Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Thought on Funerals

The Rev. Marilyn Sewell writes about funerals and memorial services, and in the course of her essay acknowledges that sometimes those who are mourned are mostly remembered for their faults:

But what if Virginia was a difficult person? What if she was a narcissist, who didn't really pay much attention to her children? Or what if she was a raging alcoholic? Do we really want to remember her, to celebrate her life? Yes, we do, just as she was, in all of the various colors of her life....

I nodded when I read this, and immediately thought of the recent eulogy that Bruce Springsteen gave his bandmate and friend, Clarence Clemons. Clarence was evidently a sometimes problematic personality, notwithstanding his talent, and Bruce was straightforward about that in his remarks, in a very loving yet frank manner, as befits a true friendship.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Wisconsin, Protest, and Godwin's Law

There was a big event in our town yesterday -- the technical college that was said to be the first of its kind in the nation, the grandaddy of our state's technical college system -- marked its 100th anniversary.

Wisconsin's governor, Scott Walker, showed up to give a speech and was jeered and heckled by a couple of hundred protesters. (They were, according to news accounts, silent and respectful for all the other speakers at the centenary event.)

I trust there's no doubt among those who know me or who have read this blog how I feel about the legislative tsunami that has ripped up our state's social contract in the last six months since Mr. Walker took office. (And in case there was any doubt, I suspect that the foregoing sentence has erased it, even if you didn't follow the link!)

But I dislike the drowning-out of the governor's speech. I would have preferred to see protesters respond to him silently -- perhaps turning their backs, or holding up a big sign that observes he has made unsustainable cuts to education in our state. I think there are moral reasons to take that route, but I also think tactics, and yes, PR strategy, are still important. There may be deep polarization and few undecided people in our divided state, but nonetheless not everyone has the same emotional investment on either side that the most loyal partisans do. And for those who are less certain about their support of the governor or of his critics, I fear that the length to which the protesters went risks marginalizing their own message.

DairyStateMom made essentially the same point over breakfast this morning, and I reflexively agreed (because she's very smart, because I did agree with her, and because it's always wisest to do so when neither of us has had our morning coffee quota).

But then I paused and fulfilled Godwin's Law.

I would feel differently, I allowed, about drowning out a speech by Hitler (an act that would have carried with it far greater risk to the heckler, I'll note). So in that case, where does one draw the line?

"Scott Walker isn't Hitler," she said. "He's not sending people to the gas chamber."

Indeed he isn't. And I do deplore the casual characterization of political opponents as Nazis, from whatever corner of the political spectrum it comes and whoever the target is -- at least within mainstream politics.

Yet that principle embedded in that position, and underlying Godwin's law itself, raises* the question: Can we ever make that characterization? And what is the standard?

And if we believe, as I am inclined to, that the looming changes wrought by our governor, his legislative majority, and their corporate financiers risk increasing the deaths of poor people who will be failed by our healthcare system while systematically disenfranchising voters whose circumstances make it more difficult for them to submit to new Voter ID procedures, is the comparison more apt than we give it credit for?

Or, to turn to another context in which the accusation of fascism is lodged, would a president who went to war on the strength of lying propaganda, who authorized the torture of prisoners, and who in the process instituted a national security state that places increasing shackles on personal liberty and privacy, be legitimately characterized thus?

Here's a case that's not quite the same thing, but similar enough: The other day Will linked to an item pointing out the gross disparity between the prison sentence (15 years) of a homeless man who robbed someone of $100 and a businessman (40 months) who committed fraud in the millions billions.

"Some'll rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen," Woody Guthrie sang.

Should we be less willing to make such fine distinctions [ADDED] that treat the fountain-pen robber less severely, just as the pin-stripe-suited proto-fascist is?


*Free English major tip for the day: It does not "beg" the question, however often you see the latter term misused in just that way. Here's a good rundown on the distinction between the two.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Choosing Paths

Congratulations to Christine on her new job...

Reading her post (as well as Matt Kinsi's comment) got me to thinking...

I'm in my 50s, and to be honest, always tended to measure jobs by how close I thought they could get me to the goal of 'changing the world.'

So I chose journalism, first in the newspaper business and then, when I opted for self-employment 16 years ago, went to the less-lucrative side of freelance journalism rather than more lucrative means of employing my craft (such as marketing, advertising, PR and related areas).

But in retrospect, I'm not sure that always made the most sense. I wonder sometimes if I would have been better off doing something that paid better and at the same time left me more free to pursue interests in activism.

No way of knowing for sure, and I'm not lying awake at night questioning the route I took. But the one thing I realize now that I didn't then is that the choices are nowhere near as black-and-white as I saw them 15 and 30 years ago...

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Summer Camp

I'm writing this post overlooking a placid Missouri lake 90 minutes or so southwest of St. Louis.

I'm here for the annual, week-long gathering of several hundred Unitarian Universalists. This group has been meeting for some 60-plus years, most of that time on Lake Geneva in Wisconsin. Changes five years ago in the configuration of the facility that hosted them for most of that time forced a relocation, and this is now the fourth year that the organization has been meeting here in Missouri.

Summer Assembly was for a time an important part of my religious life and experience and a beloved community. My former spouse and I first attended 18 years ago, when DairyStateKid#1 had just turned 2 years old, and attended annually for years thereafter. It was there, in our 11th summer of attendance, that she told me that she had decided it was time for us to separate; by the time I returned the next year with my two sons, we had been divorced for months and I had met the person who would become the DairyStateMom of this blog.

The transition away from Lake Geneva was a challenge for this group of 500-plus UU campers, and it was followed by a period of true mourning. My sons and I continued through the camp's one-year interim site in 2007 and the first year at this new place the next year. For many reasons, I skipped the last two years, but now I am back.

Summer Assembly is as pure a distillation of the blessings and foibles of Unitarian Universalist culture and community as I think you will find anywhere. The spirit is generous and relaxed, the speakers tend to veer more toward the experiential and inspirational side of UU-ism than the dry and intellectual side. For children it is a safe and permissive environment, and there has been a special joy in seeing them grow over the years, many of them into sensitive, caring and energized adults.

So after two years away, here I am again. I am taking a workshop on photography to help me get more comfortable with the fancy new camera I bought recently for my work. I had hoped to take another workshop on Unitarian Universalists and Prayer, but that canceled at the last minute. And each morning we have a worship service featuring talks by Meg Barnhouse, one of our UU rock stars, who is our theme speaker.

Of late, much has been on my mind that all boils down to -- just what is it, anyway, that I want to do with my life? Summer Assembly has often been a time to contemplate that question, in various iterations, and so it is again.

So for that reason alone, I think this is a good place to be right now. And I am glad to be here.