Sunday, May 28, 2006

"North Country" - movie review

"North Country" (Charlize Theron) is a fictional account of a real incident in the iron mines in northern Minnesota, the first class action for sexual harassment.

It made me once again take a hard look at what it costs to walk in the truth and to seek freedom for the oppressed, including ourselves.

You'll be hated and forsaken - and by your friends and companions who stand to gain by your success, who instead fight you in order to suck up to their oppressor so as to stay out of trouble. That's what happened to Moses. It's what Jesus received - indeed, what he receives lots of times right now from me and other Christians that I know.

If you want to give sight to the blind, you'll encounter a lot of blindness. If you undertake to bring light to those who sit in darkness, you'll receive lots of behavior motivated by darkness. By the time they want to hand you an honorary degree, it will be long over.

It's not playtime: what the cruel and unjust is willing to do to others, he will do to you if you get between him and his victim. If he's willing to be that cruel and unjust, do you think he's decent enough not to lie about you and to do you cruel injustice?

In the movie, the victory turned on some small things. The mother still loved her son even when he hated his mother and joined her enemies in calling her a whore in public, agreeing with them that she deserved what they were doing to her. She didn't even give up on her father when he stood against her with her tormentors.

I'm not made of the required stuff. I don't know about somebody else - as Paul wrote, there might exist somewhere a good man for whom one might dare to die. But if I'm going to stand and deliver the minimum required to be a decent human being, I definitely need God's training, encouragement, and constant supervision!

So, for some things to think about and a hard look at reality, go to the video store and rent "North Country."

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Narcissistic Personality Disorder - Guest Editorial

In at least two ways, Professor Jensen below shows profound biblical wisdom that is almost wholly absent in every religious and political grouping in the United States today.

1) Like the prophets, he understands the value of considering nations as individual personalities. This is the significance of prophecies to the nations such as Ezekiel 16 and 23, which reveal that the whorishness of the individual inhabitants of Jerusalem is one with the whorishness of Jerusalem herself, the city as a whole. The condition must be confessed and treated both individually and corporately, at once.
2) Out of this understanding, Jensen calls us, as Haggai puts it, to "Consider our ways," not just somebody else's. As he says:
"We are 5 percent of the world’s population and consume about a quarter of the world’s energy. This state of affairs is clearly unjust, made possible by coercion and violence, not some natural superiority of Americans. Yet the vast majority of the U.S. public, and even much of the left/progressive political community, acts as if they expect this state of affairs to continue.
That’s real narcissism, and it’s at the heart of the political problem of the United States. Even if we swept the halls of Congress and the White House clean of every corrupt and cruel politician, the deeper self-indulgence of an affluent culture would be untouched."

Yes, we may each find the one that needs to change by looking in the mirror, and if we really change and become truly alien to this violence and deceit, we will stand against this wickedness in public life, too, instead of saluting their flag, supporting their troops, and shouting "United We Stand" with them in all their robbery and slaughter. As the proverb says, "Those who forsake the law praise the wicked, but those who keep the law strive with them" (Proverbs 28:4).

by Robert Jensen

Politicians and pundits in the United States love to talk about our “national character,” typically in rapturous tones of triumphalism.

Often that character is asserted as a noble force but not defined: Earlier this year, for example, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said our national character -- presumed to be benevolent -- requires us to be welcoming to legal immigrants.

Other times it must be defended against foreigners who just don’t understand us: Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland last month explained that too many Middle Easterners fall prey to “depictions of Americans routinely raping, killing, firebombing mosques and torturing innocents as a function of national character.”

And sometimes character is political destiny: In New Delhi last month, President Bush proclaimed that “democracy is more than a form of government, it is the central promise of our national character.” Luckily for India, its national character shares the same feature, according to Bush.

Can a nation have a coherent character? If we take the question seriously -- investigating reality rather than merely asserting nobility -- we see in the U.S. national character signs of pathology and decay as well as health and vigor. What if, for purposes of analysis, we treated the nation as a person? Scan the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (the bible of mental-health professionals, now in its fourth edition) and one category jumps out: Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

DSM-IV describes the disorder as “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy” that can be diagnosed when any five of these nine criteria are met:

1. a grandiose sense of self-importance.
2. preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
3. believes he or she is special and unique.
4. requires excessive admiration.
5. sense of entitlement.
6. interpersonally exploitative, taking advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends.
7. lacks empathy.
8. often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
9. shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.

Narcissistic tendencies to self-aggrandize are not unique to the United States, of course. But given the predominance of U.S. power in the world, we should worry most about the consequences of such narcissism here.

