Thirteen Observations by Lemony Snicket

This moved me enough to break my blog hiatus. Mr Snicket has artfully articulated what I could not:

Thirteen Observations made by Lemony Snicket while watching Occupy Wall Street from a Discreet Distance

1. If you work hard, and become successful, it does not necessarily mean you are successful because you worked hard, just as if you are tall with long hair it doesn’t mean you would be a midget if you were bald.

2. “Fortune” is a word for having a lot of money and for having a lot of luck, but that does not mean the word has two definitions.

3. Money is like a child—rarely unaccompanied. When it disappears, look to those who were supposed to be keeping an eye on it while you were at the grocery store. You might also look for someone who has a lot of extra children sitting around, with long, suspicious explanations for how they got there.

4. People who say money doesn’t matter are like people who say cake doesn’t matter—it’s probably because they’ve already had a few slices.

5. There may not be a reason to share your cake. It is, after all, yours. You probably baked it yourself, in an oven of your own construction with ingredients you harvested yourself. It may be possible to keep your entire cake while explaining to any nearby hungry people just how reasonable you are.

6. Nobody wants to fall into a safety net, because it means the structure in which they’ve been living is in a state of collapse and they have no choice but to tumble downwards. However, it beats the alternative.

7. Someone feeling wronged is like someone feeling thirsty. Don’t tell them they aren’t. Sit with them and have a drink.

8. Don’t ask yourself if something is fair. Ask someone else—a stranger in the street, for example.

9. People gathering in the streets feeling wronged tend to be loud, as it is difficult to make oneself heard on the other side of an impressive edifice.

10. It is not always the job of people shouting outside impressive buildings to solve problems. It is often the job of the people inside, who have paper, pens, desks, and an impressive view.

11. Historically, a story about people inside impressive buildings ignoring or even taunting people standing outside shouting at them turns out to be a story with an unhappy ending.

12. If you have a large crowd shouting outside your building, there might not be room for a safety net if you’re the one tumbling down when it collapses.

13. 99 percent is a very large percentage. For instance, easily 99 percent of people want a roof over their heads, food on their tables, and the occasional slice of cake for dessert. Surely an arrangement can be made with that niggling 1 percent who disagree.

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To Vote or Not to Vote (Part Two)

In Part One of this series, I sketched the outlines of the argument against Christians voting. The goal was to give a defense of principled non-participation, and should not be confused as advocating apathy and/or laziness. Likewise, in this post I won’t address silly, specious arguments for voting, such as ones from civic duty or obligation.

To kick things off, I want to quote Ran Prieur:

A common argument against voting is that it trains you to think that working within the system is the best or only way to make a better world. My answer is: could you set the bar for yourself any lower? That’s like not watching any commercials because then you won’t be able to stop yourself from buying the product. If you don’t think you can vote while keeping a healthy mental distance, now would be an excellent time to learn. Your vote is not a precious flower to be given only to the one you love; it is a cold tactical decision, and collectively, it does make a difference.

Prieur hits on two things I want to highlight. The first is this idea of “healthy mental distance” and “cold tactical decision.” All throughout this essay I am going to continue assuming that politics is corrupt(ing), that power plays are unChristian, that our electoral process is beyond embarrassing. So everything henceforth operates under the assumption that if (big if) we vote, we vote with terrible fear & trembling. We’d be voting with acute self-awareness, reflexivity, humility, and perhaps even with a prayer of forgiveness.

The second idea in Prieur’s paragraph is this idea of purity, in which non-contamination becomes an idol for the leftist Christian (Note: Prieur is not one, just FYI). This is the same problem the fundamentalists have: if I don’t hang out with thieves & prostitutes & rock ‘n rollers, I won’t be tainted by their sin. The principled non-voter is saying something similar: if I don’t participate in xyz, I won’t be complicit in the system. Now I have, over the years, shifted to more institutional notions of sin & depravity, so I certainly think there’s something to “opting out” as much as possible. The confusion is in thinking it is a) wholly possible, and b) a sort of salvation in its own right. Right now, as I write this, wars are being fought in my name and, worse, in the name of my God. Hear this: not voting does not change this fact. My complicity in that violence is not entirely contingent on whether or not I punched a ballot. Furthermore — and I here I love Prieur’s line about the “precious flower” — the fact that those we vote for are fallen is not itself a reason to abstain. There has to be something more here (and in aggregate, perhaps the arguments in Part One do add up convincingly). In my “anti” arguments I appealed to “symbolic weight” as a reason for abstention. Yet I think it could certainly be argued that I attributed much too much weight to that symbol. Is it really the case that I am now “defiled” for casting a vote, yet reliance on the state in hundreds of other ways is less defiling? On one hand, because I want us to live more attentive, more attuned lives I think we ought to weight more decisions more heavily, avoiding the flippant, thoughtless consumer culture around us. Yet we have to avoid over-burdening things — avoid “false equivalency” — where anything less than total, absolute (I’d argue, impossible) purity is seen as the only option.

