The GOP’s currency of envy

Heinz 57 variety political guyI’m such a Heinz 57 variety political guy that it’s really hard to fit myself into anybody’s pigeonhole. I like it that way, and my suspicion is that I’m not alone. We are silent, or so it seems, because no one truly speaks for us. We are offered choices that really don’t matter at the dawn of a new era (postmodern) in which the best we can do is hope for something different. Just like life itself, we can either live it or hope to live it, the former coming with great risk while the latter offering the same old, tired-but-comfortable options.

Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative and many other political groupings are all designed by our top-down culture to suit, well, our top-down culture, but if we believe that “top-down” doesn’t cut it anymore, then we need to start thinking differently when it comes to how “we, the people,” govern ourselves and, by extension, our country. Anybody wishing to start something new must fit himself into the old political portal mindset, which is by nature designed to prevent such intrusion without incredible cost.

I was the executive producer of The 700 Club in the early 80s, a wonderful adventure to which I gave my all but ended up broken. I was an outsider, of sorts, and even though I often led worship services at the ministry, I’d like to think I still managed to nourish and maintain my observer roots. In board room meetings on a host of issues, for example, Pat Robertson would often look at me for reaction to what he was proposing-cum-ordering, because he knew my head could and would move in both directions. I’m proud of that (book forthcoming some day, I promise), and while I’m sure many thought I was conflicted internally, the truth is I rather enjoyed being in that place at that time. Never try to judge what somebody’s thinking on the inside by his or her outside performance or circumstances.

Nobody ever asked me about my politics at CBN; it was simply assumed, and I count the many wonderful discussions — and even debates — with remarkable thinkers while there as one of the greatest joys of my life. You’ve probably never heard the name, but Herb Titus has one of the most remarkable minds of the late 20th Century. We often had super intellectual thinkers on the program, and I had the chance to learn from each of them. Dr. Benjamin Mays, for example, on what’s wrong with youth today:

“Because we are so extraordinarily afraid to let them experience the same hard times that helped shape our own character.”

American Thinker Logo image

“American Thinker”

That’s a long path to introduce you to a publication you’ve probably never encountered but that I often enjoy, American Thinker. It’s a conservative “think” publication, and since the reason for much of my writing is the challenging of assumptions, it’s a great place to do just that. Can my/your arguments that are counter to contemporary conservative positions stand up to genuine and passionate intellectual scrutiny? I find this a good place to bounce things around in my mind. I was doing this recently, when I came upon a fascinating argument about the currency of envy in a piece called, “Obama and the Infernal Serpent, by Jeffrey Folks, a prolific writer and conservative thinker from Knoxville, TN.

Mr. Folks charges President Obama and all Democrats with “wealth envy,” something he decries as evil and contrary to both the ancients and Christian literature. His opening statement reveals the flaw in this logic. “Envy of the rich,” he writes, “is actually one of the seven ‘deadly sins,’ according to Christian belief.” I’m sorry, but the phrase “of the rich” isn’t something I can find in my studies of those seven deadly sins. But he goes on:

The ancients understood envy better than we do today. Envy was always associated with snakes because it is a destructive emotion that creeps into one’s heart. It is sluggish, gradually overturning one’s nobler feelings and replacing them with venomous hatred. Like our current occupant of the White House, whose speeches have become harsher as the campaign draws on, envy is ruthless and unsmiling.

Once unleashed, envy knows no bounds. It slithers into men’s hearts, poisoning their relationship to others, destroying families, ruining friendships, and making the governance of society impossible. That is what has now been unleashed in America. Employing the tactics of Saul Alinsky, Obama approaches every political problem with the intent of isolating his target and exploiting the destructive emotions of envy and distrust.

All of Obama’s talk about “fairness” is nothing but an attempt to gin up a sense of grievance and exploit it for his own purposes. The rich should be taxed more, he says, not because it would bring in more revenue or because they are not taxed enough already, but because they need to be punished. We hate them because they have succeeded and we have not. Even 2,800 years ago, that kind of populist demagoguery was understood to be dangerous.

I love words like “envy,” concepts that human beings have struggled with since the beginning. We seldom talk about these kinds of things, preferring instead to leave that to the clergy, “where it belongs.” That’s a shame, because concepts such as this undergird many other things that we do talk about, and the dangerous assumption in those conversations is that we all agree on the properties, practices and consequences of such big ideas. When was the last time you thought about the role that envy plays in your life, or in anybody else’s life?

