Thursday, July 31, 2008

Oldness and newness

I woke up this morning remembering Steve Allen dismissing the saying that there is nothing new under the sun. Of course there is. We didn't have the internet even when I read his book 25 years ago. We didn't use to have CDs.

But the writer understood that. He too saw new things, in that sense. But indeed there is nothing new under the sun. Whatever it is, in its essence we really have seen it all before, and even at age 57 it starts to become wearisome.

In the Revelation Jesus says, "Behold, I make all things new." And "behold" implies that this is something you can gaze at, not a statement you're just supposed to assent to. Paul told us too about walking in newness of life.

Now as it happens, I had spoken to the Lord a couple of days ago about just this thing. I had told him how I just could not imagine that eternity could in any way be restful and not eventually tiresome to the point of torment. I didn't exactly disbelieve God's words on this; I just couldn't imagine the possibility.

Now I see these promises of renewal in Scripture as a lot more essential and significant than I've ever imagined. People need newness like we need air. If we don't get the real deal from God, who makes all things new, we'll get it somehow from under the sun, where it really doesn't exist, and that drives us truly bonkers. Here in this unmet need is the frantic search for new girls or new men, new thrills, new experiences, new toys - and truly, the end of the way is death.

I actually have lots of experience of God making all things new. I'll see something brand new in stuff I've read 20 times in the Bible before, and which had grown boring and familiar, just as I'm recounting here. The same thing happens in everything else, not just what we read (or don't) in the Bible. Where God shows up somehow in revelation, the same old thing is brand new, and really that happens no other way.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Lusts of the mind (Ephesians 2:3)

Washing dishes today, I was rinsing out a bottle. I turned it upside down and saw that the water swirled out clockwise. In fact, it did the same a second time.

Some 45 years ago, I had been told that water drained counterclockwise in the northern hemisphere and clockwise in the southern hemisphere because of the earth's rotation. More recently I had read that this was nonsense, a silly myth that people like to believe, and that which way it went was determined by attributes of the drain.

When I saw that this morning, I was reminded of this, and I noticed that I had very much enjoyed the story when I heard it and certainly wanted to believe it was true. It made me feel knowledgeable, and what an exciting world that had such facts in it. I didn't really like being disabused of this little myth, but the bottle this morning certainly made it clear.

It doesn't look much like the same thing, but my desire to believe this story does have a lot in common with the two-headed aliens in the National Enquirer and stories about George Bush having an affair with Condi Rice that people want to hear. It's the same itch we have to hear gossip. We're entertained by having strange little factoids to believe, even if they happen to be not even factoids but complete nonsense.

Even when the issues seem small, the basic hostility to truth in all this tips us off that this is a big problem. How many slanders, base suspicions, silly myths, idiotic conspiracy theories and the like are rooted simply in this desire to believe weird things that others aren't acquainted with, or something like that, because the truth is not sufficiently entertaining?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Corruption and Government

I saw on the South Jerusalem blog today an explanation of the culture of corruption in Israel, which really does reach an astonishing level. The writer, Gershom Gorenberg, points out that this comes from the culture of illegality at the beginning of the settlement project, when evading the laws of the British Mandatory government made you a hero, and before that from the European ghetto, in which life was about getting around the laws of the oppressor. Most of all, in the early days, polititcians used to steal on behalf of their party, the instrument of light and truth, and not for themselves.

In like manner, I remember someone making the point that African corruption arose from the sense that the colonial state was an invader, and the thing to do was to steal as much from it as possible for the sake of African people. After independence the attitude to the state never changed, especially since it retained modern Western forms and therefore did not really look African.

My point in all this is the lessons it holds for Americans. We too have a culture of governmental corruption, and it rests on contempt for government. Not just contempt for this or that government, but for the institution of government itself. Government is held incompetent to do anything right.

In fact, however, American government does a lot right. Medicare has always been vastly more efficient than the private medical system, with its 25% cut to insurance companies that serve no purpose but to try to figure out how much they can avoid paying, and how little medical care they can get doctors to provide. Americans have pretty near the most efficient and courteous civil service in the world, and the cheapest and one of the best postal services.

The private sector certainly does some things well. But the profit motive is remarkably inefficient in some ways, because it excludes anything which won't make money. Take a simple example:

Athlete's foot is effectively cured by soaking your feet for about 15 minutes in a weak solution of bleach. It works much better than expensive medicines advertised and sold for the purpose. But no remedy costing about 1.5 cents will ever justify a multimillion dollar ad campaign, and so it will never be advertised. Medical remedies can only be advertised if they're expensive and not very good, so that you have to keep on buying them.

Many other examples might be thought of. It's a fundamental principle of the "free enterprise system," which limits the things it can do well. Certainly those exist, but adding everything up, the general American contempt for government and faith in corporate competence is absurd. Where does this contempt lead us?

1) A fatuous confidence in privatization, even when that makes no sense. For instance, how can anyone justify hiring lawless mercenaries at over three times the pay to do military jobs?

2) Low expectations. Government sometimes does act badly, like all human institutions. But when you take that as normal, then when it happens nothing is done because people are too cynical to think that anything can be.

3) Acceptance of lawlessness and cheating. Here we find common ground with Israeli corruption.The lawless are seen as the only people who can get things done. But what they get done is stupidity like boneheaded imperial wars and the clever machinations of Enron. People who habitually take dishonest shortcuts are really not can-do heroes. They're just street hustlers, three card monte dealers and pimps. Their self-congratulation and the praise of the suckers who admire them is exactly the same thing as the conceit of any street hustler and the adoring worship of his admirers. But if we did not have an ideology of contempt for government, would we accept this as we do?

