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Friday, December 25, 2009

Friday Morning Videos: "Do They Know Its Christmas (Live)"

I put this one up on the day after Christmas last year; this year, I get to do it on the day of. And for this year's version, a live performance of the song from Live Aid in 1985. What a crowd. Freddie Mercury! David Bowie! Long-haird Bono! Short-haired Sting! Chest-haired George Michael! Truly a celebration. (I can remember watching this show--the broadcast from Philadelphia, at least--on an old black-and-white set sitting on our kitchen table. It wasn't quite the same as being there, I suppose.)

Merry Christmas, everyone! And seriously, if you truly have nothing else to do this holiday morning, give me some help again, as last year, with identifying everyone. (Who is the black woman singing beside Freddie and hitting those high notes, I wonder?)

Monday, December 21, 2009

Christmas, After Dark

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

So it's the Winter Solstice, December the 21st, Midwinter's Day, the darkest day of the year. The last time I wrote a Christmastime post on this day, I was sitting right where I am today, looking out over the Friends University campus, seeing pretty much exactly what I'm seeing right now: a bright and relatively warm winter's afternoon. But I thinking about story night tonight, and the dark.

Each Christmas season, usually right around this date, we have a story night: we get the kids together, and sometimes some friends, and turn out the lights and burn some candles and drink hot cocoa and share stories. Maybe we read them, and sometimes we tell them from memory. Old stories, new stories, fables, poems, scriptures, whatever. Given the ages of our girls, it often descends into silliness, but not always. Anything is allowed, really, just so long at involves something spoken, into a dimly lit room, to chase away the dark.

Christmas is a celebration of light, right? That's part of the old idea, anyway, carried down by who knows how many traditions. Celebrating the birth of the Light of the World right around when the globe turns ever so slightly, and days start to grow longer again, is pretty well grounded historically, besides making perfect theological sense. (Even us Mormons, who sometimes like to make a big deal about rejecting much of traditional Christian practice, can't deny that.) But of course, the light of the season takes place in the midst of darkness--it, in a way, depends upon the darkness, you might say. The star the wise men followed couldn't be seen in the daytime. The shepherds were terrified and entranced by an angelic call and choir coming to them from out of night sky. And, of course, there is likely a deeper darkness lurking through the whole story: Joseph's desperation in his search for a place for his pregnant wife to rest, Herod's implacable determination to murder a prophecy before it can threaten his reign. Clearly, the doubts and dangers of the dark are there, right from the beginning of the story.

And they've never left the story, have they? Jesus lived and died and was resurrected, and left His followers behind, to spread His gospel and bless the world with His gifts. So Christians gave gifts to each other, some of whom--the St. Nicholases, among others--helping to in time to turn an essential Christian principle into something larger. As these gift-givers of all sorts spread throughout the world, they picked up stories to go along with them, and not all of the stories were filled with light. Some, by contrast, were dark. Krampus. Zwarte Piet. Père Fouettard. Belsnickel. And my favorite, Knecht Ruprecht, whose appearance and role in these stories (all having to do with those undeserving of gifts, or who use their gifts dismissively, being punished) obviously ties him to even deeper, older stories, stories of the wintertime and seeking protection and blessings in the midst of the darkness which the gift-giving of the Christmas season only fleshed out and gave greater meaning to: the tomte, hobs, kobolds and goblins throughout Western and Northern Europe, from which our modern interpretation of that power contained in Christmastime draws so much of its force.

We have a tomten in our home. He doesn't come out very often, but come St. Andrew's Day, we make sure he's given a position of prominence. He sits up on a high ledge over our kitchen and living room, every Christmas season, watching (and maybe reporting) on us. I confess I've never seen him move--but then, I wouldn't, would I? Just as I've never seen Santa Clause, but I know he's out there, in some form or fashion, somewhere, I trust that there are tomte all around us. They're likely much older than any of us, but beyond that I wouldn't guess what they're role in the eternal scheme of things may be. But these little guys--lurking about in the dark, unpredictable, maybe irascible, sometimes cute but occasionally frightening, perhaps somewhat damaged by all the time they've spent in the shadows and in the nooks and crannies of our homes and our collective consciousness--seem to be very part of the whole matter of gift-giving, in particular the gift-giving that makes it possible to get through cold winter nights.

Best to trust that they'll do their business, whatever it may be, and leave them otherwise alone, I say. Literature and scriptures alike are full of stories of those who try, usually to their detriment, to get too close to whatever God is doing in the dark. That He is doing something is undeniable; whatever we want to make of the story of Job, we can't pretend it's anything other than God making use of Satan, the tempter and tester, the wicked (but wise?) Adversary who goes "to and fro" across the earth, watching us from dark corners and the recesses of our hearts. Cain got too close to the dark, and he ended up a wanderer too. As did Gollum as well, of course. And the Walker.

You don't know about the Walker? Shame on you, for allowing Midwinter's Day to arrive, and for not having picked up your old copy of Susan Cooper's beautiful, evocative story, The Dark is Rising, which tells the tale of Will Stanton, an eleven-year-old boy, who finds himself caught up in a struggle for the soul of England (and perhaps the world), fighting the power of the Dark, and those it has misled and betrayed, the Walker--a man from the 13th century, who had been doomed to wander the earth until Will, the last of the Old Ones, was born--being only the most tragic example. It's not a perfect book by any means, but it is perhaps perfect for today. And no scene better captures the drama contained in all stories of gifts in wintertime than Will's confrontation, on Christmas Day, with the power of the Dark, as it attempts to destroy him during worship services in his local parish church. Fortunately, he is not alone--and he has gifts (treasured Signs, conveyed through the centuries to his hands) to help him withstand a power that had destroyed the minds of others:

Will, seeing some figures move towards the door out of the shadows, realised that the church was not empty after all. Down there by the little twelfth-century font, he saw Farmer Dawson, Old George, and Old George's son John, the smith, with his silent wife. The Old Ones of the Circle were waiting for him, to support him against whatever lurked outside....

"All ready, Will?" said the rector genially, pulling on his overcoat...

