Taking the Phone Away From Him is No Longer a Joke, It’s in the National Interest


I find it fascinating that in the two weeks after the election, the enormity of the task before him seemed to humble the PEOTUS. There was a fairly magnanimous and generous acceptance speech; there were kind words in television interviews about his opponent and about those who opposed him; there was his long-famous “listening” expression as he visited Congress and took his first security briefings. Now, three weeks on from the election, we see what appears to be a return to form. He is not taking most of the daily security briefings, leaving that to underlings. Simultaneously, his social media persona has retreated yet again from triumphant to an almost petulant angry tone, revealing a need to respond to the sometimes incendiary posts of those who oppose him and to every event or action that appears to oppose him. And then there is the lying and/or making things up-particularly the unsubstantiated voter fraud claims. It’s what people who are painted into corners do. He is not painted into any corners–he will win the electoral college vote. It’s what toddlers do. He’s over 70. And it’s what addicts do.

To put not too fine a point on it, this all strikes me as addictive behavior…sure particular events can lead to sober episodes, but a return to the destructive, even self-destructive, behaviors is inevitable. The addiction? Some pundits suggest it is love, some suggest it is winning, some suggest it is being the one who is right. I think it is an amalgamation of all of these…to be beloved, to be feared, to be respected, to be to the biggest, the best, to have the last word. To be Emperor. He was Emperor of the Trump businesses; and now the empire has expanded.

A member of my congregation wisely noted in a conversation this weekend that she had been observing him for months and believes that, like many salesmen, he has a highly developed social intelligence. He can read the room he is in and tell them what they need to hear from him. But now, the partitions in the rooms are coming down. And less than a third of the people now in the largest room actually picked him, actually heard what they needed to hear and took his side. That was sobering. But in less than a month he has pivoted back to the incendiary behavior that fuels his most ardent supporters–and causes the world to look on aghast. Instead of “We are confident the Wisconsin recall will reaffirm our victory,” there is a stream of bile attacking the process…a process that is defined by law and required if the proper steps and the proper funding are in place. The toddler who is unsure of the result, the addict who is looking at his shrinking popular vote percentage needs a fix of being back on top…and being beloved, being heard, being respected, being the biggest, the best, having the last word. The Emperor sits unsteadily on his throne.

I’m no clinician, but that strikes me as pathological. I say that not as one who opposed him, but one who will now be a citizen of the country of which he will be head of state. And that terrifies me. And it should terrify those who support him.

Before this political neophyte now lies the task of governing, the task of shepherding an agenda that–while I find it deeply immoral and impractical at many levels–will require a sustained effort to convince the public and the more centrist members of the GOP Senate caucus to go along. Current proposals supported by his nominees to head HHS and Medicare alone face a huge uphill battle. They seek to utterly dismantle a nascent health care program and a mature elderly and disabled health care program in return for an untried and as yet ill-defined system putting our most vulnerable peoples’ well-beings totally in the hands of private enterprise. Selling the dismantling of Medicare to people who already are distrustful of Washington and fearful about health care will be a daunting task, one which I anticipate will mobilize many of the seniors that voted him into office to organize and protest against his administration’s plans.

Add to that the countless other domestic and global challenges currently facing us and I wonder, is it even humanly possible for him to function, to do the work of his office, if he is constantly distracted by his personal image and “pride” in the social media context, by this apparent obsession with being beloved, being heard, being respected, being the biggest, the best, having the last word?

I honestly don’t see how, not without surrendering the reins of actually governing to others. Given the public dog-fight already underway over Romney vs. Giuliani vs. Petraeus for Secretary of State among the camps in his own transition team, it is clear his coalition needs leadership to actually coalesce into a government. He must either put down the phone or face the prospect of a power battle among Ryan, Pence and McConnell for who will hold the reins while he rants and reigns as the Emperor of the one realm he can subdue: Social Media.

It would be worthy of popcorn and vitriolic tweet bingo cards if the health of virtually every American wasn’t at issue and the safety of the free world wasn’t at stake.

