Archive for April, 2008

The Misbegotten Furor over Reverend Wright

April 30, 2008

The worst thing about the perpetual campaign for the Democratic nomination is that while the race dominates the airwaves and internet, precious little substantive discussion is going on. Most media coverage, including the debates, is dominated by superficial trivialities. It seems to me particularly pronounced in the coverage of Obama. The nation is facing some potentially grave economic times, a thorny international situation, and the rats nest which is Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and the general blowback from the spurious War on Terror. Instead of some very hard-hitting, critical analysis of Obama’s agenda, his economic and international philosophies and his proposed policies, I keep hearing gossipy speculation and innuendo about flag-pins, salutes, unsavory neighbors, pastors, childhood schools, and even the man’s middle name.

Come on. How puerile is this going to get?

Once again, Reverend Wright is making headlines, and Obama is scrambling to distance himself. I’m tired of hearing about Wright, but I can understand why he is taking a stand. If I’d become a national public whipping boy, I might want to defend myself as well.

When the hysteria over the soundbites and short clips of Wright on YouTube exploded in the media, a co-worker of mine chuckled “The people who are all upset obviously don’t go to church,” she insisted. This woman, a deacon in her own congregation, noted that nobody ever agrees entirely with their pastor. You don’t leave the congregation over it. We shouldn’t hold Obama accountable for Wright’s supposed transgressions.

But are the phrases really transgressions?

I’ve seen little reason to condemn Wright’s statements as egregiously inappropriate. We are warned in the scriptures that if we sow the wind, we will reap the whirlwind; when Wright says that “We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards. America’s chickens are coming home to roost,” he is only reminding us of that principle’s application in foreign policy.

“God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme,” Sounds harsh, yes. But has not God promised damnation for those societies and people who rise to the pinnacle of hubris? I wonder if it isn’t more sacrilegious to confidently proclaim “God bless America!” as if such blessings are the monopoly of our nation.

I don’t believe that the U.S. government under any leadership has concocted the aids virus to harm the black community, or any other community. But as Frank of Simple Utah Mormon Politics pointed out, there are proven examples in which the U.S. government has deliberately harmed or endangered members of our population.

What about the AIDS claim of Wright, that the US government inflicted the black community with AIDS? I haven’t seen any evidence given by Wright, but I wouldn’t completely rule out the possibility. Here’s a couple of things that your government has done:

  • For forty years, the government did experiments on several black men with syphilis, not telling them what disease they had and not helping them to get better.
  • The government conducted open-air testing of nuclear weapons in Nevada in the 1950’s.

(“Is Reverend Jeremiah Wright a Lunatic?“)

I’m no fan of Louis Farrakhan, and I believe that much of his rhetoric intensifies friction between races. But I can respect the fact that he has motivated many members of the black community to take responsibility for their lives, build businesses, organize, and otherwise act with dignity rather than turn to gangs, violence, drugs, prostitution, and perpetuate the cycle of poverty. I can accept Wright’s approbation for Farrakhan’s work in that regard.

Yes, Wright is passionate and confrontational. That doesn’t bother me; it is part of the black religious tradition. Not only that, but it is part of the general historic Christian tradition. Many of the Old Testament prophets used very incendiary language to condemn the social injustices of the nation of Israel. The very word Jeremiad comes from the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, known for his stinging rebuke of Israel’s sins. Christ very harshly condemned society in Jerusalem during his time, and warned them of impending damnation. It has always been part of the responsibility of Christian leaders to admonish with sharpness, not only of personal sins, but of social injustice. For those who believe that religion has no part to play in the conversation on social issues, I would call your attention to Ed Firmage’s reminder of past LDS leaders:

If you are Mormon and want to see class, or at least read brilliance, read the Jeremiads of J. Reuben Clark, Jr, during World War Two. Note: During the Second World War, while our troops were dying by the tens of thousands. What did Clark say? He said God would not forgive us for dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Or fire-bombing Tokyo and Dresden. He condemned without equivocation the development and storage of biological and chemical and nuclear weapons in Utah. During a war. He condemned the use of our God-given land and air and water and people in the employ of making or storing or disposing of weapons of mass destruction here (“The Reverend Jeremiah Wright…Jeremiads are What the Bible Says”).

The reverend is hardly perfect in his perception. But neither is he the raving lunatic nor hatemonger many have accused him of being. In the end, his opinions have nothing to do with Obama’s capacity to serve as President. People should stop worrying about him, flagpins, and names, so that we can concentrate on meaningful issues of governance.

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More on Sustainable Foods

April 23, 2008

I’ve been outdone. Artemis of the blog Feminist Mormon Housewives has written a great little primer on slow food and local foods, with a number of resources I missed. And a fantastic discussion on how to garden and how to eat locally has blossomed in the comments of the post. Its well worth reading.

