Tuesday, November 30, 2004

"Political Correctness" As Civility

Keith Olbermann's blog (you can check it out here) is usually worth reading. Since the election he has been focusing on voting irregularities, a topic most of the MSM has ignored. But today I particularly appreciated his offhand remark about the peevishness of the Republican habit of referring to the "Democrat [rather than Democratic] Party." This is one of those petty annoyances that most commentators long ago stopped mentioning, but I must say it still irks me.

I connect this issue to the broader theme of "political correctness" in the following way. Many of the complaints uttered by liberals concerning political speech have to do with the use of disrespectful nomenclature by our opponents on the right. When Native Americans object to sports teams using names like Redskins or Braves, or when women object to Rush Limbaugh's mockery of "feminazis," their basic message is: You're talking about us, and we don't like the language you're choosing.

Now, I was raised to believe that all people deserve to be treated with minimal standards of politeness. That includes calling them what they prefer to be called. If my friend Richard wants me to call him Rich rather than Dick, I do so. In the same way, I wouldn't refer to a Black acquaintance using the N word because I know darn well it's offensive, just like calling a Canadian a Canuck or an Italian a Wop.

So in essence, I consider "political correctness" (to the extent it exists at all) a form of elemental courtesy. Civility, you might say. Which makes it more than ironic that members of the so-called conservative movement, who love to deplore the decay of civility in society when it suits their agenda, continually attack "political correctness" as a tyrannical (yet wimpish) restriction on their freedom of speech. And the same people insist on using the phrase "Democrat Party," not despite its offensiveness but precisely because they know their opponents perceive it as a thumb in the eye.

It's worth remembering this next time a Southerner says (like some of the posters on the very interesting recent Daily Kos thread concerning red state/blue state values), "We can't bring ourselves to vote for a Northeastern Democrat because you Yankees just don't have good manners like we do. . . "
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Sunday, November 28, 2004

Unfortunately, We're All Stranded With Him

TV producer Mike Fleiss reports that thousands of would-be stars turned up to audition for his new reality version of Gilligan's Island. In the TV section of today's Times (yes, my eyes occasionally stray from the op-ed page), Fleiss is quoted as saying ("with a laugh," of course), "It's alarming how many American men identify with Gilligan. It explains the presidential election a lot."

Then again, the true genius of George W. Bush lies in his ability to convince millions of people that he is their "good buddy" Gilligan, when in fact he is Thurston Howell III . . .
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Young Black Sports Stars and the White Commentators Who Despise Them

The Ron Artest basketbrawl has revived the theme of culture war in pro sports. The usual commentators are decrying the rise of "hip-hop" culture in pro basketball, while others (a minority, I think) are criticizing the fans who help provoke conflicts and calling for preventive measures such as expanding the zone of empty space around the court. (Which of course the team owners won't do, since they can sell courtside seats for up to $1,500 apiece.)

One group that are almost never taken to task but who deserve their share of the blame are the newspaper and radio sports commentators themselves.

One of these days I will get around to writing a longer piece about the intrusion of right-wing commentary into radio sports talk (don't get me started on Mike and the Mad Dog!). But for now I just want to point out that when fans are fed an almost daily diet of broadcast complaints about how pro athletes are overpaid, spoiled, talentless, disrespectful, and selfish, it's not very surprising to see a few fans venting their frustrations in life by screaming curses and throwing drinks at the players.

Of course it's true that some pro athletes are overpaid, spoiled, etc. But are they any more overpaid than the movie stars who make $5 or $10 million per picture? Or any more spoiled than the Bush twins (or their dad, for that matter)? Or any more talentless than the CEOS who make tens of millions for leading their companies into bankruptcy?

There are many root causes for the growing disaffection between fans and athletes. But the sports writers and radio mavens are definitely part of the problem.

They encourage fans in the belief than any star whose team falters is an overpaid bum (ignoring the fact that, at any given moment, half the teams in any league have to be in the bottom half of the league--duh).

They also, more subtly, encourage (male) fans to cling to the fantasy that they could have been pro athletes if only they'd gotten a break or two along the way.

And some of the mainly white commentators do a poor job of hiding their jealousy and resentment over the fact that young black men who are less intelligent and articulate than they are can make twenty or fifty times as much money. (Sorry, sportswriters, but it's about the free market--as well as genetics and luck. You didn't expect to have all the life cards stacked in your favor, did you?)

None of this is to excuse Ron Artest or any other athlete who loses his mind and attacks fans. But for pete's sake let's put this whole brouhaha into a little broader context. And let's try to get the holier-than-thou sports commentators who tut-tut about such incidents off their high horses.
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Saturday, November 27, 2004

Prayer at Work--or Does It?

There are two letters in tomorrow's New York Times Magazine that illustrate the (low) level at which religion is generally discussed in the MSM (mainstream media).

One is from Ira Levin of New York (who I assume is the same Ira Levin of New York who wrote the novel Rosemary's Baby):

There's a simple way to judge the efficacy of prayer: compare the batting averages of those players who cross themselves on approaching the plate with those who don't.

I assume Levin is (mostly) kidding, so I won't agonize over this one except to point out that it's not necessarily safe to assume that ball players who cross themselves are praying for a base hit. Years ago I saw an interview with a Latino player (and Latinos cross themselves a lot more than Anglos) who said, "Oh, I don't pray for a hit. I pray I won't get injured." Makes sense, no?

The other letter, from Mike Mee of Endicott, NY, is a little more substantive. Partial quote:

As I read Russell Shorto's article (Oct. 31) about the growth of evangelical Christianity in the workplace, my initial interest turned to dismay and, eventually, revulsion. The nadir for me came when I read of the "Christian banker" joining hands with the young couple in prayer that their mortgage would be approved.

