Sunday, September 20, 2009

Interesting Article on Prayer

Found this article in the NY Times Magazine on prayer, entitled "The Right Way to Pray?." It's an interesting commentary on our need for "proper technique," as if God were a puzzle to solve, a labyrinth to walk or a secret to discover. Author Zev Chafets, not a religious man, visits with a number of folks who sell a variety of approaches to prayer, and ends his story with a description of his visit to an old-fashioned Assemblies of God church, a place where people simply believe that God is, God is good, God loves them and the people around them and is disposed to respond if they ask (pray is the Old English word for ask) for help.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Mr. Wilson's Breach of Decorum

Far too much has been said already about this Representative's outburst during President Obama's speech the other night. I wouldn't add to it were it not for the fact that much of what is being said is so ... shallow and ignores the fundamental issue that Mr. Wilson's behavior raises.

It's the character issue, of course. No one likes this subject because even most of those who write about this stuff don't like to be held accountable for their lack of it. But this needs to be said, whether anyone likes it or not.

First, character really is important. Before a watching world, populated in part by young, impressionable school children, a man elected to high government office shouted at the President (who had the floor) and called him a liar. To President Obama's eternal credit, he displayed for the watching world the good character to ignore the outburst and move on with the important business at hand. Mr. Wilson's statement was disrespectful, to say the least. And let's make sure that we understand that when Mr. Obama used the "lie" word, with respect to untruths circulating about his health care plan, he did not name names or impugn the character of any individuals. And on the other hand, he was careful to give credit for the ideas he was presenting to those who deserved it (including his rival for the Oval Office, Mr. McCain.)

What people in high places do sets the tone for our entire society. If we cannot model healthy discourse before a watching world, particularly the younger and more impressionable part of it, then we have already lost the battle for the future. Unfortunately, we've come to expect disrespectful talk from rappers, late-night talk show hosts, self-styled political pundits and the like. So its no surprise that elected officials are getting into the act. Mr. Obama, in contrast to Mr. Wilson, was an example of how to make a strong, forceful statement without being personally disrespectful.

Now the free-speech lobby will have a hey-day with that. They don't think it right to impede speech of any kind. So let's move on.

Second, the reasons Mr Wilson's outburst is an example of bad character go far beyond the issue of disrespect. His friends could argue, "Well, it's true. Obama is lying." Well, let's suppose thy could prove that (I don't for one minute believe they can, but let's just suppose, for sake of argument.) What of it? The House rules specifically forbid any House member to call the sitting President a liar in the House chamber. It's a breach of House decorum. Mr. Wilson and all his colleagues swore — they took an oath — to abide by the rules of the House. For that and that alone, the House was bound by oath to discipline Mr. Wilson (it should have been a unanimous vote) and, if he were a man of good character, he would accept the rebuke and apologize to his colleagues for breaking the rules to which they all solemnly agreed. We're not big on oaths today. We're not bound by our word anymore. But people of good character are. If we care about our future, so should we all be bound.

Here, we also go beyond the issue of character to the issue of respect for law — something we have far too little of these days. If you want your constituents to respect and abide by the laws you create, then Mr. Wilson, you first must set an example. You didn't, and you owe your colleagues and the American people something better.

Third, Mr. Wilson's behavior made yet another large contribution to America's truly pathetic addiction to "15 minutes of fame." Mr. Wilson's behavior deserved to be ignored during the speech, disciplined quickly afterward and briefly mentioned on the news the next day. But Mr. Wilson has become a star. The media made him one, and the surge in his campaign coffers the next few days indicated that the cult of celebrity, even negative celebrity, has permeated just about every walk of American life. Why should anyone be respectful or follow rules of civil discourse when it's far more effective to be infamous for disrespect? (The only bright side to the news on this was that Mr. Wilson's opponent raised more money. I guess that's something.)

The media decision makers share a large proportion of the blame here. Pundits (left and right) have had a field day with this adolescent outburst, and news editors have allowed coverage of Mr. Wilson's new found right-wing stardom to overshadow coverage (again, as they did with the town hall disruptions, earlier) of the substantive issues Mr. Obama was attempting to address. The American people deserve something far better than this, too.

Mr. Wilson now joins the guy who who threw his shoes at President Bush in the negative celebrity Hall of Fame. The message to our kids? Being bad works. Disrspect sells (look at the multi-millionaire rappers, for example.) Disrupt a town hall meeting. Shout obscenities during speeches. Tell your teacher to go to hell. That'll show 'em.