"No," Will said. "That is--no." He was trying desperately to think of some way of getting the two of them outside the church before he came near the door himself. Before--before whatever might happen did happen. By the church door he could see the Old Ones move slowly into a tight group, supporting one another. He could feel the force now very strong, very close, all around, the air was think with it; outside the church was destruction and chaos, the heart of the Dark, and he could think of nothing that he could do to turn it aside. Then as the rector and Paul [Will's older brother] turned to walk through the nave, he saw both of them pause in the same instant, and their heads go up like the heads of wild deer on the alert. It was too late now; the voice of the dark was so loud now that even humans could sense its power.

Paul staggered, as if someone had pushed him in the chest, and grabbed a pew for support. "What is that?" he said huskily. "Rector? What on earth is it?"

Mr. Beaumont had turned very white. There was a glistening of sweat on his forehead, though the church was very cold again now. "Nothing on earth, I think, perhaps," he said. "God forgive me." And he stumbled a few paces nearer the door, like a man struggling through waves in the sea, and leaning forward slightly made a sweeping sign of the Cross. He stammered out, "Defend us they humble servants in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in they defence, may not fear the power of any adversaries..."

Farmer Dawson said very quietly but clearly from the group beside the door, "No, Rector."

The rector seemed not to hear him. His eyes were wide, staring out at the snow; he stood transfixed, he shook like a man with a fever, the sweat came running down his cheeks. He managed to half-raise one arm and point behind him: "...vestry..." he gasped out. "...book, on table...exorcise..."

"Poor brave fellow," said John Smith in the Old Speech. "This battle is not for his fighting. He is bound to think so, of course, being in his church."

"Be easy, Reverend," said his wife in English; her voice was soft and gentle, strongly of the country. The rector stared at her like a frightened animal, but by now all his powers of speech and movement had been taken away.

Frank Dawson said: "Come here, Will"....

Each of the Old Ones touched him gently as he came into the group, as if joining him to them, and Farmer Dawson took him by the shoulder. He said, "We must do something to protect those two, Will, or their minds will bend. They cannot stand the pressure, the Dark will send them mad. You have the power, and the rest of us do not."

The resulting confrontation is the most dramatic of many such confrontations in the book; it is the first time the Signs of Power had been properly used in centuries: the first time in many generations which the Light, used by one who fully understood its power, could be used directly against the Dark. And what is to be make of these Signs: crossed circles made of bronze, stone, iron and wood, which Will has found and threaded through his belt?

When the light went out of the Signs, Paul and rector stirred. They opened their eyes, started to find themselves sitting in a pew when a moment ago--it seemed to them--they had been standing. Paul jumped up instinctively, his head turning, questing. "It's gone!" he said. He looked at Will, and peculiar expression of puzzlement and wonder and awe came over his face. His eyes travelled down to the belt in Will's hands. "What happened?" he said.

The rector stood up, his smooth plump face creased in an effort to make sense of the incomprehensible. "Certainly it has gone," he said, looking slowly round the church. "Whatever--influence it was. The Lord be praised." He too looked at the Signs on Will's belt, and he glanced up again, smiling suddenly, an almost childish smith of relief and delight. "That did the work, didn't it? The cross. Not of the church, but a Christian cross, nonetheless."

"Very old, them crosses are, rector," said Old George unexpectedly, firm and clear. "Made a long time before Christianity. Long before Christ."

The rector beamed at him. "But not before God," he said simply.

Rightly said. I think Christmas Day, like any day--including Midwinter's--is a gift to us, a gift that began with a power far beyond ours, a gift that, for all I or anyone knows, involves beings and histories and events taking place well outside of my eyesight, in dark places that He'll light for me, but only when and if needed. I need to be reminded of that. I need to respect that God, and the gift of the Son, born, very possibly, sometime in the midst of the cold and dark, may have had it work that way for a reason. A reason, to be sure, that I don't fully understand...but I can tell stories about it nonetheless.

And so tonight we'll tell stories by candlelight: funny stories, scary stories, Christmas stories. It's the right time of year to do it. Some of the stories we'll tell we've heard before, of course, but that's all right. Even the best and oldest and most well-worn stories--stories about frightened shepherds, and mysterious strangers, and a young couple in trouble and all alone--sound like new, when you tell them in the dark.

Regarding Health Care Reform: It's the Philosophy, Stupid

Or, towards a general theory of why so many who support national reforms in our health care system, including myself, were so upset with Senator Joe Lieberman last week, and why so many of us are only moderately pleased with the reforms heading towards passage in the Senate this week.

It seems as though the final hurdles, at least insofar as the Senate is concerned, have been surmounted. Very early this morning, the first of several procedural votes were taken to move the shaky set of compromises which Senator Reid and other Democrats (plus two independents) had agreed to through a delicate, party-line-only window, and towards passage. It seems all but certain that before Christmas, the Senate's health reform bill will be passed and finished. After that, of course, comes the conference with the House bill, which itself is filled with all sorts of possibilities, both good and bad, regarding the ultimate fate of the bill...and only then will national health care reform go to this president's desk for signature. So clearly, there is a lot of fighting and debating yet to go. Still, getting health care through the Senate at all, with its sometimes astonishingly baroque factions and rules, was a huge accomplishment. More importantly, it is an accomplishment, what with the huge uproar which Lieberman's actions created, that underscores at least one of the key philosophical fault lines which run through those in support of national health care reform.

In this midst of all the noise and fulminations early last week, lots of folks, from Vice President Joe Biden on down, kept making the same points: this is not a great bill, but it is a good bill. It's not a mansion, but it is a "starter home", a good beginning for further developing universal coverage of basic medical costs in the United States. Few people, amongst those I read anyway, expressed this argument with more fervor than Nate Silver did: "At the end of the day, [the Senate bill is] a big bleeping social welfare program--the largest social welfare program to be implemented since the Great Society." Seen in that way, it's a huge success, correct?

