17 December 2009

More wine stuff

Forgot to mention that I chose the lineup at a recent wine tasting at one of my favorite local establishments. Check out a review here to see what was in the affordable, "go-to" wine list (with the disclaimer that I had to stick with said establishment's distributors, so a couple of wines I wanted didn't get on the list - check comments for that).

16 December 2009

Food and wine inspiration

Yeah, I know, where have I been? Acknowledging that I have nothing profound to say at the moment, and not wanting to speculate about whether obstructing health insurance reform, frustrating financial industry reform, or blocking the importation of inexpensive pharmaceuticals is the more egregious and cynical move by the Senate, I offer you this review of a fine wine dinner I enjoyed at Feast Restaurant recently (disclaimer: I received no compensation of any sort for this review).

The dinner featured the wines of Rodney Strong, a winery I'll admit I had only a passing knowledge of previously. The Strong family founded their winery in 1959, being only the 13th winery in Sonoma County. In 1989 the Klein family purchased the winery, but they have endeavored to keep the “family-owned” winery concept going. In addition, they are serious about sustainable practices in their viniculture, including their installation of a 766 kW, 4,032 panel solar electric system, the largest solar array in the wine industry.

Our reception wine was a 2007 Sonoma chardonnay, another winery owned by the Klein family (putting out mostly value-priced wines). This was an unoaked chardonnay, with a little pineapple tartness to it. It was light, easy to drink, albeit with a short finish – a fine summer quaffer. All of the wines poured with dinner were Rodney Strong Estate wines.

The first course was a crab salad with pears and melon and a Sauvignon Blanc vinaigrette. The crab was excellent, with straight-up clean and crisp crab flavor. The wine was the 2008 Charlotte's Home Sauvignon Blanc (named for the late founder's wife). It was almost effervescent (someone described it as having a “ping” to it). The pairing was smart, with the wine enhancing the melon flavors of the salad.

The second course was a sausage stuffed quail with potato au gratin and a pomegranate pinot noir butter sauce. The quail was moist and not too gamey, the entire dish was well conceived and executed, and the sauce was yummy-rich. Naturally, the wine was a Pinot Noir, 2008 Russian River. It was silky, with some floral and cherry notes as well as a hint of smokiness. (For those of you who care about such things, it recently received a 91 from Wine Enthusiast).

Next up was blackened salmon with butternut squash risotto and a Cajun cream sauce. If you're old enough (like I am) to remember the 1980s phenomenon of “blackened anything”, you'll recall how badly this cooking technique can overwhelm any dish. Not so fast, my friend. This salmon was expertly cooked (medium rare to rare), with a spiciness that definitely had a cumulative impact but wasn't overwhelming. The sauce was like an elegant remoulade, and the entire dish was well-balanced. The wine was the 2007 Chalk Hill Chardonnay, which had some oak up front but then the fruits (apple and spice, primarily) took over. It was a very good pairing with this spicy course.

A digression for you wine geeks out there – the Chalk Hill region saw its first planting in 1965, and became its own AVA (American Viticultural Area, akin to the wine appellations/growing regions of other countries) in 1983. As you might guess, the name Chalk Hill comes from the chalky, white ash volcanic soil in the area, and the minerality tends to produce very nice white wines.

Back to dinner. Course #4 was a braised veal loin with roasted root vegetables (beets, sweet potatoes, turnips and parsnips) and caramelized onions. The veal was meaty and provided a solid backdrop to the great veggies and an amazing sauce (a reduction of the braising liquids, I would suspect). The entire dish was like a sophisticated barbecue, being a great balance of sweet, savory, and smoky. Our table wanted a baguette to soak up the sauce! The wine, a 2006 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, hit my palate with flavors of plum and light pepper, with some dark berries also. Even though it came in at 14.4% ABV, it wasn't overwhelming, but it did stand up to the meat quite well.

We closed the evening with a dessert of chocolate ganache in a pecan (I think) crust with a cherry sauce. This was rich but not too heavy, although one of my tablemates described it as “completely decadent in every way”. Maybe that also included the paired wine, a Knotty Vines 2007 Zinfandel. This one really is an “old vines” zin, with some of the original planting dating back to 1904 (it was from the Russian River and Alexander Valley regions). At 14.9%, it was definitely sweet, but not bad; the cherry and chocolate flavors of the wine paired very well with the same in the dessert.

Overall, I was impressed with this dinner. I have found recently that prix fixe paired wine or beer dinners can lack a bit in their execution, even if the conception is solid. That was not the case here; the cooking was spot on throughout, and the pairings were well considered. Kudos to Feast's relatively new Chef Larry Searson, proprietor Teri Rogers, the Rodney Strong wine rep Heather Hanks, and the whole crew for this endeavor!

09 October 2009

Why Obama? Why now? Here's why...

Like many of you, I awoke today to the surprising (to say the least) news that the Nobel Committee had chosen President Obama as the recipient of the 2009 Peace Prize. Once I got over the initial shock (and awe?) phase, I began to wonder, again no doubt like many of you, whether this honor hadn't come a tad early in Obama's career. After all, he's only been in office nine months, and the formal nomination deadline had occurred just two weeks after his inauguration. So perhaps the Nobel Committee had jumped the gun a little bit. Perhaps there isn't yet enough in Obama's CV or list of concrete accomplishments to merit this honor.

