Obama’s Funeral Oration

Obama leads country in marking Memorial Day – This Just In – CNN.com Blogs

So long as there are empires and so long as these empires make war, the speeches their leaders make on days of national remembrance will always be measured against the oration delivered by Pericles (Pericles Funeral Oration) in 430 B.C.E. and famously recorded by Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War toward the close of the fifth century B.C.E. The occasion was the end of the first year of a particularly bloody year of fighting in what turned out to be a twenty-five year conflict. Measured against Pericles’ speech, Obama’s was a masterpiece.

By this standard, the challenge for any memorial day orator is not so much to honor the fallen combatants, the bare minimum. Rather it is to persuade listeners that it was their deaths on the field of battle that made everything else—the BBQs, the Memorial Day Sales Events, the Baseball games, the family reunions—I mean everything else possible.

“We remember that the blessings we enjoy as Americans came at a dear cost; that our very presence here today, as free people in a free society, bears testimony to their enduring legacy.”

More than this, and more importantly, the challenge is to both mourn the loss and urge continuing sacrifice.

“Our nation owes a debt to its fallen heroes that we can never fully repay. But we can honor their sacrifice, and we must. We must honor it in our own lives by holding their memories close to our hearts, and heeding the example they set.”

The question that haunts me and I would urge all of us to consider is whether or not Pericles and Obama are right, not in a trivial or superficial sense, but in a deeper sense. I will not enumerate here all of the raw materials—and not only petroleum—upon which our entire way of life depends. We marvel at the democratic (or quasi-democratic) upheavals tumbling out of the Middle East. We are saddened by the civil strife in west Africa. We are disturbed by the want and oppression elsewhere in the world, both in the west and in the east, both in the north, but mostly in the south. But we often overlook the cruel dialectic that is at play in these events.

As the world’s lone hegemon, the U.S. and its corporations are mindful of how little is the mineral wealth that lies beneath continental North America and therefore how dependent we are on the wealth that lies elsewhere. We are also mindful of how costly it is to create and maintain political and legal conditions that make the extraction, transportation, and processing of these natural resources profitable for investors worldwide. These political and legal conditions do not appear out of thin air. Often nationals beyond the shores of North America, Western Europe, Japan and China feel that they should be able to enjoy the fruits of their own natural resources and some are even willing to fight to insure that their nations’ wealth is adequately protected from corporations that might not have their best interests foremost in their plans. Needless to say, most private corporations do not have the means to field their own armies and with such armies to create for themselves the political and legal conditions necessary to extract and export raw materials on their own. The costs would be prohibitive. (Think of the costs that corporations would have to pass on to consumers.)

And so North America’s private corporations, with our support, have settled upon an elegant solution. They have us pay our armed forces to create and maintain the global political and legal conditions that make the extraction and export of foreign wealth possible.

No one knew this better than Pericles himself, who, not many days after delivering his famous Funeral Oration, was to chide the Athenians:

“Your country has a right to your services in sustaining the glories of her position. These are a common source of pride to you all, and you cannot decline the burdens of empire and still expect to share its honors.  You should remember also that what you are fighting against is not merely slavery as an exchange for independence, but also loss of empire and danger from the animosities incurred in its exercise. Besides, to retreat is no longer possible, if indeed any of you in the alarm of the moment has become enamored of the honesty of such an unambitious part. For what you hold is, to speak somewhat plainly, a tyranny; to take it perhaps was wrong, but to let it go is unsafe.”

Pericles knew only too well why generation after generation of Athenians had to sacrifice their sons and fathers. He knew that there was, in fact, a genuine threat to the Athenians’ way of life and that the only way to preserve that way of life was to maintain and expand Athens’ imperial practices. To seize the land and wealth of others “perhaps was wrong, but to let it go is unsafe.”

Which is why this Memorial Day I join with President Obama in mourning the loss of life of American servicemen and servicewomen everywhere, and I commend the President for faithfully following the example set by Pericles two and a half millennia ago. And yet I am also mindful that the violence, turmoil and want that encircles our globe is at least in part the consequence of my personal depredations, my insatiable appetite for petroleum, my bottomless desire for inexpensive commodities and my endless need for new electronic toys.

So, yes, I owe them a debt. And, yet, like all debt, this one too makes me very uneasy.