One of the main participants in that conversation is Chandelle, a local whose knowledge of food is evident in her recipe blog, Authentic Deliciousness. As the primary cook in our family, I can vouch for the quality of her work. Foodies among my readers, especially those interested in sustainable and healthy food, should surf over pronto.

Election Fatigue

April 23, 2008

This morning, while Barak Obama’s Pennsylvania concession speech played on the radio, my wife turned to me and sighed.

“I’m sick of Obama.”

If my wife, who has been swooning over Obama since the 2004 Democratic Convention, is sick of Obama, the election season has gone on far too long.

UPDATE: I wanted to clarify that my wife’s frustration is with the campaign, and not Obama himself. The point of the post was to comment on the length of the election period. She still is a big supporter and absolutely wants him to win(though the crush may have worn off… 😉 ).

Earth Day Reflections on Consumption

April 22, 2008

There is reason to be optimistic about the environmental movement as we celebrate this Earth Day. No longer the province of hippies and other “fringe” members of society, Earth Day has become more mainstream. While there may not be unanimity about global climate change, acceptance is spreading even among the ranks of the Republicans. While federal action has been mixed at best, many local governments such as Salt Lake City have taken bold steps to promote environmental values. “Green” architecture is becoming rather popular. There are more options for consumers to make renewable energy choices. Hybrid vehicles have been enormously popular. The selection of environmentally friendly consumer products continues to grow, from compact fluorescent light bulbs to cleaning supplies, to home building materials and furnishings. Local entrepreneurs have successfully opened environmentally friendly businesses, such as Earth Goods General Store, Underfoot Floors, The Green Building Center, and Green Peas Baby. The “green consumer revolution” is a positive development to see.

As grateful as I am to see the rise of environmentally friendly consumer choices out there, I’m skeptical about relying on new products, new technologies, and new energy sources to solve our environmental problems. Every new development comes with overlooked disadvantages and unforseen consequences. We’ve seen it happen before with hydroelectric power, with nuclear power, and now with much of the biofuels craze (nod to Jeremy). We have to realize that there are no perpetual motion machines, no magic pills to solve our environmental problems. It all comes back to consumption. Monica Hesse, columnist for the Washington Post, recently made some very keen points.

When renowned environmentalist Paul Hawken is asked to comment on the new green consumer, he says, dryly, “The phrase itself is an oxymoron.”

…The good thing is people are waking up to the fact that we have a real [environmental] issue,” says Hawken, who co-founded Smith & Hawken but left in 1992, before the $8,000 lawn became de rigueur. “But many of them are coming to the issue from being consumers. They buy a lot. They drive a lot.”

They subscribe, in other words, to a destiny laid out by economist Victor Lebow, writing in 1955: “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction…in consumption…We need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.”

The culture of obsolescence has become so deeply ingrained that it’s practically reflexive. Holey sweaters get pitched, not mended. Laptops and cellphones get slimmer and shinier and smaller. We trade up every six months, and to make up for that, we buy and buy and hope we’re buying the right other things, though sometimes we’re not sure: When the Hartman Group, a market research firm, asked a group of devout green consumers what the USDA “organic” seal meant when placed on a product, 43 percent did not know. (The seal means that the product is at least 95 percent organic—no pesticides, no synthetic hormones, no sewage sludge, no irradiation, no cloning.)…

…Really going green, Hawken says, “means having less. It does mean less. Everyone is saying, ‘You don’t have to change your lifestyle.’ Well, yes, actually, you do.” (“Greed In the Name Of Green

In her own essay on the subject for Sojourners, Kim Szeto noted

True environmental consciousness will challenge the way we respond to our culture of consumerism and create changes in lifestyles. I do think that you can be an environmentally conscious consumer. However, this will most likely mean being less of a consumer to begin with, and when you do have to put on your consumer hat, be critical and read between the lines of “brand organic” (as well as everyone else’s) advertisements. (“Green Greed“)

No matter how environmentally friendly a given product is, its production will generate some level of waste and pollution. The best way to conserve energy is not to use it in the beginning.

(for an interesting analysis of consumption, view The Story of Stuff )

There are other reasons besides environmentalism to try to reduce consumption. Over the course of the last few years it has been reported many times that average household consumer debt is at all all-time records (adjusted for inflation) as is the average household’s debt-to-savings ratio. This places our families in rather precarious financial positions, often causes a great deal of stress for (and friction between) couples, and distracts us from many of the more important aspects of life.

The U.S. has long been swayed by the siren song of overconsumption, wryly diagnosed as “affluenza.” Despite the fact that our families have almost halved over the past half-century, house size has almost doubled. The number of automobiles in our driveways have multiplied like rabbits, and have burgeoned in size—despite a persistent lack of passengers when on the road. I wouldn’t even hazard a guess at how much larger our television screens have grown, nor how many more we have per household. Then there is the proliferation of other electronics, the clothes, the toys—for adults as much as children.