Some say that he's won this award only in contrast to the prior occupant of the Oval Office. And while it's true that simply by being President Obama, he's made the world a safer place than it was under President Bush/Cheney, it doesn't follow that anyone would have done the same thing (can you imagine President McCain winning this honor?).

But let's take a step back and think a little more broadly about this. “What has President Obama actually done to deserve this award?” is a question that makes more sense if one broadens the definition of “done”. End results are not the only kind of “doing” that matters.

So what are these more amorphous “doings” of Obama? Let's start by citing the official statement from the Nobel Committee, who lauded Obama “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” The Committee “attached special importance to Obama's vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.” He has “created a new climate in international politics” wherein “[m]ultilateral diplomacy has regained a central position”, and “[h]is diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world's population.”

The central point the Committee makes is this: In the realm of international politics and diplomacy, words matter. Attitudes and thoughts matter. Positions matter. Approaches, understandings, and fundamental principles really do matter.

These are the sorts of things that President Obama has done already. He has renewed America's respect for international law and international institutions, for the role of diplomacy, and for foundational principles of universal human rights. These really are vital things, folks! If we are ever to have a truly well-functioning international system, robust international law and vigorous international institutions are indispensable. If, on the other hand, you think that the go-it-alone, cowboy-diplomacy style of the prior Administration was a good idea, then I can understand why you wouldn't think internationalism is all that important. Just remember that the world's a big place, and it can get mighty lonely out there all by yourself. America isn't the Imperial Colossus astride the world, and it couldn't be that even if you wanted it to be.

But that brings me to another important point. America isn't in a position to run the world by itself (although we might once have been). We can't militarily bully the rest of the world into obsequiousness, and we can't economically dominate the world's markets. However, this Nobel Prize does demonstrate one thing about America's preeminence in the world. It shows us that the world still longs for American leadership in the service of higher ideals. The world looks to America as the beacon of democracy, the champion of human rights, and the guardian of the rule of law. The world really does want America to succeed, which in this instance also means they want President Obama to succeed in fulfilling his aspirations on the international stage (unlike some critics who celebrate every perceived Obama failure).

We live in times that call for visionary leadership. Where there is no vision, the people perish (Proverbs 29:18). Where there is a vision, a vision of a future of international cooperation and mutual respect promulgated and led by the world's preeminent nation, all of the world's people will have a better chance to live in peace. “Imagine all the people living life in peace” (happy birthday, John)? Maybe that's too much to imagine. But more peace, less war, more cooperation and respect, and less hatred and violence? That's a vision we can all imagine.

16 September 2009

Priorities in the church (or any other faith community)

I've been doing some pondering (and writing) about my own faith community's priorities of late, and a couple of folks suggested I share my thoughts with the online community as well. What follows is a slightly modified version of an article I wrote for my congregation's upcoming newsletter, with a couple of additions to try to broaden the perspective beyond an exclusively Christian one (although I do think that most of what Jesus had to say can apply broadly to the whole of humanity). Feel free to cite or quote it if something in it strikes you as useful for your own community.

Priorities - things that are regarded as more important than others; the right to take precedence or to proceed before others. At least that's what my dictionary software says. When we talk about the church, it can be trickier than you think to agree on priorities, mostly because so many things we do as a church are important and valuable that we hate to rank any one above the other. But in the real world of limited resources, the truly faithful response is to set priorities and decide what things are essential to the mission of our church.

Mission - an important assignment, vocation or calling. What is our calling as a church? What have we been “assigned” to do as Christians? According to the “official” United Methodist line, we are called “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Sounds good, right? But how do we go about doing this? This appears to be a two-part mission statement – first, make disciples; then, transform the world, or more specifically, teach and equip them to transform the world. So those must be our two priorities...easy enough. First, how do we make disciples?

Disciple - a follower or student of a teacher or leader. For Christians, this specifically refers to a follower or student of Jesus. To be someone's follower or student in this sense means more than simply taking notes and passing an exam at the end of the term. Disciples are called to learn what the teacher has to teach, by words and by example, and to put those teachings into place in their own lives. That is, the student should become more and more like the teacher. Once the students are transformed into being more like the teacher, they are then ready to transform others.

Transformation - a thorough or dramatic change in form or appearance. When we are transformed as disciples, again, we become more like the person Jesus showed us how to be. Then we are able to go out into the world to transform it, to make it more like the world Jesus envisioned, a world where love, justice, and peace are abundant. This would indeed be a thorough and dramatic change!

OK, so there's the basic outline: We learn in order to transform ourselves, so that we can go out and transform the world. But remember this – it's a two-part formula. If we try to transform the world without first transforming ourselves, we lack the internal, spiritual resources necessary to do so. This is certainly not just a Christian concept - recall Gandhi's "be the change you wish to see in the world". On the other hand, if we are content with “improving” ourselves without genuinely investing ourselves in changing the world, we miss the entire point of Jesus' call on our lives, or the call of the Buddha, or the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), or Gandhi, or most any other spiritual leader. We don't get to pick and choose whether we want to be involved in only one or the other aspect, not if we're seeking to live lives that are faithful responses to God's love.

So then, as Christians everything we are about in church, everything we say and do, everything on which we spend time and money ought to be about the furtherance of these two goals – transforming ourselves into more faithful disciples of Jesus, and transforming the world in ways that God desires. As many congregations move into the time of year when they seek to discern new leaders and set their budgetary priorities for the coming year, it would be good to keep these two goals in mind.

