Sunday, June 19, 2016

What I mean when I offer thoughts and prayers...

This little gem cam across my timeline today:

I'm going to charitably assume this is the product of ignorance, and so will lay out what I, and I suspect most people mean, when they offer "thoughts and prayers" in the wake of a disaster so that it the author of this game and all those who approved it can devote themselves to more productive pursuits than mocking something nobody's saying.

Offering "thoughts and prayers" in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy is a way for someone outside of a situation to acknowledge that those close to it are shouldering an emotional burden that can be unbearable, and offering to take some of it.

For me, this includes:

  • Praying for the repose of the souls of those who have died.
  • Praying for the recovery of those who are injured.
  • Praying for comfort for those close to those killed or injured.
  • Thanksgiving for the work of those helping the victims.
This is not a statement that this should represent the beginning and end of the response, or that it alone will prevent future similar incidents. But it is something right and proper to do, and the type of thing I think we need more of rather than less of, even if we do need more of other types of responses.

Cleaning up the crime scene does nothing to prevent future killings. But it must be done, and to mock it because it does nothing to prevent future shootings is silly at best and ugly and mean-spirited at worst.

Now, ideally, these prayers should include an examination of conscience that addresses questions like:
  • Is there some action I can be taking now to comfort those who are suffering from this?
  • Am I somehow complicit in this, through some direct action, through my participation in structures of violence, or my inaction in not doing things that can prevent this?
I can't guarantee that this examination will lead to conclusions that those mocking "thoughts and prayers" would prefer.

But I can guarantee that they will never reach those conclusions if they cut off their own thoughts and prayers because they've been told how useless they are.

The response to mocking "thoughts and prayers" will not be more action; it will be less thought and less prayers. And more entrenchment in what people thought to begin with.

Mock "thoughts and prayers" if you wish. But don't pretend it's helping.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Stop with the Mocking of Thoughts and Prayers

As people know, my daughter has cystic fibrosis. You will occasionally see me here raising funds for research into treatments for cystic fibrosis like the Stair Climb, Great Strides, or the upcoming Cycle For Like (ahem).

When I make these appeals, many people donate generously, but many more do not. This can be a bit disappointing, but I have to assume they have good reasons for that. I don't respond to every appeal I receive. Still, it can hurt a bit.

If she were to suffer some kind of setback (she's doing fine), and someone who chose not to donate were to offer some typical condolences, this would be a decent and good thing to do. If I were to respond by questioning why they didn't donate instead of offering empty condolences, this might be understandable considering the grief I was going through, but it would not be a response to be particularly proud of. It would be even less honorable if a third party were to hear this expression of concern, and make a similar challenge.

Is the offering of condolences a sufficient response, especially for those charged with public safety?

No, but it is a human, decent, and necessary response.

If everyone offering me condolences on my daughter's illness was subject to a spot audit of their record of contributions and public shaming if I found it lacking, the result would not be more contributions. It would be that fewer people would offer me condolences, and we would be more isolated in our suffering, And, since they are now less connected to me, it will be less likely they will donate when they are in a better position to do so. Lose/lose.

Shaming and mocking people who offer this is not likely to result in better actions, it will likely result in less decency. Less connection. More isolation and separation. Which seems to be a contributing factor to these tragedies, among other social ills.

Hold our leaders accountable to do their jobs. But let's not punish them for acts of basic human compassion and decency.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Our Current Idol

At times following a crisis, Americans work through their grief by going through a series of rituals. Sacred texts and imagery are reviewed. Promises of loyalty are recited. Those perceived to be opposed or insufficiently committed are vilified. The hope is that is god can make evil go away, and free us from fear. And now, prayers to other gods are mocked and driven away.

And then, we forget about it until the next crisis.

I'm talking, of course, about gun control legislation.

It's important to remember that we are often tempted to make idols out of good people and things, or at least things that started out that way, until we loaded them up with impossible expectations.

So my point here isn't to say that gun control is a bad idea, or even that it's not a good idea. Or that it's bad to work passionately for things that you think will help people or prevent disaster.

But it seems to me that for a significant quorum of people, this is taking a place in their lives beyond what it merits.

And it's unhealthy. It's unhealthy for them. It's unhealthy for society, since it defines those who disagree as The Enemy. The recent innovation of mocking those who offer "thoughts and prayers" for victims of their families is particularly poisonous. One of the best things about our society is our ability to come and grieve together. Now we can't even do that.

And it's probably unhealthy for the prospects of enacting gun control, since it leads those opposed to dig in.

And it will ultimately disappoint. Even if we enacted the most restrictive possible gun control policies, that would not address the problem that our society is producing people for whom these types of acts are thinkable. Some may be thwarted, but others will still find a way to do damage.

There are worse idols -- this response is better than war or hatred. But it is still not the answer.