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A Christmas Message

This is by Brynne Lewis Allport, from “An Impression” on The Church and Pomo Culture:

In God, Death, and Time, Emmanuel Levinas claims that the immanent experience of a transcendent God amounts to a reversal and referral of the desirable (God) to the nondesirable (the Other). This correlation results in a mission to approach and engage the Other, especially as the Other is figured in the needy, the oppressed, and the forgotten. In this sense, God’s presence is experienced in those persons in whom God is least expected to be found (absence).I visualize this concept in the following way. God’s inbreaking into existence is a stone, thrown against wet sand. The moment of impact is unobserved (unoberservable?) and the stone is absent, bounded off somewhere unknown. What remains is a small dent, an impression left in the soft shore line. The impression is the shape of the stone, the size of the stone, retains the fine features of the stone. However, as an impression, these features are preserved in reverse. In this way, God’s presence, if it is to be found at all, is found in those places where God is most absent. The Old Testament is full of reminders that worship of God is only as good as the care extended to widows, orphans, and the poor. The epistle of James makes this same claim.

It is important to point out that it is not simply the existence of these Others that is God’s presence in the world, but our caring engagement with them. To return to my metaphor, when the impression is all that remains, the only way to experience the stone is to press into the shape it has left behind. This absence is filled with engagement in the same way one takes a plaster cast. In approaching, meeting, ministering to those in need, the community conforms to, fills out the shape of God in the world. The mold is as much the shape as what is poured into it. Holiness therefore is not a characteristic retained by either party alone, but a quality that emerges from the touch-point of the two.

I recently had the pleasure of helping our community fill its annual Christmas baskets. These baskets (boxes really) are distributed to area residents who apply for aid. They include clothes, basic food stuffs, and toys for the children. Because I had the job of matching mittens with hands that might need them, I had to read each application to determine the number and size of each pair. The requests were simple, the situations similar and familiar: illness, unemployment, injury. As I passed each box, read each name, I held each person in my heart for just a moment. As I placed each pair of mittens inside each basket, I was overwhelmed by the privilege of sharing a holy meeting in the presence (absence) of God.

Merry Christmas.

The Least of These: Buenos Aires (Pt. 2)

Yesterday I had a chance to do some humanitarian work with an organization called Luchemos para una Infancia Feliz y Con Esperanza — otherwise known as LIFE Argentina. I had heard of a couple poker players who’d volunteered with LIFE and it seemed to be popular in the expat community. I wanted to complement the online research I’d done on poverty in Buenos Aires by actually seeing the slums firsthand. (Skip to the photos if you’re in a hurry).
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The Least of These: Buenos Aires (Pt. 1)

It won’t take long visiting Buenos Aires to discover that not everyone’s living large in this “Paris of the South,” even if you’re comfortably sequestered in a posh condo in Palermo or a swanky hotel in Puerto Madero. Argentina’s unemployment rate is currently lower than that of the United States, but this country’s own painful Great Depression still haunts a place that is now mercifully on the rebound. Less than eight years ago the employment rate was up to 25%, with nearly 2/3rds of the population living below the poverty line. Like too many other developing countries, their economic bust was the result of free-market reforms perpetrated, in part, by the monetary gangsters at the IMF.

As we close out this decade, the reminders of those horrid depression years are still everywhere, but never more obviously than at 8 or 9pm every night, on every street, all across Buenos Aires. This is when the cartoneros come out: they’re recyclers, using Argentine ingenuity to manage the budget crunch by sorting the day’s trash and selling it to factories on the outskirts of the capital. Most of them travel to the city centers via El Cartonero, a special train that transports the cartoneros, their carts, and that night’s haul. The train is one of many rights the increasingly-organized group have won for themselves, but it’s still not a luxury. The trip is obviously crowded, dirty, and smelly, with no lights and no seats. It leaves early evening and returns to the city edges in the early morning, when the cartoneros unload and sell off their collection of bottles and cardboard. A good night’s work can bring in AR$15, or about US$4, a day. This is roughly equivalent to the salary of a public elementary school teacher, but is barely enough for a meal of empanadas from a downtown confiteria.
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Ocean of Noise

J. Motta’s got me hooked on Swaptree and I’ve made a few trades already. One of my favorite swaps has to be getting rid of a neurotic alcoholic’s memoir in exchange for a tome on deconstructive religion & the meaning of forgiveness. No disrespect intended to Mr. Burrough’s, but he’s no Derrida.

Question: if you had live, even work, for a season in a) Buenos Aires, Argentina; b) Alexandria, Egypt; or c) Kathmandu, Nepal — which would it be?

