Ode to Snowflakes 

My old friend Burke Hicks has a knack for homespun wisdom that casts a humorous light on current events. I had to share his latest:

Just a few thoughts about those who war lord Bannon likes to refer too as snowflakes. The ones I know: 

Ain’t the least bit scared of blowhards. 

Know as much about history as you do, and not from television.

Are about as easy to herd as cats. They think for themselves.

Don’t assume because they don’t go waving around weapons, or bragging about their rights to do so, that they are not armed.

Never think they are afraid of a fight. 

Don’t think because their faith is more of a matter between them and God than a thing to be shouted in public, that their faith is less than yours. 

Here’s a toast to all the snowflakes I know. 

Up yours Lord Bannon.

Bernie Embodies the Gospel of Matthew at Liberty University: Why This is So Important

Bernie on a world

My writing from the now-defunct Bernie.blog archives, September 2015

On Monday, September 14, Senator Bernie Sanders spoke to the students of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, a stalwart conservative Republican soapbox since Reagan’s speech in October, 1980. Make no mistake: this is a monumental event and one that exemplifies the “Bernie brand” for the uninitiated masses.

Here’s why:

In the late 1970s, the New Right, concerned primarily with fiscal conservatism, combined Goldwater’s laissez-faire economic philosophy with the Chuck Colson/Nixon race-baiting “Southern Strategy” by focusing on contentious social issues to generate voting blocs of single-issue voters within the Republican Party (crime, abortion, welfare, drugs, etc.). Less than a decade after founding Lynchburg Baptist College/Liberty University on the principles of burgeoning neoliberal economic policies and the developing social conservative brand (as well as providing segregation via a private school setting), Jerry Falwell unveiled his moderately successful Moral Majority, a lobbying effort heavily influenced by anti-abortion activist Francis Schaeffer and megachurch pastor (and later Left Behind series co-writer) Tim LaHaye. These and other figures helped to wed the New Right with conservative Fundamentalists and Evangelicals to form the pro-“free market”, pro-“family values”, pro-military “Christian Right” voting bloc within the Republican Party, firmly established by the 1980 party platform that promoted “maximum individual liberty” and an “individual’s right to privacy” along with support for a Constitutional amendment to ban abortion and opposition to federal enforcement of the Equal Rights Amendment for women.

As it turned out, of course, Reagan chose very few Evangelical appointees and ultimately disappointed the Christian Right by appointing pro-choice Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court, further alienating many Catholics and mainline Protestants by cutting social services and building up nuclear arms. This set the trend for future Republican candidates who would continually court the Christian Right vote, yet rarely offer political favors while in office. Even so, Falwell never wavered in his support of the President. And although many Republicans and conservative Christians continually distanced themselves from the Moral Majority (for instance, in a 1981 interview, Reverend Billy Graham warned against the mingling of politics and religion, saying, “The hard Right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it”), no Democratic Presidential candidate has since won a majority of the white Fundamentalist and Evangelical vote.

This small, influential bloc of dedicated voters was formed in part by the tactics of the New Right, the guidance of the Moral Majority and the influence of the Council for National Policy (CNP), established by Tim LaHaye, Paul Weyrich and Richard Viguerie. Of course this “story” is much longer, more complicated and reaches back further into history than the short narrative I’ve provided here: for instance, influence included think tanks like the Heritage Foundation (co-founded by Weyrich) and the John Birch Society (co-founded by Fred Koch, father of Charles and David Koch), the behind-the-scenes operations of such figures as Abram Vereide and Doug Coe of “The Fellowship”, the writings of Rousas John Rushdoony, the political connections of Gary Bauer (friend of Edgar Prince, father of Blackwater founder Erik Prince), and the collusion of politicians from both sides of the aisle to turn the campaign process into a dramatic moral struggle over a few standard issues, dramatized as a cosmic battle of good vs. evil. (For more information, see: Kevin Kruse, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America; Daniel K. Williams, God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right; Jeff Sharlet, The Family; Bill Ellis, Raising the Devil and Jeremy Scahill, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army).

Sanders’ audience was mostly university students and staff (who, according to a Liberty alumni, are not allowed to publicly contradict the university’s stance on social issues), with a smattering of local supporters. This history I’ve presented is just a taste of why PoliticusUSA would describe Bernie’s speech as going “into the lion’s den”: Liberty University is not merely a symbol of the collusion between neoliberal economic policy and theologically conservative Evangelicals and Fundamentalists. In 1971, Jerry Falwell founded Liberty as a segregationist private school in reaction to the civil rights movement, only to get caught up in a fight with the IRS over the issue of “freedom” when the Green v. Connally ruling mandated that tax-exempt private schools could not discriminate on the basis of race. The popularity of televangelism legitimized the Pentecostal undercurrents of Falwell’s theology for a mainstream audience, and he helped merge that spiritual morality with political conservatism in the Republican party, which, in turn, influenced Falwell and other televangelists to justify neoliberalism as a Biblical mandate. As a result, the late Falwell and Liberty University actively participated in a much broader effort to manufacture a closed-ideology voting bloc that has very little contact with the “outside world”, which, because of the influence of Pentecostalism, is often characterized by conservative Christian leaders as the abode of “secular liberalism”:  a combination of pop culture, “multiculturalism”, “liberal politics” and foreign religions that make up Satan’s bid for world domination.