I don't like guns.

I like scapegoating and idolatry even less.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Or, create something that people love

I know that admiration of Lin Manuel Miranda and what he's created with Hamilton borders on cliche at this point. I worry that we are setting him up for a tremendous fall, and I pray that won't be the case -- that he will be able to handle all the attention he's getting, and that others will step up as well.

Still, I think that what he does presents us with the best past forward.

Let's face it, it sometimes seemed like our culture had reached a decadent dead-end. Movies were almost all CGI-driven re-tellings of comic book stories we had seen before. TV, other than live sports, was largely splintered. Comedy had pretty much become the in-group bullying the out-groups. Or a vague counter-culture.

And now comes this cultural artifact. It mixed genres that most people had not considered to be related -- hip hop and musical theater -- along with a historical theme. Aside from some extremely light jabs, it's goal was not to make fun of or embarrass anybody; one could enjoy it regardless of one's ethnicity or political leanings.

And it created a platform for many people to display their talents.

There has been a lot of talk about the Golden Age of Television -- shows like The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and now The Americans. I watched an enjoyed all of them, appreciating the craft of writing and acting that went into them.

But they don't strike me as beautiful the same way that Hamilton does. It doesn't seem like it's for everybody (and yes, I know TV shows even on premium cable are more immediately accessible than a live show with quadruple-digit secondary market ticket prices).  I can share this with my daughters, and with people around the country. It brings people together rather than driving them apart.

And this is why I have hope.

Tonight, more than likely, the Golden State Warriors will complete a historically great season. I work at a company and industry that can be ruthless at times, but that is also creating beautiful, useful things. This is still a country where people strive for, and achieve, greatness.

Our politics does not reflect that right now, and that's a shame. But I'm confident we'll find a way to make it happen.

For my part, I'm going to do my best to find and celebrate the people who are creating beautiful things, or even those who are trying. And I hope that I can build beautiful things that bring people together.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Getting Serious About Ending Hate...

It has occurred to me that when those who have the sense to be quiet in the aftermath of a tragedy, it leaves the field open to those who do not. And so, here is my thought. I cannot promise it is equal to the magnitude of what happened, but I do think it is more thoughtfully considered than the hot takes we've been subject to.

First, I want to note that I reached for my rosary beads long before I reached for my keyboard. I pray first for those who were killed, injured, and their families. And I pray for those who might be considering a similar action. And I pray for our nation, including me, that we can respond with wisdom and compassion.  And I will continue to do so.

Also, I want to note that though I may cite individual responses for the purpose of precision, I recognize that they were writing from considerable pain and fear, and my intent is not to single them out for ridicule, but to identify what I think are unhelpful patterns of thought in the hopes that we can do better going forward.

Here's one tweet that crossed my timeline:

On gun control, I stand by what I wrote in the aftermath of the Newtown massacre.  It seems plausible to me that restricting access to certain weapons would reduce the severity of these types of incidents, and thus may be worth doing. I understand that "may be" sounds pathetically weak in the face of piles of dead bodies. I suspect I might have a stronger position if those advocating it were consistent and relentless and persistent in pursuing their goals rather than just popping up in the aftermath of these types of incidents. When I see this....


I'm not seeing sadness at tragedy and a steely resolve to do the hard work necessary to prevent future incidents. I'm seeing what borders on delight at an opportunity to stick one's political enemies with the blame for something bad.

And, this may not be noble, but it doesn't make me want to help you.

As for the "hate," what I suspect many of those writing this mean is lecturing people like me, whose views may not be in perfect alignment with the current fashion, but who would never even consider voting for Trump, let alone committing any kind of violence.

This isn't going to do it.

Here's another tweet that crossed my timeline:

I could scarcely imagine a response more at cross-purposes to its stated goals.

Most people who support things like the North Carolina law do not do so because they think that "LGBT people in the bathroom are a threat to public safety."  The mainstream concern is that (non-LGBT) people in the population inclined to abuse might take advantage of liberalized bathroom access to commit abuse.

I'm not convinced that the NC law represents some Solomonic ideal of how to balance this concern with the needs of the trans population, but I am convinced we are not going to reach such an ideal without talking and, more importantly, listening to each other.

In short, the people who are committing these shootings, or even the people voting for Trump, are not reached by your hashtag campaigns, by your special avatar, or your celebrations of diversity. As a pro-lifer, I am an expert at how ineffective moral righteousness can be in changing hearts, minds, and policies. I'm not positive these people are reachable, but if they are, it will be through regarding them as people, not throwing your slogans at them.

This is hard work, I know. I know that I'm not always perfect in doing it.

But I think that's what it takes. I'm not sure we're willing to do it.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

The Most or the Best?