I often hear that we, as a church, need to “pay the bills”, “keep the lights on”, and other similar things. But we should only do these things to the extent that they are really furthering our two-part mission. Am I suggesting, for example, that we bundle up in sweaters and coats in an unheated sanctuary in January so that we can spend the utility savings to feed the hungry? Perhaps that's too outlandish, too radical. Perhaps we need to be more sensible, more reasonable than that. And perhaps the love of God, the love that Jesus taught and lived, is more sensible than outlandish, more reasonable than radical.

But perhaps not.

05 September 2009

Flawed heroes, redemption, and forgiveness

I've picked up on a recurring theme in certain current events of the past couple of months. What I've noticed are several instances of controversial figures eliciting very divided responses from the general public. Let me explain by way of offering a few examples.

A few weeks ago, the Scottish government released Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al-Megrahi, the only person ever convicted in connection with the Lockerbie bombing of a Pan Am flight in December of 1988 that killed 270 people. Scotland has a policy of “compassionate release” whereby the government may release a prisoner ahead of his or her scheduled release date for a variety of reasons, and the government examines each case individually. Al-Megrahi was diagnosed with an advanced stage prostate cancer, and will in all likelihood die within a few months at most. The Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Kenny MacAskill, decided to release him from prison so that he could travel home to Libya and die there. This decision prompted outcries from both governments and individuals who lost relatives and loved ones in the bombing.

Al-Megrahi had shown no remorse for his actions (although he did continue to insist on his innocence, and questions remain about his actual participation in the terrorist plot). He received what amounted to a hero's welcome upon his return to Libya. At worst, he is a cold-blooded terrorist; at best, he is a man whose warped sense of religion and ideology permits him to consider the deaths of 270 innocent souls as unworthy of his grief. Either way, he seems a reprehensible character. Secretary MacAskill noted all of this in his statement explaining his decision to release Al-Megrahi, but then asserted that the evilness of this one person should not be allowed to define or control his own decision. You can read the full text of his statement, but here's the most relevant excerpt.

In Scotland, we are a people who pride ourselves on our humanity. It is viewed as a defining characteristic of Scotland and the Scottish people. The perpetration of an atrocity and outrage cannot and should not be a basis for losing sight of who we are, the values we seek to uphold, and the faith and beliefs by which we seek to live.

Mr Al-Megrahi did not show his victims any comfort or compassion. They were not allowed to return to the bosom of their families to see out their lives, let alone their dying days. No compassion was shown by him to them.

But, that alone is not a reason for us to deny compassion to him and his family in his final days.

Our justice system demands that judgment be imposed but compassion be available. Our beliefs dictate that justice be served, but mercy be shown. Compassion and mercy are about upholding the beliefs that we seek to live by, remaining true to our values as a people. No matter the severity of the provocation or the atrocity perpetrated.

Many people (including those in my own faith community with whom I spoke about this) did not find this explanation to be an adequate justification for Al-Megrahi's release. I'm still not entirely sure what I would have done had I been in Secretary MacAskill's position, but if nothing else, his decision shows a steadfast commitment to certain values of mercy and compassion that cannot be trumped by evil and hatred, and by that if nothing else I am moved. Didn't Jesus teach us to love those who hate us, and to repay evil with love? In the rest of his statement MacAskill makes it clear that he neither forgives nor forgets Al-Megrahi's crimes; he simply refuses to allow himself or his people to be defined by them.

Then there's the case of Michael Vick, football quarterback and despicable thug, who spent the last year or so of his life behind bars for the cruel crime of running dogfights. After his release, Vick applied for reinstatement in the NFL so that he could resume his multi-million dollar superstar career. Many commentators objected to this, arguing that to allow Vick back into the league after committing such cruel and despicable acts would be tantamount to sweeping his crimes under the Astroturf. What's more, even though he has publicly apologized and acknowledged his wrongdoings, many doubt his sincerity. These same commentators argue that allowing Vick to return to the sport sends the wrong message – that if you're athletically talented, you can get away with most anything and still wind up rich and famous.

But I think that line of criticism misses the mark. Vick did, in fact, pay the appropriate penalty for his crimes – he served the sentence imposed on him by our justice system. Other prisoners are allowed to go back to work in their professions after their release (with certain exceptions, of course). The fact that Vick's line of work happens to make him, as a professional athletic superstar, something of a role model for our society's youth doesn't say anything about Vick himself, but it does say a good deal about us as a society. Why do kids emulate someone like Vick more so than, say, Yo-Yo Ma or Neil deGrasse Tyson? This isn't Vick's fault. As the saying goes, “Don't hate the player – hate the game.”

Most recently, Senator Ted Kennedy's death was the occasion for many retrospectives on his life. Some portrayals lionized him as a champion of the poor and downtrodden, while others vilified him for being a besotted womanizer (the latter always referencing Chappaquiddick). As is often the case, the reality of Ted Kennedy was more nuanced than either of these simplistic portraits. It is true that Kennedy enjoyed a stiff drink or three, and his reputation as a skirt-chaser was not unfounded. And yes, he was probably at least partially responsible for the death of Mary Jo Kopechne. It's also true, however, that in his Senate career he established himself as a hard-working legislator, a crusader for civil rights and justice, and perhaps most surprisingly, a bipartisan Senator willing to work with colleagues from both sides of the aisle where he could find agreement.