Are these people so utterly self-absorbed that they fail to see they are treating God as a fixer?

I share the writer's negative reaction to the anecdote, but my reasons are different. In complaining about "treating God as a fixer," Mee seems to be criticizing the idea of asking God's help in getting a mortgage. I actually have no problem with this. You and I might think that a financial transaction is a crass thing to pray about, but the Jesus of the gospels tells us we ought to ask God for the things we need when we pray. In the Lord's Prayer we say, "Give us this day our daily bread." Does that make God a baker?

Admittedly there are complicated theological problems surrounding so-called petitionary prayer, among them the paradox: Why does God want us to tell him what we want, when presumably he knows all about it? But Mee isn't raising those issues. He's just offended by the idea of asking God for help with a mundane daily problem. I'm not. One of the great things about God is that he actually cares about our trivial, mundane problems. That was part of the point of the Incarnation, after all--for God to understand what it is like to deal with hunger, boredom, mosquitos, paper cuts, annoying relatives, etc. etc.

What does offend me in the anecdote is the fact that a banker is praying that his clients will get their mortgage. Isn't the banker the one who decides whether they will get the mortgage? Even if the individual banker doesn't decide, surely the lending institution he works for and represents makes the decision. So how can he get away with sloughing it off on God, as if it's a matter of divine will?! Take responsibility for your own actions, for pete's sake.

Or if this banker feels constrained by the lending rules established by his bank and is concerned about doing God's work, he should be looking for ways to make the credit system more responsive to the needs of the poor and the marginalized--battling against red-zoning, for instance, or supporting subsidized lending initiatives in undeprivileged neighborhoods.

There's another issue which would concern me as a Christian. That's the question of when it's prudent to pray in public. It would be repugnant for a bank to develop a reputation as an "evangelical" institution which only welcomes Christians. (I don't doubt that there are such banks in certain parts of the country.) Such clubby exclusivity would be anathema to Jesus, I think. For this reason, if I were a banker I would be very hesitant to prayer with my customers--at least, as a routine thing.

But praying privately at work is very different. I sometimes ask God to help me do a good job, especially when I'm tackling something I find psychologically or emotionally hard. For instance, when I'm driving to Long Island to work on an educational video, if I'm feeling tired or nervous (which is often the case), I'll pray to God to help me teach well and thereby connect with my future students who will watch the tape. I don't know for sure whether God literally intervenes, but praying like that usually ends up making me feel better, and I think I do a better job as a result.

It's a shame that the whole notion of prayer has gotten so closely associated in many people's minds with self-righteous right-wingers who resemble the hypocrites Jesus constantly criticized. Despite what folks like Mee and Levin assume, praying for help from God isn't necessarily an act of superstition or showboating. (Except of course when it is.)

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U.S. Election: The View From Abroad

Working at a nongovernmental organization, I have the opportunity to talk with people from other countries on a daily basis. I was even in Hungary during the election. The people I speak with all express concern about the US presidential elections because, more than I think Americans realize, the president of the US actually affects these citizens of other countries quite a bit. The president makes policy on foreign aid--how much is given, and to whom it is given--and these policies greatly affect how nongovernmental organizations operate.

The point I would like to make is that although the office of the president seems far removed from our daily lives, it actually affects our lives--and the lives of countries most Americans never think about--in many ways.
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Friday, November 26, 2004


Around 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, November 2, I sent an email to my daughter Karen, who was in Budapest, helping to set up an educational conference under the auspices of George Soros's Open Society Institute, for which she works. Feeling very excited and optimistic, I wrote:

Dear Karen,

You are probably sleeping now--hope your day went well. The polls are still going to be open throughout the US for at least 1 1/2 more hours, but the early straws in the wind look good for Kerry:

--exit polling data shows Kerry ahead, at least narrowly, in 8 of 10 swing states
--very heavy voter turnout reported around the country, which is good for Kerry
--relatively few claims of voter fraud or intimidation being reported
--the two online "betting" sites for the presidential election have both swung from giving odds for a Bush victory to a Kerry victory

Say a prayer that this trend will continue--and that the Republicans don't find a way to steal the election.

We all know what happened as the evening progressed. The next morning, Karen wrote back to say:

Hi Dad,

Well, your email is very sad, as I went to bed thinking things were going well. Now I've woken up to find that Ohio is leaning towards Bush.

I am very, very sad. I feel that my way of life and my future are being threatened. It's like living in a dystopian novel.

I just wonder what I can do. I definitely cannot sit back and accept this. We really need to rejuvenate our party. Among other things, I think I will start a blog, and I would appreciate your contributions.

Meanwhile, I have to get back to work.

Here is my response:

I'm very sad, too. But your email gives me a sense of hope. Let's work together to rejuvenate our party. I've also been thinking about starting a blog. Let's discuss how we might work together on this.

America has survived times that were worse than this.

WORLD WIDE WEBERS will embody the ongoing conversation at our extended dinner table. It will include reflections not just from me and Karen but from others in our family and, we hope, beyond.

As you can imagine from its origins in an exchange of anguished election-day emails, our conversation deals with politics. But we'll try to put politics in the broadest possible context, including the national debate over "values" that we've heard so much about in the past few weeks. We have our own take on what "values" means, having struggled together, as individuals and as a family, to discover and live our values in the real worlds of work, play, study, creation, and civic involvement. In our lexicon, "values" means something very different from what it means on the lips of some who use the term for partisan advantage--to divide rather than to heal our nation.

If this kind of ongoing conversation sounds interesting to you, you're invited to join in.

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