The Soul of the Republic

Since the soul of the Republic is virtue, equality, and since your goal is to found, to consolidate the Republic, it follows that the first rule of your political conduct ought to be to relate all your efforts to maintaining equality and developing virtue; because the first care of the legislator ought to be to fortify the principle of the government. Thus everything that tends to excite love of country, to purify morals, to elevate souls, to direct the passions of the human heart toward the public interest ought to be adopted or established by you. Everything which tends to concentrate them in the abjection of selfishness, to awaken enjoyment for petty things and scorn for great ones, ought to be rejected or curbed by you. Robespierre, Paris, 1794—Pretty words used to justify the Terror–the slaughter of the elites and those who opposed the Revolution. Our attraction to these words should terrify us at least a little bit.

We seem to live in different worlds.
I talk to one group of folks and what they see is “immaturity,” “anti-American” and ask “they lost; why don’t they just accept it?” I talk to another group and I hear “we are reminding them we are still here and they have to answer to us” and “we are angry and this is how we are expressing that, peacefully.”

The latter comment is certainly not true about Portland, sadly, but has been the case in the vast majority of the cities and in the vast majority of the protests.

The most dangerous thing in America right now is not Donald Trump or Steve Cannon or Bernie Sanders or Paul Ryan or disgruntled voters protesting across the nation.

The most dangerous thing in America in my not so humble opinion is that we refuse–not that we can’t, not that we aren’t—we REFUSE to see the world through one another’s eyes.

Empathy is essential for community. Empathy is essential for democracy. Empathy requires that you get to know people, not try to learn about them from your particular media outlet’s point of view.

A perceived lack of empathy doomed the Democrats in 2016…a perceived (and many believe manufactured) empathy attracted millions to someone almost everyone will agree is the most crass and bloviating individual elected President in the last century. (Jackson was arguably worse, if better prepared.)

Even that last paragraph reeks of a lack of empathy. I left it that way on purpose…to demonstrate that I’m certainly not immune to this disease.

I don’t know it’s cause. I do know it’s cure. Vulnerability. The vulnerability to get to know the people who believe differently that we do. I’m not saying we go to that place of vulnerability yet…There is still a lot of fresh pain to get past before it could be a fruitful exercise. (Which is one reason I suggest we all have as political-talk free a Thanksgiving as we can muster. Build some good will in our shared love of food, parades and mocking Black Friday shoppers (while we check out the deals on our cellphones).

But once the tryptophan has worn off, we have work to do. All of us. Each of us will keep watch on the new administration and hold them accountable in the ways we deem necessary. But away from the Beltway, we need to start listening and talking to, not at. How, I’m not so sure of yet..because I’ve got to be clear, there are some non-negotiable for me–the Imago Dei in every person (and I mean every), dismantling white male privilege, protecting the vulnerable–particularly transgender folk, and addressing inequality of opportunity. But within that context, I need to, I want to know how others are thinking and why they are thinking what they are thinking.

In secular circles we call it the market place of ideas–getting it all out there are seeing what passes the smell test in the light of day and opposition. In Christian circles, we call it discerning the Spirit.

It’s ultimate goal is the same in both contexts…to choose the best way forward.

We have to do this. The survival of the Republic depends on it….and if that is overstating it for you, then the soul of the Republic depends on it. Robespierre was wrong. It’s not virtue and “equality”–it’s empathy and fairness…again, just my opinion.

Be well. Peace.

Silent No Longer

“As a person who, no matter what the world tries to tell me, is created in God’s image just as much as any man, as a mother of a daughter who, no matter what the world tries to tell her, is created in God’s image just as much as any boy, and after this past week in our world that we have all collectively endured, I can no longer stay silent.”

Shannon Johnson Kershner, Senior Pastor,
Fourth Presbyterian Church
Sunday, October 19, 2016

People have justifiably been lauding the First Lady’s speech last week as one of the most profound in recent memory. The entire nation needed to hear that speech even if individuals would ultimately decide to vote for someone other than the Mrs. Obama’s preferred candidate.

