Rants, mumbling, repressed memories, recipes, and haiku from a professor at the University of St. Thomas Law School.
Sunday, January 31, 2016
Sunday Reflection: Income Inequality
I do know that there is an argument to be made for maintaining those institutions that create and sustain income inequality in this country (low estate taxes, income tax policies that allow some of the wealthiest to pay little, etc.). It creates an incentive to invest, some argue, or encourages people to innovate.
But how do people of faith justify those policies? It seems that in the realm of government, their ideas about economics trump what their faith directs-- though they would probably tell you that God is the God of all.
But… is that right? Or is there a Christian argument for those institutions which create and enhance income inequality? I have an open mind on this...
If you haven't been keeping up with my Dad's blog, you have been missing out on some great photos and descriptions of the jazz scene back in Detroit. I love the photo above, for example, and his plan for the coming year:
What our children think is important… and why this matters.
I grew up before television was our primary information center. Before dinner our family huddled around the radio for the news and after dinner we were entertained by a record going round and round on the Victrola. All kinds of music surrounded us with all its imagery. Those were magical moments. Sometimes we accompanied our parents to a concert or an opera but never to a jazz joint. Jazz and popular music were only on the radio and records. It did get into our heads and we learned to move and sway when nobody was watching. I did catch my dad once practicing his moves. It has remained part of the rhythm of my life. Thankfully it has also leaked into my children’s lives.
Life isn’t as simple for kids today.
There is plenty of music all around us but often it is in the background while our brain is focused on a task. Getting the time to get lost in some music just isn’t always available. Luckily in Detroit there are earnest efforts to bring our master artists into the community to share their gifts. Providing an intimate experience with these teachers will assure that many young lives will be richer. I have witnessed the skill of our jazz educators and seen kids abandon their cell phones while being introduced to something new. This year I am planning to spend time documenting the programs and the individuals whose lives will be enriched. I have always been impressed with the ability jazz musicians have to listen to the children. They seem to know how much that matters. Maybe it is that listening to others is the key to jazz.
The photos that make me long to be there, though, are the ones showing a normally-bustling place-- a street in New York, or a square in Washington-- still and empty and quiet and white. I want to put on my long skinny nordic skis and slide through there, gliding where cabs are usually jockying for position.
Don't we all want that? To see a world transformed in some way, made less harsh, quieter, more gentle?
Political Mayhem Thursday: "Michigan-- What a Mess"
The line "Michigan-- What a Mess" was at the top of the CNN website, followed by a torrent of articles decrying the Flint water crisis, the Detroit schools, and other issues in my home state.
Meanwhile, my old friend Ron Fournier headed back to the mitten to talk to the Governor, Rick Snyder. His interview revealed a governor who is clearly chastened by what has happened to a city (Flint) and a school system (Detroit) that fell apart while under state control after locals were removed from power.
Michigan has taken its lumps over the years, but this is an especially bad week.
Some have called for Snyder to resign. Is that a valid idea?
The Justice Department’s pardon attorney — charged with overseeing the review of clemency petitions from federal inmates — is stepping down at the end of January because she is frustrated by a lack of resources for one of the president’s centerpiece criminal-justice initiatives, according to people close to her.
The departure of Deborah Leff, who has been in her role since 2014, comes as the Obama administration struggles to process a backlog of more than 9,000 pending clemency petitions. As the president approaches the end of his second term, time is running out for his high-profile effort to offer clemency to certain nonviolent federal drug offenders harshly sentenced in the nation’s war on drugs.
A former trial lawyer, senior television producer and president of the Public Welfare Foundation, Leff was highly respected by sentencing reform advocates.
“She never got the staffing she needed,” said one friend. “She was very frustrated.” Other people close to Leff said that she was passionate about making the clemency initiative work but had been unhappy for quite some time about not having enough resources.
This is not a good development. At best, it will spur the administration to reform the clemency process by doing the following:
1) Take the the Pardon Attorney out of DOJ.
2) Have the Pardon Attorney's recommendations go to the White House for review without passing through the Deputy Attorney General.
As I have said before, there is a lot to admire about Hillary Clinton. For example, she showed remarkable strength and poise during the marathon Benghazi hearings.
On Sunday night, though, Bernie Sanders dropped a bomb. In the middle of a discussion of bank regulation (an important topic, and one they discussed with knowledge and fervor), Sanders noted that Clinton had received $600,000 in speaking fees from one investment bank, Goldman Sachs, in just one year.
Boom! I was floored. First of all, no one is that good at public speaking, to genuinely be worth that kind of money. It's clearly a purchase of influence. It was a shocking revelation.