Nothing works all that well in this world, but in all, Paul was right to claim that the authorities are ordained by God and deserve respect. It doesn't work well when we blow that off. The result is seen around us - "Gangsters in power, and lawbreakers making rules" - with people happy to have it so.

Friday, July 04, 2008

George Washington on the issues of our day

I recommend to all on this 4th of July a careful reading of Washington's entire Farewell Adress. His words are by no means the word of God, but the word of God does warn us to honor our fathers and mothers, and not to forsake their instruction. For this reason, no American should lightly dismiss these words, as the American people and their government certainly do this day. For your convenience a few especially pertinent extracts, in the hope that some readers may be moved to review and ponder the whole letter:

Concerning usurpation of powers in violation of the Constitution, which our current President has called "a goddamned piece of paper," proving daily by his actions that in this he means what he says

26 It is important, likewise, that the habits of thinking in a free country should inspire caution, in those intrusted with its administration, to confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres, avoiding in the exercise of the powers of one department to encroach upon another. The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one, and thus to create, whatever the form of government, a real despotism. A just estimate of that love of power, and proneness to abuse it, which predominates in the human heart, is sufficient to satisfy us of the truth of this position. The necessity of reciprocal checks in the exercise of political power, by dividing and distributing it into different depositories, and constituting each the Guardian of the Public Weal against invasions by the others, has been evinced by experiments ancient and modern; some of them in our country and under our own eyes. To preserve them must be as necessary as to institute them. If, in the opinion of the people, the distribution or modification of the constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way, which the constitution designates. But let there be no change by usurpation; for, though this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed. The precedent must always greatly overbalance in permanent evil any partial or transient benefit, which the use can at any time yield.

Concerning debt

30 As a very important source of strength and security, cherish public credit. One method of preserving it is, to use it as sparingly as possible; avoiding occasions of expense by cultivating peace, but remembering also that timely disbursements to prepare for danger frequently prevent much greater disbursements to repel it; avoiding likewise the accumulation of debt, not only by shunning occasions of expense, but by vigorous exertions in time of peace to discharge the debts, which unavoidable wars may have occasioned, not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burthen, which we ourselves ought to bear. . .

Concerning relations
in general with other nations

31 Observe good faith and justice towards all Nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and Morality enjoin this conduct; and can it be, that good policy does not equally enjoin it? It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and, at no distant period, a great Nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence. Who can doubt, that, in the course of time and things, the fruits of such a plan would richly repay any temporary advantages, which might be lost by a steady adherence to it ? Can it be, that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a Nation with its Virtue? The experiment, at least, is recommended by every sentiment which ennobles human nature. Alas! is it rendered impossible by its vices ?

Concerning settled enmity or affection toward other nations, and how this leads to needless conflicts and even the loss of our own liberty

32 In the execution of such a plan, nothing is more essential, than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular Nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that, in place of them, just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated. The Nation, which indulges towards another an habitual hatred, or an habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest. Antipathy in one nation against another disposes each more readily to offer insult and injury, to lay hold of slight causes of umbrage, and to be haughty and intractable, when accidental or trifling occasions of dispute occur. Hence frequent collisions, obstinate, envenomed, and bloody contests. The Nation, prompted by ill-will and resentment, sometimes impels to war the Government, contrary to the best calculations of policy. The Government sometimes participates in the national propensity, and adopts through passion what reason would reject; at other times, it makes the animosity of the nation subservient to projects of hostility instigated by pride, ambition, and other sinister and pernicious motives. The peace often, sometimes perhaps the liberty, of Nations has been the victim.

33 So likewise, a passionate attachment of one Nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite Nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest, in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter, without adequate inducement or justification. It leads also to concessions to the favorite Nation of privileges denied to others, which is apt doubly to injure the Nation making the concessions; by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained; and by exciting jealousy, ill-will, and a disposition to retaliate, in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld. And it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens, (who devote themselves to the favorite nation,) facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country, without odium, sometimes even with popularity; gilding, with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good, the base or foolish compliances of ambition, corruption, or infatuation.

34 As avenues to foreign influence in innumerable ways, such attachments are particularly alarming to the truly enlightened and independent Patriot. How many opportunities do they afford to tamper with domestic factions, to practise the arts of seduction, to mislead public opinion, to influence or awe the Public Councils! Such an attachment of a small or weak, towards a great and powerful nation, dooms the former to be the satellite of the latter.

35 Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me, fellow-citizens,) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake; since history and experience prove, that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of Republican Government. But that jealousy, to be useful, must be impartial; else it becomes the instrument of the very influence to be avoided, instead of a defence against it. Excessive partiality for one foreign nation, and excessive dislike of another, cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other. Real patriots, who may resist the intrigues of the favorite, are liable to become suspected and odious; while its tools and dupes usurp the applause and confidence of the people, to surrender their interests.

And finally, Washington's realistic assessment of how little effect his warnings would have in the end, as we see in the present day

43 In offering to you, my countrymen, these counsels of an old and affectionate friend, I dare not hope they will make the strong and lasting impression I could wish; that they will control the usual current of the passions, or prevent our nation from running the course, which has hitherto marked the destiny of nations. But, if I may even flatter myself, that they may be productive of some partial benefit, some occasional good; that they may now and then recur to moderate the fury of party spirit, to warn against the mischiefs of foreign intrigue, to guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism; this hope will be a full recompense for the solicitude for your welfare, by which they have been dictated.