Saturday, September 20, 2014

Getting Along With Others

I just finished reading remarkable book co-written by a remarkable LDS couple, Terryl and Fiona Givens. The book challenges me to approach my Mormonism in a different way. Each week is my opportunity to offer up my personal gifts in the spirit of true worship and it's my obligation to find my own watering holes outside of church, especially when the church service itself fails to do so.

There are two qualities of Mormonism that make it remarkable and unique: 1) The church is run in large part by a local congregation of unpaid volunteers. 2) These local congregations are organized purely geographically and its members are strongly encouraged to attend the congregation they happen to live. From this membership, the leaders are called, so quality and personalities vary.

This provides a unique opportunity to meet people you might not otherwise meet and it forces global regions to self-bootstrap and to learn how to take care of themselves. A couple of quotes from the book illustrate the power of this approach:
Although not all family relations are idyllic, most are remarkably strong and a primary source for the individual's identity. Surely that is, in part, a function of the cost of individuals pay to make a relationship work. Love is a product of what we put into a relationship. We love our families because of how much we have invested in them, how many times we fought, argued, simmered, and stewed but were forced back to the negotiating table by an unavoidable proximity and by a connection that transcended personal choice. We love that irritating brother and that infuriating sister because we couldn't simply walk away in a moment of frustration. We had to submit to the hard schooling of love because we couldn't transfer to another class with siblings more to our taste.
Like Robinson Crusoe on his island, Mormons implicitly recognize that any resource they need to employ for the building of Zion must be found within themselves or their immediate environs, not among more congenial fellow Saints or under the tutelage of more inspiring leaders the next block over. These wards and stakes thus function as laboratories and practicums where we discover that we love God by learning to love each other.
and finally
Certainly it is in the nature of institutions to homogenize disparities, to stifle individualism. But the Creator God of Genesis is a Being who revels in distinctions, difference, and variation, an Artificer who separated man from woman as surely as He severed earth from sky. And love is the spark that fires across the chasm of difference, not the plane of sameness. This is as true of Zion as it is of marriage. The poet Coventry Patmore wrote that the bonds that unite us in community consist 'not in similarity, but in dissimilarity; the happiness of love, in which alone happiness resid[es]...not in unison, but conjunction, which can only be between spiritual dissimilar.'
This got me thinking about how I've fallen short in my church membership over the years.  I've always had an internal drive to live up to my church callings, to really feel like I am a strong contributor in my congregation and to really feel like I could be there to help and uplift. I've always wanted to feel like I was in a congregation that could use me, that appreciated my family, where I felt useful and needed.

But there are times, in this striving, where I mess up, when my personality comes across a bit too strong, or anxious, or annoying. I can certainly relate to the comedian Nathan Fielder who uses a socially awkward personality as a tool for laughs:

The point, here, though is that there will always be people who you will anger or annoy, or people you dread seeing in the hallway because of some past unresolved conflict. This is normal and human. When it's a member of a family, you are forced to deal with it. You just can't pick another family to belong to. Mormon congregations have to a lesser extent, the same dynamic. You can pick up your family and move to another area, but that's not always possible and certainly not easy. Better to learn the art of reconciliation, repentance and forgiveness. Better to face those awkward and difficult moments head-on. Here lies opportunity for growth.

I had this experience recently. Two of my oldest children are in a community children's choir and the director is amazing, pushing the kids, working hard and striving for high musical quality. She also provides some interesting opportunities. Last spring, they had the opportunity to sing the National Anthem at an ASU basketball game. I love basketball, so I took the kids and my other 5 year old daughter to the game. After the anthem was sung, the kids met me so we could watch the game together.

We had to arrive early and I misunderstood my seat number, so we sat in the wrong section. The true owners of our seats arrived late, so we didn't realize our mistake until after the game had begun. They were nice and there were plenty of open seats so they just sat elsewhere. Well, being a little obsessed about correcting my mistakes, at halftime, we got some food and returned to our real seats. Well, of course, someone else was sitting in them, so we took seats nearby those which happened to be directly behind an older couple.

So I had my five year old sit next to me, then my two other children next to her. This put me and my daughter directly behind an older couple. My five year old is short and her legs stick out a bit, precariously close to the man in front's back. I was aware of this fact and sensitive to it, but was hopeful she could constrain herself enough. Besides college stadium seating is packed, I didn't think too much of it. And of course I quickly got absorbed into the game.