Kennedy was not a perfect human being – far from it. Neither was he completely and utterly irredeemable. He was, in short, a flawed hero, as were so many of the classical Greek heroes that he and his brothers often cited. The key here, though, is that Kennedy continued to grow, to learn from his mistakes, and to commit himself to working toward the betterment of humanity and society. In a remarkable speech he gave in 1991, when facing a serious re-election challenge and having lost much of the faith and trust of his constituents, Kennedy acknowledged his failings and rededicated himself to improving both the world and himself. "Individual faults and frailties are no excuse to give in - and no exemption from the common obligation to give of ourselves. Today, more than ever before, I believe that each of us as individuals must not only struggle to make a better world, but to make ourselves better, too. And in this life, those endeavors are never finished."

I take hope from this statement, as it reminds me that despite my own failings (of which there are too many to catalog), I am yet not released from my obligation to strive for something more. None of us is without flaws and failings, yet none of us is allowed to stop trying. We will not achieve perfection or complete enlightenment, but we are called to continue to continue on toward these. We are not yet bodhisattvas, but we are called to alleviate suffering wherever we find it, and as Kennedy's brother Robert was fond of saying, we must always strive to make gentle the life of this world.

20 August 2009

Old World v. New World – wines, that is!

Today I'm serving as substitute blogger for my good friend Cecilia Dominic the Random Oenophile, who decided to go chase tropical storms for her vacation. She will be cross-posting this entry on her blog, which you should read anyway because of its wealth of wine and food info. She usually recounts the fine bi-weekly wine tastings at one of our mutual favorite joints, JavaMonkey in Decatur, as well as her other oenophilic and gastronomic adventures. If you haven't been there, I strongly encourage you to go check it out – great wines and beer, excellent food, and oh yes, fine Free Trade coffee by the cup or by the pound.

Anyway, on to the wines. This week's tasting was billed as an “Old World v. New World” matchup, but of course Jess (the proprietor of said JavaMonkey) wanted to throw in a wrinkle, so the tasting was essentially a blind one, with the exception of identifying the predominant varietals of each wine. That is, we got a sheet with the six wines listed, two chardonnays, two sangioveses, and two syrahs, but that was it. We were left to deduce which wine was from the Old World (which, by the rules of the tasting, pretty much meant Europe) and which was from the New World.

Our first pairing was the aforementioned chardonnays. Chardonnay #1 was grassy, perhaps slightly vegetal (but in a good way – maybe a hint of green pepper?), with some overtones of pink grapefruit, a little lemony also, and it had some funkiness (again in a good way) and a nice long finish. This one was a double thumbs-up from all tasters with whom I spoke, and was one of my faves. I guessed this as an Old World (hereinafter OW v. NW).

Chardonnay #2 had more of a green apple flavor up front (thanks to Kurt for identifying the correct apple varietal). It definitely showed some oak barrel aging (unlike Chard #1), and had a slightly shorter finish than #1. It was also a bit sweet, almost a candy apple flavor but not quite that sweet. It was good, but the other Chard was my preference. I guessed NW.

Sangiovese #1 was a light to medium bodied red, very smooth, with a slightly tart flavor – sour cherries was the best description I could come up with. It had some “legs” - for the uninitiated, “legs” refer to the coating trickles left on the inside of the glass after swirling the wine up the sides of the glass. The viscosity of the wine thus observed is a rough measure of its alcohol content (or ABV), i.e., the longer the legs, the higher the alcohol content. As a general rule, OW wines are lower ABV than NW wines. My guess here was OW.

Sangiovese #2 was darker, very big and punch on the nose with more legs. It was a little “hot” (in terms of ABV, not just temperature, although I could have done with having the reds served closer to “cellar temperature of about 65 degrees Fahrenheit). It was chewy and sticky, definitely peppery, with more of a dark cherry flavor. I picked up some tannins (but not too many); others noted a hint of anise. I guessed NW.

Syrah #1 was a little hot on the front of my tongue, and it was hard at first for me to pick out any distinct flavors as the high ABV smacked me upside the palate at the beginning. I eventually settled on “dark berries” as the flavor-in-chief, with some chocolaty aspects as well. There was definitely a lot going on with this wine, although it was just a bit too fruit-forward and high intensity for my tastes – I'm guessing, however, that this would have been Cecilia's favorite of the evening. I guessed NW.

Syrah #2 was perhaps my favorite wine of the evening. It was dark and slightly sweet, with big legs, but not quite as in-your-face as #1. I got some dark berries again – but that's characteristic of the varietal – maybe blackberries in this one, or perhaps blueberries also. There were also some tannins and a little minerality, but not so much as to overwhelm the other flavors. I also got a hint of anise on the sides of my tongue as I tasted this one. I guessed OW.

Now for the revealing of the hidden truths. First, I must pat myself on the back for going 6 for 6 on the OW v. NW identifications (not that they were particularly difficult). Here's the full lineup:

Chardonnay #1 was Verget Macon-Villages 2007, Burgundy (France)

Chardonnay #2 was Mark West Central Coast (California) 2008

Sangiovese #1 was Stella 2007 from Puglia, Italy

Sangiovese #2 was Niner 2006 from Paso Robles, California

Syrah #1 was Clos LaChance Black-Chinned Syrah 2006, from California's Central Coast

Syrah #2 was Saint Cosme 2008, Cotes-du-Rhone (France)

I hadn't thought about this until now as I was looking over the lineup, but Jess (and Joe, wine rep from Prestige Wines, who is always a fine source of knowledge) chose all of their New World wines from one specific region, the Central Coast of California (Paso Robles is pretty much smack-dab in the middle of the Central Coast). Very sneaky of them...