In a similar way, I believe everyone needs to read or hear this sermon…whether they are Christian or not, regardless of political affinity or indifference. That’s why I’m posting it again here after having posted it on Facebook. The words I’ve quoted above led to a spontaneous standing ovation in the middle of a sermon…in a Presbyterian Church. (If you aren’t Presbyterian, you likely have no idea how out of our comfort zone something like that actually is.)

This is not just a powerful recognition of how the great source of life and love persistently pushes humanity to live the reality that we are all worthy of respect, dignity, personal autonomy and love; it also confronts the reality that we are not living as though that is true and we are not confronting those elements within ourselves or our culture that keep it from being true. And the time for silence is over, particularly with regard to how we are treating and dishonoring women as fellow human beings, fellow children of God.

For many of us, this is at the heart of what it means to be a proclaimer of Good News in the 21st Century. God is good, all the time. We are not, not all of the time, but we need not despair. It’s not about guilt. Instead, it’s an invitation to see that we need to love better, not just for the protection of the vulnerable and the persecuted, but for ourselves, so that we might be whole, so that we ALL might be whole. In our tradition, we see that as being faithful to the God who loved us enough to face the worst humanity had to offer so that God could reveal the ultimate powerlessness of hatred, fear, oppression and death when confronted with grace, hope, and love.

Thank you, Shannon. I’m proud to be your colleague and friend.

The National Anthem, the Flag and the Gospel: An increasingly problematic combination

“If you don’t want to stand for the National Anthem, you can line up over there by the fence and let our military personnel take a few shots AT you since they’re taking shots FOR you.”–Pastor Allen Joyner at an Alabama high school football game on Friday night.
Friends, I have a great deal of respect for the flag and for the nation and the freedoms it represents. Precisely because it represents those freedoms, the flag is also a symbol for some of our failure to insure that those freedoms are for all and are experienced by all. Over time, those who have been denied the full freedoms of citizenship (and those who wish to protest actions by the United States) have desecrated the flag or refused to salute, pledge, sing the national anthem or otherwise honor the flag as a symbolic protest, not against the freedoms the flag represents, but against our failure to live up to the promise of that flag and what it represents.
Many people I care about very much view those actions as unAmerican or even unforgivable. Many view such actions as disrespect directed toward those who have died, served, and sacrificed for our nation.
Others note that actually demonstrating respect for those noble people and their memories is more important that symbolic actions associated with the flag.
I completely respect all of these diverse views even if, in many cases, I do not agree with them.
If the freedoms the flag represents mean anything at all, they also include the freedom not to salute, not to stand, not to honor, and if one purchases their own flag, the right to use that flag in some form of protest, up to and including burning–an act which to this day inspires in me a visceral response of anger and disgust, but which I have no legal right to prevent–so long as those who are engaging in that act are willing to accept the consequences of their actions in the sphere of public opinion. Hear that clearly. People have a right to do that–and you have a right to think they are terrible for doing so…and they can’t say that you don’t have that right to hate what they have done, just like you can’t say they don’t have the right to protest with the flag.
But this, this is a totally different matter. This is a minister of the gospel calling for death, albeit facetiously, for those who will not salute the flag by standing for the National Anthem.
Perhaps he needs a lesson in Biblical and church history. For most of the first 300 years of its existence, the Christian church would not baptize and, indeed, barred from membership, those who were soldiers in service to Rome or local authorities–because they had to swear and oath of loyalty to someone other than God in Christ.
Take that in for a moment. If you had stood up and said the Pledge of Allegiance (had it existed) in the year 200, you would be BARRED from baptism, barred from membership in the church.
I’m not saying that’s a good thing, I’m just noting that it has been the traditional view of the church that fealty to Christ is more important that fealty to one’s nationality, race, gender, sexuality or any other human characteristic, trait or community. This pastor’s position is, therefore, inconsistent with Christian doctrine. Today, as a matter of religious devotion to God, Jehovah’s Witnesses and a few other sects, will not stand, will not sing, will not recite the pledge.
I try and remember the words of the Apostle Paul and the words we would need to add to his instruction in our current day….
“We are no longer slave nor free, Jew nor Greek, male and female…..(American nor Syrian, citizen nor refugee, cisgender nor transgender, flag waiver nor flag burner)…for all are one in Christ Jesus.
Just my opinion.