After about 10 minutes of this, the man in front just lost it. Here's the exchange as best as I can remember:

  • The man, turned around angrily, exclaiming "Look, I just about had enough of this".
  • Me to the man: "I'm sorry, I'm sorry". Me to my daughter: "Please be careful with your feet".
  • My older daughter to me: "What's going on?"
  • Me to my older daughter: "I wasn't totally aware, and my daughter was poking his back".
  • The man to me even angrier and louder: "Man, I'm about ready to pop you one."
  • Me to the man: "Take it easy, she's only 5."
  • The man to me: "Well, how old are you!"
  • Me to the man: "Sorry, sorry". We finally move to another seat far away.
Unfortunately for me, the man and his wife also happen to be connected to the choir. After the game, we walked to the parking garage and I noticed he was parked close to where we were parked. And it was packed and busy, so I took the kids to a grassy area far away to play for a long while.

Worse still, we had three more concerts that year, and yes he was at every single one. I would look for him, inevitably find him and try to keep myself situated as far from him as possible. I have effectively banished a stranger from my life.

The new year has arrived and he may or may not be at future concerts (I will never forget his face). But why is it my job to avoid him? Perhaps a better strategy is to engage fully in the choir. And if I run into him again in the future, maybe I don't say hi, but I certainly don't walk in the opposite direction.

Maybe he was having a bad day, perhaps he was dealing with a personal tragedy and just didn't have the patience. It doesn't matter. Dealing with people, day in and day out as we do, there are times when tempers are triggered. It's our job to work through them the best we can and to keep striving for more goodness. And in the future, I will try to be more sensitive to those around me so that my young children are not inadvertently poking my neighbor in the back.


Sunday, August 24, 2014

On Liberty

In my Mormon congregation last week, a member of our stake high council spoke on the subject of liberty which is one of those principles that intersects politics with religion. To be honest, I can't say I was able to absorb his talk completely. It was long and meaty and we have four children that have a hard time sitting still through church meetings. But I did want to summarize bits of it I was able to get and to also add a few extra thoughts of my own.

Many politicians act as if freedom can only be granted or taken away by the government. Our founding documents act as a rebuttal to this, describing the unalienable rights of each person granted to them by their Creator. Government can attempt to take away these rights and have throughout history, but oppressive government is not the only way to limit one's liberty.

One of the principles taught in the talk is why obedience to God's law is the way to find both personal happiness and somewhat paradoxically, preserve liberty. This principle can, in some ways, be a rebuttal to the more libertarian view that society is free insomuch as we are able to reduce government's role to an enforcer of contracts. Rather it's a recognition that in our choices we can limit our own and another's freedom in ways that may not be obvious at first glance. One example of this is when we fall into an addiction. It's hard to feel free when we are compelled to behave in ways that cause us personal shame, embarrassment or worse.

But another less obvious way that sin inhibits our freedom is that it blunts our ability to experience the kind of growth we would otherwise have. This will limit our ability to develop talents and improve our capacity. And in the end, our life's experience will become muted and our choices limited.

But our country has in some ways done a poor job in ensuring liberty, especially for the poor and the non-white.

Unjust Sentencing
In a country with the highest incarceration rate in the world, there are so many examples of how we limit liberty by coming down far too harshly on crime. Much of this was an overreaction to the get tough on crime movement of the 1980's that still plague us today.

Three Strikes Laws

Matt Tabbai:
"Despite the passage in late 2012 of a new state ballot initiative that prevents California from ever again giving out life sentences to anyone whose 'third strike' is not a serious crime, thousands of people – the overwhelming majority of them poor and nonwhite – remain imprisoned for a variety of offenses so absurd that any list of the unluckiest offenders reads like a macabre joke, a surrealistic comedy routine."