This disorder is bipartisan, and is virtually required of all mainstream politicians. When the House of Representatives held hearings about the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2002, California Democrat Nancy Pelosi declared that America is “the greatest country that ever existed on the face of the earth.” Texas Republican Dick Armey described the United States as “the greatest, most free nation the world has ever known.” With a “grandiose sense of self-importance,” politicians routinely ratchet up the rhetorical flourishes when asserting that the country is “special and unique.”

As for arrogance and haughtiness: When asked at his pre-war news conference in March 2003 whether the United States would be defying the United Nations if it were to invade Iraq without legal authorization, Bush said, “if we need to act, we will act, and we really don’t need United Nations approval to do so.” Bush prefaced that promise to defy international and U.S. law with the phrase “when it comes to our security,” but since the invasion of Iraq had little or nothing to do with the security of the United States we can ignore that qualifier. Here the younger Bush was merely mimicking his father, who remarked in February 1991 as the United States was destroying Iraq a first time: “The U.S. has a new credibility. What we say goes.”

On the Gulf War and “lacks empathy”: On Feb. 13, 1991, U.S. planes hit a bunker in Baghdad. Whether military planners knew it was an air-raid shelter or thought it was a “command-and-control site,” an estimated 300-400 civilians died. Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, referred to this as “one downside of airpower,” and said the incident led him to discuss with Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf the need “to look at the target list a little more closely.” Was the goal of that review to discuss civilian casualties? No, it was to question the efficiency of bombing an already bombed-out Baghdad. In Powell’s words: “I asked questions like, ‘Why are we bombing the Baath Party headquarters for the eighth time? … Why are we bouncing rubble with million-dollar missiles?’”

Powell, who went on to serve as secretary of state in George W. Bush’s first term, was often referred to as the “dove” of that administration. Perhaps we could call this level of empathy the mark of a “tough dove.”

The unpleasant subject of the current Iraq war brings up “fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance.” Though Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently acknowledged mistakes in the current Iraq war -- “We’ve made tactical errors, thousands of them, I’m sure” -- she made it clear that history will vindicate U.S. officials for making “the right strategic decision” to invade. But that small concession to reality was too much for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who responded, “I don’t know what she was talking about, to be perfectly honest.”

While it’s easy to point at the narcissism of soulless and self-indulgent leaders, this diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder applies to the country as a whole. The belief that the United States is unique -- a shining “city upon a hill” -- is deeply rooted, and for many has divine origins; 48 percent of Americans believe the United States has “special protection from God,” according to a 2002 survey.

The narcissism of the whole society also is evident in the widespread “sense of entitlement,” defined as “unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations.” This is difficult to confront, precisely because it takes root to some degree in all of us and can’t be so easily displaced onto only the most overtly pathological. The vast majority of the U.S. public -- by comparison to the rest of the world -- lives an extravagant lifestyle that we show few signs of being willing to give up.

We are 5 percent of the world’s population and consume about a quarter of the world’s energy. This state of affairs is clearly unjust, made possible by coercion and violence, not some natural superiority of Americans. Yet the vast majority of the U.S. public, and even much of the left/progressive political community, acts as if they expect this state of affairs to continue.

That’s real narcissism, and it’s at the heart of the political problem of the United States. Even if we swept the halls of Congress and the White House clean of every corrupt and cruel politician, the deeper self-indulgence of an affluent culture would be untouched.

Political activism to derail the pathological policies of those politicians must go forward. Critique of the concentrated power of the corporate elites who support those policies is essential. But the critical self-reflection necessary at the collective level also must come home to each of us.

Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center He is the author of The Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilege and Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (both from City Lights Books). He can be reached at

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Court News

San Bernardino County called me for jury duty last Monday, 8 May. We sat around a good while, and we finally got to jury selection on one count of burglary. But after the defense counsel spent about 20 minutes in voir dire, we broke for lunch. When we got back, the judge excused us all because some issue had come up which could not be quickly settled, and so everybody agreed to continue the case.

I don't really understand why people so resent jury service. It certainly is a drag to have to sit around like that, but that's life. We sit around in traffic, at the doctor's office, waiting for kids, whatever. The courts have trouble getting jurors, and so they do what they can to make it as tolerable as possible. No one is to blame here.

Maybe people feel like they're being ripped off. But it's really not true. Such service is the nominal dues we pay for being part of a society whose benefits we have no problem taking advantage of. The same people who grumble about jury duty feel entitled to call a cop when someone breaks into their house, and expect a judge and jury to take the time to try him if the cops catch him. Does Scotty beam that jury down from the Enterprise?