Do the bigger houses, bigger screens, and more toys make us any happier or more fulfilled?

I don’t propose that we live as beggars or luddites. But I believe we can make more conscious choices about how we live. Can we live just as well in a smaller house? Would life be worse without all the video game consoles and other toys? Can we make do with one less car, or even without a car altogether (Local blogger Green Jen has been documenting her efforts to wean herself from her car)? Can we make do with what we have? Can we find another use for that which we plan to throw away? Have we considered the all-but-forgotten environmentalist maxim: Reduce, reuse, recycle? The answers and methods will legitimately be different for each of us, but I suspect there are few among us who cannot find ways they could significantly reduce consumption.

There has been a quiet movement rejecting conspicuous consumption and encouraging more frugality, providing a number of resources for those interested in exploring a simpler lifestyle. If you are interested, look into these.

Books

Internet Resources

  • New Roadmap Foundation was founded by Dominguez and Robin to provide support and tools for people in their efforts to change their relationship with money and align their living choices with their values.
  • The Simple Living Network provides resources for people in their quest for a more simple life.
  • The Dollar Stretcher is a great online resource for ways to save money, reduce consumption, and be frugal.
  • Freecycle is an online community dedicated to reducing waste through re-use.

The local Utah Society for Environmental Educators sponsors and mentors discussion groups for people interested in starting programs in voluntary simplicity and sustainable living.

It is difficult to make frugal choices in a world which revels so much in reflexive materialism. The consumption is so much a part of our culture that our President’s answer to terrorism and to economic difficulties is the same: go forth to the mall and buy! Vice President Cheney claims that our lifestyle is non-negotiable. I disagree; persistent untreated affluenza will lead to ruin. Like any addiction, kicking the consumption habit is challenging—having been raised in a very consumptive family, I truly understand! But through the effort we can find greater peace of mind, more financial security, more time for the things we really value, a greater joy in our relationships and experiences, and a healthier planet to boot.

Sustainable Food Systems in Utah

April 20, 2008

There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that modern U.S. food industry, a combination of agribusiness and corporate food processors, tends to be harmful to our environment, our health, and the viability of our rural communities. Many of the leading agribusiness companies are actively attempting to use genetic modification and the loosening of restrictions on patent law to create virtually monopoly control of the agricultural sector.

But the agribusiness model is not an inevitable nor inescapable feature of our world. There is a growing movement to return to “slow food,” more sustainable ways of cultivating, obtaining, and preparing food, ways which typically hearkening back to the traditional methods which have stood the test of time. Mark Pollan, one of the primary spokesmen of this movement has come up with a slogan which distills the essential concept behind the Slow Food movement. “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants”—advice rather consistent with the essential dietary concepts of the Word of Wisdom.

Additionally, instead of relying on impersonal, sprawling international networks of commerce spanning thousands of miles, the movement seeks to re-integrate and bolster local producer-consumer networks. The U.S. has a strong rural tradition, as much here in Utah and in the history of the Church as anywhere. But we seem to have become confused as to what that means. Idealizing the superficial trappings of rural life—boots, hats, rodeos, or country music—does nothing substantial to support or honor that rural heritage. If we really want to show respect for that heritage, we should support the vocation and lifestyle which is at the root of traditional rural communities: the family farmer.

There is a growing assortment of alternative options from which you can make more sustainable food choices. And with the growing season soon upcoming, now is an good time to see what appeals to you. We can grow our own food through gardening (I know two local bloggers who are raising their own chickens for eggs and poultry in urban/suburban communities). There are a number of local organizations involved in education on local gardening, such as Wasatch Gardens and the Utah botanical Center in Kaysville. Maybe you would enjoy the dynamic community atmosphere of the various farmers markets around the state part of a renewed tradition around the U.S. over the past couple decades. Consider joining a local CSA, or (Community Supported Agriculture), in which you purchase shares of a local farmer’s harvest, providing the farmer more money up-front and therefore more financial security, and providing you with seasonal fresh produce. When you decide to eat out, look into one of the restaurants which chose to patronize local food producers.

As we support these alternatives, we will build more sustainable agricultural and economic networks. We will develop more ecologically beneficial food systems and protect the bio-diversity of the world’s bounty. We will promote more healthful diets.

And you may just find that real food tastes better.

The GDP is rising, Productivity is Increasing—and Still Workers Wages Fall

April 17, 2008

Former labor secretary Robert Reich recently blogged about those recent comments of Obama which have been so distorted over the last several days. The point was to take the media to task for their superficial coverage. An interesting read. But what really caught my eye was the way he introduced the topic.