"Like wars, forest fires and bad marriages, really stupid laws are much easier to begin than they are to end. As the years passed and word of great masses of nonviolent inmates serving insanely disproportionate terms began to spread in the legal community, it became clear that any attempt to repair the damage done by Three Strikes would be a painstaking, ungainly process at best. The fear of being tabbed 'soft on crime' left politicians and prosecutors everywhere reluctant to lift their foot off the gas pedal for even a moment, and before long the Three Strikes punishment machine evolved into something that hurtled forward at light speed, but moved backward only with great effort, fractions of a millimeter at a time."
The War on Drugs

This is an interesting one because drug addiction can cause enormous damage to an individual afflicted, but to think the solution is to lock up people, primarily poor people of color, for minor drug offenses is not the way to stop it... Well, it's like trying to protect liberty by limiting it. And it has had devastating affects. After spending $1 trillion fighting the war, we are left with this:
About 40,000 people were in U.S. jails and prisons for drug crimes in 1980, compared with more than 500,000 today. Excessively long prison sentences and locking up people for small drug offenses contribute greatly to this ballooning of the prison population. It also represents racial discrimination and targeting disguised as drug policy. People of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than white people -- yet from 1980 to 2007, blacks were arrested for drug law violations at rates 2.8 to 5.5 times higher than white arrest rates.
Our Juvenile Detention Center

Nell Bernstein, author of Burning Down The House:
"'The greatest predictor of adult incarceration and adult criminality wasn't gang involvement, wasn't family issues, wasn't delinquency itself,' Bernstein says. 'The greatest predictor that a kid would grow up to be a criminal was being incarcerated in a juvenile facility.'"
Our Sex Offender Registery

Sexual offense is a crime that's really tough to write about because it has such a high level of stigma in our country today. But the laws around sex offenders is getting irrational:
"American policies regarding sex offenders mark them as a special category of criminals for whom no stigma is too crippling, no regulations are too restrictive, and no penalty is too severe. This attitude, driven by fear and outrage, is fundamentally irrational, and so are its results, which make little sense in terms of justice or public safety. Like the lustful predators of their nightmares, Americans pondering the right way to deal with sex offenders seem captive to their passions."
I encourage you to read the article in its entirety but I will quote the conclusion:
"In a 2004 Criminal Law Bulletin article, William Mitchell College of Law professor Eric Janus argued that 'sexual predator laws provide a model for undercutting…constitutional protections.' The process, Janus said, starts with a universally despised group of people who, like suspected terrorists, attract no public sympathy. He warned that 'we are at risk of becoming a ‘preventive state,’ in which the paradigm of governmental social control has shifted from solving and punishing crimes that have been committed to identifying ‘dangerous’ people and depriving them of their liberty before they can do harm.' To most Americans, I fear, this prospect is not nearly as scary as the possibility that a sex offender lives down the street.'"
 Development As Freedom

The nobel prize winning economist Amartya Sen, makes the compelling case in this book that the government should be proactive not just eliminating unjust imprisonment, but also in enhancing freedom and equality among it's citizenry. Sen summarizes this position here:
"On the other hand, the freedom of agency that we have individually is inescapably qualified and constrained by the social, political and economic opportunities that are available to us. There is a deep complementarity between individual agency and social arrangements. It is important to give simultaneous recognition to the centrality of individual freedom and to the force of social influences on the extent and reach of individual freedom. To counter the problems that we face, we have to see individual freedom as a social commitment. This is the basic approach that this work tries to explore and examine."
Similarly, social opportunities of education and health care, which may require public action, complement individual opportunities of economic and political participation and also help to foster our own initiatives in overcoming our respective deprivations. If the point of departure of the approach lies in the identification of freedom as the main object of development, the reach of the policy analysis lies in establishing the empirical linkages that make the viewpoint of freedom coherent and cogent as the guiding perspective of the process of development. 
I wholehartedly agree with my high councilor who taught us why obedience to God's law is essential for personal liberty. But often times this is not enough. For one, none of us is perfectly obedient, and it's why the doctrine of grace runs hand in hand with obedience. Personal liberty requires a climate of compassion when we make sincere efforts to overcome past mistakes. A world where someone is locked up 25 years to life for stealing a pair of socks is a world where one's liberty has been unjustly taken away. Rather we need to live in a society where punishment truly fits the crime. Where there is a pathway for people to overcome their past mistakes so that they can live good, productive lives. This requires compassion and sympathy and a degree of sophistication.

But also, I might add, personal liberty comes hand-in-hand with social justice. We are free or we are bound together. A world where some of our population is deprived access to basic health care or adequate education is a world that is not free. Freedom requires a functioning community, society and government. Where resources are sustainable, the environment is protected, where basic infrastructure is developed and adequately maintained, and where everyone has the opportunity for self-development and personal growth.