This is the kind of 30,000 foot, big thought process that often drives conservative thinking. I find it fascinating, because while I find his conclusion erroneous, Mr. Folks isn’t stupid, illiterate, or full of crap. He’s followed the thing back to word root origins, and has put his honest and sincere beliefs out there for anybody to read. If you want into the collective mind of conservative intelligentsia, you must occasionally drift into this kind of reasoning, because a logical path that produces illogical results has to begin at a twisted point. Challenging arguments on this level will help your results in debating all contemporary issues, because these underlie and provide motivation for arguments that many miss, because they simply don’t see it. But here we have it, spelled out for us by a very smart fellow.

I wish no disrespect to Mr. Folks or any of the people at American Thinker, but his argument avoids one very important piece of ancient literature in order to arrive at its conclusion. Finally — and forgive me — I have reached the point of this treatise. To accuse Mr. Obama of “wealth envy” disregards the role of envy in the amassed fortunes of those wealthy people that Democrats are alleged to envy and even hate. As much as Mr. Folks believes the President’s words to be “populist demagoguery,” he is himself engaging in a non-populist form of demagoguery, one that appeals to those who are rich, the ones the Democrats are supposed to envy.

The book of Ecclesiastes is clear on this matter.

4:4 — “And I saw that all labor and all achievement springs from man’s envy of his neighbor.”

So here, the author, presumed to be King Solomon himself, notes that in his observations of life, he’s discovered that human achievement (skill at work) has its roots in envy, which puts a different spin on the use of the word to disrespect only one swath of the political spectrum. The rich exploit envy and are filled with it themselves, for the competition to have the biggest this or that or more of this or that is, in fact, an expression of envy. Moreover, envy flows through every pore of those inside the velvet rope, those who wield power and influence and work to keep others outside its lure of being in control or even “in the know.” How hypocritical is it, then, to argue that one’s envy is the evil “infernal serpent” while another’s is simply dismissed as irrelevant, pointless or worse, not a part of the argument whatsoever?

Wealth envy, it seems, is the flip side of the coin of position envy and very much the same thing. The carrot and the stick is a good thing to those in power, because they are the ones holding the stick. This is not only envy; it’s a form of every one of those seven deadly sins: pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy and sloth. Those chasing the illusive carrot are rarely allowed to get it, and when some do, they are held up as examples of now envy works for the good of all.

Mr. Folks goes on:

All of Obama’s talk about “fairness” is nothing but an attempt to gin up a sense of grievance and exploit it for his own purposes. The rich should be taxed more, he says, not because it would bring in more revenue or because they are not taxed enough already, but because they need to be punished. We hate them because they have succeeded and we have not.

This is the logical conclusion of thinking that begins in the wrong place, and it’s rampant among today’s popular conservative intelligentsia. It’s not that the rich believe themselves better than others; it’s that they believe they can be different than others (e.g. above others), because they’ve earned the right to be so. This is the existential battle between conservatives and liberals, and arguments justifying either position aren’t helped by logic that begins in the wrong zipcode.

By being classified as one of the seven deadly sins, envy is, therefore, a part of human nature and present in us all, not just one group. At the very root of colonialism, for example, is the envy of resources, and justification for seizing such resources in the name of God is a sham disguised as nobility. All colonialist institutions are corrupt in this way, and the protection of one’s place within the hierarchy is likewise self-centered. The French saying noblesse oblige (nobility obligates) undergirds the community chest, but is it really not today simply a tax exemption?

I don’t claim to understand rich people. I grew up in the home of a World War II veteran who settled back home in Michigan as a worker in the furniture factories. We were Adlai Stevenson supporters in the 50s, which carried with it a natural disdain for the “silk stockings” of the old GOP. “Fringe” in the GOP these days points to religious zealotry, but in my youth, it was more about the party of management, corporations, and the wealthy. Today, the religious right is a clever straw man thrown at the opposition and a recruiting tool for the “real” GOP — the fat cats of my dad’s era.