Now, in the 21st century, Republican presidential candidates like Ted Cruz still feel obligated to visit Liberty to gain their endorsement, which is highly influential among the closed voting bloc of the Christian Right remnant.

So why would Bernie, a Democratic Socialist and a Jew, even bother to speak at Liberty University? Who could Bernie possibly expect to listen to him? Is he just a “crazy old man” as the mainstream media attempts to portray him?

Quite the opposite, actually. Senator Bernie Sanders is simultaneously the most sincere and most politically savvy candidate running. He knew exactly what he was doing and only he could pull it off. In his own words, Bernie felt he needed to speak to a group of people typically perceived to be his enemies because, he said, “I believe that it is important for those with different views in our country to engage in civil discourse – not just to shout at each other or make fun of each other.” He pointed out that the gulf between the audience and himself on some social issues (such as abortion and gay marriage) was too great to traverse, but argued that there are other issues “of enormous consequence to our country and the world” that may provide common ground between them. He then laid out his policy platform, framed for this particular audience, in terms of the social injustice caused by economic disparity and our moral responsibility to address it.

In other words, he provided a model for speaking to people who disagree with us in a divided, politically volatile world: honesty, patience, empathy, compassion and common ground.

He evoked the demand for social responsibility found in the Gospel of Matthew, what scholars call the “most Jewish” gospel because it actively addresses Levitican traditions which include mandates to take care of the poor, widows, children, foreigners and address the morality of debt relief. For instance, the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) offers comfort to the suffering and recommends proper social behavior, while the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46) consigns to eternal punishment anyone who has not cared for the “least of these”: the poor, hungry and imprisoned.

After a short explanation of why he was there, Sanders quoted Matthew 7:12 to demonstrate for the audience the core of his message, a common ethic he said was shared by all religions: “Do to others what you would have them do to you”.

His words echoed Matthew 6:24 (“You cannot serve both God and mammon/money”) and the Pope’s recent condemnation of greed (“saying the poor are often sacrificed on the ‘altar of money’ and accusing the wealthy of worshipping a new ‘golden calf.'”), when he said, “Money and wealth should serve the people. The people should not serve money and wealth.”

The student body praised Sanders for never speaking in rhetoric, never speaking down to them, and never disrespecting their beliefs. In the search for common ground, he embraced the Biblical mandate to take care of the “least” among us as something he and the Liberty University audience could share.

He said, “When we talk about morality and when we talk about justice, we have to, in my view, understand that there is no justice when so few have so much and so many have so little. There is no justice when the top one-tenth of 1 percent today in America owns almost as much as all of the wealth at the bottom. …I would hope very much that as part of that discussion and part of that learning process, some of you will conclude that, if we are honest in striving to be a moral and just society, it is imperative that we have the courage to stand with the poor, to stand with working people and, when necessary, take on very powerful and wealthy people whose greed, in my view, is doing this country enormous harm.”

Sanders’ words have a very important history among Christians in the Americas, in the Social Gospel movement (influenced by Matthew 6:10) which influenced the early Progressive movement and Liberation theology (often based on Matthew 10:34 as a call to enforce justice in the world), which informs the current Pope. Of course, his own Democratic Socialism draws from the early 20th century Progressive era and Keynesian economics, the model that shaped U.S. economic policy prior to Reagan.

Sanders’ Presidential run and his speech at Liberty University are well-timed. Currently, the mainstream media increasingly has to contend with the obvious global rise in progressive politics among millennials and there is a resurgent rise of young Evangelicals and “spiritual-but-not-religious” youth who grew up in churches that could not reconcile the words of Jesus with neoliberal policies promoted by the Christian Right. Disenchanted by the empty promises of “trickle down economics” policies like “free trade” and “free markets” that devastate the working classes, many Christians and non-Christians alike are rebelling against the ideologies they have inherited in search of a moral core not often found in American churches the last few decades.

As one pastor, a Liberty University alumni, put it, Bernie Sanders speaking at Liberty was like John the Baptist, “crying out to the religious leaders, the Pharisees of his day, calling them corrupt and complicit with those who have all the power and all the money and all the wealth, and abandoning the people that God loves, that God cares about…lightning hit my heart at that moment. And I realized that we are evangelical Christians. We believe the Bible. We believe in Jesus. We absolutely shun those who would attempt to find nuance and twisted and tortured interpretations of scripture that they would use to master all other broader interpretations, to find some kind of big message that they want to flout. We absolutely scorn such things, and yet somehow we commit to the mental gymnastics necessary that allows us to abandon the least of these, to abandon the poor, to abandon the immigrants, to abandon those who are in prison.”

