Sunday, August 18, 2013

Untruth and Its Consequences

Almost half a century ago, one of my seminary professors, Dr. Norman Pittenger, opined that society would suffer much less from a loosening of pre-marital sexual mores than from a widespread breakdown in truth-telling. He was speaking at the dawning of the sexual revolution of the 60s, and we’re living in the full glare of the deception and disinformation revolution of the past decade at too many levels of our society.

Credit is tightening in China because few banks can trust the published financial data of other banks—exactly the same situation the U.S. faced in 2008. Their own published data is false, so why trust anybody else's?  The wonder gadgets on Cable TV are surrounded by an avalanche of consumer complaints about false promises.

Fox News, of course, by claiming to be “fair and balanced,” has turned the phrase into a cynical joke.
“Oh, yeah?” I can hear my right-wing cousin say, “and just why should I trust your sources?”  Dr. Pittenger’s point exactly: all too often today, you don’t know who or what to trust.   

Truth in Politics?

Conservative politicians go about crying alarm about the deficit rising at a time when it is actually coming down, and that is but the beginning of misinformation. The Republican party is still fine-tuning its “image makeover for minorities” while it works, in state after state, to restrict access to voting for minorities.

It’s little wonder, therefore, that New Jersey governor Chris Christie told GOP leaders in Boston this week that he’s “going to do anything I need to win,” and that they’d better follow his example instead of letting the far right dominate the party. “We are political operation and need to win.”

While, from my viewpoint, “I’ll do anything, say anything, promise anything to win” is marginally more a GOP tactic than a Democrat one, Mr. Christie’s statement seems to describe all too well the nature of most political rhetoric today, left, right or center. “Spin” we’ve had with us always, but today’s politics are replete with misinformation, disinformation, and downright lies. Worse yet, we seem to expect it, and some pundits seem to rate performance skill and image manipulation as more important than truth.

Those "Negative" Commandments

I’ve heard people complain that the Ten Commands are “so negative; they are always telling you what not to do.”  We may be living in one of those recurrent eras where we are destined to learn, with regret, why there are some things that, if not restrained by “thou shalt nots” will undermine society.  The Torah says “Thou shalt not bear false witness” and the Buddha taught us that “Right Speech” means being simple and directly truthful to ourselves and to others.

My aforementioned cousin is fond of sending out internet blasts full of right-wing misinformation: about Obama, Social Security, and, most especially, Muslims. But he's also a devout Pentecostal Christian, so I've challenged him again and again about the "bear no false witness" commandment. He ignores the issue resolutely.

Such rules and moral maxims are like rails for the trolley. Violate them too much and the trolley comes off the track.  And the truth-telling has to begin with each of us.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Sodom Syndrome and a Fee-for-Service World

I was shocked to discover that the business class upgrade one of my Israel pilgrims wanted was going to cost over $5000. The upgrade cost more than the pilgrimage itself. But that was before I caught up with how the airlines are embodying the yawning gap between the wealthy and the rest of us.

Up in Business or First Class space abounds, great meals (or as great as they can get on an airplane) are served, and private compartments are available on some flights for more than $5000.  Back in Economy, what a New York Times article recently called “the new steerage” the seats are crowded together and it’s often “fee for service” all the way, even for a bottle of water. That’s in addition to paying extra on top of your ticket price to check a bag. Frontier Airlines even charges a fee for you to store your carry-on in the overhead bins. 

Of course, all this used to be included in the ticket fee, but then you got treated as a person. Now it’s overtly nickel-and-dime, or rather five-ten-twenty-fifty or more dollars all the way.  Fee for service: the monetizing and commodifying of everything, and the disappearance of even the semblance of hospitality—unless, of course, you pay that $5000 extra for Business Class. Up there you get treated like a guest—something that, once upon a time, prevailed to some degree throughout the plane.  