And that's not even a campaign contribution-- it is a straight up payment. The campaign contributions don't give you much confidence she will rein in banks, either. Here are her top contributors, to Senate and Presidential campaigns, dating back to 1999:
JPMorgan Chase & Co
Not reassuring, if you think banks already have too much power. And I won't be surprised if, over time, her Democratic opponents make more of this. They should.
One of my primary disappointments in President Obama was the failure to punish the criminal actions of bankers after the mortgage crisis, and the bailouts those banks were given. Only one candidate offers the hope of something different in the future, and that is Bernie Sanders.
Bank regulation is certainly not the only issue in this campaign, or even the most important one. But it does matter, and it does not favor Clinton or any of the Republicans, none of whom have offered up significant reform in this area.
I'm glad that we celebrate today the accomplishments of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His legacy is remarkable, and his dream remains unfulfilled.
At the same time, though, I am troubled by the way he is described by some people today-- by what Cornel West called the "Santa Clausification" of King. West noted last year that King was viewed as dangerous by the American power structure: “The FBI said he was the most dangerous man in America, and the FBI said he was the most notorious liar in America.”
Institutionalizing a prophet's legacy risks leaching from that legacy the edgier side of prophecy. I see that when I watch people struggle to distinguish King from Black Lives Matter.
When we quote King, we should also quote the loathsome responses from the politically powerful of that time. Those declamations sound ridiculous now, but that-- exactly that-- is perhaps the most powerful part of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
There was some great haiku last week, but nothing hit home quite like my dad's:
Just after broomball Some white bread and a steaming bowl of hot chili.
For some 20 years, on and off, I played broomball with my dad and a bunch of other guys (including Sleepy Walleye) on a frozen lake near Detroit. It is a ridiculous game-- running around with brooms on the ice-- but sure built up an appetite. The Medievalist offered a Minnesota version:
After shoveling Snow, never-ending sidewalk, Steaming Spam hotdish.
MKS had another Minnesota variant: Winter comfort food: Meatballs with mushroom gravy On mashed potatoes.
Of course, that is kinda limited to the experience of a certain group of people living here in the north. For others, you might relate more to the poetry of the Waco Friend: Kielbasa stew! Sausage, squash, zucchini, corn tomatoes, onion.
Served with homemade cornbread, mother's recipe warmly fills tummies!
Finally, Renee gave us a poem/recipe (a beautiful thing!): Allspice lifted it Ambrosial,boulders of beef Swam with potatoes
Celery,carrots, Onion boldly gilded the Broth.Succulent clouds
Of Spatzli,treasure To discover in the blessed Bowl. It cooked all day.
This is what January brings in Minnesota: a high of -8.
My friends in Texas shudder at that, but the people here think something is wrong if there isn't a deep cold snap. They are right, too-- without several nights below zero, invasive species move north and suddenly the birch trees or the walleye or something else that makes Minnesota so Minnesota-y is gone. The cold is purifying.
It feels that way to me, too, when I step out into the world and feel my breath freeze. There is this moment of being startled, and then a striking clarity. Everything is bright. Minnesota is cold, but it is also sunny, and that sun bounces off the snow and magnifies, so everything glistens. At night, the stars are sharply defined, and the background sky seems darker and deeper.
I love the way that works, that it is scary to go out, but once you are there it is fascinating and wonderful (if you wore the right clothes, anyways).
What else, what other beauty, does fear keep us from?
A 2014 Pew Research Center survey
on the traits of good leaders indicated, in descending order, that “it
is absolutely essential for a leader to be honest, intelligent and
decisive — as well as organized, compassionate, innovative and
At face value, this is a credible list of traits.
Yet, too often it appears the
presidential debates degenerate to the lowest common denominators of a
male understanding of leadership — such as toughness, aggressiveness and
strength — not the traits from the Pew survey. Often, the candidates,
regardless of gender, try to outdo one another, much like overreaching
adolescent males seeking to assert their uncertain manhood.
More so, the grandiosity, the
brashness, the arrogance and the unfettered narcissism of several of the
candidates have been striking. It has been said that seeking the
presidency is diagnosable. After all, given the unfathomable demands of
the job, what type of person would think they have what it takes to do
At the core of narcissism is the
inability to be present to and aware of the other. The self, and service
of the self, is all that matters.
Not surprisingly, the remarks of
several of the candidates have appeared to be remarkably tone-deaf in
regard to the concerns of the others.
Many of these remarks have pandered to and exploited fear. This fear, unfortunately, is not without precedent. Nevertheless, where is their
sense of mercy for those displaced by terrorism, civil war, poverty and
environmental disasters? Where is their sense of compassion?