And when you "grow up," you can graduate to taking a semi-automatic to a high school library or flying an airplane into a tall building.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Obama on Wall Street

Word's out, of course, that Wall Street execs weren't any too pleased with the scolding they got from President Obama in his recent speech. I doubt any Wall Streeters ever frequent my low-rent end of the blogosphere, but, just for the record:

Sorry, folks. You'll get no sympathy here. You're lucky Wall Street still exists. It was a scolding well deserved. You made your bed, and now you get to lie down in it.

Your right-wing Republican pals, strangely enough, would have let you drown like rats. Seems they're so committed to limited government, they'd rather see another depression than admit it might be necessary for the government to step in.

As Mr. Obama made clear, you Wall Street folks owe the American people (who are, after all, the government). We bailed you out. We are your creditors. And you put yourselves in that position.

Instead of resenting the sermon on responsibility, you'd be wise to heed it. You're being asked to help craft new rules that would prevent your own financial demise. And ... you're whining? You're complaining that your pay's gonna be a bit short? That "creativity" will be stifled?

In my book, you're getting off awfully easy. Some of the shenanigans pulled on your watch were every bit as deceptive — and as damaging — as Mr. Madoff's ponzi scheme.

Maybe you'd like to join your pal Bernie Madoff in jail? Maybe next time, we should send you Wall Street execs to ... oh, I don't know. Guantanamo? Seize all your assets and redistribute them to the American taxpayers? Give your homes away, in a lottery, to poor families?

Despite the delusional ravings of your right-wing pals, Mr. Obama has suggested nothing of the sort. What he has suggested sounds pretty darn reasonable to me. I'd take that deal and the comparative wrist slap that goes with it and be very, very grateful. You don't get second chances on stuff like this.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Next Supreme Court Nominee?

This federal judge mentioned in today's lead piece in the NY Times might make a good candidate.

District Court Justice Jed S. Rakoff seems to have the ability to cut through the lawyerly lingo to the real issues, and doesn't mind giving both governmental entities and powerful businesses a good kick in the pants, when it's needed.

In his ruling, Judge Rakoff overturned a settlement between Bank of America and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission over bonuses paid to Merrill Lynch executives just before the bank took over the securities house last year. The bonuses were not disclosed to stockholders before they voted to approve the buyout. The $33 million settlement “does not comport with the most elementary notions of justice and morality,” he wrote, criticizing the fact that the fine levied against Merril Lynch for the nondisclosure would be paid by the bank’s shareholders — yes, by the folks who were injured by the lack of disclosure.

The proposed settlement, according to Judge Rakoff, “suggests a rather cynical relationship between the parties: the S.E.C. gets to claim that it is exposing wrongdoing on the part of the Bank of America in a high-profile merger; the bank’s management gets to claim that they have been coerced into an onerous settlement by overzealous regulators. And all this is done at the expense, not only of the shareholders, but also of the truth.”

Apparently, this isn't the first time this judge has called out cozy regulator/offender dealings — this judge presided over the Worldcom debacle (Remember the Enron "cooking the books" scandal, and all that, a few years back?), and sent the government and Worldcom execs to the woodshed on that one, too.

I think we need more regulation of Wall Street, but first, we need regulators who actually want to regulate (rather than merely appear to do so) and we need more judges who are willing to call bullshit by its proper name and are willing to call out those who dish it up to the American public.

Mr. Obama, I respectfully suggest that you give this guy a look, if you get another shot at the Supreme.

Having made that request, please pardon my cynicism if I also add that I'm sure he'd never be approved for the highest court, here. (Especially if they change the campaign finance laws so corporations, which now have to get the cash to candidates through more surreptitious means, will be able to openly buy and sell Senators and Representatives.) The business lobbyists wouldn't let them. They'd figure out a way to "Bork" him, and if that didn't work, they'd no doubt try to find a way to "Clarence Thomas" him.

In many other countries, he'd be a marked man. So, I guess we should be thankful for that much. (Please hear the sarcasm. It's intended.)

But I'd still like to see him get nominated. If only for the fact that America needs some heroes right now. And they're out there, but the religious conservative Republicans who keep keeping getting caught in extra-marital dalliances (or feel thy have to shout "You lie" at the President), and the left-wing Democrats who are wringing their hands over who will fill Teddy's filibuster-proofing seat in the Senate (or blurting out that they're communists) keep distracting the media from matters of substance.

A dramatic Supreme Court nominee approval process would, at least, get the glare of the spotlight onto a person of substance who has earned the attention.