I think everyone’s heard this by now, but Liberty University has shut down their chapter of College Democrats. This kind of tragi-comic act needs no comment from me.

Oh, and here’s yet another conservative being waterboarded. Three jeers for Sean Hannity for still not having the balls to do this. 

For no related reason, here’s an interesting photo, though I don’t know where it’s from. Reminds me of Manila.

Poor People Suck

The must-read article of the month is Michael Lewis’ “The End of Wall Street’s Boom.” It is a superb account of our economic crisis and how we got here, as seen through the eyes of a handful of people who predicted it. I thought about quoting snippets, but decided I’d end up quoting most of the piece: it’s really good. After reading this article I went and also read Lewis’ 1989 book Liar’s Poker, the story of his four successful years at Saloman Brothers up to and around the 1987 crash. Though 20 years old by now, it still felt fresh in light of today’s recession.

Lewis’ Portfolio article also serves an unintended purpose: sufficient refutation of the notion that stupid, greedy, lower-to-middle class homebuyers are primarily to blame for our present troubles. This, of course, has been a persistent theme during the last six months and represents standard class prejudice. America hates its poor.
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The Gospel from Outer Space

Back to our regularly scheduled programming. Here’s an excerpt from Slaughterhouse-Five by the inimitable Kurt Vonnegut:

…The visitor from outer space made a serious study of Christianity, to learn, if he could, why Christians found it so easy to be cruel. He concluded that at least part of the trouble was slipshod storytelling in the New Testament. He supposed that the intent of the Gospels was to teach people, among other things, to be merciful, even to the lowest of the low.
But the Gospels actually taught this:
Before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn’t well connected. So it goes.

The flaw in the Christ stories, said the visitor from outer space, was that Christ, who didn’t look like much, was actually the Son of the Most Powerful Being in the Universe. Readers understood that, so, when they came to the crucifixion, they naturally thought:
Oh, boy – they sure picked the wrong guy to lynch that time!
And that thought had a brother: “There are right people to lynch.” Who? People not well connected. So it goes.

The visitor from outer space made a gift to Earth of a new Gospel. In it, Jesus really was a nobody, and a pain in the neck to a lot of people with better connections than he had. He still got to say all the lovely and puzzling things in said in the Gospels.

So the people amused themselves one day by nailing him to a cross and planting the cross in the ground. There couldn’t possibly be any repercussions, the lynchers thought. The reader would have to think that, too, since the Gospel hammered home again and again what a nobody Jesus was.

And then, just before the nobody died, the heavens opened up, and there was thunder and lightning. The voice of God came crashing down. He told the people that he was adopting the bum as his son, giving him the full powers and privileges of The Son of the Creator of the Universe throughout all eternity. God said this: From this moment on, He will punish horribly anybody who torments a bum who has no connections!

Moral of the story: don’t be rude to the bum-looking old man eating alone in McDonald’s, because he might just end up giving you $20 to help you hitchhike to Seattle and then you’ll feel like an asshole for traveling 2000 miles and yet still being a shallow narcissist.

Derrida via Claiborne

Like many students, I was saddened to learn on January 30th that Shane Claiborne’s expected campus event had been canceled. In one sense it was simply disappointing that we missed an opportunity to listen and dialogue with Claiborne in person. More importantly, the incident was disappointing in what it revealed about the “forces for status quo” (to use John Edwards’ phrase), or the length to which the foot soldiers of legalistic fundamentalism will go in order to silence an “ordinary radical” whose message of love, peace, and justice are simply too extreme for this campus. Personally, I’m particularly drawn to Claiborne’s Irresistible Revolution because it seems to me an important picture of “The Great Law of Hospitality”; that is, the ethics of Jacques Derrida.

The juxtaposition of Shane Claiborne and Jacques Derrida is, at first blush, more than a little odd: one a young American hippie, the other a deceased French theorist. However, Derrida’s connection to Claiborne and Derrida’s immense relevance to this campus is perhaps best encapsulated in his claim that “ethics is hospitality.” For Derrida, unconditionally welcoming the foreigner — the Other — is the very meaning of justice.

As he tells the story, the history of philosophy or Western ideas is the history of exclusion. All the way back to the Ancient Greeks, it is a history that is hell-bent on erecting binaries: male/female, rational/irrational, objective/subjective, inside/outside, presence/absence, fact/opinion, and so forth. The former is always privileged and the latter always sidelined, dominated, oppressed. To be male, rational & factual, was supposedly clearly superior to being female, irrational & opinionated. Derrida’s goal, among and with many others, is to subvert — he says “deconstruct” — this traditional arrangement to demonstrate the inter-dependence of both concepts. For example, it does not make sense to speak of being inside unless there is an outside with whom it is contrasted; there are also spaces which destabilize the binary even more by being both/neither inside and outside. Derrida does not want to invert the binary, so that being outside is better/greater than being inside, but rather make the two live in tension between the forces of violence that would pull them apart or have one subjugate the Other.