No one is truly free individually.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Logic, History and Islam

I recently saw this video in my facebook feed.

I wasn't comfortable enough with the friend to dive into a discussion about it with her on Facebook and to be honest, I'm not confident enough with the subject matter to have a competent opinion from which to defend. But that won't stop me from taking the argument on from my blog, so here goes.

First of all, read the wikipedia entry about the speaker. She's definitely legitimate. Her passion comes from experience and she knows more about this topic than I do, that's for sure. But before reading anything about her, watched the video. And through it, alarms kept ringing in my head with words like "no", "stupid", "bad logic".

You see she speaks with emotional passion, energy, and rhetorical flourish, so it's understandable that she gets the applause and the facebook shares. But there's danger there. In their book , Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise talk about how to study history during the logic phase and they make the following point:
Creating a time line teaches the student to trace chronological connections; outlining trains the student to look past rhetorical smoke and mirrors in order to find the "bare bones" argument of a speech or essay; the use of primary sources teaches the student to interpret the material himself instead of relying on "experts"; organizing information into divisions of the history notebook helps the student to classify similar events and historical trends together.
The point about outlining is important here.  So, let me apply it now. What were Brigitte Gabriel's main point and what were arguments she was making to prove it. Unfortunately the clip is taken out of context so this will be a fragmented analysis.

First, the questioner makes the point that it's erroneous to paint all 1.8 billion worldwide followers of Islam as bad. Further, there are 8 million Muslim Americans in this country and not one on of them sit in this particular panel. This leads her to ask, how can you expect to win and end an ideological war with weapons, when it seems more appropriate and effective to win an ideological war by taking on the ideology. Ms. Gabriel responds:
  1. She denies anyone on this panel mentioned anything about Muslims. Rather they want to know why four Americans died in Benghazi and who will be held accountable for that.
  2. She then pivots to the religion itself (since the questioner brought it up). She sites the statistic that 15-20% of Muslims are radical.
  3. Then because that's true, that means 300 million people are dedicated to the destruction of western civilization.
  4. The reason why we should worry is because that also means that there are 300 million people who are either currently killing or want to kill.
  5. She sites other examples in history that we should consider. 
    1. The Nazis drove the agenda in Germany and as a result 60 million people died.
    2. Most Russians were peaceful, yet the Russians killed 20 million people.
    3. Most Chinese people were peaceful, yet the Chinese people killed 70 million people.
    4. Pre-WWII Japanese were peaceful, yet the Japanese killed 12 million people across SE Asia.
    5. It took 19 radical hijakers to bring America to its knees.
Ok, I'll attack the logic by simply diving into these points with further questions:
  1. Where did the 15-20% statistic come from? What actually constitutes a radical Muslim. Do all 15-20% of them really want to destroy western civilization and are they all brutal murderers?
  2. For those who are classified as radical Muslisms, is their religion the predominant factor driving their radicalism. Or are their other more important drivers - say, the region where they live, it's history, culture and whether they are or recently have experienced war.
  3. If their religion is the primary driver, can we expect to enter a random mosque anywhere in the world and encounter 20% of the congregation as possible murderers? If not, why not?
  4. Since most predominantly Islamic countries are in the Middle East and in portions of Africa, what could we learn about its history that may teach us some lessons about what's driving the wars that seem to dominate these regions in recent history? 
  5.  She brings up Russian, German, Chinese and Japanese examples to further her point. How do these examples compare and contrast with the terrorism we're seeing in the world today? 
  6. Could it be, to use one example, the problems were not the Russians, but the Russian leadership (Stalin), his control of the government and its military? What drove Stalin to massacre his own citizens and how are those motivations relevant to the problems facing the Middle East? 
  7. What of fascism and Hitler? It's interesting that Fascism in Germany and Communism in Russia both took off only after the catastrophic first world war that destroyed Europe. How is that fact relevant then and today?
These are not easy questions and I don't have easy answers. But what I know for sure, is this video snippet was not helpful to the discussion at all. And that is why, while listening, I kept thinking, "stupid", "bad", "no"... I don't deny Ms. Gabriel's passion and I know she's experienced some stuff that I hope I nor my children ever have to. And I'm sure she has smarter arguments to back up her opinions than this. Let's dig into those instead.