I’m in that 30% tax bracket, and I can’t help but cringe upon hearing that a guy like Mitt Romney doesn’t pay more that 13%. The “deadly sin” that I’m feeling, therefore, is anger, not envy, and there’s a big difference. I don’t want his 13%, because I honestly feel that paying my fair share is just that, fair. Would I like to pay less? Sure, but not at the expense of others, because I really do think we’re all in this together. And what I find illogical is that anything that justifies such a discrepancy is, on its face, contrary to the best interests of the whole.

Jeffrey Folks represents a part of our culture that judges the motives of others based on its own character defects. It’s human to envy others, especially those who have the whirling, sparkly things the have-nots don’t. But it’s foolish (and sloppy thinking) to assume that this has anything to do with the real motives of those who exist beyond the iron gates that separate one from the other. Out here, it’s about survival, not the easy life.

Remember, the Morlocks didn’t envy the Eloi; they ate them.

Warning, soul search underway

soul searchingThe GOP must do an immediate about-face on its position on gay marriage. That’s not some liberal shouting at some conservative; it’s an official position from a top-ranking GOP pollster. Go read Andrew Sullivan’s post today on a remarkable memo circulating among Republican Party thought leaders from Jan van Lohuizen, a highly respected Republican pollster and strategist. It basically says the party needs to shift its position on gay marriage and gay rights and do so quickly. Otherwise, van Lohuizen writes, the GOP risks marginalization, irrelevance or worse. Wow!

Go read it, and when you come back, I have some things to say.

In the late 1970s, evangelical Christian leaders looked around and proclaimed life in the United States to be a mess. They had happily helped elect a Georgia farmer-turned-governor as President, in part, because he professed to be “born-again.” One of theirs in the White House held out so much hope, but it quickly turned disastrous as Jimmy Carter became their national embarrassment. There was budget balancing by gutting the military, and blaming the “malaise” of the American people for a sliding economy. Then there was the Iran hostage crisis, a failed rescue attempt, and, well, hurry 1980.

At about that time, Pat Robertson hired George Gallup to do a study of American attitudes about evangelical Christians. He found that people viewed Christians as illiterate and uneducated, bigoted, overweight, wearers of ill-fitting polyester suits, Bible-thumpers, self-righteous hypocrites, rural and Southern. Dr. Robertson then made a brilliant, mad-men-esque marketing decision: he would use his television program, The 700 Club, to depict Christians as exactly the opposite.

I began working for Pat in 1981. Being a TV magazine show guy (12 Magazine, PM Magazine, Louisville Tonight), I had some of the knowledge he needed to help build his program into a news magazine “with a different spirit.” I witnessed the rise of the Christian Right as a participant and an observer. Above all, Pat wanted to change the view of Evangelicals in the country, because he felt anti-Christian attitudes were bigoted, anti-intellectual, self-serving, and mostly, bad for the country.

We had unwritten policies in place at The 700 Club, for example, that denied access to overweight people. We required people who wrote to us to report a “miracle” to include a photograph, so that we could filter people out based on how they looked. We wanted youngish, intelligent, attractive and articulate people to counter the view that Christians are all stupid Bible-thumpers. We very rarely, if ever, invited guests on the show that were overweight or fit the stereotypes discovered in the Gallup study. When crowd shots were taken in the studio, the camera operators were advised to zoom in on the most attractive people in the audience. None of this was written down, of course; it was just understood.

Reagan was now President, and a conservative shift was underway in the U.S. In 1984, we did $248 million in contributions, and the clout of the Evangelicals was gaining. When Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggert went down in scandals, Pat’s stature increased, because his was the voice of intelligent Christians. In 1985, The Saturday Evening Post ran a cover feature on Pat, raising the possibility of a run for President. We were later summoned to a retreat, where Pat told us that “God has told me to run for President and that I will win.” It split the ministry as the plan unfolded. Contributions crashed, as donors responded by closing their checkbooks.

And so it went. Pat lost. His ministry never recovered completely. The Christian Right evolved and eventually morphed into the Tea Party, and the gap between the Evangelicals and others widened, all of which leads us to this week, and President Obama’s historic support of giving the gay and lesbian community the same legal rights to marry that are enjoyed by heterosexual couples. In the same week, North Carolinians did the opposite ratified Amendment One, which outlawed gay marriage at the constitutional level. The usual suspects are saying the usual things in the usual “he said/she said” way, but beneath all that, I sense a great soul searching underway, one that I think is long overdue and will have lasting consequences for our culture. Jan van Lohuizen’s memo is a part of that, and so is what follows.

