Archive for Sunday Sermon


“It’s not that complicated”

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“Be confident in your heritage. Be confident in your blackness,” President Obama told student during his commencement address yesterday at Howard University. He reminded students at the historically black college, “One of the great changes that’s occurred in our country since I was your age is the realization there’s no one way to be black. Take it from somebody who’s seen both sides of debate about whether I’m black enough.”

It was an upbeat speech worth listening to in its entirety. Obama urged students foremost to engage politically as their parents and grandparents did. There are enough people working at disenfranchising the most vulnerable without students giving away their power by not voting (emphasis mine):

You have to go through life with more than just passion for change; you need a strategy. I’ll repeat that. I want you to have passion, but you have to have a strategy. Not just awareness, but action. Not just hashtags, but votes.

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Has America lost its resilience?

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One of Pavlov's dogs, preserved at The Pavlov Museum, Ryazan, Russ

One of Pavlov’s dogs, preserved at The Pavlov Museum, Ryazan, Russia.
By Rklawton via Wikimedia Commons

Frame adversity as a challenge, and you become more flexible and able to deal with it, move on, learn from it, and grow. Focus on it, frame it as a threat, and a potentially traumatic event becomes an enduring problem; you become more inflexible, and more likely to be negatively affected.

That is how people who study psychological resilience see the difference between people who rise above adversity and those who succumb to it. Maria Konnikova wrote about those studies in a February New Yorker article. Coping skills come naturally to some people, but they can also change over time. “The stressors can become so intense that resilience is overwhelmed,” Konnikova writes. “Most people, in short, have a breaking point.”

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Legislating conformity

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Because conservatives have trouble coping with ambiguity….

North Carolina continues to receive fallout and national opprobrium for its legislative freakout over transgender rights. Americans celebrate personal freedom and people going their own way, don’t we, unless it involves gender and sex? I have already written about how North Carolina’s HB2 is a Trojan Horse for a crackdown on workers’ rights. But some coffee urn jokes this week about bathrooms and people’s chosen “lifetyles” got under my skin.

Just as despite everyday observation, the Earth is not flat, neither are sex and gender binary. What laws like North Carolina’s HB2 demand is legally enforced conformity to a binary standard in a world built upon natural variance.

When I was a child, an aunt, uncle and cousins lived next door to a family of albinos. To a kid, they appeared pretty odd. Weird even. But after a few visits and a few neighborhood cookouts, they were just the O’Shaughnessys (not their real name). Both different and the same. They weren’t sequestered in a remote neighborhood of the city, told they had to use a special restroom, or treated as potential criminals. At least, not by us. And albinism is far rarer (1 in 20,000) than the kind of sex and sexual identity variances North Carolina just tried to make disappear through legislation. Disappearing what makes us uncomfortable has become a thing here. The legislature already decreed that the sea level is not rising.

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Entitled to their own country

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entitled-child2a“That’s just not done,” people used to say of behaviors that violated genteel rules of polite society. It is not an expression you hear much anymore. “Polite society” is now as quaint as the notion that the United States abides by the international rule barring torture. Like the rule against Ghostbusters getting involved with possessed people, it’s more of a guideline than a rule.

“It’s okay if you’re a Republican” (IOKIYAR) is musty Internet shorthand for how one major party believes rules and norms apply only to certain people and not others. We are beyond that now. Far beyond it. It is a wonder anyone still uses the expression from the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” Nobody believes it anymore, even at the highest levels.

Writing for Salon, Harvard professor Bruce Hay gives his understanding of how the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia approached science. As a former Scalia clerk, Hay speaks from experience:

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Ben, I just want to say one word to you. Water.

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Detroit Water & Sewerage Water Treatment Plant

The United States used to be the subject of Michael Moore documentaries. Now we are living in one. Moore was in his home town of Flint, Michigan yesterday to protest the contamination of the city’s water with lead:

FLINT, MI — Filmmaker Michael Moore accused Gov. Rick Snyder of poisoning Flint water in a rally here today, Jan. 16, and called again for the U.S. attorney general to investigate the governor for what he called crimes against the city.

“I am standing in the middle of a crime scene …,” Moore said. “Ten people have been killed … because of a decision to save money.”

Yesterday, President Barack Obama declared a federal emergency in Flint, freeing federal dollars to help “save lives and to protect property and public health and safety, and to lessen or avert the threat of a catastrophe in Genesee County.”

There is a long backstory to this situation. Wouldn’t you know, as Moore said, it involves the Midas Cult and money.