Well, it's a huge success to liberal egalitarians and social welfare advocates, of course. What do I mean by those labels? Most of those reading this post who can guess where I'm going will probably already understand my use of them, but for the record: liberal (or welfare) egalitarianism is a way of talking about the demands of justice as equality, or as fairness, in terms of individual needs and rights. In the context of health care, it means this: there are some who, for reasons of hard work or inheritance or random luck are in a position of being able to pay for, on the private market, all the health care they need. And then there are those--a majority of Americans--who, for similar reasons, are at least able to cover the costs of all the health care they may need to pay far on the private market through insurance plans. And then, finally, there are those who, for any number of reasons (too sick or too old for private insurers to be willing to take on, too poor to afford insurance but too rich for Medicaid, etc.), can't pay for the health care they need. That's unfair. True, many of those individuals may have made some bad choices or foolishly missed some important opportunities, but just as many others may be stuck with illnesses and injuries and costs that exceed all of their plans. Individuals shouldn't suffer for bad luck, for things outside of their control, or even for things that, in some hypothetical situation, they might have been able to control, but didn't. So let's help them. It's the decent thing to do. Let's set up some welfare programs, let's engage in a little redistribution of opportunity and access, let's put some restrictions on what powerful actors are able to do. This will help more people be more healthy than previously they'd been able to be.

All well and good...except some of us want more than that. We wanted to see the distribution of health care to be run along lines which weren't dependent upon private actors (whether corporate or individual) making private decisions. In the same way that we, as a society, do not by and large see maintaining law and order, or defending our borders, or putting out forest fires, as a goal best achieved through private contracts (however subsidized and regulated!), some of us wanted to see the costs of providing health care made more deeply egalitarian: made more, yes, socialized. Now, we realized we weren't going to get that, for any number of reasons both defensible (the size and plurality of our national community, for example) and not (the corrupting power of corporate influence over our political process). But we did hold our hope for something, for some tinkering around the edges of our individualistic, private-and-employer-insurance-based system, for something that would cut into the role that various insurance monopolies (because that's what they are: for the majority of Americans, the choices their insurance plans provide them with are practically not real choices at all) play in how medical resources are bought and sold. That something could have been a public option, a government-run alternative to private insurers...or, failing that (which perhaps was always the likely result, though the Obama administration is at least partly at fault for that), it could have been a Medicare buy-in, which would have turned that federal program, however minimally, into a public option-lite. And we didn't get either one. Nate noted in the post above that "[this] bill is not 'real reform' in the sense of something that fundamentally alters the structure of the current, predominately private, predominately employer-based insurance system." And that pisses us off, because we were so close to something more--something less individualistic, something that treated health care less as a social welfare problem and more broadly as a social good.

As for what that means for the bill we actually do have, I'll admit to being torn, as most of the folks in my quasi-socialist category are; just a couple of weeks ago, while praising the Medicare buy-in option which briefly flourished in the Senate, I stated "My egalitarian longings want to see something more; they want to see social reforms that make for more democracy, and less corporate power. But, insofar as this debate is concerned, what I really want to see is more people insured." And that remains true, and that's why most of us angry people (even Howard Dean!) are willing to back the bill. But only grudgingly.

Here's my own weirdly localist/socialist beef in particular. Jacob Hacker called the public option "a means to an end: real competition for insurers, an alternative for consumers to existing private plans that does not deny needed care or shift risks onto the vulnerable, the ability to provide affordable coverage over time." By failing to create that, but still insisting on the individual mandate that all people purchase insurance, you pretty much guarantee that the only player who might be able to create regulations which powerful insurance corporations would be forced to obey--and to generate the level of subsidies necessary to make whatever the insurance companies offer all their new (mandated) insurees is affordable--is the national government. Unlike some on the left, I have no problem with the idea of the individual mandate; it makes perfect sense to me that, as a basic requirement of participating in a collective good whose costs need to be controlled and more equitably distributed, that everyone needs to be included in the pool. But of course, with no outright socialization (whether British NHS-style on one extreme or Canadian single-payer-style on the other) and no public option or anything like it, we don't really have, in the reforms being voted on, a vision of health care as a "collective good"; it's still just an individual good that we want to try to make the access to and distribution of somewhat more universal and fair. And that means making the most power actor of all--the national government--central to its provision and regulation. Wasn't that always what was going to happen? Yes, insofar as actually creating a new floor upon which everyone who needs health care could stand. But if we're not proposing a new, universal floor upon which all can stand--and the Senate bill does not--than it means that what's being proposed is potentially hundreds of millions of additional hand-outs to lift different individuals up. Which, again, isn't a bad outcome--it's certainly an important contribution to our nation's welfare. But I also wonder to what degree it will make the much-discussed Section 1332 of the Senate bill--the provision which would allow the states the freedom to innovate in any number of ways in how they subsidize insurance purchases from private providers--a bit of a dead letter. How long will state-based subsidized exchanges survive and flourish when set against the resources controlled by huge insurance conglomerates? Not long, I fear.

There was, in all of these debates, the real possibility, however remote, of removing from the American people a choice which, for the last century or so at least, has seemed to inevitably bedevil almost every public policy struggle which they have faced: a choice between increasing corporate power and a centralized federal government. Given a choice between the two, I'll go with the latter, and so would most egalitarians (whatever else might be said about the Senate bill, it's not designed to make the national government more money!). To get beyond those bad options requires dramatic, broad, social reform; it means a reconceiving of politics as something other than a handmaiden using the market to fairer ends, into seeing it as something more democratic, something that allows the people, and their agents, to directly involve themselves in supplying their own needed goods. But that's not where the Democrats are taking us; as Ed Kilgore put it (essentially making my own point about five days ago), "the Obama administration has chosen the strategy of deploying regulated and subsidized private sector entities to achieve progressive policy results." This is a philosophical divide amongst those who want more equality: you have the Clintonian "New Democrat" pragmatists, who accept that protecting the little guy means offering him as much freedom as possible in choosing which big guy is going to take care of him, and you have the "social democrats" (or whatever you want to call them), who would actually rather the sort of reforms which enable the little guy himself to be in charge.

We in the latter camp lost this round, as we will probably lose just about every round (no thanks to you, Joe!). We should be happy for what little additional equality we get, of course. But neither should we ever forget why pushing for what we did was important, and get ready to do it again next time.

[An update: a rather specifically Mormon bit of praise for Senator Harry Reid.]

Friday, December 18, 2009

Friday Morning Videos: "Last Christmas"

Nothing can get people in the Christmas spirit more than happy-but-actually-oh-so-melancholy scenes of George Michael and Andrew Ridgley spending the winter holidays at a Swiss ski resort, right? Cripes, I hate this song.