Hopefully, Bernie’s hoarse voice of righteousness will not be relegated to the barren wilderness for much longer. His message, paralleled in the Gospel of Matthew, is something the whole world needs to hear.

Again, for the first time.

Novel Excerpt: Berea, KY

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A rare day off, so I finally get to work on my novel.

The first appearance of Reverend What and Kumiko Yasinovskaya:

Paradise Motel, Berea, KY.

Reverend What was a diminutive man. He crossed the threshold from his motel room to the outside world, dressed only in pink-striped pajamas and a jipi fedora, hand-woven by Mayans in the caves of the Yucatán peninsula. Osvaldo Pugliese’s Andrés Selpa floated from inside, a spinning vinyl disk on a mobile record player. He rolled a cigarette, lit it, and tossed the match, watching as a flat-bed truck bounced across the crumbling asphalt.

Beyond a thin trail of scrub pines, endless semis droned through the thick mid-summer air like bored cicadas.

“What’s for breakfast?” Kumiko Yasinovskaya, a towering woman, peered out from her room into the bright morning, squinting as she drew a short silk robe across her muscular body. She pulled her dark hair away from her face and tied it behind. “It’s already hot.”

“Is it?”

“Hey, you know you’re barefoot?”

He nodded at the truck. “I got you something.”

She crossed her arms. “It better be a bacon and egg biscuit.”

The driver hopped from the cab and approached slowly, reading from a clipboard. “A, uh…Reverend…What?”

“That looks to be a blue 1972 Buick Electra.”

“Uh, yeah, that’s what it says. I guess just sign here and this baby’s yours.”

“Thank you, my good man. And this is my driver, Ms. Yasinovskaya. The car is for her.”

“You put a bomb in my last car. You can’t expect me to just pretend that never happened.”

“Oh, okay.” The driver glanced up at her and touched the bill of his cap. “It’s a, uh…it’s a pleasure. I do hope this one works out for you!”

“It was a convertible. You’re replacing a 1960 Jaguar XK150 DHC with a Buick.”

“I thought perhaps you would scream when you saw it. You do realize the leg room this model offers?”

The driver grinned and nodded. “Yeah, it’s a big one.”

What handed the clipboard to the driver. “Are you a religious man, young sir?”

He looked over the paperwork and nodded. “I go to church every Sunday, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“Kumiko is a zealot. Do you know what that means?”

The driver considered this, but said nothing.

What gestured to her, drawing attention to the woven iron of her crossed arms and the soft curves of her bare legs. “She is not of this world. She drives because her father taught her when she was twelve. She eats an inordinate amount of pork because she believes this will assimilate her into your culture. However, she is and will ever be a tourist in your world. Hers is a binary existence in which she has one goal and anyone who impedes her path is an enemy with a capital ‘E’. Do you understand what that means?”

He shifted from one foot to the other and back again. He lifted the cap and scratched his head, looking sheepishly up at Kumiko and her stone expression.

“I’ll be honest, I don’t want to know anything about it.”

Kumiko spat. “I want to watch it burn. May I?”

The driver shrugged and took a step back. “Give me a second, I’ll have it down in a jiffy. Then you can do whatever you want with her!”

What slowly drew from his cigarette. “The end justifies the means, my dear, you know that better than anyone. One cannot trace what does not exist.”

“Why did you say that to him? What did you want me to take from that little performance?”

Reverend What dug into his scraggly beard. “There was another incident during the night. I need your assistance.”

“Do you want me to kill him?”

“If I let you kill him, will you drive me to Taylorsville?”

Kumiko sighed and lowered her arms. “You refer to me as your driver again, I’ll tear your throat out.”

“An occupational hazard, to be sure, sharing adventures with an assassin. It was always my assumption.” Reverend What smiled broadly. “Very well, if the terms are agreeable, let us retrieve our bags and be on our way.”

“What’s a ‘Taylorsville’?”

“I imagine it is a place quite proud of its pork and chicken products, if the uniformity of factory farms in its vicinity is any indication. Does that suffice to convince you?”

Kumiko gazed down on him. “One condition.”

Reverend What produced a dented flask from his shirt pocket and swallowed with a grimace. “You want to know why I called you a zealot in front of a complete stranger, drawing undue attention to both of us and putting his life at risk.”

“I want to know why you went to Nazareth without me last week. You can’t expect me to just tag along when it’s convenient for you.”

The driver unhooked the car and the flatbed slowly moved back to its original position.

