emergency funds to pay for a congressionally road-blocked job-creation program, insisting on a mano-a-mano showdown meeting with Russian President Viktor Petrov in the middle of a war zone), by and large, with his life's ambitions fulfilled, some of the fun had gone out the story. So I thought for the first day or two after I finished season 3--until, that is, I realized that maybe the real story, all along, hasn't been about Frank, but rather about the conflicted, ambitious, secretive, ferociously talented and dangerous uncertain woman who shares his bed.

Urquhart's wife Elizabeth was clearly a major player in his ascent to power, and she remained crucial to the story until the very end, when she arranged for her husband's assassination in order to protect his (and her) reputation. But she had little depth as a character; we saw her almost always as responding to the actions of her husband or others, whereas Claire Underwood has been a person with her own agenda right from the start. In reflecting upon the state of this agenda by the end of the latest season--Claire having taken a humanitarian organization in a new and ambitious direction, throwing the staff into a tumult, then abandoning that organization in order to lay the groundwork for her career as a diplomat, which she achieves and then loses as her husband sacrifices her accomplishments to appease an embarrassed Russian president--one can see the source of much of the best drama of the whole show. But there's even more to it than that, I think; HoC gives us Claire Underwood, through Wright's fascinating embodiment of her, as a driven yet sometimes icily indecisive symbol for all women in a world shaped around male sexual power.

Indeed, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that matters of sex--its use and abuse, the longing for it and the complications of it--are a constant sub-theme throughout House of Cards. To start with: what is Frank's sexual orientation, anyway? He obviously delights in reigning (literally) over younger, impressionable women, but we can't forget the way he seduced Agent Meechum, culminating in the three-way with his own wife, nor the weird undertone of sexual attraction which vibrates through his meetings with biographer Tom Yates (who we are supposed to believe became a nationally famous and best-selling novelist with a novel about his years as a male prostitute). Claire has regular acquiesced to Frank's sexual predilections, yet when she angrily insists that he make love to her roughly, face to face, he can't manage it. Claire herself was at first reluctant to re-ignite her sexual relationship with Adam Galloway, but then later embraced it, and later yet twisted her feelings for him such that he was willing to undermine himself on live television just to protect her own husband. The tension between Claire and the Russian president made me wonder if we were going to see some further attempts as sexual blackmail there. But through all this Claire is also shown as somewhat half-hearted, betraying almost stereotypical feminine weaknesses mostly behind the scenes (such as early on, when she reconsidered her and Frank's decision not to have children, to the point of exploring fertility treatments without his knowledge). The suicide of Michael Corrigan shocks her into a state of maternal defensiveness (he hung himself while she was lying there, getting her much needed rest, using her own scarf!), but of course this was the same woman who contemptuously mocked her one-time employee Gillian Cole for getting pregnant by a man she wasn't married to, and for allowing her fate and her unborn baby's health to be entirely in Claire's unsympathetic hands.

And more: consider how prevalent themes of sexuality, women's rights, and motherhood came to dominate all the electoral discussions of season 3. Heather Dunbar, at first refusing to use against Frank secret information about Claire's season 2 story about being raped and having an abortion, and then being willing to pay almost any price to get a hold of that information. Jackie Sharp, married to a man she doesn't love because Frank wanted her to be married before he added her to his re-election ticket, lusting after a former lover, willing to hypocritically attack Heather for choices that indict her own less-than-fully-loving childcare choices. (And don't forget that Jackie was able to attain the position she has mainly because she was willing to expose another politician's secret illegitimate child.) The scenes we're given in season 3 all about Claire's hair color, and how simple decisions like that can't fully be her own in the political world her and Frank's mutual ambition have committed themselves to, speak volumes--as does, in fact, the constantly repeated refrain that Claire's approval numbers are higher than the president's, thus making it imperative than she be used by the president and his handlers carefully. Important sexual contrasts are built up: with Heather Dunbar and Jackie Sharp, of course, but more particularly with Catherine Durant, a Democratic Senator and later Secretary of State who has had her share of entanglements over the years, yet stands interestingly apart from the machinations of the Underwood presidency. And then, most particularly, the strange encounter between Claire and the young mother in Iowa, whose openness about her own sexual freedom, her mothering responsibilities, and even just her own breastfeeding of her child, seemed like one long bizarre taunt to the terribly controlled Claire.

Season 3 ended with Claire announcing that she's leaving Frank, so here's to hoping that season 4, rather than staying in the White House, actually follows her. Some of have called Claire Underwood a feminist icon, some have called her a sell-out; in truth, we've seen her be both. So forget President Underwood; we have his number, for better or worse. Claire is the one who is still a mystery, who we viewers are--and, as presented on screen, who she herself is--still trying to figure out. If we're no longer being treated to the contained story of a tyrant's rise and fall, as the original House of Cards suggested, but rather to an exploration of what an American-style pseudo-tyranny does to people, then let's forget about the tyrant himself; it is the Lady Macbeth at his side (or no longer at his side) whose journey as a woman and sexual being I want to understand.