Actually, I don't hate it; I just can't hear this song without thinking of a cover version which was enormously popular in South Korea when I was there as a missionary in the winter of 1988, and it drives me nuts. This Korean teeny-popper pop star--how I wish I'd kept more of the music tapes I surreptitiously bought; then I could check her name and Google it to see what I could find--sang it in English with this impossibly sweet, childish voice, complete with an utterly stereotypical sing-song Korean accent. It got stuck in my head; I heard it everywhere I went. I can still hear it now. AAARRGGGHHH! You miss the stupidest things, sometimes. (Incidently, George and Andrew were pretty big with the Koreans I knew, back in the day. They pronounced the band's name as "Wehm!" though.)

Monday, December 14, 2009

My Essential Christmas Albums

Say you're like us, and you broke out the Christmas music right after Thanksgiving (or the end of November, for those of you outside the U.S.), diving right into the holiday. If so, by now, you've been listening to the stuff for over two weeks (or even longer, if you have a local radio station that went to all-Christmas programming before Thanksgiving, which I personally think ought to be a federal crime). You're probably mentally sorting it all out, separating the essential from the ephemeral--at least, I am. So herewith, in the spirit of my occasional music cataloging, the twenty Christmas albums I don't think anyone should go through the season without. These aren't necessarily the sources of all of my all-time favorite Christmas recordings--Bruce Springsteen's unconquerable "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" isn't here, nor Andy Williams's classic rendition of "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year"--but I think these albums provide a range of Christmas listening, including some simply definitive takes on certain songs, that pretty much can't be beat. (And yes, I've done something like this before, but that was six years ago, and who says I can't update myself as necessary?)

So, in alphabetical order, by artist and/or album title:

Barenaked Ladies, Barenaked for the Holidays. Definitive track: "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/We Three Kings," with Sarah McLachlan singing along with the band. The whole album is filled with fun originals and whimsical pop interpretations of traditionals, but their up-tempo arrangement of these two oft-abused carols is a triumph.

The Blind Boys of Alabama, Go Tell It On the Mountain. Definitive track: "In the Bleak Midwinter," with Chrissie Hynde. The album goes from soul to funk to gospel and back again as it runs through many old favorites; of all the excellent tracks, I love this subtle, simple rock arrangement best.

BYU Combined Choirs: A Celebration of Christmas. Definitive track: "Away in a Manger." In the 80s and 90s Mack Wilberg, whose arrangements have since been played around the world, was a local superstar at Brigham Young University, and his work was never on better display than on this 1991 recording, a live concert which PBS filmed and showed repeatedly over the years. Wilberg conducted the BYU's Men's Chorus and the combined choirs in some wonderful numbers that night, but I think his arrangement of this humble lullaby for a couple of hundred voices and a full orchestra, with a single quiet oboe line guiding the number throughout, is the best.

Canadian Brass, A Canadian Brass Christmas. Definitive track: "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Patented Canadian Brass fun, with a full, exquisite sound. This track wins out over the others because of all the snide comments the guys throw in about Rudolph's unfortunate dermatological problems.

The Chieftains, The Bells of Dublin. Definitive track: "Once in Royal David's City," with The Renaissance Singers. The whole album is a creative celebration, drawing on traditional Irish, American country, and Celtic Christian sources, with contributions from everyone from Marianne Faithfull to Elvis Costello, all backed up by The Chieftains peerless musicianship. This hymn, coming at the end of the album, is ethereal and glorious.

The Christmas Revels: Wassail! Wassail! Early American Christmas Music. Definitive track: "The Cherry Tree Carol." The whole album is filled with wonderful music, but when John Langstaff sings his baritone on a spare arrangement of this ancient folk ballad, it's transcendent.

Shawn Colvin, Holiday Songs and Lullabies. Definitive track: "Love Came Down at Christmas." A tender, homey, motherly album, filled with quiet, sometimes borderline saccharine arrangements, but perfect for after a long day of wrestling over Christmas decorations with kids. She picks up the tempo a little for a smooth, full rendition of this traditional carol, and it just hits the spot.

John Denver and the Muppets, A Christmas Together. Definitive track: "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Personally, I don't hear a single false note in the whole album; dude, I even like "Alfie, the Christmas Tree," so you know I'm a hopeless case. But I defy even the toughest cynic not to grant, at the very least, that Rowlf the Dog (Jim Henson) and John Denver discovered something essential about this song while recording it. They don't sing the original, more somber lyrics, but rather the slightly more upbeat ones first used by Frank Sinatra, but still, the song's tale of a bittersweet, reluctant acceptance of holiday joy is undeniable.

Handel's Messiah: A Soulful Celebration. Definitive track: "But Who May Abide the Day of His Coming?" So many awesome performances on this funk, gospel, hip-hop, jazz, and soul recording of Handel's masterpiece. There's Al Jarreau's "Why Do The Nations So Furiously Rage?," there's Stevie Wonder's "Oh Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion," there's more. I'm just to going to have to go with Patti Austin's awesome, R&B powerhouse as my favorite, though.

The King's Singers: Deck the Hall: Songs for Christmas. Definitive track: "Mary Had a Baby." A brilliantly diverse album from the early 1970s, with 14th-century church music, old English plainsongs, 16th-century carols, some Tchaikovsky, and a couple of spirituals thrown in as well. Of these two, the second is the highlight of the record.

Mannheim Steamroller, Christmas. Definitive track: "Stille Nacht." Their first, and still their best. The "traditional tunes played on Renaissance instrumentation combined with synthesizer beats" shtick has been endlessly copied over the past couple of decades, and can get tiresome, I'll admit. Not every track on this album has held up equally well. But by and large, the music is still beautiful, none more so than the closing track, which brings out the wintertime, Northern European (complete with a subtle guest appearance by Santa Claus) sensibility of the song out better than any other I've ever heard.

Mormon Tabernacle Choir, The Joy of Christmas. Definitive track: "The Animal Carol" (aka, "The Friendly Beasts"). The MoTab has changed. With Mack Wilberg conducting, with their own orchestra and a huge performing venue in Salt Lake City, the Choir has leveraged itself into being a multimedia presence the likes of which it never was in decades past. Its annual Christmas shows are hot tickets, with big stars from around the world dropping in to be part of the festivities. And, inevitably, there's a new album (or dvd) every year. But I don't need to keep up, because we've got this gem from 1963: the MoTab singing along with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Bernstein. It's lush, stately, unsurprisingly white-bread Christmas music, but no less listening to for all that. Their recording of "The Friendly Beasts" beats by a mile the version recorded last year.