A young Christian writer, Rachel Evans, published a moving and personal piece this week that speaks to all of this. How to win a culture war and lose a generation is a heartfelt cry to anyone who will listen that “my generation is tired of the culture wars.”

We are tired of fighting, tired of vain efforts to advance the Kingdom through politics and power, tired of drawing lines in the sand, tired of being known for what we are against, not what we are for.

And when it comes to homosexuality, we no longer think in the black-and-white categories of the generations before ours. We know too many wonderful people from the LGBT community to consider homosexuality a mere “issue.” These are people, and they are our friends. When they tell us that something hurts them, we listen. And Amendment One hurts like hell.

…it should be clear that amendments like these needlessly offend gays and lesbians, damage the reputation of Christians, and further alienate young adults—both Christians and non-Christian—from the Church.

I like what Rachel has written and think she speaks for the vast majority of younger Christians in the country today. Her plea reminds me of something Kathie Lee Gifford once said on The 700 Club. Kathie Lee was the darling of the Evangelicals in the late 70s and early 80s until her very public divorce in 1983. Many people turned against her, and she talked about it on the show. “It’s easy to walk in black and white,” she said, “until life forces you into shades of gray.”

I have strong feelings about civil rights for gays and lesbians, and I think if what Rachel calls “The Church” wants an honest confrontation with God on the matter, it needs to take a deep and thoughtful look in the mirror first. Will it see the youthful, intelligent, slim and successful people of the old 700 Club, or will it see the bigoted, self-righteous sheep who deny the Gospel of Grace in favor of the very “Law” that Christ died to overcome? Take a look at this remarkable diagram from The Guardian for at least part of the answer.

And finally, hasn’t history noted that the prophets of the day were always the most different of all? People of the arts — those whose sensitivity puts them in contact with worlds beyond the flesh — have always been those who carried the message of the moment to others. Why? Because the others have a tendency to get too comfortable within the status quo.

One day long ago, the prophet Jeremiah took a message to the recently enthroned King Shallum, son of King Josiah. Josiah was a righteous king and the land and its people had prospered under his rule, but Shallum was in it for himself. He let the people do as they wished and built himself an incredible mansion. Jeremiah warned of trouble ahead as a result, and then said these powerful words about Shallum’s father: “He pleaded the cause of the poor and the afflicted. Then it was well with him. Is this not what it means to know me, saith the Lord?”

Rethinking the opposition response

President Obama and House Speaker BoehnerPresident Obama went on national television Monday night to address the American people about the looming default crisis in Washington. This was immediately — and automatically — followed by the “opposition response” from Representative John Boehner, the Speaker of the House. As I noted via Twitter following the events, the idea of an opposition response is actually just a form of lazy, “he said, she said” journalism, and we need to start thinking about the validity and consequences of such a format.

A little history first. The idea of putting an political party opposition leader on the same stage with a sitting President all began in 1966 with Lyndon Johnson’s State of the Union address. Bear in mind that the State of the Union annual message is mandated by the Constitution and has been practiced, in one form or another, since the time of George Washington. The opposition response, however, is an invention of the television networks, who first gave time to Everett Dirksen and Gerald Ford to respond to Johnson in 1966. It became an official part of the networks’ coverage by 1976. This makes the opposition response entirely artificial, but the networks like it, and one has to ask themselves why.

The practice has now evolved to include virtually any Presidential speech, so the self-serving national press — in the form of the networks, broadcast and cable — is now dictating to the electorate how politics is to be perceived, and that is apparently to be in Jay Rosen’s “he said, she said” model. Sufficient for analysis is an opposition party response, for, after all, we are a divided people with no single leader in Washington. Nobody’s right. Nobody’s wrong. Every position is equally valid. How absurd.

Consider these thoughts from Jay in his seminal essay, He Said, She Said Journalism: Lame Formula in the Land of the Active User:

Any good blogger, competing journalist or alert press critic can spot and publicize false balance and the lame acceptance of fact-free spin. Do users really want to be left helpless in sorting out who’s faking it more? The he said, she said form says they do, but I say decline has set in.