That's my report from the wine tasting. Thanks to CD for allowing me to fill in for her in her absence. And thanks to you readers for letting my indulge this diversion into another of my life's passions. Salut!

19 August 2009

The only thing we have to fear is...that other guy!

I know I've written about this before, but it's time once again to plumb the Jungian depths of the fear of the other, or maybe I should capitalize that: The Other. I'm referring to the virulently angry protesters at the various Congressional town hall meetings over the past few weeks. Of course, much of these protests are of the “Astroturf” variety (i.e., fake grass roots), and right-wing bloviators are responsible for stirring up much of the vitriol on display. However, there are some genuinely angry, genuinely afraid people out there.

What are they afraid of? Are they really afraid of reforms to the health insurance industry? Are they afraid of a public option for health care, or of losing tax deductibility for employer-provided health insurance benefits? If they are, these aren't the issues they're articulating (and I use the word generously), at least not in most of the news clips I've seen of the protests. Speaking of which, Barney Frank delivered a fine smackdown of a nutty protester at a recent town hall meeting, as shown on this YouTube clip.

No, what they're afraid of, quite specifically, is President Obama and his plans to implement a “Nazi” government. That's right, it's apparently Summertime for Hitler and America. Protesters are feverishly brandishing posters of Obama with a Hitler-esque mustache (I suppose they chose Nazis instead of Communists because a Stalin mustache just looks too silly on anyone) and chanting all manner of nonsensical anti-reform slogans. Oh yeah, and they're starting to bring guns to the protests too.

Now, last I checked, the Nazis didn't offer universal health coverage. Neither did they make many attempts to rein in pharmaceutical costs. So the Nazi comparisons aren't meant to be point-by-point accurate historical parallels. What the protesters are trying to say, as best as I can figure out, is that just as Hitler was evil, Obama also is evil, and he's trying to turn America into some sort of evil shell of its former self. If you listen to the protesters, you'll hear them say things like “This isn't the America I know and love”.

What is the America they know and love? Perhaps the growing popularity of the AMC series Mad Men might help explain this. The America these folks know and love is the pre-Woodstock, pre-Stonewall America, the Eisenhower Happy Days years, when men were men and women were women and blacks knew their place and gays were firmly locked in their closets.

To put it another way, these folks are afraid of Obama because he's not like them. And I don't mean because he's Harvard-educated, or because he has a hot wife. He's not like them because he's a black guy. That's it, plain and simple, and if you know me at all you know I hate simplifying complex issues down to simple charges like “racism”, but in this case, I think that's at least what's at the root of all this. Have you noticed that every single one of the protesters featured on the news just happens to be white? But don't believe me – check out the most trusted man in news for yourself on this point.

Back to Hitler - if it's Summertime for Hitler and America, is the heartland happy and gay? Well, maybe in Iowa, and in a few New England states that have recently legalized gay marriage. Aside from the health care reform debate, however, nothing stirs up the vitriol of some parts of the populace like the gay marriage debate. This is another one in which opponents of reform decry the destruction of our society, the end of America, etc. etc. if the reformers get their way. The legalization of gay marriage would supposedly crumble the entire foundation of our country. How this would happen (outside of the presumed wrath of a vengeful, homophobic Divine Being), I'm not sure. Since I don't believe in a vengeful, homophobic Divine Being, I'm not too worried about that outcome. I am, however, deeply troubled by the discrimination against a whole lot of people in our country simply because they love certain other people and want to spend a lifetime together in a committed, loving partnership. What's so scary about that?

What's so scary about gays, and blacks, and Hispanic immigrants, and all the rest of the bogeymen conjured up by these protesters, is that they're NOT LIKE US. That is to say, they're THE OTHER. According to depth psychology, we fear that which is different from us - or alternatively that which represents some shadow aspect of our true selves, and then we find an out-group, an other or set of others, and then we project all of our fears and hatred onto that group. It really doesn't matter what that Other group is, as long as we can clearly identify and in turn vilify that group. I've written about this before on this blog so I won't go on too long about it now. Just realize that this is what's really at work in these seemingly irrational protests – the fear of the other. Do we really need to fear that which is different from ourselves? No, what we need to fear is that element within ourselves that we in turn project onto the other. As Carl Jung wisely noted, "The best political, social, and spiritual work we can do is to withdraw the projection of our shadow onto others."

11 August 2009

Healthcare Boondoggle

Most casual observers have no concept of the real cost of our current, primarily employer-based, health care system. There are the structural and competitive “costs”, such as the inability to change jobs without fear of losing coverage (or not having “pre-existing conditions” covered). This obviously limits our overall productivity as a society, because individuals are not always truly free to move from one employer to another in order to raise their income or to work in a new position that would enhance their productivity vis-à-vis the economy as a whole. It also punishes entrepreneurialism, as smaller companies do not have the same purchasing power as larger ones. Also, since experts often cite small businesses as the main engine driving job creation, this system inhibits overall job growth.