The Osmonds, The Osmond Christmas Album. The definitive track, "It's Beginning to Look at Lot Like Christmas/Pine Cones and Holly Berries." Shut up, haters; it's a fabulous, goof-ball slice of 1970s American Christmas soft rock, and if you haven't given it a listen, you should. If you're lucky, you have the original, not the knock-off Osmond Family Christmas cd which cut out half the music; if you're extremely lucky--as we are--then you've got the original on tape or vinyl, which means you've got the lost Merrill Osmond cover of "A Very Merry Christmas," and the Osmond Brothers singing "The Christmas Waltz." But, failing that, you can at least enjoy the finest, cheesiest medley on the album, as demonstrated here.

Elvis Presley, Elvis's Christmas Album. Definitive track: "Here Comes Santa Claus." Simply put, the best rock and gospel Christmas album of them all. Elvis's singing was at its most sultry and dangerous, I think, when he was just goofing off, which explains why his version of this Gene Autry song works a lot better than anyone else's.

Raffi, Raffi's Christmas Album. Definitive track: "Old Toy Trains." Would I have ever listened to this album if Melissa and I had never had any children? Or, more particularly, if we hadn't had some Canadian friends who very patriotically forced the songs of Raffi Cavoukian upon us? Who knows? But I'm glad they did, and we did, because this is, hands down, the most joyous Christmas album we own. Childish glee and fun suffuse every track, even the quieter, more somber ones, like this great little number (which for years I thought was actually "Little Toy Trains"--but then, I didn't know anything about Roger Miller back in those days either).

Rockapella, Christmas. Definitive track: "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch." They've changed their line-up a time or two since they recorded this album, and when Melissa and saw them in Arkansas, their bass was solid as a rock. Still, for this one song at least, Barry Carl's bass voice just can't be beat.

Take 6, He Is Christmas. Definitive track: "Hark the Herald Angels Sing." Take 6 is one of the finest gospel vocal groups in the country, though this particular album was a bit of a departure for them, as it inlcudes a fair amount of jazz and disco instrumentation along with the singing. They've since returned to a more strictly a cappella sound, which is what they do best, I think. This number from the album, with is just unadorned vocal harmony, is stunning.

James Taylor, James Taylor at Christmas. Definitive track: "Auld Lang Syne." I think it's quite possible that I own every single James Taylor recording ever put on the market; at the very least, he is a the only big-name performer that I've forked over the dough to see play live more than once. So yes, I'm a fan. There's a lot that's very, very good on this album--his more reflective numbers, like Joni Mitchell's "River" and "In the Bleak Midwinter" are wonderful--but I like how he finishes it off best, with this song. His tenor voice--older now, but still smooth--seems to balance the lyric's sense of regret and times past, with a spirit of resolution and determined gusto, that I find absolutely charming.

Vienna Boys Choir, Merry Christmas (Fröhe Weihnachten). Definitive track: "The First Nowell." No doubt someone more in the know than I will write in a tell me that the famed Vienna Boys Choir is a sham, a big Austrian marketing tool, and nothing like what it was in the old days, whenever they were. Well, screw 'em; I love the sound of this old Christmas album, and I love hearing high classical voices transform some pretty humble German, English, and French Christmas and folk songs. As a bonus, the choir performs all six original verses of the song, which you hardly ever hear these days.

George Winston, December. Definitive track: "Jesus, Jesus, Rest Your Head." Soft, spare, elegant--it's the archetypal New Age piano album. For years I had a cassette tape of this which I'd picked up in South Korea, and only recently have we finally gotten it on cd. Still sounds great though, especially in his delicate treatment of this old folk hymn.

So there; that's twenty. Oh, but wait--one more: The Vince Guaraldi Trio, A Charlie Brown Christmas. Definitive track? The whole thing, obviously; the single greatest jazz Christmas album of all time doesn't need to have any single stand-out recording. Just 40 minutes of sweet, perfect Christmas charm.

Anyway, that's my list. How about yours?

This Morning, I Hate Joe Lieberman

I will have to repent of such feelings at some later date, I know. But for now, I am allowing myself to overflow with annoyance, displeasure, and contempt.

Senator Joe Lieberman has quite possibly just killed one of the few remaining options Senate Democrats, led by Harry Reid, had left to them to forge a compromise capable of garnering 60 votes under the astonishingly undemocratic and baroque rules of our Senate, thereby making the possibility of any national reform in how medical costs are covered and distributed amongst America's poorest, youngest, and sickest citizens--the populations most likely to be uninsured and unable to get insurance, and thus the treatment of whom contributes mightily to skyrocketing health care costs--that much more less likely.

He won't stand for a compromise built around an expansion of Medicare--perhaps the most successful of all of our nation's meager social insurance programs, and the very program which Lieberman supported expanding back when he ran for vice president on Al Gore's ticket in 2000. But of course, that was a decade ago, and Joe has grown wiser more self-important since then.

Ezra Klein adds some probably uncharitable, but to my frame of mind this morning utterly appropriate, details:

Lieberman was invited to participate in the process that led to the Medicare buy-in. His opposition would have killed it before liberals invested in the idea. Instead, he skipped the meetings and is forcing liberals to give up yet another compromise. Each time he does that, he increases the chances of the bill's failure that much more. And if there's a policy rationale here, it's not apparent to me, or to others who've interviewed him. At this point, Lieberman seems primarily motivated by torturing liberals. That is to say, he seems willing to cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in order to settle an old electoral score.

Allow me to shout some completely partisan curses into the cold void of this Kansas morning. Hey, it's Monday; I'm allowed to be a grouch.