The "Sodom Syndrome"

The rabbinical legends that about the economic practices of Sodom and Gomorrah continue to illuminate, for me, the moral quality of societies in which such rapacious and feral marketplace customs replace the more humane customs of mutuality that treat people as souls rather than mere economic integers: the “Sodom syndrome.” I mentioned an ancient rabbinical joke too complex to relate in a recent blog about the sin cities, and got requests to relate it. This fee-for-service howl is a perfect venue, so here it is. The joke is  a grim one:  

Eliezar, Abraham's servant, goes to visit Lot's family in Sodom. A bystander hits Eliezar on the forehead with a rock till it bleeds because he gave alms to a beggar, contrary to the city's economic code. The assailant then demands that Eliezar pay him for the "service of (medical) bloodletting." Eliezar refuses, saying he was the victim. The Sodomite hauls him into court to make him pay, and the judge declares the assailant deserves payment for the medical service. Eliezar pulls a rock out of his robe, hits the judge on the forehead, causing blood to flow, then says, "Now you owe me a fee for my medical service. Use what you would have paid me to compensate my assailant." 

Soul-Less Commerce

In the ancient near East, commerce was often surrounded by hospitality. The shopkeeper wanted to drive a hard bargain, as did the customer, but it took place after sipping tea and having pleasant conversation, and there was a fairly set style of courteous conversation, even as buyer and seller tried to gain the advantage. All of this had, apparently, disappeared in Sodom and Gomorrah, and the rabbis use their tales and jokes to condemn such a soul-less, inhumane marketplace. When profit is God, soul shrivels.

And steerage passengers pay for the privilege of carrying luggage.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Living Wage as "Handout" (and the Sin of Sodom)

Fast-food workers and others in minimum wage employment are staging one-day walk-outs demanding $15 an hour as a “living wage.”  Some are seeking unionization.

Listening to a radio news report about an walk-out at Alaska’s major airport by baggage handlers, I heard an astonishingly hard-hearted (and pea-brained) comment by a management spokesperson.  “I have nothing against unions,” she said, “but I do object to free handouts, and that’s what $15 an hour would be. These people have got to deserve that much money. They should go to school, upgrade their skills, so that they’re worth $15 an hour.”

As Barbara Ehrenreich showed ten years ago in her Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, it’s virtually impossible to maintain an apartment, let alone buy a house on a minimum wage salary.  Exactly how, I wondered, are people working minimum wage jobs going to have enough money to get the education to increase their skills when they can hardly afford housing? The days of street-sweeper to senior partner are long gone in America.

The management lady voices the attitude of too many people who have “made it” in America: “I’ve got mine; what’s wrong with you that you don’t have yours?” I suspect that most people who feel that $15 per hour is a “handout” for fast-food workers have never had to work minimum wage jobs since their high-school spending-money days. Free handouts? “Fat lot she knows,” I muttered to myself.

The Social Sins of Sodom

Doing research for last Sunday’s Old Testament lesson on Sodom and Gomorrah I ran across some biblical and rabbinical teachings about the two infamous cities that resonate all too chillingly with the "no handout" privileged, who live so high up on the world mountain they can’t see the valley clearly at all.

Sodom was said to have many "detestable" sins, gang-rape of both men and women among them. It was the symbolic epitome of the corrupt city, but far and away the worse sin, for the rabbis, was just this haughty “I don’t believe in handouts” attitude toward the poor.  The rabbis say that Sodom’s motto was “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours.” Forget about the common good. Their interpretation is based on Ezekiel, who describes Sodom’s “arrogance, gluttonous luxury, idleness, neglect of poor and needy” (Ezek. 16:49). The rabbis say Sodom actually punished people who helped the poor, much as many American cities are passing laws against feeding the homeless, including “health” regulations that effectively shut down church soup kitchens. 

The rabbis tell a tale about one of Lot’s daughters (whose unfortunate sisters were later gang-raped by ruffians desiring to brutalize the three mysterious male wayfarers in the Genesis tale) being put to death for giving money to a beggar. No handouts, no way!  They also tell a joke, too complicated to relate here, about how everything had become fee-for-service in this wealthy city built on the labor of low-income people and home to the festering poor.

I can’t be absolutely sure what the ancient rabbis would say about some of the current political trends in the U.S., but I’ve got a pretty good idea.