Important as these points are, they still do not address the massive transfer of money from certain individuals to others that occurs in the employer-based healthcare system. You've probably heard protestors decrying the proposed “government takeover” of healthcare, along with their demands to not have any of their tax dollars spent to pay for someone else's healthcare. But there's the rub: When it comes to employer-based health insurance, our tax dollars already are being spent for others' healthcare, and to a mind-boggling degree.

When a company pays for health insurance premiums for its employees (in whole or in part), that payment, that benefit to the employee, is not taxed. That is, the employee is earning a benefit (health insurance) in exchange for his or her work, but those earnings are not being taxed as they would be if the employee were simply earning cash. Other individuals who purchase health insurance on their own (i.e., not through their employer) do not enjoy this same tax subsidy. (There are some tax deductions available for some self-employed persons, and the cost of insurance can sometimes be included in itemized deductions, but these situations are limited.)

Put another way, if your company paid you more money, and in exchange you had to go purchase your own health insurance, you would have to pay taxes on those extra earnings. Conceptually speaking, when some individuals in our society pay fewer taxes than they might otherwise (if there were no special benefits or deductions written into the tax code), the rest of us have to pick up the bill for the unrealized taxes – and by “the rest of us” I mean either us right now in order to balance the budget, or some future “us” down the road in order to pay off accumulated deficits.

The bottom line is this: Because of our current employer-based healthcare system, I as a taxpayer am already subsidizing the health insurance costs of everyone who receives health insurance through their employer. That's right, my tax dollars (and yours too) are helping to pay for the “private” health insurance of millions upon millions of Americans. How much does this subsidy cost, you might ask? According to a report published by the Congressional Research Service in late 2008 (drawing on calculations done by the Joint Committee on Taxation), the estimated calendar year 2007 tax expenditures for the employer coverage exclusion were $143.3 billion for the federal income tax and $100.7 billion for FICA (Social Security and Medicare) taxes, for an annual total of $244 billion. Note that this is only the federal tax subsidy; there are also tax benefits to be had under state and local income tax laws.

What's more, this tax subsidy disproportionately benefits the wealthiest individuals in our society, because the higher your marginal tax rate, the more benefit you gain from the non-taxability of employer-paid health insurance contributions. That's right, my taxes and your taxes help pay for the super-premium health insurance plans of the top executives in the land.

This system hasn't always been around; in fact, it was only through changes to the federal tax code in 1954 that this system became cemented in our laws. While some would argue that we shouldn't change anything about our healthcare system because everything seems to work so well the way it is, I would argue that the tax exemption of employer-based health insurance results in a perverse manipulation of healthcare funding, and is a ridiculous boondoggle whose time should now be brought to an end.

Mind you, I'm not arguing (here, at least) about whether we should replace the current system with a robust public option, a full-on single payer system, or a network of private insurance providers. Adding transparency and making consumers aware of the true costs of their healthcare would most likely yield overall healthcare cost savings, but that's only a corollary benefit in my mind. I'm simply saying that we need to remove the current tax boondoggle and shift toward much greater transparency in the health insurance system.

09 August 2009

Gog, Magog, and Bush

I've been laying off of blogging, particularly political musings, for a while now, as I'm trying to work on a larger project. Of course, that's getting nowhere fast, and one astute observer has suggested that I ought to at least throw in a few smaller projects to keep my musing and writing skills at some level of competence. I had been uninspired about this possibility until very recently.

So what was it that drew me out of my slumber? Was it outrage over the insanity of the far-right belligerence about health insurance reform (quoting Charles Blow of NYT, “Belligerence is the currency of the intellectually bankrupt.”), or the shameless funding of politicians on both sides of the aisle by pharmaceutical and other corporate players in the health care realm? No, but at least I got in a quick shout-out on those points.

In fact, it's the revelation, not altogether recent but only now getting significant airplay Stateside, about President George W. Bush and the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. You remember Bush, the seemingly uncomplicated guy who made decisions of national and international import based on his gut rather than his head, and trusted in the leadings of his perception of God through Jesus Christ to guide his footsteps. Apparently we never realized just how much he was consulting the Good Book for foreign policy guidance.

According to several published reports, President Bush called French President Jacques Chirac in early 2003 to seek his support for invading Iraq. According to Thomas Romer, a theologian at the University of Lausanne who claims that French officials turned to him for help in decoding Bush's cryptic Biblical references, Bush cited a prophecy from the book of the prophet Ezekiel (later cited in Revelation) about Gog and Magog, two warrior nations whose movements in the Middle East would foreshadow the Rapture and coming Apocalypse. According to Romer, Bush said to Chirac:

Gog and Magog are at work in the Middle East…. The biblical prophecies are being fulfilled…. This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase his people’s enemies before a New Age begins.”

This may seem simply an odd, offbeat, obscure bit of Biblical end-times ranting (if it had come from anyone other than the leader of the free world and the Commander-in-Chief of the greatest military power the world has ever known), but I can assure you from my days in the evangelical camp that it's standard eschatological fare, popularized by such very well-known authors as Hal Lindsey and championed by the likes of Pat Robertson.