If heaven exists, to know that there is laughter would be a great thing…

Robin Williams said those words in an interview a number of years ago.

Two years ago today, he committed suicide. His widow announced later that he had been diagnosed with Lewy Body Dementia, though he had been incorrectly diagnosed with Parkinson’s before that. LBD is frequently accompanied by crippling depression as in Williams’ case.

Here is what I wrote on Facebook two years ago:

None of us can know the demons others face. None of us can know how a mind as brilliant as his could not find sufficient light to step into another day.

So instead of knowing…

We will remember the laughter and the tears…we will stand on our desks and declare our dreams…we will pretend to be Scottish nannies to stay near those we love…we will laugh…and we will be light for one another…and we will covenant anew to hold one another in the darkness until the slivers of dawn appear.

In deep sadness, in useless anger, in a troubled compassion…we pray for this genius who is lost to the world far too soon and lift prayers particularly for those whose mourning is not for a distant icon, but a beloved friend, father, husband and family member.

I can’t speak for an entire generation, but I have a sense that his death profoundly impacted many of us born in the 60’s and early 70’s. He was the wild child who became the profoundly moving performer and tireless doer of good through ComicRelief. He was the crazy, fun uncle who had misbehaved without venality, who had tried all of the drugs we weren’t supposed to and survived with more than one cautionary tale to share amid the laughs in his rare post-90’s comedy specials.

He once said that “Dead Poets’ Society” was his favorite film because it was the first one that was treated like it was “more than a movie.” And he was right. There was something about his gentle radical prep school literature teacher in that film that expanded our humanity a bit. It would not be the only one of his performances that did that, but it was the one that showed he was capable of deftly walking the razor-thin fence between sentimentality and emotional vulnerability. He wasn’t that successful in many of his films, but his performances in DPS, Good Morning Vietnam, Awakenings, The Fisher King, Aladdin, Good Will Hunting, and Mrs. Doubtfire still inspire. It is oddly poetic that the final role for which he was widely seen was as a waxworks Teddy Roosevelt brought to life—where he provided some of the rare grace notes in the Night at the Museum trilogy.

But his genius was in comedy…and not traditional standup comedy…but in what I’ll call solo improv. Oh, he would eventually write them down, work them up, but his comedy appearances, particularly in the early years, were a bit like a stream of consciousness exercise among Shakespeare, Jonathan Winters and Groucho Marx. It was like watching a human tesla coil. The sparks are quiet now, but even two years later, the scent of the burned ozone lingers…and it still stings just a little.


Also from another FB post I made two years ago…a caption for this photo:

C: Buddy, you’re early.
R: I know…I’m sorry.
C: Don’t give it another thought. Let’s take a walk. It’s nice here.
R: Sh#t Chris, I’d forgotten how much taller you are….

DNC, Night One from a Communications/PoliSci Major’s Perspective

So, I watched 3 hours of the DNC night 1 and have a few thoughts–trying to limit myself to rhetorical analysis. The theme was about the family…but that was not highlighted in anything I heard–though all but Senator Sanders’ speech certainly fit the theme.

Best Speech in both delivery and content: FLOTUS, by a mile. First, it appeared to be the most genuine. With one or two sentences excepted, it did not sound like a stump speech. It did not set too many rhetorical goals and kept to them, with a good balance of personal conviction and appeals to common values. Ultimately, I believe she was very effective in contrasting the demeanor and leadership styles of the nominees from the perspective of a concerned parent…but I can’t help but remember that this has been an argument made throughout the GOP primary season that did not change voters’ minds…at all.