After Senate’s Medicare Vote, Ryan Remains Unbowed : NPR

After Senate’s Medicare Vote, Ryan Remains Unbowed : NPR

As you might have guessed by now, I like arguments that cast issues in relief. And I can only wish that progressives could do the same. Notwithstanding his party affiliation, Representative Ryan is as much an outspoken opponent of all “things public” (res publica) as he is a friend of all “things private” (res oikonomia). In fact, so vigorous is his defense of private enterprise that he would like to transfer all of those things Americans have previously thought of as public—things like education, libraries, transportation, public welfare (yes, that’s in the preamble to the US Constitution)—to the private sphere (oikonomia) in order, as Karl Rove once put it, they could die a slow, natural death.

In face of which Democrats wring their hands and beg for compromise.

But since this is the heart and soul of what it means to be a republic, Democrats cannot back down. We, and not these scoundrels, are the true defenders of republican institutions and values. So, if not Republicans, what should we call these imposters?

The classical Greeks had the perfect word: despotes. And lest you think that term is too strong, consider what it means. A despot, in classical Greece, is any person who has dependents working in his private household, his oikonomia; that is, his economy. For, so long as a person works in another person’s household (oikos) and not in his own, he is subject to a despot.

It was by contrast to such despotism that the classical Greeks—to whom we trace our political system—proposed republicanism, government based on and dedicated to things public.

In the face of Republican despotism, Democrats should be taking to the House and Senate floors and, instead of wringing their hands, should be ringing out cries in defense of true public institutions and public values; which is to say true republicanism.

But don’t expect such choruses to rise any time in the near future. For to expect such would entail that the Democrats figure out that they are the party of public life and public values. Instead, they retreat timidly back into their half-way house, half way between the public and private spheres, half way between public and private education, public and private health, public and private partnerships.

In the mean time, the so-called “Republicans” ironically march forward in an all out assault on all things public. Alas.

California Ordered To Reduce Prison Population : NPR Take Two

California Ordered To Reduce Prison Population : NPR

For example, were California State legislators not completely bought off by private industry, they might consider increasing taxes on private wealth and using the increased revenue to support public institutions that are proven to create stable, safe, learning environments for children.

Instead, California State legislators are guilty not only of cutting the very programs that have proven to create stable, safe, learning environments for children, but also through deregulation and corporate incentives have invited the creation of precisely the low wage, low benefit, temporary jobs that have proven to heighten community instability, threaten neighborhood safety, and force responsible adults to spend their time away from households where they are most needed.

California’s prison population, in short, is exactly what one might expect to find given the legislation that its legislators have passed over the past thirty-five years since Proposition 13 was passed.

So let me also add a shame on California voters who continue to send these certified nut-cases to Sacramento.

California Ordered To Reduce Prison Population : NPR

California Ordered To Reduce Prison Population : NPR

In a course they evidently don’t require any longer—or a least not in California—we once learned that deviant conduct was a social, economic, and public, not an individual, moral, and private problem. Were this true, then the increase in California’s prison population past capacity would need to be treated by addressing the social, economic, and public changes that have resulted if not in increased criminal conduct—which is certainly open to question—but more criminal convictions.

Evidently, however, this is not a course taken either by Renee Montagne or by those whom she interviewed. Instead, Ms. Montagne and her sources trotted out the same old story-line which brackets the social, economic, and public causes for incarceration and instead focuses on the supposedly individual, moral, and private character of the problem.

Shame on Ms. Montagne. Shame on NPR.

As Senior Population Grows, A Push To Make Streets Safer For Pedestrians : NPR

As Senior Population Grows, A Push To Make Streets Safer For Pedestrians : NPR

This must be the definition of a Republican.

Read (or listen) all the way to the end of this piece. Here’s the clincher:

But is all this Congress’s job? Rep. John Mica, chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, didn’t return calls for comment. But Mica, a Republican from Florida, has said he’d like to get rid of mandates for bike lanes and sidewalks, not add more.

In tight times, he says, states should have total flexibility to decide what kinds of roads to build — and how much time people have to cross them.

Way to go Representative Mica. After a bumper year for private corporations, Rep. Mica is still more concerned about their bloated bank accounts than about the elderly and disabled who, it turns out, live richer and fuller lives (and draw less upon public health) when they are able to get around on their own.

But it is Rep. Mica’s explanation that gets me. It’s the “tight times.” Tight times? For who? Not for the corporate criminals who are taking taxpayers pensions and savings to the bank. They have had the best year ever.

The tight times, John, refers to the elderly and disabled whom you want to punish.