Update, 12:16pm, CST: Jonathan Chait tells people like me to calm down:

[L]iberals are somewhat overreacting to Lieberman's turn against health care reform. It's true that Lieberman refused to take part in negotiations with Reid over the compromise, suggested he could support the bill presuming a positive CBO score, and then decided to stick in the knife. However, I don't think that health care reform is in peril. If Harry Reid decided to submit to Lieberman's demands, the health care bill would basically revert to what the Senate Finance Committee produced. That's still a major piece of legislation. Expectations among liberals have risen since then, so the come-down is understandable. But this isn't the end of reform. Now, the counter-argument is that Lieberman may well come up with a reason to back away from that bill as well. Given his obvious bad-faith negotiation, that's certainly a danger. But Olympia Snowe is not negotiating in bad faith, and she, unlike Lieberman, actually seems to care about health care reform. So even if you revert to something like the Senate Finance bill and Lieberman tries to stab you in the back, you can still pick up Snowe. (A fact that itself reduces the chance that Lieberman will attempt a second act of sabotage -- why try to knife health care reform if you can't kill it?)

Friday, December 11, 2009

Friday Morning Videos: "Someday"

Nothing seasonal about this one at all, but I've been meaning to put it up for ages all the same. My wife likes Glass Tiger's other big hit best, but this one is my favorite.

I love Alan Frew's beret. Reminds me of the one I had in Scouts.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

What's All That Subsidiarity For, Anyway?

So, the very latest is that the Senate has a compromise in the works: no public option--that is, no government-administered, publicly available alternative to monopolistic and price-controlling private and employer-based insurance packages--but instead, 1) federal encouragement (and perhaps financial support) for the emergence of nation-wide, non-profit insurance options (with the possibility of a "trigger" for an actual public option to be proposed if no insurance provider actually follows through with the creation of such non-profit plans), and 2) an expansion of Medicare, enabling an earlier buy-in to the program for economically disadvantaged folks of 55 years of age and older (a crucial, costly group for calculating the affordability of any subsidized plan), along with 3) other regulations and restrictions affecting the aforementioned insurance providers. Consider that we are dealing with a Senate that functionally operates in an environment which requires 60 votes for anything to get done, that's not bad, don't you agree?

My old friend Matt Stannard doesn't. He argues--not inaccurately, I must admit--that "non-profit cooperatives are to a 'robust' public option as a handshake is to a passionate kiss," and condemns the collusion of corporate power and weak-kneed Democrats who make it possible: "This is a failure of democratic deliberation brought about by the intervention of corporate resources...[and] because Obama himself, and even many 'liberal' democrats, fundamentally believe that a world where the rich get better care than the poor is...not worth the effort and risk of a foundational attack." And he cites a brilliant, radical piece by Alan Nasser, who argued that Obama's unwillingness to fight for a truly universal system of medical coverage--such as a single-payer system would likely provide--was a dodge, invoking the impossibility of achieving anything "perfect" and instead contenting himself with "the American way" of offering a "series of choices"...which, as things played out, would be provided by various private actors, of course.

I want to agree with Matt; I'm a believer that, for all it's faults--it's hardly a "perfect" system--single-payer, and a direct attack on employer-based private insurance, is the best way to achieve universal coverage in a marketplace where health care is inevitably concentrated and distributed in less than just ways. But I also wonder if his attack on the compromises coming down the pike, as worthy as it is, doesn't misunderstand the "perfect system" which Obama said he didn't want to try for. What's the relevant "perfection" here, anyway?

I went on (for too long, as usual) yesterday about why the Catholic--though really, just common sensible and Christian--principle of subsidiarity makes the broad theoretical argument in favor of national health care reform sensible to me, despite the unpredictable consequences such an expansion in federal involvement may mean. The national government can do something moral and just, which other levels of government cannot. And what is that thing it can do? It can get more people the medical coverage necessary for them to afford the health care they need. And that's really it. My egalitarian longings want to see something more; they want to see social reforms that make for more democracy, and less corporate power. But, insofar as this debate is concerned, what I really want to see is more people insured. And if there are ways to do that without goring the much-deserved-to-be-gored oxes of private insurers--ways that, and this is crucial, can actually produce legislation that passes, rather than producing warm feelings of righteous indignation as bills go down in flames on the Senate floor--well, I can live with that.

Ezra Klein writes, "Health-care reform is not a competition between liberals and insurers. It's a question of outcomes....If there was some way the deal could be slightly changed so that the CEO of Cigna got a flat tire while rushing to an important meeting and would have to wait a long time for a tow truck on a cold day, that wouldn't really make it a better deal." He's right. It's a paltry--and, frankly, an un-Christian--form a justice, I think, which insists that getting an agency of government that can do something right, to actually do it, isn't enough if it does so in a way that makes use of another, existing injustice. That would be "perfection," maybe, but it's not the relevant perfection here.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Health Subsidiarity, or Solidarity, or Socialism (Take Your Pick)

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

The debate over health care reform in the Senate has moved into overdrive, with one possible compromise following another in rapid succession. The two crucial issues upon which the ability of the Democratic leadership to get the 60 votes needed to effectively move forward hinge are, as most folks who follow these things already know, the coverage for abortion services provided by many private insurance plans, and the exact make-up of the government-run "public option" insurance plan--or, as right now seems likely, whatever kind of regulated marketplace emerges in exchange for killing it. It is all, I frankly confess, way too much for me to be able to follow with the sort of patience and expertise it deserves, especially since I know everything could change by the time I finish this post. The most I can do is offer a slightly wider theoretical perspective, on why I am--mostly, anyway--on board with what the Democrats are trying to make happen, despite the fact that it may very well create a national bureaucracy that is neither particularly local nor especially democratic, two huge concerns of mine.

The very short answer is, blame Catholicism. But since, of course, I'm never satisfied with very short answers, I'll go further.

I'm not Catholic, but Catholic thinkers--including, but not limited to, various pontiffs--have played a large role in my thinking about community and justice. Probably the primary reason for this is that the various strands of Catholicism provide one of the few deeply thought out attempts to authoritatively situate Christian morals and duties into modern, pluralistic polities. Central to the majority of these strands is the oft-abused but still essential concept of subsidiarity. I can't do worse than to quote my old dissertation advisor here, Steve Schneck:

The root of the word is the Latin subsiduum, which is also the same root for our English word subsidy. Subsiduum was used, among other things, in reference to the morally weighted giving from those who had to those who had not...So, from its original root, subsidiarity invokes that hallmark idea of Catholic social teaching: the preferential option for the poor. Moreover, it shares with its root a context in the social order as a body-like whole, in which everyone has moral obligations vis-à-vis others in light of the common good. From subsiduum eventually comes the Latin subsidiarius, which refers to a person to whom a subsiduum should be given. In Roman-based systems of law, courts’ concern with compensation to a subsidiarius was to avoid either overcompensating or under compensating. Overcompensating, it was reasoned, undermined the ability of those in our care to take responsibility for their own duties to the community and society. It sapped initiative. Under compensating, just the reverse, would not provide enough subsidy to those depending on us for them to fulfill their potential for themselves and the social order.

