Thoughts from the Treadmill: Dirty Dancing Edition

  1.  How long is this vacation, anyway?  There’s time for a tremendous amount of drama and an awful lot of dance training.  Do people stay at resorts in the Catskills for a month at a time?
  2. Why is Patrick Swayze putting so much effort into a dead-end dance career?
  3. Parents during this time clearly have different expectations regarding knowledge of their teen’s whereabouts than most of us do today.
  4. Isn’t Jennifer Grey headed for the same kind of unexpected pregnancy that landed Swayze’s dance partner in trouble?
  5. What’s all this business with training barefoot on an elevated log?  Is Patrick Swayze training to be a ninja?  Will Jennifer Grey become a ninja, too?
  6. Are they training to become ninjas of dance?
  7. Or is it something deeper they seek?  Is dance merely a pretext for something else?
  8. Are they becoming — dare I say it? — ninjas of love?
  9. Is the film really about Marxism?  The owner of the resort is clearly an oppressor.  Grey’s parents are obviously members of the uncaring, corrupt bourgeoisie.  Dance is setting the proletariat free from the drudgery of labor.  Jennifer Grey is an intellectual from the bourgeoisie who recognizes the real potential of the proletariat in the form of beautiful, chiseled Patrick Swayze.  She clearly thinks that revolution never looked so good.

Donald Trump and Sticks and Stones

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Being conservative and having Donald Trump for your president is pretty much the opposite of having Ronald Reagan.  Where Reagan was full of class and fought back well when he had to, Donald Trump is on the wrong side of the sticks and stones debate.  He thinks that words are the weapon of choice and frequently wields them with the intent to wound.  When it comes to presidential rhetoric, Donald Trump is a boor.  That’s just a fact.  It’s silly to argue otherwise.

It’s even sillier to have a presidential spokesperson standing on a podium defending the president in a situation like this one.  What’s the point?  The only one who can defend the comments is him.  Why would a reporter even bother to ask a spokesperson about it?  And why would the spokesperson bother to answer?

How should we go about discussing it?  Should I post that I disapprove of his comments?  Should others?  Isn’t it basically obvious?  If anyone defends his remarks with regard to a television host’s purported facelift, then they expose their own lack of class.  Look, we’ve hit upon a self-evident truth!

These days we sometimes talk about signal versus noise.  We’ve gotten the signal.  It’s not the first time.  Donald Trump lacks class and restraint.  That’s known.  I’m not sure why we need belabor the point.  If we choose to have a national freak-out every time the president tweets badly, I contend we’ll just waste our time and satisfy a lot of emotional needs.  We’re endlessly thrashing about in an ocean of noise.

The whole thing makes me think of my wife’s approach to behaviors she disapproves of from our kids (and sometimes even from me).  She just refuses to acknowledge it.  She calls it extinction.  My suggestion is that we just extinguish the behavior from the president by refusing to acknowledge it.  But that won’t happen because there are points that need to be scored.  I get it.

Every second we spend fussing over a non-event like this Mika Brzezinski blow-up is still less time spent talking and thinking about real policy.  The hotter the president runs, the cooler the rest of us need to be.

 

Why I Spend Time on Facebook

I think I’ve been on Facebook just about as long as it is possible to have been on the social media site without being a college student.  (If you recall, that was once a requirement.)  One of the questions that anyone has to ask themselves is why they choose to do the things they do.  What types of activities are worth our time?  I have invested significantly in Facebook and to a lesser extent in Twitter.  To what end?

As I think about how to get down to the essence of what social media offers me, the simplest answer is that it provides me with access to other minds.  The group of people I have collected and who have collected me make up a valuable resource that would be difficult for me to replicate in any other way.  I have a ready-made cloud of various types of people — pastors, professors, politicians, corporate professionals, teachers, mothers, fathers, family members, fellow Christians, sometimes even the occasional celebrity, and many more — from whom I can learn and with whom I can seek to communicate and share.