For some time, one of my guiding principles of discourse was that one should engage the best arguments against one's position rather than the worst, even if there were prominent examples of the worst arguments or the worst arguments were providing the opposition with most of its energy.

So, while it may be true that some people opposed President Obama's policies because they were racist and would never accept the leadership of a black president, or because they thought he was a Kenyan anti-colonialist, or wasn't born in the country, it was at best a waste of time addressing these types of arguments. At worst, it raised the profile of these types of people and convinced oneself and others on your own side that the only people opposed to you are morons. This doesn't seem healthy.

The Trump phenomenon has led me to reconsider that position.

It is apparent that many people identified as Republicans or supported conservative policies for reasons other than a product of rigorous intellectual examination of the alternatives. Naked self-interest probably qualifies as one of the more noble reasons for this.  There is a disconnect between the intellectual reasoning for a policy position, and the reason people actually support it.

I follow a number of right-of-center writers on Twitter. Not one of them has endorsed Trump, even now that he is the presumptive GOP nominee, and most are in fact explicitly #neverTrump.  Perhaps I've enclosed myself in a bubble of sorts, but I think it also reveals something about the divided nature of the right.

I do not think at someone like Paul Ryan is a racist. Though it may be the case that some of his proposed policies have a disproportionate negative impact on people of color. I think that for Ryan, this is a bug, but for many of the people who identify as Republicans, this is a feature.

The way opposition to same sex marriage collapsed should have offered a clue that this was happening. Not that it happened, but the speed with which it did, and the reasons people gave for it. Often, it was that they had come to know gays and lesbians, either personally or through positive media portrayals, and could no longer imagine withholding marriage from them. I suppose this empathy is good, but it's also revealing that their previous position was based on bigotry rather than a thoughtful consideration of what marriage is and should be. Those type of principles don't change just because one meets a nice gay couple.

The cold reality seems to be that there is not sufficient intellectual support for conservative ideas to support a viable political party. This was countered by folding in racists and bigots, but that is no longer a viable strategy.

And I suspect a similar dynamic is true on the left, only that President Obama has been an effective enough leader to hold  everyone together, and doesn't over-promise what he can't deliver.

I'm not sure how to respond to this reality. I'm sure some of the most important political changes in history have drawn significant support from people for bad reasons. Certainly, politicians who knowingly play to our worst impulses should be condemned for doing so. And I still think our public debates are better focused on issues other than how awful the worst people who agree with you are.

But the Trump campaign has made this reality impossible to ignore. Much of the energy and votes for the Republican party were motivated by hatred.

Laying a Strong Enough Foundation

It may just me me, but it seems my generation of me was pounded with messages about what a good father should look like.

From "Cats in the Cradle" to every sitcom and family comedy, the message was clear -- a good father puts Family over Career. He never misses a ballgame, dance recital, or doctor's appointment. He know the names of his children's teachers, friends, friends' parents, and caretakers. He does at least his share of the housework and ferrying duties. If his job gets in the way of this, he should find a different job that doesn't interfere with his vocation of fatherhood.

Failure to do this will result in his kids growing up not knowing him at best or hating him at worst. It will also cause his wife to resent him for leaving this entire burden on her.

So, it was interesting to hear the direction "Dear Theodosia," Hamilton's ode to fatherhood, took in describing Hamilton and Burr's vision of what that should look like:
You will come of age in our young nation
We'll bleed and fight for you. We'll make it right for you.
If we lay a strong enough foundation
We'll pass it on to you; we'll give the world to you
And you'll blow us all away 
Granted, this is set more than 200 years ago, and I'm not sure either Hamilton or Burr should serve as a model for modern fatherhood. But I think this gets at an aspect of fatherhood (and motherhood), that is often overlooked -- that it also involves creating a better, just world for our children to live in. And the means to do this is sometimes Career.

This ran through my head while reading Joe Posnanski's widely praised essay describing taking his teenage daughter  to see Hamilton. 

Posnaski describes taking a speaking engagement to earn enough money to buy secondary market tickets to take his daughter to see Hamilton, and the glorious time they had.

One could simply say this is an activity of "privilege," and envy that Posnanski can do something like this and most of us cannot. But I think it's worth digging a little deeper than that

For one, the speaking engagement likely took Posnanski away from his family for some time.

More deeply, I suspect that Posnanski developing his craft and reputation such that he could earn enough money for after-market Hamilton tickets from a single speaking engagement required some trade-offs with family life. To "lean in," to borrow a term from another context. My suspicion is that building his career as a nationally known writer required some missed dinners, piano recitals, and teacher's conferences, and that many ferrying duties fell to his wife.  This (with a considerable amount of hard work and talent) put him in a position where he could give himself and his daughter an unforgettable experience that is out of reach for many of us.