…Quick definition: “He said, she said” journalism means…

  • There’s a public dispute.
  • The dispute makes news.
  • No real attempt is made to assess clashing truth claims in the story, even though they are in some sense the reason for the story. (Under the “conflict makes news” test.)
  • The means for assessment do exist, so it’s possible to exert a factual check on some of the claims, but for whatever reason the report declines to make use of them.
  • The symmetry of two sides making opposite claims puts the reporter in the middle between polarized extremes.

…Like the “straight down the middle” impulse…, he said, she said is not so much a truth-telling strategy as refuge-seeking behavior that fits well into newsroom production demands. “Taking a pass” on the tougher calls (like who’s blowing more smoke) is economical. It’s seen as risk-reduction, as well, because the account declines to explicitly endorse or actively mistrust any claim that is made in the account.

Rosen goes on to say that the practice is in decline, because journalists are beginning to see that practices like fact-checking are a higher standard. I couldn’t agree more.

I think this “he said, she said” model is at the very heart of what’s wrong with American politics today, because its players are gifted (and trained) to speak out of both sides of their mouths, leaving the decision-making up to so-called experts who are actually a part of the insider culture in the first place.

I think the thing about this that gets to me most is the automatic assumption by both parties that anything a sitting President wants to say to the public carries with it a response from the opposing political party. It strikes me as contrived and accommodating at a time when we all should be questioning everything, because what we have simply isn’t working.

Don’t get me wrong. I fully support the idea of the opposition party scheduling a response, but it is the networks’ decision as to whether such a response warrants live coverage. We need to think about the consequences of that before we automatically assume the answer is always yes.


“Hulu Handcuff:” a signal to broadcasting and cable?

Hulu HandcuffThe “Hulu Handcuff” condition that was a part of the government’s approval of the Comcast-NBC merger this week is an important and insightful look into the mind of not only the Genachowski FCC but also what the Obama administration views as important downstream. If you thought that the status quo has defenders in the White House, you should probably think again, and that has meaning for any kind of legacy media.

The so-called Hulu Handcuff blocks Comcast from any decision-making or influence on the future of Hulu. NBC would still be allowed some participation, but the government sees Comcast as a potential threat to the viability of Hulu and wants assurances that Hulu will be protected. The Justice Department explained in court filings:

“Comcast has an incentive to prevent Hulu from becoming an even more attractive avenue for viewing video programming because Hulu would then exert increased competitive pressure on Comcast’s cable business. If the proposed transaction were to be consummated without conditions, (Comcast) would hold seats on Hulu’s board of directors and could exercise their voting and other governance rights to compromise strategic and competitive initiatives Hulu may wish to pursue.”

In an FCC press release, commissioners wrote that Comcast-NBCU will be required to take affirmative steps to foster competition in the video marketplace in addition to backing away from Hulu.

…Comcast-NBCU will increase local news coverage to viewers; expand children’s programming; enhance the diversity of programming available to Spanish-speaking viewers; offer broadband services to low-income Americans at
reduced monthly prices; and provide high-speed broadband to schools, libraries and underserved communities, among other public benefits…

…Ensuring Reasonable Access to Comcast-NBCU Programming for Multichannel Distribution…

…Protecting the Development of Online Competition…

What’s interesting to me here is the message this action telegraphs to the whole “video transmission” industry, and it’s pretty huge: “Don’t mess with unbundled video distribution via the Web.” Reading between the lines can’t make anybody in the licensed spectrum world feel all warm and fuzzy inside, because the government’s priority should be seen as online and not over-the-air, although that may seem like splitting mobile broadband hairs.

These conditions are set for at least seven years, seven crucial years in the development of the online video marketplace. Monetizing all that content on behalf of rights owners is something that’s still very mushy and in need of serious leadership. It’s the innovator’s dilemma that Clayton Christensen (keynoter at the upcoming Borrell Conference in March) talks about. Broadcasters want and need to protect their core competency while disruptive forces are demanding a different model. This week’s action by the Justice Department and the FCC sends a clear signal as to which area has Washington’s ear.