I remember sitting in a lovely Stockholm cafe in the summer of 2006 enjoying a great dinner with a couple of my spouse's Swedish relatives, trying to explain to them the reasons behind America's foreign policy in the Middle East. As I described American evangelicals' obsession with eschatological prophecies and their resultant unquestioning support for Israel and concomitant opposition to Islam, and the expectation that Jesus would return to Earth and gather all of his followers up into heaven once the Temple was rebuilt in Jerusalem, my Swedish relatives began snickering. When I told them that I had read estimates that fully one-quarter to one-third of all Americans actually believed in this one particular literalist interpretation of Biblical prophecies, they openly guffawed. But when I told them that our President and Commander-in-Chief was one of those believers, they fell silent. At the time I was only speculating that this insane religious worldview was part of President Bush's foreign policy motivation. Now, unfortunately, I find my speculations confirmed. If anything could encourage me to believe in a benevolent deity, the fact that the world survived eight years of the Bush Administration might be it.

References and links – check these out:

You can read the original report by French journalist Jacques Sterchi of La Liberté here (original is in French; use Google Translator if your French comprehension, like mine, is a bit rusty). An article by visiting Yale professor Clive Hamilton, in which he draws in the connection of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's practice of embellishing military memos with quotes from Scripture (presumably to help persuade Bush), can be found here. The original cover sheets of the Worldwide Intelligence Updates produced by the Secretary of Defense's office are available here – view these only when you're prepared to be thoroughly appalled.

06 May 2009

WWJT (Who Would Jesus Torture)?

Well, this is disturbing news: A recent Pew Research Center poll asked those surveyed, "Do you think the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information can often be justified, sometimes be justified, rarely be justified, or never be justified?" The Center categorized the respondents by their primary religious affiliation and by their frequency of attending church services. 

Check out the link for the complete findings, but here's a quick summary. 54% of those who attend religious services at least weekly said that torture was justifiable at least sometimes, while only 42% of those who rarely attend religious services said it was sometimes justifiable. There's more fun - among the "unaffiliated" (i.e. non-religious), only 40% fell in the "often" or "sometimes" justifiable camp, while a hearty 62% of white evangelical Protestants were so inclined. 

That's right, the more often you attend church and the more self-identified evangelical you are, the more likely you are to think that torture is defensible. Um, hello, what the bloody hell are the majority of regular churchgoers learning in their churches?? 

Followers of the Prince of Peace...yeah, right...

09 April 2009

How's your 20/40 Vision?

As we near the end of Lent, I’d like you to take a moment to reflect back upon the season through which we have just traveled. For those in my own church in particular, I’d like to ask you how you did with that 20/40 Challenge I issued at the beginning of Lent – you remember, the challenge of “giving up” 20 minutes a day to be spent in prayer, meditation, or other contemplative practice. If you're not someone who heard that challenge at the beginning of Lent, you can still read along and get the gist of things - for more details, you can view the original post on my church's website, along with a couple of great resources for contemplative practices.

If you were one of those who heard the initial challenge, did you accept it? If you didn’t, why not? If you did, what aspects were the most challenging? For me, on some days at least, it was too easy to rationalize away the setting aside of time (even just 20 minutes!). I’d tell myself that if I kept my mind quiet while I drove around to do a few errands, or as I cooked a meal, or whatever, then maybe that would count for today. Obviously, those compromises fall short of the ideal. However, there is an element of truth in them. I found that when I actually was dedicated to my contemplative practice, I was better able to face the various mundane aspects of my daily living with a more equanimous attitude, a more meditative spirit. When I really did the hard work of meditation, I began to see the beginnings of a glimmer of a glimpse of a transformation at work in me. Of course, when I blew off my practice, that faint flickering was often too easily blown out by circumstances around me.

Rather than discourage me, however, these observations make me want to do more, to keep working, to maintain my contemplative practices, to continue my spiritual journey in the spirit of Wesley’s notion of moving onward toward “perfection”. So for those of us who practice the Christian spiritual path, as we exit Lent and enter the celebration of Easter let’s take this opportunity to renew our covenant to be working together, striving onward toward spiritual maturity and enlightenment, and growing into the fullness of life and love.

02 April 2009

Where the hell have you been?

By “you”, of course, I mean “me”, and that question is intended to be directed toward me from y’all (if there are still any of y’all reading this). I will dispense with useless excuses and simply plunge into some of those random musings you’ve come to expect of me.

I’ve been spending some time in my garden these past few days. Looking at it, you might think that I’m using the word “garden” a bit too loosely, because right now all that’s apparent is a bunch of relatively well-plowed dirt (and a perennial rosemary bush in one corner). There aren’t even any seeds hidden below the surface. What you don’t see is the amount of work I’ve put into this ordinary-looking dirt to make it ready (hopefully) to welcome some tomato and basil (and some other yet to be determined) plants in a few days, after the predicted storms pass.

You see, the dirt in my garden is not what you’d call naturally fertile stuff reminiscent of an open patch of Iowa field. No, this is by nature good thick Georgia red clay, not very well suited for the deep planting of tomatoes. So here’s what I’ve done – and if reading details about home agriculture is about as appealing to you as eating Georgia red clay, feel free to skip to the next paragraph, and you’ll still be able to get the gist of what I’m saying. First, I dug up the whole damn thing by hand (well, OK, with a shovel, but you know what I mean). It’s only about 100 square feet, but remember, there’s thick Georgia red clay just a few inches below the surface. Said digging also entailed pulling up some serious protruding roots at about every other shovelful. After a couple of hours of this task, I was pretty sore. I also tested the soil to figure out what additional nutrients it might need. I let this newly turned soil air out for a couple of days, and then returned to add a few things to the soil - gypsum to break up the clay, bone meal to raise the phosphorus level, and general organic tomato fertilizer to enrich the soil – tilling the garden (with a power tiller) after each addition. Finally, I added a layer of fresh topsoil and worked that in to the garden.