Most relevantly to us today, we need to see that the marginalized Other in our society is undoubtedly the sick, the poor, the downtrodden, the impoverished, the “least of these.” In the face of these, Derrida calls us to an impossible task: unconditional hospitality. The impossibility of such a demand is the very condition of the call itself, the very reason it ought to nag us by day and haunt us at night. Furthermore, this call contains in itself immense risk: there is no guarantee that an unqualified openness to the Other won’t bring personal danger, harm, tragedy. This is justice, Derrida says, for it invites the foreigner inside (our home, our space, our koinos, our heart) without question and without demand.

Enter Shane Claiborne. For I am convinced that Irresistible Revolution, a humble book that is certainly otherwise than philosophy, sketches a brilliant picture of what a life of unconditional hospitality might look like. Claiborne’s simple call is to love; love deeply, generously, excessively. Most importantly, do this to the unlovable.

Last fall, after reading Claiborne’s book, I attempted to commit myself to giving and welcoming unconditionally. One night I went to Dayton to spend on a 2-hour movie what one billion humans earn as a week’s wage. As I left The Neon I was approached by Jesus, disguised as a beleaguered white woman and her boyfriend. I don’t remember whether it was to see a long-lost brother or just escape the impending winter, but she wanted bus tickets and so I gave her money and wished them well. Not 20 feet onward I came across Jesus again, this time in the form of a scraggly black man who wanted to eat at Arby’s. There’s no doubt that the beggar and I should’ve shared a meal together, but opening my arms to a dirty Jesus seemed more difficult and so I just gave him some bills. The third time I saw Jesus was just minutes later, when a beggar began heading towards me from a ways down the sidewalk. I immediately began to think of excuses: that the price of my evening had already doubled, that I was “poor” too, that I “needed” to get home, that giving unconditionally was just getting to be too hard. And so I turned a blind eye and crossed to the other side of the street. Was there ever a more disgusting, obviously Pharisaical act? That my Savior passed His three tests, that He died on the cross, that He rose again on the third day, that is only what saves a wretch like me.

You see what Derrida and Claiborne were driving at is an ethical demand that’s too radical for us to handle, almost even comprehend. It was just as radical 2000 years ago when a Nazarene carpenter first proclaimed these truths. The Sermon on the Mount is so outrageous that it’s still unwelcome today, banned even from our Christian university. For if we truly unconditionally welcomed the Other — the unwanted, the marginalized, the destitute, even our enemies — our lives would require such radical re-constitution that we’d be shaken to the core. Wouldn’t we as individuals, as communities, as towns, and as a nation ultimately conduct ourselves very, very differently? Would we any longer bless the pre-emptive war-mongers, so that they might inherit the earth? Would we any longer tolerate cowboy imperialism, pretending that it represents the kingdom of heaven? Does unconditional hospitality erect a 2000-mile fence to keep out Unwanteds and Outsiders? Does unconditional giving mean HMO bureaucracy just to treat a sick child? To turn the other cheek and to give (not invest) our last dollar: these are the demands of that wandering Christ we claim to follow. Welcoming — not bombing — the poor, tired, and huddled masses is undoubtedly a risky proposition. Our Jesus, however, does not call us to safety or economic efficiency; He calls us to love. It’s so simple. To love extravagantly beyond all measure, because that is how our Father in Heaven loves us. This is a love that can transform my life, and yours, and all of us here at this Christ-ian university, so that next time Jesus wants to visit us in the disguise of a long-haired hippie from Philadelphia we unequivocally say Yes, please. Welcome.

Dear GM

I read in a recent Wired article that General Motors has an annual TV ad budget of $2.9 billion, second only to Proctor & Gamble (I don’t even want to think about how sick their budget must be). Aren’t these figures just digusting? The $2.9 billion excludes radio, internet, newspapers, etc — just television. That $2.9B is just such a stunning number when you think what could be done with that if GM cut out tv ads for just one year. Several organizations seems to suggest that it costs $240 to feed an impoverished child for a year: $2.9B feeds 12 million kids. This happens to be the same number of children “in need of assistance” in the Horn of Africa (Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, etc) according to Concern.net. The cost/year is $363 according to LifeLine South Africa — $2.9B still feeds 8 million children! Other sites suggest slightly different figures on the cost to feed the severely malnourished and starving… no matter how you add it up, $2,900,000,000 is a really absurd number. I have severe doubts about whether a one-year moratorium on GM ads would hurt their bottom line, especially considering the publicity boost a $2.9B charitable gift would provide. Plus they’d still have all their other advertising mediums.

Dear General Motors,
Don’t be stupid: less SUV ads, more food for dying kids. KTHXBAI.
Love,
Kevin