I was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, 61 years ago. My father sold $1.98 cotton blouses to blue-collar women and women whose husbands worked in factories. Years later, I was secretary of labor of the United States, and I tried the best I could – which wasn’t nearly good enough – to help reverse one of the most troublesome trends America has faced: The stagnation of middle-class wages and the expansion of povety. Male hourly wages began to drop in the early 1970s, adjusted for inflation. The average man in his 30s is earning less than his father did thirty years ago. Yet America is far richer. Where did the money go? To the top. (Robert Reich, “Obama, Bitterness, Meet the Press, and the Old Politics” ; thanks to Richard Warnick for pointing it out)

This isn’t the first time recently someone has pointed out that the “a rising tide lifts all boats” bromide of the Right just doesn’t hold water. Barbara Ehrenreich discussed the point at length a couple months back in The Washington Post.

It begins to sound a bit naughty—all this talk about the need to “stimulate” the economy, as if we were discussing how to make a porn film. I don’t mean to trivialize our economic difficulties or the need for effective government intervention, but we have to face a disconcerting fact: For years now, that strange stimulus-crazed beast, the economy, has been going its own way, increasingly disconnected from the toils and troubles of ordinary Americans.

The economy, for example, has been expanding, at least until now, and growth is supposed to guarantee general well-being. As long as the gross domestic product grows, World Money Watch’s Web site assures us, “so will business, jobs and personal income.”

But hellooo, we’ve had brisk growth for the past few years, as the president has tirelessly reminded us, only without those promised increases in personal income, at least not for the poor and the middle class. According to a study just released by the Economic Policy Institute, real wages actually fell last year. Growth, some of the economists are conceding in perplexity, has been “decoupled” from widely shared prosperity. (Barbara Ehrenrich, “The Boom Was a Bust For Ordinary People,”

Market cheerleaders balk at the notion that there is anything wrong. They insist that we naysayers are just being pessimistic. The U.S. is doing fine! And sure, superficially things look good for the average person. The dollar figure of wages are up. People have continued to buy houses, cars, electronics, and all sorts of knick-knacks and trinkets from Wal-Mart. But look a little beneath the surface, and perhaps it is a different story. Benefits are being slashed. When adjusted for inflation, Reich and Ehrenrich are correct; the compensation of the average worker have decreased. Perhaps this is partly why the number of households where both parents work—something about which the “family values” crowd on the Right often complains, but about which they rarely seem to consider the roots. The illusion of prosperity is built on the record levels of consumer debt U.S. citizens have accumulated. Is that going to fly if we hit a prolonged economic recession? Seems a shaky foundation on which to claim that all is well in Zion.

Some people complain that the phrase “Social Justice,” is a misnomer. They aren’t entirely wrong. Strictly speaking, much of the agenda to which social justice refers has more to do with compassion than justice. But neither are they entirely correct. I think there is something fundamentally unjust when prosperity is shared only by a select few of those whose work made that prosperity possible. When the economy’s productivity rises and wealth increases, but the average worker upon whose labors the profits are made sees a dwindling share of the fruits of that harvest, that is a call for social justice.

The Crandall Canyon Disaster and Market “self-correction”

April 1, 2008

In responding to my last post “The Triangle Waistshirt Fire,” one commentor assured me that the market is self-correcting and capable of protecting workers and the public. He raised the example of the Crandall Canyon mine disaster, suggesting that the the owner (Robert Murray) will somehow get his just desserts in the end. Perhaps he will. No mention was made of how the market will play a role in this, but no matter.

Ironically, today The Salt Lake Tribune reported on the status of the disaster fallout.

Crandall Canyon widow Wendy Black minced no words last September when she told a Senate committee: “It would have taken just one MSHA man doing his job to have saved my husband’s life.”

Her bitterness over the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration’s perceived failure to enforce laws protecting miners was reinforced Monday by an internal Labor Department audit that found local, regional and national deficiencies in MSHA’s handling of Crandall Canyon’s roof control plan (“Crandall: Labor audit confirms families’ fears”).

Sounds like any penalty or market “self correction” consequences Murray pays will be rather cold comfort to widows and fatherless children—not to mention the dead themselves.

It is worth noting that the Triangle Shirtwaist Company owners suffered no consequences for their disregard for the lives of their workers. With few prior regulations fully spelling out their responsibilities, they got off scott free. In fact, with the fire insurance payments, they made a tidy profit from the deaths of almost 150 people. Justice is supposed to be blind, but the illustrious market was apparently also deaf to the cries of the victims.

Also inspired by the Tribune’s article, Oldenburg of 3rd Avenue has written a fine post about the essential need not only for regulation, but for government to be committed to enforcing the regulation—something we’ve lacked for quite some time.