Jesus Camp (2006) – IMDb

Jesus Camp (2006) – IMDb

There are so many levels on which this documentary disturbs me—on a religious level, a political level, a social scientific level, a personal level—that it is hard to know where to begin.

When They’re Most Vulnerable

On a personal level, the featured children evangelist in the film said it best. Children are vulnerable. They are like sponges. They soak up everything. They are trusting. Their habits of mind are formed before they become teens. And so this is the age-group the movement targets.

What is remarkable about this strategy is that, of course, its premises are dead on. They are dead on whether we are talking about children who grow up in reasonably wealthy, secure households surrounded by caring and attentive adults; and the premises are dead on when we are talking about children who grow up in more borderline households surrounded by adults whose time, energy, attention and resources are heavily taxed. Kids are vulnerable and we are responsible for what they are exposed to, what they see, what they hear, and, eventually who they are as we hand them over to others who will take over where we left off—other friends, other adults, movies, television, print-media, games.

Such considerations bleed over into the ways that this documentary challenges most normative social scientific theory.

Normative Social Science

There is a heavy dose of wishful thinking in the belief that communities that devote so little of their resources to the health and welfare of their members will somehow give rise to a wholesome and healthy political formation.

I cannot think of a more predictable outcome to the neglect we have showered upon our communities than the formation of the alternative communities featured in Jesus Camp. But to those of us trained in a specific kind of academic social science, the proliferation of such communities must strike us as the height of irrationality. Don’t these people know that they are being used? Don’t they know that natural selection and climate change are settled facts? Don’t they know that, prior to the twentieth century, Bible believing Evangelical Christians, far from opposing a woman’s right to choose, viewed such opposition as a cornerstone of Roman Catholicism? Don’t they know that the nation which they count as God’s chosen instrument in the End Times was founded on the godless principles of Unitarianism and Deism, and that those “true believers” among the signatories to the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution were not so “true” as to contest this new nation’s explicitly Enlightenment foundations?

No. They don’t know. How could they? Which strongly suggests that rational argument, research, and documentation will not turn the tide on this one, but only militant, coordinated, social and political action.

Knowledge and practice are intimately related to one another. What we know arises out of what we have done and what has been done to us; just as what we do is shaped by what we know. Which is why normative social science—social science that assumes a distant, objective, and disinterested posture toward action—is in danger of undermining the very conditions of its own possibility.

At some point, the conditions that make for critical reflection become so distorted as to make critical reflection itself impossible.

Political Action

The children who attend Jesus Camp, their instructors and their sponsors all know intuitively what we evidently have forgotten; that, at bottom, everything is political.

Not that everything is only political, but that everything is at least political. And we are losing.

We are losing because, oddly, unlike our fundamentalist counterparts, we have imbibed liberally of the ascetic elixir. They—not we—were supposed to have withdrawn from the material world into the certainty and security of the afterlife. We—not they—were supposed to have occupied the thus vacated world under the certainty that it is the only one that matters. And, yet, it is they—and not we—who have seized upon all the tools of the trade—propaganda, deceit, advertising, music, libido, outright lying—in order to achieve their goal: total power.

Next to whom, we strike the profile of saints and aesthetes, unworldly and otherworldly bearers of first principles and sacred truth.

But there is a seamlessness to their political action, an admirable (and effective) consistency that does not retract in the face of the world, but boldly refashions the world in their image.


But nowhere is our asceticism more in evidence than in our religion—a religion that has mistaken an endless cycle of retreats, conferences, meditations, and inner healings for the worldly emancipations originally promised by our gods.

Again, the irony is palpable. While that religion that was so unworldly that it was to have been of no earthly good is busily colonizing and transforming our world into its image, the religion that hailed itself as the balm that heals the body (and thereby heals the soul) has retreated into an endless season of inner healings.

With its marvelous naïveté, the otherworldly religion of Jesus Camp meanwhile has seized upon the world that we—not they—have vacated.

Here, if nowhere else, has Karl Marx’s remarks regarding the opiate of the masses found its fulfillment, not among our fundamentalist counterparts, but among those of us who would not dream of jeopardizing the delicate balance of our spirituality by acts of truth and justice.

A Profound Disturbance

Jesus Camp presents a profound disturbance on all these registers. Where it might have provoked anger against those who, in the name of my God, are abusing their children and God’s trust, it has instead provoked me to reflect on why they are succeeding where we have failed and on what we will need to do to once again reoccupy and tend to the world we have so recently vacated.