Let’s start with how social media provides input to me.  Before Facebook and Twitter, I had a morning routine.  I visited about 5-10 different political, news, and religious websites.  Then, I consulted another handful of blogs.  It was a good routine.  It worked for me.  But it was inferior to what I have now.  By merely scanning my Facebook and Twitter feeds, I get a sense of the stories many people I find intelligent and interesting recommend.  These links take me to publications I may not have known exist and expose me to new writers and thinkers.  Is there some chaff with the wheat?  Certainly, but the overall effect is better.  I know too many smart people not to benefit from the things they are reading and discussing.

The personal side is pretty obvious.  Facebook is now the way we hear about so much of what is happening in people’s families, their professional lives, and sometimes their personal struggles.  I absolutely understand the people who choose not to spend time on social media.  There are definitely virtues to it, but staying out also brings a degree of isolation simply because so many people use it as a way of communicating about personal events.

Alright, so what about output?  Some people are Facebook lurkers.  They don’t have a desire to ever make a post and not even really to comment.  They are satisfied to read, observe, and simply be in the know about what’s going on.  And there is nothing wrong with that.  But if you are reading this, then you probably know I’m the opposite.  I am a professor, a writer, a former professional public policy combatant, a husband, and a father.  All of these activities, for me, fall under the Lordship of Christ over my life.  I am accountable to use what I have been given and to be a good steward.  It has always seemed to me that I should enter the fray if I have something to offer and that I should share the things that I have that are good.  It is perhaps not surprising that what people like the most about my Facebook activity are the interactions I share with my children.  Unfortunately, those are spontaneous and I don’t have a great kid moment every day!

Again, though, this is a question of having access to minds.  I feel that I should try to reach out and touch other minds when I have something I think is worth saying.  For me, social media is not some little added activity.  I consider it something like a personal ministry.  I have to be accountable to Union University, to my church, and to others for what I do there, but that only makes sense.  I want to be an integrated person with everything in my life relating to the other parts in a consistent way.  The goal is to speak and write so as to give something that is of benefit to others.  Sometimes that is funny or cute.  Other times it has to do with matters that are urgent and serious.

There is something else, too.  I have found that relationships on Facebook often turn into real relationships.  I’m not sure I could produce an adequate inventory of the people I have met online and through social media and then had an opportunity to meet in person.  Not only have these people very often become some of my closest friends, but they have also been incredibly helpful to me professionally.  We form networks that lead to opportunities to speak, to write, or to put together projects.

If you are reading this, maybe you are asking yourself about your own social media use.  My advice would be simply to use it intentionally and not just passively or reactively.  Sure, it can be entertaining, but it can also be an opening into all kinds of new fellowship, cooperation, and shared influence.  Have a strategy for how you use Facebook and then allow your sense of purpose to help you avoid the mistakes of mockery, unwarranted aggression, and allowing disagreement to too easily turn to disassociation.

 

Anatomy of a Protest and a Form of the Smear

I just noticed that students at a Christian college protested a speaker who has held political office and is now a media personality. In justification of their protest, they associated this man with racism, sexual violence against women, police brutality and various other sins. So, I thought of this public individual and asked myself a few questions.
 
1. Does he argue for the supremacy of a particular race, for the inferiority of a particular race, or for giving different rights to different races?
2. Does he argue that women should suffer sexual violence at the hands of men or commit such violence himself?
3. Does he argue that police brutality is a good thing? Does he try to do away with investigative processes established to determine fault in the area of police brutality?
 