Welcome back to those of you who skipped that agronomic tangent! Why on earth would I bore you with all that? Not because I’m trying to prove my farmer creds, but because I wanted to remind you of the vast amount of work involved in growing food. Too often, we think of food as something that comes from the store, rather than from the earth. Now, I don’t want to turn this into a rant on sustainable food, but if you want to know more about that topic just Google Michael Pollan and follow the links (The Omnivore’s Dilemma is a great book by him). And if you don’t know anything about the sustainable food movement, definitely spend some time checking that out.

What I’m really after here is a spiritual analogy, or even just a character development one. For too many of us who profess to follow some sort of spiritual path, we harbor false expectations about the ratio of work to results. That is, enlightenment is not something that suddenly appears out of the sky, nor is it something that happens once for all time, after which we’re left in a perpetual state of transcendent wisdom and loving kindness. No, the process of enlightenment, or in the Wesleyan Christian tradition “moving on toward perfection”, is a gradual and constant one: gradual because most of us will never quite get there, and constant because we’re either moving forward or we’re (sometimes imperceptibly) slipping backward.

When was the last time you challenged yourself to do something that required work, or was out of your comfort zone, or simply was hard (without being something you were required to do)? Are you, perhaps, too comfortable in your comfort zone? Are you willing to settle for mediocrity, or will you stretch your boundaries? As my man the Jedi Pastor noted in his recent post, sometimes it’s good to get outside of yourself, outside of your usual comfort zone (Warning: PETA members should avoid that link!).

Are you really content to be where you are for the rest of your life on Earth? Or do you think, or wonder, or suspect that there might be something more? Are you afraid to reach for something more because you think you won’t get there, or because you think you’ll find out that it’s not really there after all? Why aren’t we willing to learn, to grow, to push ourselves? Are we lazy, or are we afraid of challenges? Are we satisfied remaining where we are, or are we simply afraid to exchange the known for the unknown?

The Christian calendar is approaching Holy Week, the culmination of Lent. It’s easy for many Christians to go straight from the triumphant entry of Palm Sunday to the triumphant resurrection of Easter, completely bypassing Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, past all the suffering that actually leads to the triumph of Easter. That’s also what we want to do in our own lives – bypass the difficult parts, and get right to the triumphant resurrection. But that’s not the way it works. We have to go through the challenging parts to get to the good parts. We have to travel through the wilderness to reach the Promised Land. For that matter, we might not ever get to the Promised Land, or we might not recognize it when we do get there. But one thing is certain – in order to get to the Promised Land, we have to travel through a lot of desert first.

06 January 2009

A Purpose Driven Inauguration?

Many commentators have made much of President-elect Obama’s choice of Rick Warren, Pastor of Saddleback Church and best-selling author, to deliver the invocation at the Presidential inauguration later this month. The main issue, according to many who object to his selection, is that Warren has been an outspoken opponent of gay rights, adamantly campaigning in support of Proposition 8 in California (banning gay marriage) and decrying gays and lesbians as being outside of the approval of God.

The real problem with Pastor Warren, at least from a liberal’s point of view, is that he isn’t a totally reprehensible character in the vein of many members of the Christian Right. In fact, Warren and his congregation have done an amazing amount of good things throughout the world in the name of God’s love. However, it is true that on the issue of our LGBT brothers and sisters, he has fallen short of what I would consider to be the truly radical, truly inclusive love of God, having compared gay marriage to incest, pedophilia, bigamy, and the like.

So what’s the appropriate response? Should President-elect Obama have chosen such an outspoken opponent of LGBT rights to deliver the invocation at his inauguration, granting this man a place of honor and prestige before an international audience? Or is this choice, as my friend Harry Knox (who heads up the Human Rights Campaign’s Religion and Faith Program) has made the case, an outrageous slap in the face of all gay and lesbian Americans?

I acknowledge the pain of discrimination and exclusion of the LGBT community, particularly with respect to the Church. I do think that Rick Warren was totally out of bounds in his previous comments, and that his views are grounded in bad theology. At the same time, however, one of President-elect Obama’s main themes throughout his campaign was to emphasize dialogue and rapprochement between Americans with vastly differing points of view.

I think that if you believe that Rick Warren is a decent man who holds terribly wrong and hurtful views when it comes to sexual orientation, then perhaps you could hold out the prospect of changing his mind on that issue, and I believe that the best way to change someone’s mind is to engage them rather than shut them out and demonize them (even if they are demonizing you). As Paul wrote, we are to be devoted to one another in love and outdo one another in showing honor (Romans 12:10). In other words, I believe that we are called to be more generous to others than they are toward us.

If President-elect Obama wants to reach out to the evangelical community and invite them to be part of the national dialogue, he could have done a lot worse than choosing Pastor Warren to deliver this invocation. However, at the same time he reaches out to the evangelical community he also needs to reach out to the LGBT community by making an unequivocal statement of support for equal rights, and even a statement that he believes that God’s love knows no boundaries and harbors no judgment on the basis of sexual orientation. In this way, he could show his willingness to engage with those persons whose religious beliefs differ from his on certain issues while also inviting them to have a seat at the table – but not allowing them to exclude others from that same right of taking their own place at the table. Or as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote:

“Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you…But be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.”