License they mean when they cry liberty

John Milton, courtesy Wikipedia

John Milton

It’s raining here in Dallas this morning, and pensive is my mood. I’m locked in thoughts ranging from my age to political assassinations to the future that awaits my children. The title of this post is a famous line from the 17th Century John Milton (Paradise Lost) poem, I Did but Prompt. It’s one of the most fascinating, pre-American statements, and it says a lot about human nature. “License they mean when they cry liberty” has been with me for decades, and it never fails to influence my thinking when I hear people spouting about that most important American word “liberty.”

Milton’s poem is about the uselessness of preaching the truth of freedom to a class of people who are, frankly, uninterested, because it will impact their place in life. “…all this waste of wealth,” he writes, “and loss of blood.” He refers to the Biblical wisdom of not “casting your pearls before swine,” an admonishment not to waste your time with people who refuse to listen, people whose own contempt for truth leads them astray.

And yet, as Milton suggests, these people are often loudly proclaiming their belief in liberty, often defending it with war and violence. Milton, however, sees through this and proclaims that what they’re really defending is “license,” a much different concept than that of liberty.

“For who loves that (liberty),” he notes, “must first be wise and good.”

I think this is being played out before us today in nearly every corner of our culture. Nobody wants the truth inherent in liberty, because liberty requires responsibility. We want license, the “freedom” to do what we want at all times. Milton wisely notes that there’s a HUGE difference between the two, and I think we need to talk about this.

The First Amendment, for example, is a requisite cornerstone of liberty, because the courage to tell the truth must be protected. However, when it’s used to protect license, it’s polluted and turned on its head, and that’s a problem. I think the Founding Fathers knew that liberty demands sacrifice (Milton’s view), but we don’t hear much about that today. The emphasis on truth is the differentiator, which is why I am obligated to support everything about WikiLeaks and at the same time curse the political discourse of today, like that which played at least some role in the murderous atrocity in Tucson yesterday. The former seeks truth, but the latter seeks self gain.

License they mean when they cry liberty.

Social media as “shop talk”

overworkedI went to my local Verizon store New Year’s Eve to check out the Motorola Droid Pro, which I plan to purchase. It was also time to investigate my family account for discounts and and upgrades. We were the only customers present, something that’s very unusual, so I had the attention of all three clerks. They were temporarily out of Droid Pros, but said they could get one and that I could come back today, New Year’s Day.

“You’re open?” I asked.

“Yeah,” a nice young man replied.

“What hours do you have to work?” I probed.

“Well, they’ve sort of messed with us,” he continued, “because we were supposed to be open from 10–6. They just notified us that we’re working until 8 o’clock.”

Eyes rolled, and I lamented the extra two hours with them, but in the back of my mind, I couldn’t help think that, sooner or later, this kind of corporate behavior is going to have to end. It cannot exist in a hyperconnected universe, because word travels fast. We’ll go through a season of people getting fired, because they complained about this or that on Facebook, but in the end, who will want to work for a company with such practices? It certainly won’t be the best and brightest. Our ability to talk to each other — to complain to each other and find solutions — is what’s really new about today. I suspect we’ll need to strengthen “shop talk” labor laws to include social media in order to eventually protect people from sharing complaints that normally would have been kept at home.

This points to what people like Umair Haque and John Hagel preach: that best business practices for the 21st Century are very different than those of the Industrial Age. When profit is the fundamental raison d’être, then anything goes in the name of profit. Too bad, employee. You want a job, you’ll do anything and everything I tell you to do, and you won’t complain. But pure profit can no longer be the essential driver of business in a hyperconnected universe. It has to be about creating and maintaining value. If you stand any chance of a quality labor force, you simply must treat people differently, and not just your customers. The smart business person of today is beginning to see that. It’s not all about salary; it’s very much about working conditions. There are big corporations whose CEOs are quite adept at gutting working conditions in the name of profit. They are rewarded for so doing, because that’s how they’re graded by investors. They don’t give a crap about brain drain, because that’s not a part of their compensation, so who cares if employees must endure ungodly hours or manage their own benefits? A manager who practices this for long will soon find herself staring at an empty room where a factory used to be.

This will be their undoing, because what used to be called “shop talk” is now being spread far and wide. It’s only going to get worse for those who worship the bottom line at the expense of human beings.

I love Verizon and have been a faithful customer of theirs for a very long time, but this event has given me pause. What kind of business do you think they’ll do in those extra two hours…on New Year’s Day? What will they have accomplished except piss off their labor force?