As happens so often, New York Times columnist David Brooks swooped in later in the week and swiped Craig's theme in a wonderful piece titled The Brutalism of Ted Cruz.
I was impressed with President Obama. As those of you who read this blog know, I have been quite critical of the President at times, often in the national press. There are things I think he should do differently.
But, this was a very strong speech, and I agree with much of what he said. I wish our politics were different, in a way that would allow Republicans to stand with the President when he says and promotes something that all agree on.
One of President Obama's strengths, for the whole breadth of his political career, has been the ability to state our shared aspirations. That's not a bad thing; it is a key job of the Executive. Last night he again did that very well.
David Bowie is dead of cancer at 69. He was way, way ahead of his time, and provided one of the most arresting performances I saw on TV when I was in high school.
Saturday Night live was in its fourth year in 1978, with the original cast still in place (except the upgrade, where Bill Murray replaced Chevy Chase), and I stayed up late to watch every weekend. You never knew what was going to happen, and sometimes something great would occur.
That's what happened that night, when David Bowie appeared. Here is how Open Culture described it:
1979 was a strange year in music. A year of endings, in a way. Sid
Vicious died, Ozzy Osbourne left Black Sabbath… an old guard faded away.
On the other hand, U2 went into the studio for their debut, Kate Bush
went on her first tour, and new wave emerged from punk’s end. It was
also the year, notably or not, that Berlin/New York cabaret performer
Klaus Nomi broke, sort of. Nomi had been performing Wagner and
Vaudeville in New York, and David Bowie, always on the make for unusual
traveling companions, invited him to appear as a backup singer on Saturday Night Live. Bowie himself was in transition, leaving behind his high concept work with Brian Eno on his Berlin Trilogy (Low, ”Heroes,” and Lodger)
and entering another high pop phase. It was an abrupt, but natural,
shift for Bowie; tapping into Nomi’s art-pop affectations may have
seemed a perfect way to bridge the two.
Bowie, Nomi, and flamboyant New York performance artist Joey Arias do three songs, reaching back to Bowie’s folkier times for “The Man Who Sold the World.” Bowie launches next into Station to Station’s “TVC 15” in a skirt and heels, while Nomi and Arias drag around a pink plastic poodle. For the last number, Lodger’s
“When You’re a Boy,” Bowie perhaps invents the look of 80s new wave
videos to come—from Peter Gabriel to the Pet Shop Boys—while wearing a
life-size marionette costume. Some amazing mechanism, puppeteers
offstage or Bowie himself, operates the oversized arms, and the whole
thing takes SNL musical performances to a place they’d never
been. Nomi was so impressed with the costuming that he adopted the huge
plastic tuxedo Bowie wears during the first song as his own, wearing one
on the cover of his first album and performing in it until his death from AIDS in 1983. The broadcast above took place on December 15, 1979.
It was stunning, especially the second song (which starts at 3:20 in the video above. Here is my question: How did they do that on live television in 1979?
This week I will be traveling to CraigA's old haunt, Boston. (Side note: CraigA has a great commentary in the Richmond paper today). Harvard Law is joining the group of schools working on clemency petitions, and I'm going to go help set it up. I'm looking forward to it, and working with some old friends.
Travel has a good effect on me: It opens me up. Many of my better articles were written on planes, or in libraries far from home. Coming into contact with new people and experiences always makes me better, too.
Jesus moved constantly, of course. Partly, that was by necessity-- his mission and his audiences were all over. His travel not only took him to where he needed to be, but let him be who he needed to be. Reading the gospels, it is a little like reading the memoirs of a band member on tour, with a new place defining each chapter. Often, a gospel verse opens that way: "They travelled to…"
It is a deep urge within us, and sometimes a spiritual one. Micah 6:8 tells us not only to love justice and show mercy, but to "walk humbly with our God." We tend to ignore the verb in that last part, that we are to "walk." What happens then, when we walk with God? We find the rest of the world, maybe.
The best show I ever saw? That's easy. It was the Ramones, in some hot old warehouse in DC in the middle of August. Hot as hell, packed in tight, and Joey Ramone wore a leather jacket for two and half hours while performing under lights.
Looking back at it (and at the video above) what I find remarkable is how disciplined they were. There is no break between the songs, for the most part-- they count it off and fly into the next one.
I can't even do that in my lectures! I'm muttering about something, looking down at my notes, fumbling around... it sounds crazy, but this semester I am going to try to be more like the Ramones.