No. What you will really find is something more like the following:
1.  He explicitly argues against racial supremacy and discrimination, but disagrees with various legal remedies proposed to address racial inequality (such as affirmative action).  The way the game is played, this gentleman is now a racist.
2.  He does not argue for sexual violence against women and is not known to commit such acts.  However, he supported then-candidate Trump.  If that choice establishes him as a supporter of sexual violence against women, then I suppose people who supported President Clinton were proponents of intern seduction.  (See, the logic gets a little funny.)
3.  He does not embrace police brutality.  What is far more likely is that he has looked at an incident where police brutality was charged and came to a different conclusion regarding the guilt of the officer involved.
You will notice that the examples here are all instances of left-wing political sensibilities being used to make someone radioactive (a racist!) when in fact they simply disagree with proposed solutions for addressing a particular issue.  However, I would be wrong not to admit that the same thing happens in the opposite direction.  Here is an example:
Assertion:  “Left-wing politician X is an anti-semite.”
Question:  “Why is politician X an anti-semite?”
Response:  “He believes the Palestinians should have more rights to territory occupied by Israel than I do.”
What can we conclude?  Politician X may be an anti-semite (who knows but God who sees hearts), but not because of his position on this particular policy.  His chosen policy simply indicates that he believes the Palestinians have a stronger claim than you do.
Having now examined this abusive rhetorical strategy from left and right, I very much hope we can agree to stop using it.  It is unfair, dishonest, and intellectually lazy.

Getting Past the Drama: What Trump Means for Policy

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Donald Trump has been elected president.  People are processing lots of emotional feedback, much of it related to the headline scrum that took place over Donald Trump’s purported racism, sexism, etc.  But the reality is that Trump’s presidency offers the possibility for a particular turn in public policy that has the potential to benefit virtually all Americans.  My argument is that the Trump administration will work to improve the American balance sheet through the development of national assets.  We don’t tend to think of public policy in those terms, but we should.  I’ll explain why.

The Democrats have emphasized the redress of racial or sexual grievance (such as the highly disputable pay gap) and the delivery of money and benefits through redistribution.  So, for example, President Obama managed to expand health coverage (though at a cost to many working class people) and aggressively increased the pool of food stamp recipients.  Republicans, on the other hand, have argued for the power of the growth that free markets can generate.  While the historical record is quite good on that front, it has seemed more recently (whether fair or not) that the benefits of such growth have not been widely shared.

Where does Donald Trump fit into this picture?  I think he embraces a third way.  He will prefer some kind of strong industrial/infrastructure strategy over the left-wing emphasis on entitlements and dependency.  And he will decline to believe with Republicans that free markets are the key to human flourishing (alas, but so be it).  Trump will try to build and protect America, Inc.

As a fairly orthodox small government, free market, free trade conservative, I prefer the Paul Ryans of the world to the Donald Trumps, but I think there is some benefit to Mr. Trump’s approach.  It may help to begin by considering comments from a 2012 Wall Street Journal interview with European Central Bank president Mario Draghi:

In the European context tax rates are high and government expenditure is focused on current expenditure. A “good” consolidation is one where taxes are lower and the lower government expenditure is on infrastructures and other investments.

Draghi’s insight is one American policymakers need to understand. If the government is spending a great deal of money simply to put dollars in people’s pockets, pay salaries, etc. (in other words, “current expenditure”), then we are not getting nearly the good we could obtain with better government spending that develops real assets.  Plus, we go bust trying to afford those ephemeral “current expenditures.” The superior situation is one in which you can keep taxes low and government spending is on items that last and have the potential to spur growth into the future.  I have the sense that Donald Trump, the businessman and builder, instinctively understands this point.

For example, consider the difference between a government paying for things such as the interstate highway system or the Tennessee Valley Authority power plants versus a government that sends out a lot of entitlement checks. The first government will see substantial benefit over the long run. Just consider the return on investment those highways, dams, and nuclear plants have generated decade after decade.  The second government (the one that focuses on entitlement payments) is mostly just poorer at the end of the year.

What I am suggesting (and friends on the left get ready to choke on your organic wheatgrass juice) is that Donald Trump buys into strategies suggested by John Kenneth Galbraith in The Affluent Society.  Galbraith encouraged liberals to stop focusing so much on income redistribution and to concentrate instead on investments in public goods.  Galbraith complained that we have a policy that encourages private consumption (both tax cuts and entitlements do that) when we should instead have one that tips the balance in favor of creating goods that benefit whole communities and provide a platform for better lives.  Thus, he argues that roads should be improved, power lines should be buried, better parks and libraries should be built.  Donald Trump’s thinking follows those same movements.