Subsidiarius, thus, hints at an ethic at the heart of any correct understanding of subsidiarity, especially in application to questions about the proper role of government in executing public policies. Subsidiarity requires that policies be performed by the most appropriate level of the social order to achieve results without too much overage or too much underage in the application of power or resources. Overage creates unwanted dependency. Underage fails to fully satisfy needs relative to the common good.

This isn't strictly an argument for subsidiarity as doctrine, of course; if anything, it's an argument for common sense in the application of Christian principles of charity. Who wouldn't want those in a position to give anything--money, first aid, advice, whatever--to be those in a position to know what exactly what was needed, and how it was needed, and how much, with the real needs and the integrity of the person in mind? But Catholic reflections on subsidiarity further allow that a "common sense" solution is also one that will work towards the common good of the whole community: strengthening the capabilities of and the relationships between individuals throughout the various "levels of the social order," as Steve puts it, will be generative of more positive, more moral results overall. This makes sense to me; it appeals to my communitarian instincts, and it seems substantiated by events I've witnessed throughout my life, in my family and in my congregations and in the communities and societies I've lived in.

Of course, what does that have to do with health care reform? Nothing, necessarily: Steve concludes by observing "nothing in Catholic social teachings, including the idea of subsidiarity, requires that America’s health care crisis be addressed with a particular policy approach, whether by state, private enterprise, voluntary associations, or anything else," and I assume he's correct. That being said, this way of framing the question gets to the heart of the matter. Surely actual health care--the actual doctor or midwife or nurse examining you, healing you, offering you succor and relief--needs to be and ought to be as local and face-to-face as possible. But given that we have (for the most part gladly!) embraced many of the technologies and monopolistic reforms (such required medical degrees and licenses) that have limited, concentrated, and thus skewed the availability of the kind of extensive, often life-saving, medical care which doctors, midwives and nurses can provide these days, costs come into the equation. So the question is rephrased, as a commenter named Rex rephrased it in this post of mine from last summer: can medical insurance be local? So rephrased, the question becomes a different one entirely.

John Médaille wisely observed in a fine, follow-up post of his on health care reform that insurance programs almost invariably end up replicating the classic tactics of a monopoly, and this is especially the case when the insurance plans which most Americans use to pay for their medical care is tied to their place of employment; employers and insurers easily can--and regularly do--collude to create obstacles and perverse incentives that keep most employees committed to their (often increasingly restrictive) plans, not to mention creating pools of applicants (how many children do you have? what is your health history?) that often leave people with serious health needs out in the cold. Ideally, our system of employer-provided insurance would be scrapped entirely, making room for something a little bit more amenable to individual choice. But, given the realities of our political system, the prospect of insurance companies supporting a move by the national government to encourage alternatives to the sweet deals they have worked out with their various corporate and institutional parties over the years was never likely. Could, by contrast, the government impose common requirements upon all independently offered health care plans, so as to minimize the aforementioned skewed distribution of resources and costs? John rightly, I think, observed that if you were going attempt that kind of half-way reform, you might has well just have a single-payer arrangement, like they do in Canada. That would at least cut down on the duplication of administrative costs.

But the difficulties of our political system rise up again: single-payer was also never a truly serious option in this prolonged debate (though some have managed to keep the idea alive in the House version of health care reform, on a state-by-state basis). Which brings us to what we have in the Senate today--not even a half-way reform, but a quarter-way reform, at best. Still, even this quarter-way reform injects the national government into the question of medical insurance, through various acts of regulation, and through the possible creation of a nationally administered market of insurance exchanges (which may or may not include a government-run insurance plan, perhaps tied to existing government plans like Medicare, perhaps not). To many progressives, that's more than good enough; it means many millions of Americans who either cannot obtain insurance or who are driven into medical bankruptcy by tragedies they were unable to fully insure themselves against will have the coverage they need to survive, and perhaps even flourish. But to those who take seriously the principle of subsidiarity, the question is more complicated.

Susan McWilliams recently wrote an essay which focused on young adults who cannot obtain insurance; her conclusion was that any society that had a grasp on its own common good would develop a sense of "intergenerational awareness," which would bring us to recognize more fully the injustice and harm involved in so many young people having to forgo proper medical care because of the costs involved. The young should not, I think, be the primary target of concern here--following Christian teachings, I think the poor should be--but her post was a good one, perhaps especially because of the exchange it prompted between several commenters, John Médaille among them. In response to complaints (once again!) about "socialism" and health care, John trenchantly responded that "[i]n any community, there are obviously some services which need to be socialized," adding that if "one is really opposed to socialism, then one ought not to pull that socialist lever in his home, the one that makes his waste disappear in a whirlpool into the socialized sewage treatment system." I think that puts it just about right: assuming one does not reject the modern age (including modern medical care!) entirely, and assuming one accepts at least the bare outline of Christian teachings about both the common good and the integrity of the individual, the question is not "will the final Democratic health care reform proposals involve socialism?" but just simply "what level of socialism should we have?" Consider a couple of thoughts on this basic question.

E.D. Kain, building off some things I've written before, makes the point that if you care about local community, what you're likely really caring about is the individual and collective opportunity which the absence of centralization and monopolization makes possible...and that, therefore, you should probably be in favor--at least insofar as medical insurance goes--of some sort of national action to make "a national marketplace that is at once able to sustain large cost-sharing pools and also be highly competitive." Erik and I likely disagree on many of the particulars of the proposals and compromises being discussed right now, but we seem to be on the same page when it comes to recognizing that localism is best understood as a defense of local places which makes other, more populist options available, and not necessarily a restriction to local places, as they can very easily imitate all the sins of larger polities. (Something I've discussed more here.) Why a national market? Because our economy is national; our society is national; large employers--and the insurance companies they join together with, those very insurance companies that, for better or worse, the Democrats have chosen to work with and build upon, rather than oppose--are national. This is not something that can be done on a state-by-state basis (though obviously further, more radical or challenging reforms could be).