"These are guys with the name D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty, these types of
guys, they come from Connecticut and New York, they come up here, they
sell their heroin, they go back home," the 67-year old governor told the
audience. "Incidentally, half the time they impregnate a young, white
girl before they leave, which is a real sad thing because then we have
another issue we have to deal with down the road."
There is, of course, a lot wrong here, including the racism. What jumped out at me though, was his idea that there might be heroin dealers named "Smoothie" and "Shifty." In criminal law, we deal with a lot of nicknames. "D-Money" is plausible. No one, though, would take the name "Smoothie" or "Shifty."
So, what would you want to have Gov. LaPage call you?
We can haiku about that this week. Here, I'll go first:
Maine Guv'nor calls me
"Franklin the Cairn Terrier."
Now it is your turn! Just make it 5 syllables/7 syllables/5 syllables and have some fun!
Political Mayhem Thursday: Armed insurrection fizzles in Oregon
People seem to have already lost interest in the armed gang who took over the gift-shop building at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, and maybe that is for the best. Apparently, they are already running out of snacks. They may be domestic terrorists (the label fits their actions), but they are coming off as just silly. And that may be the perfect outcome-- that they end up being humiliated just by the dopiness of their actions, and slink away to their homes (and prosecution, one would hope).
Their protest was inspired by the sentencing of two locals, Dwight and Steve Hammond, who had been convicted of arson on federal land. They were charged under a statute that carries a five-year mandatory minimum, and an appellate court held that it had to be imposed. They reported to serve their sentences on Monday-- the event that spurred the protests and eventually the armed incursion-- without incident.
Some questions about all of this:
-- Why is it that when a protest is held in Minneapolis by Black Lives Matter, scores of police are sent, but this incident is ignored? If you doubt the disparity, here is a picture from just a few weeks ago, of those facing the Black Lives Matter protesters:
-- Are the Oregon occupiers properly categorized as "terrorists?" What about the two ranchers who burned 139 acres of federal land?
This is going to be a really weird election season. Scratch that-- it already is a really weird election season!
I'm still baffled at something that continues to go on. It's this: Republican strategists seem to assume that Donald Trump is going to implode. They have pretty much assumed that since last summer, and have been consistently wrong. The problem with their theory is that Trump defies the law of political gravity: he says shockingly wrong things, and his numbers go up. Now the theory is that he will just kind of lose, for no real reason.
Lately, he has been arguing that Hillary Clinton lacks the stamina and endurance to be president. It's a bizarre claim-- like saying that Chris Christie is too skinny to be President, or that Jeb Bush doesn't have government service in his family. If there is one thing we know about Hillary Clinton (and it is a good thing), it is that she endures quite well. Most recently, this came across in the Benghazi hearings, where she testified all day and into the night, and did not miss a step. It was an impressive display.
No spoilers here-- just random theories. I loved The Force Awakens, but was baffled by one thing: There is a new important character, Supreme Leader Snoke, who goes completely unexplained. Who is he? Where did he come from?
Here are some leading theories:
-- He's just some guy named "Snoke," who became a Supreme Leader
-- It's Jar Jar Binks
-- It's Emperor Palpatine, reborn after being thrown into a huge shaft in space
In the picture above, I'm carrying the Christmas ham (not, as might appear by the size and shape of the bag and the fact his name is written on it, the severed head of my father). It was a big ham for a lot of people, and it was delicious, as was everything else we ate that day. Talented hands worked hard to make it happen.
My parents aren't particularly well-off, and many nights they eat lentil soup. Still, relative to most of the people on this planet, we are awash in comfort and riches.
Does relative wealth affect faith?
Well, sure it does. Christ made that pretty clear, several times-- that it is harder for the wealthy to realize the riches of faith. Why, though? I have several ideas on that:
1) At every turn, Jesus urged humility, and humility does not come easily to the advantaged.
2) The wealthy tend to see their status as earned-- as reflecting their moral standing. This is often quite explicit. Jesus taught the opposite.
3) Sometimes you will hear people say that well-off people don't "need" God. It's a confusing phrase, though, since God does not (at least according to Jesus) provide earthly wealth.
I have gone to a number of churches with very wealthy members of the congregation, but these challenges are rarely part of sermons. Should it be part of the discussion within churches?
Sometimes I end up in some kind of rabbit hole of information, where I can't stop myself from finding out more about some arcane or unimportant topic.
For example, yesterday, I became engrossed in the relative population of various cities. What makes it confounding is that some core cities with big metropolitan areas are actually pretty small. For example, Cleveland is the 48th largest city in the US-- which really surprised me.