The upshot is that if a Trump presidency manages to shift our public policy away from simply encouraging more private consumption (via tax cuts or government checks) and in favor of providing work and generating public goods which could potentially serve us in good stead as national assets for a long time to come, then I think he could achieve something with broad based benefit to American citizens.

Hunter Baker, J.D., Ph.D. is a university fellow at Union University and the author of three books on politics and religion.

 

A Christian Approach to Thinking about 2016

I am a pro-life voter before anything else.  The reason has been that I consider the sanctity of life to be fundamental.  It seems to me that if the law removes the personhood of the unborn child, it operates in the same way that other laws have which dehumanized African-Americans, Jews, and others.  There is no truly moral and logical way to distinguish the unborn child from the recently born infant.  The dehumanizing logic of our abortion laws follow the old Greco-Roman practices the early Christians opposed as they sought to save babies who had been exposed or abandoned because their parents did not want them.  We live in a time when as many as 90% of unborn children with Down Syndrome are aborted for the same reason.  In any other context, we would call this practice barbaric.  Today, we call it a prudent result of genetic counseling. We are and have been in a bio-ethical crisis.

I have also prized religious liberty in my voting choices.  However, that has been less of an issue until recently.  Up until the past 20 years or so, federal office holders tended to overwhelmingly embrace religious liberty and to accept the rigorous defense of it provided by the Warren and Burger Courts during the latter half of the 20th century.  It has primarily been the advent of the gay marriage revolution that has caused many office holders to abandon religious liberty due to the apparent conflict between Christian orthodoxy and broader acceptance of homosexual practice.

While the Republican party can make a strong claim to the moral high ground when it comes to abortion, it has a less certain record on religious liberty.  Democrats have been quicker to minimize religious liberty, but some Republicans (even in the south, see Governor Nathan Deal of Georgia) have shown a lack of interest in vigorously standing up for rights of free exercise and conscience.  As has been typical, the Republican party is highly responsive to corporate interests.  Corporate interests place little value on religious liberty.  Indeed, the executive class is currently wedded with entertainment and government elites in actively disdaining it.  With regard to the current presidential contest, however, there were many candidates on the Republican side who had demonstrated a strong interest in religious liberty.  All of those candidates lost in the primary to Donald Trump.

I believe that both of these issues, life and religious liberty, are issues that Christian voters should use to guide their choices.  To vote for a pro-choice candidate, in my mind, is highly morally and spiritually suspect.  The issue is so serious that I do not believe it can be balanced by saying that one agrees with the candidate in some other area.  A preferred policy on say, food stamps, does not buy amnesty for a candidate who endorses a policy which effectively means, as Secretary Clinton has said, that “the unborn child has no constitutional rights.”  Ask yourself if you would excuse a pro-slavery candidate as easily as you might a pro-choice one.  Yet, the logic in both is similar.

Religious liberty is critical as part of the understanding that God gives Caesar a clear mandate that is not comprehensive in nature.  We are bound to obey when the government acts within its appointed sphere, but it must not (as Augustine wrote) compel us to commit sins or claim our allegiance beyond what is right.  As government grows larger, unfortunately, we potentially face a greater number of potential conflicts.  For that reason, we need a candidate who will encourage a harmonious and thoughtful religious liberty for all persons.  Religious liberty is not about giving religious believers a right to disregard laws.  It is about respecting conscience and belief in a way that helps us to live together instead of trying to force each other to bend the knee in some insincere way.  Religious liberty also serves as an important reminder to the government that it does not own us, but rather serves us and that it is limited in its power.  In this way, religious liberty reminds us of our constitutional heritage as citizens of a limited government of delegated powers.

This is the first election I can remember in which there is not a major candidate who satisfies me as a champion of either life or religious liberty.  Hillary Clinton is a dedicated supporter of Planned Parenthood and abortion on demand, as is the current president.  Donald Trump is, I believe, essentially indifferent to the pro-life cause.  One has to believe he has converted on the issue, which is unclear to me.  So far, I’ve heard him say he changed his mind because a child who would have been aborted turned out to be “a winner.”  That doesn’t sound like someone who thinks Down Syndrome kids shouldn’t be aborted.

