Saturday, August 22, 2009

Fear, Anger and Truth

Within days of Barack Obama’s election, the FBI and the CIA were developing strategies for dealing with a resurgence of armed militias. In a grim sort of way I have to tip my hat to them for their foresight. While I dared to hope we were about to enter a new era of national unity, they knew that having a liberal African-American in the White House would inevitably create fear in certain portions of the population who would take up arms to protect themselves from the coming (pick one) Communist/Socialist/Nazi takeover of America. I heard an interview with a militia member who sincerely believes that the Obama administration is supporting a secret plan by the Mexican government to reclaim the states of Arizona and New Mexico. When you mix fear, anger, misinformation and weapons you wind up with a very dangerous combination.

Perhaps the most poignant question asked in the Christian Gospels is the one posed by Pontius Pilate: “What is truth?” When a society cannot agree upon what constitutes truth, cannot agree upon what is fact and what is fiction, dialogue becomes impossible. We have seen this most notably in the debate over health-care reform, where bizarre rumors (such as the one about the government establishing “death panels”) are regarded as factual truth by many people. I confess that I took more pleasure than I perhaps should have in Congressman Barney Frank’s response to one such woman, who accused the congressman of supporting the President’s “Nazi health plan”—“Ma’am, trying to have a conversation with you would be like trying to argue with a dining room table. I have no interest in doing it.”

It is not realistic to expect everyone to be in agreement about complex political and cultural issues. It is healthy and productive to dialog with one another in a respectful manner about those issues on which we hold different views. But in order to do so we need common grounding in the facts which define the issue. Lewis Carroll gave us the line “If I say it three times it is true,” and between the media and the internet such “truths” are being created and believed in alarming numbers. Misinformation has become the single greatest threat to civilized society.

By all means hold your own convictions and argue them with passion. But first, pause to ask yourself “Is this true? How do I know it is the truth? Where can I check my facts?” Persons of moral integrity will not always agree with one another, but they must not allow themselves to be guilty of spreading misinformation, rumors, or lies.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Baby Strollers, Faith and Hope

Yesterday I visited a store that sells Baby Stuff for the first time in 27 years. Our daughter and her husband are expecting a child in November, and we are giving them a stroller as a gift. I came out of the store shell-shocked; I had no idea how much the technology of Baby Stuff has changed since our children were young. The stroller that the lady described as a “good quality basic unit” includes a base that mounts in the car, an infant car seat that snaps securely into either that base or the stroller, and a variety of other features (I counted three cup-holders but saw no holster for the baby’s cell phone). “Deluxe” strollers with even more features sell for as much as $800. I think we paid fifteen bucks for the stroller our kids rode in, an “umbrella stroller” made of some kind of nylon slightly stronger than toilet tissue. When we brought our daughter home from the hospital in 1976, we were given a cardboard box in which to transport her on her mother’s lap. How our kids survived until adulthood is a great mystery.

It seems to me that the Baby Stuff industry preys on young parents’ fears and anxieties: if you don’t buy the very safest and most expensive Stuff for your child (I assume that earthquake-proof cribs are available in California), you are a Bad Parent. Certainly I am in favor of anything that makes children safer, especially car seats. But I believe there is a down side to the notion that parents can build an impregnable bubble of safety around their child by overspending on these products. Unless we are equally invested in building safe, just and healthy communities for our children to grow up in, none of us will know real safety. Even the best parent cannot provide a child with absolute protection—it is a world of joy and beauty, but also a world of risk and danger. I want my grandchild to ride in a safe stroller, but I want even more for him (yes, it will be a boy) to grow up in a world where all children have adequate food, housing, education and medical care. Such a world would be a much safer one for our grandchild, and for everyone else’s grandchildren.

Purchasing a stroller for a child whose birth is still more than three months away is its own kind of act of faith and hope, of course—we are investing ourselves in the joyous expectation that the rest of our daughter’s pregnancy will go well and her son will be born more-or-less on schedule. Of course, every time we buy a gift for a family member or friend several months before their birthday we are engaging in a similar act of faith. Life is uncertain, and we can never know what tomorrow may bring. I remember an interview comedian George Burns gave on his 90th birthday. A reporter teased him by saying “At your age, I guess you aren’t buying any long-term bonds.” Burns answered “Young man, at my age I don’t even buy green bananas!” If we allowed ourselves to be ruled by fear, we would not buy green bananas, birthday gifts, or baby strollers. But faith inspires us to live into the future in hope. I look forward to pushing my grandchild in his fancy stroller. And I look forward to having him grow up and join me in the effort to build a better world for all God’s children.