samedi, novembre 18, 2006

Meet the Flintstones

Perhaps Barney and Tom need medication to help them recall the prehistoric years when Democrats ruled the Congress. Maybe when the Democrats ran the House and Senate their style of corrupt politics was less complicated and linked to the lobbyist culture than that of the Republicans-but it just as real. Apparently calling for reform when you are in the powerless minority is a little easier than making it a fact when you are about to wield real power-the Dems may just be a bit more sophisticated about whose beds they end up sleeping in.
"Other Democratic lawmakers argued that the real ethical problem was the Republicans, not the current ethics rules, and that the election had alleviated the need for additional regulations. “There is an understanding on our side that the Republicans paid a price for a lot of the abuses that evolved,” said Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts, alluding to earmarks. Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat and a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, said the scandals of the current Congress were “about the K Street Project for the Republicans,” referring to the party’s initiative to put more Republicans in influential lobbying posts and build closer ties to them. “That was incestuous from the beginning. We never had anything like that,” Mr. Harkin said of Democrats. “That is what soured the whole thing-New York Times, Nov. 19, 2006 Democrats about to wield power in the incoming Congress have some great ideas about ethics reform. From an outsider's viewpoint, many sound pretty basic-don't take free meals or fly on corporate jets, allow candidates public financing so they don't owe everything to special interests, don't pass bills that have provisions that benefit firms that employ family or people who used to be on your staff. It is highly unlikely that the more restrictive reforms will actually be enacted. But before we solely blame the Democrats (or the Republicans) for this ethical mess, we should probably take a look at the way normal organizations are run. How many churches have secretaries who just happen to attend the parish for which they work? How many of you find a summer job for your niece or a friend's son? How many of you have been hired by an organization because you happen to know somebody with influence at the top? We may expect that our elected leaders, like our clergy, will operate with higher standards. But unless we are a little more conscientious about cleaning up our own behavior, they will probably assume, again and again, that we will turn a blind eye...after all, aren't they men and women like us?

vendredi, novembre 17, 2006

The French Joy of Sex

Dashing through the "new fiction" stacks of the Exton library in search of an interesting read one afternoon, I found a book by Stephen Clarke. "In the Merde For Love" read the cover with the subhead "By the author of 'A Year in the Merde.' " Most of you know that the French word "merde" means-most of you have probably used it. With a title like that, I realized that this probably was not going to be a romance novel. I didn't realize that it was going to be side-splittingly funny, lovingly satirical and totally absorbing. The basic plot of the two almost true "merde" books is this: young Englishman goes to the fabled city-Paris-in which he plans to open a British-style tea room. In his way or in his path: French bureaucrats, waiters, gendarmes...and a group of babelicious young women. The books are devoted to sending up the French way of life-they are also a hilarious retelling of his bedroom adventures. Clarke (remember, he is from England-a country known more for cricket than for hot sex) thoroughly enjoys his sexual exploits among the single, married, almost single and adulterous women of Paris, and he recounts them in a way that seduces us into enjoying them too. I recently had a chat with a friend in which he commented on the puritanical nature of our American attitudes towards sex. Helpless with mirth and frank envy of Clarke's ability to describe such a basic human activity in a way that is both disarming and enticing, I wondered if perhaps my pal was correct. What would happen if we stopped taking ourselves so seriously in the bedroom? It's a subversive notion, isn't it? Probably the worst that could happen is that we might start lingering over meals, engaging in long debates over politics, philosophy and love and taking month-long vacations. A weekend in Paris, anyone? Just write it off as continuing education.

jeudi, novembre 16, 2006

Let's hear it for Unity!

We live in an age in which political reportage is almost invariably tinged with the reflective veneer of irony. Many citizens my age and younger get the news, if they get it at all, from the comic trio of Maher, Stewart, and Colbert. In a world in which we are able to access information on events almost as they occur, it often seems as though the commentary precedes the event that is its subject. Is the teasing irony of the Comedy Channel a low form of humor? Are we infected with a desire for the wry zinger and the arch one-liner? Who cares? The comic approach to much of what passes for news is what helps us survive it. Take American politicians (and give us Italians, you say?) If we didn't laugh at the antics of our two large political parties we'd be out on the street in sackcloth and ashes, or fomenting another revolution. For example-the Democrats were swept back into positions of authority in part because they came down so hard on Republicans for a "culture of corruption." The ink wasn't dried on the ballots before Congressman John Murtha demonstrated an apparent contempt for ethical reform-remarks that are consistent with his previous behavior. Isn't it nice to see that, lacking a huge conversion experience, some things don't change? Speaker Pelosi's second in command, Steny Hoyer, also has a history of getting into bed with special interests. And let's not talk about Republicans like Trent Lott (he's already said way too much) and Mitch McConnell. But the question is not how predictable it was that Democrats, after brandishing the scimitar of reform, would put ethically challenged representatives in charge of "ethics reform." That was probably a given. Who were they going to ask? One of the freshmen with a relatively clean record and no pull? They aren't part of the "system" yet. Not that working for the government should excuse long time employees in Washington's culture of legislative decadence. Instead, we voters should be asking ourselves-what would it take to change an organization as huge and complex as the US Congress? What kind of systemic purging would have to happen to get our elected officials to care more about public interest and less about special ones? But then, we also have to ask ourselves-do we really care enough to lobby (grin) for that kind of revolution? Are we more disgusted than jaded, more active than ironic? Aux armes, citoyens?

lundi, novembre 13, 2006

Gentle reader

Gentle reader, I need your help. With all due respect to Dante, I have not strayed into a dark wood-but I have begun to have serious conversations with new friends who happen to be atheists. Talking about God-or His alleged non-being is a rather new thing for me. It's not that I grew up in a family of zealous theists-far from it. In general, we resided somewhere between Tennyson's honest doubt and the skeptical wistfulness of the American lefty who wants to believe in something stronger than democracy and doesn't particularly like Communism. However, immersion in a Christian culture has inevitably narrowed my perspective-while the spectrum of questions about suffering, goodness, evil and morality may be akin to those of nonbelievers, the spectrum of answers is, obviously, very different. Over the past year I have gotten to know some terrific guys (for some reason, they are all guys) who, for their own reasons, do not subscribe to a belief in a Creator, the unmoved mover, much less the God I believe was incarnate in Jesus. It is a relatively new experience to be judged peculiar on the basis of my faith in divinity. That is why I need some of you to come to my aid as I research some topics that have not, until recently, gotten much careful attention from me. Are there Christian philosophers teaching in some of our best colleges and universities-and if so, can you give me their names? Aside from Francis Collins, who are other prominent scientists who profess belief in a First Cause? Did anyone see the PBS series on Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis broadcast in 2004? Who did you find more convincing? If intelligent design doesn't cut it, then what is a believer to say to the militant Darwinism of a Dawkins? If you don't believe in God, then who or what do you believe in? Whether you believe in the One Way or No Way or somewhere in between these polarities, any responses would be most welcome!