With regard to religious liberty, Hillary Clinton strikes me as someone who would likely have supported efforts to protect religious liberty in the early 1990’s (as did her husband), but who views free exercise as something which must decrease as same sex-transgender revolution increases (as does her party).  Donald Trump, again, seems to me to be essentially indifferent.  I’ve heard him say that we’ll get people saying Merry Christmas in December again, but that’s not what I want the president to be doing.  That’s what the church is for.

With the priorities I have outlined, Donald Trump would be a defensive vote for me if I were to choose him.  I have no doubt of Secretary Clinton’s ability to implement the will of her party to the greatest effect possible.  Mr. Trump, on the other hand, is a political amateur.  I suspect his subordinates would have a great deal of influence.  To vote for him, I’d be voting for a unspecified outcome versus one that is specified.  Not very inspirational, but there is a logic to it.  I’d be hoping that he’d be responsive to his electoral coalition, but he may not see people like me as part of that coalition.  When I ran for office, I recall a man saying, “All this religious stuff is fine, but what about jobs and immigration?”  Mr. Trump probably sees that man as his supporter and me as somebody stuck with voting against Hillary.

What about Gary Johnson?  He has identified himself as pro-choice on abortion, pro-gay marriage, and anti-religious liberty.  He called religious liberty “a black hole,” which is an odd choice for a libertarian.  No relief there.

That leaves me with other possible choices of Evan McMullin, a former CIA agent and Mormon who is effectively a stand-in for a typical Republican and Mike Maturen of the American Solidarity Party, which is seeking to bring European Christian Democracy of the Kuyper type to the U.S.

If you want to hear something pragmatic on voting, here it is.  Let’s say Trump and Hillary were running neck and neck.  In that case, I’d be hard pressed to grit my teeth and vote for Trump just on the chance that I can better achieve my objectives that way.  But every revelation alienates me more and pushes me to ask whether honor demands that I reject him categorically as a candidate.  Honor may be well past that at this point.  However, if Hillary seems poised to win easily (which is looking likely), then I think my best choice is to both deprive Trump of my support and to vote for someone else so as to maximize the power of the message that we must not have another nominee like Trump in the Republican party.

Chicago Travelogue: Fall Break Edition

We just returned from a four day weekend trip to Chicago.  What was it like for a middle-aged (forties) couple and their two kids (11 and 14)?  Here’s the story.

We left from Jackson, TN late on Wednesday afternoon and drove to Champaign, IL to stay for the night.  On the way, we stumbled into an apparently famous restaurant called the 17th Street BBQ.  While the restaurant has been nationally profiled and the food much lauded, I suffered from the curse or blessing of having grown up during the heyday of Big Bob Gibson’s Barbecue in Decatur, AL.  I have yet to meet the barbecue pork that exceeds it, except maybe its almost across the street rival, Whitt’s.  So, 17th Street, you provided good, warm food to weary travelers and I thank you for that.  It’s not a small thing.

After a stay in a Drury Inn, we took off for Fair Oak Farms, which was only a little out of the way to Chicago.  Ruth had been there before and enjoyed watching baby cows blow through the birth canal and land heavily on straw.  (She has a professional interest.)  We went along for the ride.  This was my first encounter with big time farming.  I’d seen a lot of the smaller version as a kid, but I got to see the pigs all the way from birth to pregnancy.  I also saw the cows living together in a quest to provide massive amounts of milk to the world.  It was clear to me that the cows had it better.  They get to be more or less outside and spend a lot of time riding the carousel where they get hooked up for milking.  The pigs’ life looked more boring.  One thing blew me away in both cases, the agricultural use of information technology is astonishing.  If you thought computers were just for the office, think again.

What’s the best part about Fair Oak Farms?  It’s the food.  They make their own ice cream, milk, and cheese.  We had all of it.  The grilled cheese sandwiches rank in the special category.  I had the sweet, smoky swiss, while the rest of the family ate cheddar.  In both cases, you’ve got world class grilled cheese.  We ate so much dairy we had to delay any pizza for later in the Chicago journey.