“Aristotle is to have said that if we declare all opinions opposed to ours as false in relation to our own, we then must admit that an infinite number of true and false opinions also exist. That man, like you, completely lacks the capacity for self-reflection, and so his mind is encapsulated in a perfect world, protected from the true nature of reality.” He dropped his cigarette, stepped on it with his bare toe, and looked up at Kumiko sadly. “I envy you your certainty, Kumiko. And believe me when I say I did not abandon you. I went alone to Nazareth to protect you. Doubt is a worm that eats away at self-worth, and no one is more prone to suicide than zealots who learn to doubt.”

The driver clapped his hands together as if to remind them of his presence. He walked over to briskly and smiled at each of them in turn. “Well, here’s your key. Which one of you wants it?”

Kumiko: “What’s your name?”

“It’s John, ma’am. Nothing special.” He held the key out for her.

“Are you happy, John?”

John shrugged. “I couldn’t ask for much. Got a roof over my head, a good wife, my kids love me. Sure, I could drive myself crazy thinking about what might’ve been, but that ain’t no way to live, now is it?”

Kumiko accepted the key. “No, it is not. Live a good life, John. Death has no power over one who is unafraid of life.”

The driver laughed and shook his head. “I hope you don’t mind if I tell my wife about you, she’ll never believe me. You two are a couple of characters!”

Reverend What bent the rim of his hat and smiled. “You are correct, sir. No one will ever believe you. Good day to you. And good life.”

He waved and jumped back into his truck.

“I think I see what you mean,” Kumiko said, “but I still want to know what happened there. And someday, you will tell me about Belżec.” She smiled. “Whether you like it or not.”

What sighed. “Kumiko, my penchant for secrets has a purpose, the value of which you would appreciate if you ever came to know it.” He returned the flask and shook his head. “Never mind. Perhaps this heat simply gets our blood up, as they say.”

“After all this time, please don’t tell me you’ve suddenly learned how to keep your mouth shut? If you weren’t so impossibly short, I’d swear you were an imposter.”

Reverend What turned to his room, waving his hand. “Thy mind doth present itself as a labyrinth, my dear. This morning, I need a driver more than I need my secrets. After all, the pedals of that Buick are quite beyond my ability to reach them. You shall have your story.”

Honor Life

No matter your belief about the afterlife, death is universally understood as the end of all known being. Death gives meaning to life, for life is often mundane, confusing and absurd.

Meditate on death in order to live a full life. Face pain in order to experience it honestly.

True happiness comes from a full acceptance of being.

And it is difficult. It is perhaps more difficult than you can bear, until you are asked to bear it.

This is life, and it haunts us all.

The Antlers “Two”

In the middle of the night I was sleeping sitting up
When a doctor came to tell me, “Enough is enough”
He brought me out into the hall (I could have sworn it was haunted)
And told me something that I didn’t know that I wanted to hear:
That there was nothing that I could do to save you
The choir’s going to sing, and this thing is going to kill you
Something in my throat made my next words shake
And something in the wires made the lightbulbs break
There was glass inside my feet and raining down from the ceiling
It opened up the scars that had just finished healing
It tore apart the canyon running down your femur
(I thought that it was beautiful, it made me a believer)
And as it opened I could hear you howling from your room
But I…

Black Star is Bowie’s dirge

david bowie

“Where the f— did Monday go?”-Girl Loves Me, Black Star track 5.

Today is Monday.

Our little boy screamed throughout the night. I went downstairs to sleep on the sofa around 4am. I rolled onto the floor at 7am and started water for coffee. First thing I see today was my father-in-law texted me: David Bowie is dead. It had all the marks of a bad joke; except he wouldn’t do that.

After chatting with friends about Black Star all weekend (since its release on January 8th), I finally purchased it yesterday and listened to it intently. It was terribly weird to cross this strange threshold, a maelstrom of a night, to wake in a world with no David Bowie.

This morning, I pulled up the video for Lazarus (screen shot above), track 3 of Black Star, and cried as I contemplated what this album must have meant to Bowie.

It’s one of those great things about art. I don’t think I would feel this news so strongly (as I didn’t know him personally and death is very ordinary in the scheme of things), but the album is like a message that reached me on a personal level, as if he had intended it that way. And “me” is everyone who listened to it, making it universal at the same time. Whatever intent he had was probably unconscious and a struggle, but it worked. It is amazing art.

Powerful.

The album structure connotes an image of Bowie as relaxed, considering his favorite influences and opening himself up completely for his last expression. It’s simultaneously familiar and jarring. I honestly feel fortunate that I was able to listen to it yesterday and then again today.

It definitely makes for a unique experience of art.

I don’t put much weight on the lives or opinions of celebrities, but Bowie was an artist. And what he communicated with this album seemed dark, familiar and mysterious yesterday. Today, it seems very clear and I understand.

Today, understanding brings tears to my eyes.

Long live the Goblin King!

 

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