“A manmade catastrophe”

Before the credits roll for The Big Short, the screen goes black and a series of “where are they now” statements about the protagonists appears as an epilogue, including this one:

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Ignorance is power

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Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2015 in Washington, DC.
Photo by Gage Skidmore [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

At a Christmas party in the early 1990s, two women approached me separately to ask if I was “into metaphysics.” They meant the beliefs and practices of the New Age movement. I told them that while I have a degree in philosophy and had studied metaphysics, I was really more interested in ethics and political philosophy. They quickly lost interest and went elsewhere to look for more harmonious energies.

A friend of the same persuasion said her husband hoped to go back to college to study quantum physics. He was going to be disappointed. There would be no examination of the healing properties of quartz crystals or of how to communicate with higher “energies” from another dimension.

These people were not uneducated or stupid, just adrift and gullible. That is preface to saying that cultivated ignorance is not uniquely a product of the political right. It just seems to be a major export.

Writing for the BBC last week, Georgina Kenyon profiled Robert Proctor, a science historian from Stanford University. Proctor’s look at the obscurantism of the tobacco industry – the deliberate cultivation of doubt – led him to coin the term agnotology, the study of deliberate propagation of ignorance:

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Sellin’ the big nothin’

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Public domain from Library of Congress

There is an emotional scene at the end of the movie First Blood. Rambo, the decorated war veteran with post-traumatic stress, is breaking down.

He tells his best friend – his only friend – how since leaving the army his life has gone to hell.

He shouts, “For me, civilian life is nothin’. In the field, we had a code of honor. You watch my back, I watch yours. Back here there’s nothin’.”

That nothin’ is what our elites are sellin’.

Oh, our leaders love them some troops in uniform. They put their hands over their hearts, get all solemn, and snap to attention when soldiers pass. They may even think they mean it. But the values they praise in the military are not the values by which they (and we) have organized an economy that no longer serves us. We serve it.

Inside the base perimeter, training instills esprit de corps. Teamwork. All for one, one for all. Self-sacrifice. We give medals for it. Leave no one behind. A code of honor.

But outside in Anytown, USA? Screw you, I’ve got mine. Anyone “out of uniform” is unworthy. Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. Stop picking my pocket. Everyone for himself.

Why is that? What is that?

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It takes a criminal mind

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After signing the credit card draft, the customer asked for his carbons back. (That tells you how long ago this was.) The waiter (moi) must have gotten a puzzled look on his face.

“Nobody ever asked you that before?” the customer asked.


The customer explained that dumpster-diving thieves would steal carbons to get credit card numbers.

“Huh? That never would have occurred to me,” I said.

“That’s because you don’t have a criminal mind,” the man said.

Which brings us to this piece in the New York Times. It seems Republican PACs are making a concerted effort to “inhabit the liberal role” on social media and dupe lefties into sharing anti-Hillary Clinton memes. Bill McKibben (, the A.F.L.-C.I.O., and others have fallen prey to the tactic:

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Death and dishonor

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No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. You won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.

General George S. Patton

The Patton quote above gained new notoriety after it opened the movie Patton in 1970. For several years, an autograph my father-in-law got from Patton during the war has been in a large envelope on the shelf here. I never looked at it until just now. It’s on a program from the Folies Bergère. I looked at it this morning because I’m still processing the week’s events in the aftermath of the Freddie Gray homicide in Baltimore. I looked at it because it seems some of our police believe they’re fighting a war, a war to be won by ensuring the other poor dumb bastard dies first.

Six Baltimore police officers now face “a litany of charges that include second-degree depraved-heart murder, involuntary manslaughter, false imprisonment and misconduct in office.” Recent killings by police in Ferguson, in New York, and in North Charleston brought to mind another well-known quote, not from war, but policing:

Malone: You just fulfilled the first rule of law enforcement: make sure when your shift is over you go home alive. Here endeth the lesson.

The Untouchables (1987)

Protests turned to riot and looting after Freddie Gray’s funeral last week. Whenever that occurs in a black neighborhood, pundits rush to explain it as a symptom of a dysfunctional culture in the black community. Maybe it’s time to examine whether “the first rule” hasn’t bred a dysfunctional police culture in some departments. Because it’s not just a dramatic device from the movies.

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Categories : National, Sunday Sermon
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Seeing the Other as real

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Confronting Hatred: 70 Years after the Holocaust played on the local NPR station recently. Narrated by Morgan Freeman, the program looks at “racism, antisemitism, and the ways in which hatred can grow.” I tuned in late and heard a German woman confronting Klansmen. It led me to this 2014 clip from the BBC:

Mo Asumang is a German filmmaker who confronts racism by speaking directly to those who want her excluded from their world. They don’t talk to or know their “so-called enemy,” Asumang says, “so what they do when they talk to me, they talk to reality, and that’s the first thing they have to survive.”


Asumang concedes that her tactics for confronting hatred so directly are not for everyone. But she is inspired by the incredible change she witnessed in her own family, when her grandmother—a former Nazi party member, who worked for the SS—came face to face with a black grandchild.

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