Peter Lawler, who himself isn't much of localist or populist, takes profound exception to this possibility, arguing, contra my own Christian Democratic sympathies, that "genuinely subsidiarity-minded Porchers [making reference to Front Porch Republic there] should be the most extreme opponents of the Pelosi/Obama health care reforms," and that "I'm all for subsidiarity as described by our philosopher-pope," which is why he opposes "European cradle-to-grave dependence on government." Two points of order here. First, how would the "Pelosi/Obama (what, Senator Harry Reid doesn't get a shout-out?) health care reforms" creative "cradle-to-grave dependence on government"? As outlined above, we are dealing with a lousy situation when it comes to medical insurance, with the majority of insurance plans being tied to employment and being run like little monopolies; and moreover, we are looking at a potential set of reforms that doesn't even go half-way towards making that lousy situation at all more reliable for most American citizens. This is not, in other words, a reform proposal that will result in hundreds of millions of Americans throwing themselves at the national government's feet. Second, while I am no expert in Catholic writing or thinking, it seems to me that Pope Benedict has made it clear that subsidiarity must be conjoined with "the principle of solidarity" since the former without the latter will result in "social privatism" (Caritas in Veritate no. 58). I take this to be a re-iteration of the fundamental point of the commonweal which is served through the providing of subsiduum in the first place: as the whole society is bound more closely together and made more just through common actions of interpersonal aid, so should those attempting to find the right levels of aid--in health care, or in anything else I suppose--be open to the role that society-wide actions (which, in the United States today, means federal government actions) may play in fostering such. Not in replacing all other agencies and actors who do such fostering, of course, but merely in doing something. Like, say, in structuring some national, equitable, reliable insurance markets, perhaps.

I realize a lot of Catholics aren't too impressed by Commonweal, considering a somewhat Catholic-lite magazine, but from this outsider's perspective, J. Peter Nixon's recent analysis of subsidiarity and the health care debate seemed persuasive to me:

In his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II was critical of the tendency of the modern state to take on an ever-expanding range of functions to the detriment of private initiative. Pope Benedict echoed these criticisms of the "social-assistance state" in his recent encyclical Caritas in Veritate. Both encyclicals, however, also argue that the state must play a role in structuring markets so that the benefits of economic growth are equitably shared. The 2003 Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church attempted to summarize these key aspects of subsidiarity by noting that the principle must be understood in two senses, "negative" and "positive." Negatively, the state should refrain from restricting the initiative, freedom, and responsibility of the smaller cells of society. Positively, the state should provide the necessary economic, institutional, and juridical assistance that allows these cells to flourish....The principle of subsidiarity reminds the state that its role is to support and sustain the institutions of civil society, not to replace them. Nevertheless, to the extent that threats to those institutions arise from the workings of the market, Catholic social teaching envisions an active role for the state in their defense....

Health-care reform will increase the role of the federal government principally in the areas of financing care for the uninsured and regulating the health-insurance market....[P]roviding insurance to those who are not well served by our employer-based system has long been a responsibility of the federal government. While some of this expansion in coverage will come from expanding public insurance programs like Medicaid, most will come from subsidizing employers and individuals so that they can purchase private coverage. The second way in which the federal role is likely to expand is in the area of insurance regulation....For the most part, these expansions of the federal government’s role in health care are designed specifically to address problems that lower levels of government have failed to solve. While the number of uninsured has been above the 40-million mark for more than two decades, very few states have been able to marshal the resources needed to extend coverage to this population. States have also faced a difficult time in reforming insurance laws to eliminate various types of coverage exclusions. [Thus the] case for a federal role in these areas is strong.

I am not the sort of progressive (assuming I am any sort of progressive--which I suppose I am, though a fairly odd one) who believes that the key to making our polity a more just, more community-minded one is to simply grant more power and more reach to the most powerful actor around, the federal government. There are many ways in which I think it ought to be--needs to be!--restrained and cut back. But here, in this rather particular matter of medical insurance, I don't see it. Call it socialism, call it solidarity, call it subsidiarity, call it whatever you want: from my study of the proposals under debate--which, as I said at the start, is hardly expert, though I do my best--they are not programs which will doom all efforts to preserve local communities and popular democracy, or even force people necessarily to choose between those goods on the one hand and a more just and equitable providing of patented American-style complicated health coverage on the other. They are, instead, relatively legitimate "subsidiarian" efforts that will maybe, just maybe, make locality and democracy that much easier for ordinary people, with ordinary health concerns, to achieve.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Friday Morning Videos: "Breakout" (Again)

And since I can't stand to have Swing Out Sister's gloriously colorful video robbed from my archives, here it is again as well.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Somebody Tell Me is This is How Normal 13-Year-Olds Flirt These Days

[Update, 12/4/09: In response to a couple of comments below, I have decided to edit this post slightly.]

So Megan, our oldest daughter, thirteen years old, comes up to show me something funny a friend at school made for her. It's a little book. A picture book.

The main character is Megan the Cannibal. She is stalking her friend. His drawings of Megan and himself are crude, but funny and effective, in a cartoonish sort of way.

There is a brief narration which attends each page in the little book. Megan is a vicious cannibal, tracking her prey through the hallways of their school. Her prey flees; she follows. He hides in his bedroom at home, but Megan follows him, breaking into the house through the roof. She confronts him, binds him, blindfolds him, then takes him to her lair.

There, using previously unannounced superpowers, Megan shrinks him with her powerful Shrinking Ray Eyes. He runs for it. He hides somewhere in the kitchen. Eventually, however, Megan the Cannibal finds him and, in one gulp, consumes him.

The final scenes of the book show a satisfied Megan the Cannibal, smacking her lips, while her friend stews (literally, I suppose) with a worried expression on his face, surrounded by Megan's stomach acids. The End.

She finds it silly and hilarious and laughs about it. I find myself perplexed. My wife looks at me curiously, wondering what I'm reading into the story. I'm not sure. Suggestions, anyone? Parents of 13-year-olds, particularly those skilled in literary deconstruction and/or child psychology, are encouraged to reply.