After spending several hours at the farm (and that is virtually unavoidable if you want to full experience), we hit the road to Chicago.  We were entering the city between 6 and 7’oclock pm.  My hopes that traffic would be light were entirely unfounded.  Things were pretty good at first, but the closer we got the worse it was.

Tolls.  I have to talk about the tolls.  If you don’t have an EZ-Pass for Chicago, the tolls are absolutely barbaric in nature.  We are all accustomed to being able to throw change into a bucket and then to quickly move on.  These toll booths required that you put each coin separately into a slot.  Doing so with tolls of a few dollars or so at a time made me feel as if all human progress had been lost.  If you had cash, you were going to wait a while.

We decided to get a hotel deal via Hotwire in the tony part of town.  As a result, we got the Hyatt Regency on East Wacker.  It was a little less expensive than usual, but still pretty aggressive price-wise relative to what I’m used to in my interstate Hampton Inn world.  We had the idea we’d drive into downtown and get a parking garage.  Around 7pm, that was an absolute nightmare.  I never pay for valet if I can avoid it.  In this case, after fruitlessly trying to get a parking garage where I could leave the car for a few days, I gave up and gratefully put the car in the hands of the capable men at the Hyatt.  More money, yes, but my sanity was at stake.

Inside, some kind of assistant director spotted us in the check-in line and waved us over to his kiosk.  I think he took to our disheveled, nuclear family appearance and enjoyed getting us set up with a double queen room on the 21st floor.  He recommended we eat at Portillo’s, which turned out to be a restaurant that essentially contained a mini-food court inside.  An American place and an Italian place in one building.  The food was unspectacular, but good after a long day.

We had to get up the next morning for the Shoreline Architectural River Cruise.  It was on the way that I snapped this immortal picture:

double-deuce

The fellow was annoyed, but who could avoid snapping that pic?

In any case, we made it to the cruise, which docked near the Navy Pier and had a tremendous time navigating the Chicago River as our guide regaled us with stories about the town and its eclectic architecture of classical, art-deco, modern, brutalist, and postmodern styles.  After we disembarked, I tipped the gentleman and told him that “I am a professor and I enjoyed your class today.”

This was a shot from the cruise:

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After a big cruise, you have to eat.  I had one meal in mind for Chicago.  A bucket list meal.  I had to go to Lou Malnati’s for Chicago-style pizza.  I’d seen it on the Food Network and I wanted it.  Somehow, we got seated within a reasonable period despite the throng that extended well past the lunch hour.  And then we waited and waited for the pizza.  But no problem, that’s part of the experience.  What can I say about it?  First, it’s good.  Let’s get that out of the way.  It’s good.  But you have to compare it with other types of pizza.  I simply find that I prefer the perfect balance of crust, sauce, cheese, and toppings you get from a New York style slice.  Lou Malnati’s has a really good, thick, crunchy crust.  I liked that.  But it is absolutely overwhelmed with meat, sauce, and cheese.  I had the sausage pizza.  Virtually every slice was basically covered with a flat patty of sausage.  It was like a meat crust on top of the crust.  Some people will love that.  But it wasn’t for me.  I’m glad to have tried it.

We also visited the Field Museum.  It is an impressive museum, but it also has a pretty powerfully retro feel to it.  It is very much a museum of the 1980’s in terms of how it presents.  After one has spent much time in the Smithsonian, the Field Museum seems fairly far from the cutting edge.  Plus, it’s expensive.  If I am the calculating tourist, I’d arrange as much of my museum going for Washington, DC as possible.

There were other things, but I think what I’d emphasize in the end is the overall sense of coordinated human achievement you get from visiting Chicago.  The buildings are spectacular.  The way the river intersects the downtown area is beautiful.  Almost all around you there are working monuments to human ingenuity.  If I had it to do all over again, I think I’d spend all of my time touring.  I’d take the cruises.  All of them.  And I’d spend time riding on the sight-seeing buses with the narrated tour.