In other news that same day, Judy was granted de facto parent status, which in California simply means that she is recognized as furnishing parental care and being well-acquainted with the kids, and is therefore entitled to be heard in all court proceedings and to be represented by counsel. The County Social Worker, Delores Simpson-Taylor, was still up to her tricks, but she was again rebuffed by the court and busted for her inconsistencies. I'm reminded how Mark Twain pointed out that the advantage of telling the truth is you don't need a good memory. Will this woman ever figure out that if she just stops lying she won't have to worry about being caught out in court?

Yes, and that's also not a bad point for me to ponder. You too.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

"Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"

My friend Gayle and I were talking on the phone last night, and she said a couple of things not to be forgotten. We had prayed about a conversation she was going to have, and it went better than either of us would have imagined. She said that it didn't feel like she really did anything.

That's right. When we do it right - God working with us - it never feels like we really did it, because we didn't. We have to get our jollies not from having done something big, but from having received something worthwhile, something way better than we can accomplish - getting used to the idea that what we can accomplish ourselves really isn't worth doing anyway, even if it impresses men.

"I am Ozymandias, King of Kings: Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"

That eventually led to her next point: "All the stupid things we do are because we're trying to get out of something or trying to make something happen." I immediately knew that this is true.

In Psalms 14 and 53 it is written (two places, so we get a second chance to see it), "The fool has said in his heart that there is no God." So I realized that in some way these must be equivalent, but how was not yet clear.

Of course it's true that sometimes we should make something happen, and there are things we should try to get out of. That in itself may be fine, but it remains that when we're being fools, one of these or both is always present.

As I think about this, we're so anxious to make things happen because we figure that God won't, or because we feel like we have no meaning unless we move and shake the world. But why think that way unless we think the world is all there is? Isn't it enough if we move and shake the heart of God? And that we do if we listen to Him and learn His ways, if He gets to move and shake our hearts, so that He can listen to us (Luke 10:25-42).

And why are we so anxious to get out of things? As Psalm 46 rightly says, God is an ever-present help in tight places, and once we've experienced that, we begin to realize that tight places are not as bad as God not being around. Another thing I've seen in myself and others is pride in the chance to show off, to be seen as a demerdeur, as the French say. "To God the Lord belong escapes from death," as it is written, but we enjoy taking that glory to ourselves. Why so, except that we're convinced God has no glory to give us Himself?

As in mathematics, so in all of life. Seeing the equivalence in apparently different things really gives understanding and changes our thinking. And since as the proverb says, "As a man thinks in his heart so he is," I can expect such a change in thinking to change me, and thus how I act. So we'll see in time to come how well I connect these dots and wise up.

I would like to grow up before I grow old. Next Thursday May 11 my boys will be reminding me that I have attained 55, the double nickel, by having me order from the Senior Menu at Denny's. So if I want to win that race, I'd better get moving - or, rather, sitting (Luke 10:38-42)!

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

"Me odias, pero me necesitas"

"Me odias, pero me necesitas" ("You hate me, but you need me"). The Riverside Press-Enterprise saw this sign at the May Day demonstration in Riverside, and when I read it, I got to thinking.

The sign spoke truth, but it gets worse. We hate people precisely because we do need them, even if they are no way at fault, just because we don't like being in that position. That's where our craving for independence and self-sufficiency takes us. No marvel that once we think this way, we hate our parents, God, and anyone else whose help we need, especially when they give it freely.

How dumb we are to put people in our debt if we can in any way avoid it! We may imagine that we're making them feel obliged to love us, but we're just inciting them to hate us, and if indeed we actually intend to create such dependency, we've really earned that hatred, because we sure don't want people to do us that way.

As Jesus pointed out, we love much when we're forgiven much, and forgiveness is simply writing off debt. We are really dependent on God for everything, but as He gives, He writes it off any way he can. He even finds ways to put Himself in our debt: "One who is gracious to a poor man lends to the Lord, and He will repay him for his good deed" (Proverbs 19:17).

If I treat you right, you don't owe me. I'm not doing you a favor. God is doing me a favor by causing me to be a decent human being. If I want you to repay me somehow, God is doing me a favor when He makes sure that you don't. You don't have to be afraid to receive gratefully from God, because He doesn't obligate you with guilt trips, even though religious people often try to hang that on us in His name. God doesn't do us right to get something out of us, as Psalm 50 points out. God does us right because He's a mensch, and He lives up to His character.

Let's learn from Him to do likewise.