Most important speech: without question, Senator Sanders. It was clear from the beginning he was setting three goals for himself: continue his self-styled “revolution,” highlight for naysayers all of the elements of that revolution that are in the DEM platform, and highlight how essential he believed it was that Clinton, and not Trump, be elected. Sanders has almost trademarked the “I’m plainspoken, but wonky” style that actually is reminiscent of early Bill Clinton in that, when he got to policy, he was wonky and overlong. There were a few moments when the litany of platform victories came off as a “see what I got you in the platform” speech directed at his disgruntled followers—which is exactly what it was. From my perspective it was a bit too on the nose in the “platform” section, but more effective with the other two goals.

One to watch for: Senator Booker, who, along with FLOTUS had the best “lines” of the evening, though it was overlong and he muted the value of some of his best lines by not having a coherent arc from beginning to end. Still, there were moments when the speech sounded “important” as in “these words will be remembered.” The cynicism line and the “We Will Rise” repeated line were very effective, but again, undone by being only a piece of the speech and not a unifying theme. The use of the Declaration of Independence as a framing device was not as impactful as it could have been being relegated largely to only the beginning and end. He also needs to learn the difference between intensity and volume, though everyone gets a free pass on that tonight because of their fear of the chants of the counter protestors.

Same song, 20th verse: Senator Warren. Let’s face it; she is consistently the best at pushing the buttons of the GOP nominee, and one can almost hear a certain candidate’s twitter account blowing up tonight. Still, there wasn’t anything new there. I do think that by the time she talked about the bogus Trump U, the point had been made 4 times already…and I wanted to ask “What other arrows do you have in your rhetorical quiver?” Senator Franken gets the runner up prize for using humor (with mixed results) to accomplish the same thing.

Bravest speakers: the three citizen speakers, though I thought the Trump U victim ad plus her (very articulate) appearance were a bit of overkill. The young woman who was a disabilities advocate was admirably brief and kept it personal as did the immigration reform families.

The ‘Oh No She Didn’t’ Award: Sarah Silverman, a devoted supporter of Senator Sanders throughout the campaign, telling “Bernie or Bust” folks that they were being “ridiculous” in off the cuff (and clearly off script) remarks while Paul Simon’s band set up.

Thurmond and Wallace….and Nader.

Recognize the names? Storm Thurmond and George Wallace. They are the last third party candidates to win a single electoral vote, Thurmond got 39 votes with 2.4 percent of the popular vote in ’48 as a Dixiecrat segregationist and Wallace got 49 votes with 13.5% of the popular vote in ’68 as an arch-conservative segregationist. Nader was the Green Party candidate in 2000 who took just under 2.8 % of the popular vote.

Do I have an opinion about  the third party candidates this year?
Not much of one.
Because I had to live through the second Bush administration and that colors my opinion of 3rd party candidates who cannot win but can be spoilers. Can I prove Gore would have won if Nader hadn’t been in the race? No. Did Gore lose by fewer votes than Nader received in Florida? You betcha.  Pundits disagree on wether that made him a spoiler. Purely my opinion, but I think he was one.

As a nation, since the collapse of the Whig party in the decade before the Civil War, we have preferred to view our Presidential races as A or B, or more correctly R or D.

I may not be thrilled at the choices before us in the two major parties, or be very thrilled with either of those parties right now (and I’m not),  but I’m truly troubled by the idea that even a principled vote for a candidate who cannot win might be outcome determinative in a race being decided between two other candidates. If someday, please heaven, we have viable national parties other than R and D, if someone comes along who is willing to pour into a Presidential campaign the kind of resources that can make that kind of candidacy viable, I’ll be happy to reconsider that position.

This doesn’t mean I think you are creep if you vote for a third party in this election for President, but it does mean that purely from my political perspective, I think you are misguided. And that’s okay. I’m sure you think I’m misguided about a lot of things. You are entitled to…and you are likely right. It’s not my job or my goal to make you think I like I do.

But let’s not spend the next few months sniping about it, okay? I may express chagrin…but it doesn’t mean I don’t love and respect you…however wrong you may be. 🙂

Now, let’s all go see movies galore in the three days before this whole thing starts up again and I start posting lists of speakers from Philadelphia on Facebook.