A Reminder from Robert Brenner

While reading a paper written by one of my students, I was reminded of a string of statistics in Robert Brenner’s Economics of Global Turbulence:

By the Economic Recovery Act of 1981, taxes on individuals were cut by 20 per cent over three years, with the top bracket on unearned income–rents and interest–reduced from 70 per cent to 50 per cent. The Tax Reform Act of 1986 further reduced that rate to 28 per cent. The capital gains tax, which had already been reduced from 49 per cent to 28 per cent under Carter in 1978, was slashed to 20 per cent. By contrast, the social security tax, which falls disproportionately on working-class families, was increased by about 25 per cent over the course of the decade (R Brenner, The economics of global turbulence, 2006, 211).

And, of course, who can forget how corporations and investors plowed those savings back into the US economy, creating a sea of high wage, high benefit jobs?

Bin Laden Is Dead, President Obama Says – NYTimes.com

Bin Laden Is Dead, President Obama Says – NYTimes.com

This week St Mark’s Episcopal Church of Berkeley wrestled with whether we should “love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you.”

After some reflection, I can think of two reasons why we might not want to pray for Osama bin Laden. The first reason is that we pray for those things we have reason to believe that God wants and wills. To pray for Osama bin Landen would, it follows, be praying for something WE know God would not like or will or want.

The second reason is that, while we know that we SHOULD pray for bin Laden, while we know that praying for bin Laden is the RIGHT THING to do; we also know that there are many members of our congregations whose conscience would be wounded should we pray for bin Laden. Following First Corinthians 8, in respect for the weaker brother and sister, we will refrain from praying for bin Laden, even though we (the theologically sophisticated) know that we should.

The first reason seems right. But it is wrong. It seems right because it seems transparent that God would be against bin Laden. And, yet, theologically, we know that this is wrong.

There is no one righteous, not even one;

11there is no one who understands,

no one who seeks God.

12All have turned away,

they have together become worthless;

there is no one who does good,

not even one.”c

Romans 3:10-12

Actually, I think what really stands behind this objection is the animistic belief that we have power to force God’s hand; that God will provide whatever we pray for and will withhold those things on which we are silent. Were we to pray for bin Laden’s soul, God might actually save it; whereas, if we withhold our prayers, God will send him to Hell.

This, however, displays a fundamental misunderstanding of prayer. Prayer is a means of communicating with God. It is not a quid pro quo; not a this for that. The “sacrifice” of prayer is not offered “in exchange” for some “thing” that God is otherwise “indisposed to grant”; as though we were coercing God. Rather, prayer entails our seeking God’s will; and we know that God’s will is our good. But, we also know that our good is often something we do not will. Which is why we pray “thy will be done.”

In the case of bin Laden, however, God’s will is transparent. We are to “love our enemies” and “pray for those who persecute” us. So, in this instance, the only explanation for our reluctance to pray must be that we DO NOT WANT WHAT GOD WANTS; instead WE WANT WHAT GOD DOES NOT WANT.

Which is why the second reason holds more weight with me. Perhaps a member of the clergy—one of those “who knows” in the sense of I Cor. 8—is eager to push through some politically or theologically correct agenda—to pray for bin Laden—and so offend one of the weaker brothers or sisters for whom Christ died. It is better, says Paul, that we not eat meat; i.e., that we not pray for bin Laden, even though, theologically, praying for him would be completely justified.

The question here is whether liturgical prayer is the same thing as eating meat sacrificed to an idol. In some ways the second issue would appear to be far more important. After all, those whose consciences were hurt by sacrificial meats were, according to Paul, therein denying the Trinitarian formula; they were denying that there was only one God. Surely, no presbyter should give in on this central matter. And, yet, Paul counsels that they should.

Is prayer for bin Laden not of much less importance and, therefore, should it not be all the more easily sacrificed?

No. And, here is why. Whereas the Trinitarian formula is truly a part of theological aporia, loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us is not. Thus, all of the New Testament authors, from Matthew through John, are consistent in their insistence that we pray for Rome’s rulers, the very people who crucified Jesus and who continued to persecute the Church. So, we should pray for Nero, but not for bin Laden? I do not know what hierarchy of values this reveals, but it is not good.

That fact is that how we pray reveals who we are and what we believe. Jesus’ challenge is therefore clear. In this command, Jesus is not addressing aporia as in I Cor. 8, but central dogma. Is your hatred of the enemy more important to you than your love of me? Choose.

I am saddened how St Mark’s chose today. I hope that they will choose differently tomorrow.

Hate Crimes

“I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.