Or maybe I'm wrong.  Mabe Posnanski was truly able to "have it all" through hard work and discipline, and my failure to do the same is just a cop-out.  I tell myself that people like Posnanski are more successful than I am because I made different trade-offs than they did (or, less charitably, that they are less devoted to their families than I am), when the reality is that they are just more talented or hard-working than I am.

 It's a question I and many parents struggle with. How many family dinners or little league games is worth a trip to Hamilton?  It's true that moments of grace often pop up when you least expect them but I don't think the experience Posnanski described was much more likely to happen at the Richard Rodgers Theater than the local ballfield.

I don't have the answer. And I suspect the answer is different for everybody. It's why those of us who are religious need to spend considerable time in prayer is discerning the best manner to live this vocation.

Rhetoric and Violence...

As the news of the violent anti-Trump protests in San Jose traced across my Twitter feed Friday night, I snarkily thought to myself, "Ah, I'm sure this will lead to a weeks-long conversation about the extreme rhetoric of the anti-Trump movement, just as it did for the pro-life movement."

Somewhat to my surprise, Freddie de Boer went there:

So, now I have to actually engage in the argument instead of simply snarking about it.

In short, the question is whether violence from some protesters should bring leaders to reconsider the rhetoric they use.

Are the Statements True?

In the case of Planned Parenthood, that they dismember fetuses and sell the parts for research is not in dispute. What is in dispute is:

  • Whether Planned Parenthood "profits" from these sales, putting them outside the law.
  • The moral status of the fetuses.
So, whether "selling baby parts" is true or not hinges on whether or not one considers the fetuses they dismember to be "babies" and the semantics of "selling." I certainly have my own opinions on the answers to these questions, but for the purpose of this discussion, it will suffice to say that it is consistent with the pro-life perspective.

Is Trump a fascist? I think it's clear that some of his expressed plans are closer to fascism than those of any other prominent politician in recent memory.  On the other hand, I still think it is unlikely he will be elected, and if elected, unlikely he would be able to implement the most odious parts of his agenda.

If true, would these statements justify a violent response?

As a Catholic, I have tool to work through questions like this, the Just War Doctrine (which, I think is horribly named, since it suggests that the norm is for wars to be just, when it is the opposite. "Just War" is like "Black Swan".)

In the case of abortion and Planned Parenthood, I've considered the question before.  In brief, abortion clears the "lasting, grave, and certain" bar, but not the others, notably high probability of success.

In my judgment, the case for Trump fails as well. Most notably, that not all non-violent means (e.g. voting for another candidate, constraints from the other branches of government) have been exhausted.

But are they likely to lead to a violent response?

Our recent military adventures make clear that not all my fellow Americans approach these questions with the same rigorous application of Just War Doctrine that I do. Given that, it might make sense to address the weaker claim that the claims about Planned Parenthood and Trump might lead less careful people to respond violently.

In the case of Planned Parenthood, I think the answer is yes. I find the idea that someone like Robert Dear would have been fine and never bothered anybody but for Carly Fiorina mistaking a B-roll for live footage to be absurd, it isn't absurd to think that talking prominently about an organization killing thousands of babies a year might lead some people to believe they ought to be forcibly stopped from doing so, and if the law won't do it, then concerned citizens ought to.

In the case of Trump, this seems likely as well. Particularly in light of the popular narrative about Nazi Germany that his rise to power was aided by the complacency and inaction of people who should have known better ("First they came for the..., etc."). It's not surprising that talk about a prominent politician being the harbinger of a new era of fascism might lead some to conclude that this must be violently opposed.

If so, should this restrain their rhetoric?

This is more of a normative, fuzzy question that I think we need to honestly consider.

Factual truth, in itself, does not justify any statement someone could make. The sin of detraction, for example, involves the passing along of true information for the purpose of harming another's reputation.  So, the truth of Planned Parenthood's activities Trump's fascism does not, in itself, establish the prudence of talking about it. Obviously, those who make such statements are motivated to do so by a desire to prevent current and future evils.

In general, I think the culpability for violence that results from true statements about another party's actions rests first with those committing the violence, and second with those committing the acts that inspired the violence, with those who pointed out those actions placing a distant third. Establishing a norm that those who tell the truth about nefarious activities are responsible for how people respond to that information effectively creates a license for people to engage in all sorts of wrongdoing without fear of being exposed. If police officers are abusing people, we need to know about it, whether people will riot in response or not.

That said, I think people do have a responsibility to be as precise in their language as possible. I try to call what Planned Parenthood does "killing" rather than "murder" since I don't know what their intent is. 

Though this may be for reasons other than preventing violence. Freddie also retweeted a reference to a CS Lewis quote about not using more extreme language than the situation calls for.  In my judgment, this should have been applied to the non-Trump Republicans rather than Trump.  The rhetorical quiver has been emptied on the likes of Paul Ryan, and now there's nothing left for someone like Trump.