‘Tis the season of consumerist delights and gratifications. Chicago native Mel Tormé correctly crooned that “Christmas was made for children,” but the current age of excess and inequality encourages well-to-do adults to wish true their materialistic dreams. Numerous car companies showcase commercials where a spouse gifts a partner with brand-new wheels. Surprise! Ah, the new American Dream marriage: being able to make a $50,000-plus decision without having to consult your partner.
American-style holiday gift giving – focused on children – has been around about 150 years, necessarily coinciding with standard of living advances achieved during the Second Industrial Revolution. The depiction of American Christmas as an import of the St. Nick tradition from Europe is a convenient myth, no more than religious veneer on the American holiday season. More historically accurate is the understanding that today’s American Christmas derives from the ancient rhythms of rest and indulgence connected to Northern Hemisphere winter solstice.
The practice of misrule – common in Europe and early America – was a moment of social inversion centered around the solstice (December 21st) and its accompanying spoils of gathered harvest, freshly slaughtered meat, and fermented drink. Misrule gave social permission – during a few days in December and January – for the poor to enter the homes of the well-to-do demanding to be served with food, drink, and money as if the peasants themselves were the well-to-do. Misrule consisted of rowdy public displays of excessive eating and drinking, the mocking of established authority, and demands made upon the rich by the working class. Now bring us some figgy pudding . . . We won’t go until we get some – and bring it right here! The Puritans of New England – yes, it’s true – banned the celebration of Christmas in the mid-1600s not because they had issues with the legendary December birth of Jesus, but because misrule had a tendency to get out of hand. So bring it right here!
Misrule, a social bargain whereby peasants agreed to give their goodwill and deference to the wealthy and powerful for the remainder of the year, became domesticated in mid-19th century America: peasant and working-class folks were pushed aside as children became the season’s focus of charity and display of social inversion. Christmas celebrations would newly consist of private family gatherings inside homes; roving bands of young men pounding on doors and demanding the spoils of misrule eventually disappeared. Gift giving – ah, the memory of good St. Nick – was rerouted and the church was most pleased to be part of a toned-down, family affair focused on another child, the babe of Mary. Not all churches in mid-19th century America held Christmas services, but soon enough, the tide turned and the modern Christmas holiday emerged – the often-contradictory mix-match of the baby Jesus, consumerist greed, lights, excessive consumption, hymns and songs, a silent night, and an awfully noisy morning with gifts for the children (and some adults). Historian Stephen Nissenbaum astutely observes that “Christmas has always been an extremely difficult holiday to Christianize.” Absolutely correct – now more than ever!
There’s nothing wrong with owning a new and reliable car to get from Point A to Point B in style. The car commercials of this season, however, instill an alternative reality: possession supersedes function. Notice that hardly any of these commercials actually shows the promoted car in action, driven by the owner. What’s marketed and sold is not function but wished-for superlative status. During the Gilded Age – like today, another age of excess and inequality – economist Thorstein Veblen coined the term conspicuous consumption to describe spending by the richest Americans to build up their prestige and image. Veblen criticized conspicuous consumption as characteristic of a regressive society, similar to the stratified European aristocracies that many American immigrants had left behind.
St. Nick, tradition tells us, brought gifts and justice to needy children in the fourth century. We’ve strayed far from his example.
Is status determined by wealth and possessions or by service, commitment, and character? What we teach our children today – by propaganda, creed, and example – will determine the progression or regression of America society.
A patron saint is defined as a mythical and revered guardian figure of a people or country. Who, I ask, is the patron saint of the United States? George Washington? Since he is a relatively recent historical figure, he is subsequently disqualified – we understand Washington and others like him (Jefferson and Franklin) to be founding fathers. Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyon, or John Henry? We’re getting closer, but most American kids would recognize only one of the three, at best. How about Uncle Sam? He looks the part in red, white, and blue – but what more do we know of him than his finger pointed beckoning citizens to national service? To be a national patron saint, all – especially children – need to understand the details of the candidate’s story. Santa is the only one who qualifies; he, unquestionably, is the American national patron saint in this current day of commerce, materialism, and consumerism.
Santa – unequivocally an American invention – has an interesting history. It starts with St. Nicholas (270-343), a Christian bishop who lived in Myra – modern-day Turkey. He had a reputation for favoring children; he brought them justice and gave them gifts.
The date of his death, December 6, became his festival day. For centuries, various places in Europe revered the saint and practiced gift giving on his festival day. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves if we make a direct unbroken link from St. Nick’s December festival day and its practice of gift giving to the Christmas of today. More so, there’s a deeper connection between today’s gift giving and the ancient rhythms of indulgence (sometimes to the point of excess) during the winter months.
The winter solstice, December 21 – the shortest day in the Northern Hemisphere – has a deep and long cultural history. The celebration of greens and lights at the solstice, as is well-known, predates Christianity by millennia. The early church, not yet consolidated in doctrine and calendar, celebrated the birth of Christ on different dates throughout the year according to local custom. Constantine corporatized the church in 325, bringing conformity to its doctrine. Pope Julius brought consolidation to its calendar in 350 and proclaimed December 25 to be the festival day of the birth of Christ. The church understood its position to be strong enough to compete with Saturnalia and other pagan festivals celebrating the rebirth of the sun, covering over them, as it were, with the birth of the Son.
Historian Stephen Nissenbaum (The Battle for Christmas, Knopf, 1997) astutely observes that “Christmas has always been an extremely difficult holiday to Christianize.” Absolutely correct.
Protestantism’s penchant to not revere saints meant that St. Nick didn’t make the trip to the New World neither with the Pilgrims, the Puritans, nor northern European immigrants (Nissenbaum says that American Christmas as an early 19th century Dutch import is an “invented tradition”). As a matter of fact, Christmas celebrations in early America had more in common with the ancient celebrations related to the rhythms of harvest and the solstice than they did with church teaching. In the Northern Hemisphere, the weeks preceding and following the solstice (what we moderns call November, December, and January) traditionally have been the time of gathering in harvests, slaughtering for fresh meat, and enjoying the products of fermentation, beer and wine. We Northern Hemisphere moderns who purchase fresh apples from Chile in May might have difficulty understanding this ancient rhythm, since we are able to procure most whatever we want any time during the year. Even so, let me ask you to entertain a few questions: Do you have a tendency to put on a few pounds over the winter holiday season? Have you ever signed up for a gym membership in January? December was and is the time for excess – eating, drinking, giving, celebrating, leisure – a time to enjoy the labors of year-end and a time for misrule.
Misrule, historically, was a moment of social inversion when the wealthy and powerful deferred to their dependents and poorer neighbors. Practiced in Europe and early America, misrule gave social permission – during a few days in December and January – for the poor to enter the homes of the well-to-do demanding to be served with food, drink, and money as if the peasants themselves were the well-to-do. Misrule consisted of rowdy public displays of excessive eating and drinking, the mocking of established authority, and demands made upon the rich by the working class. Now bring us some figgy pudding . . . We won’t go until we get some – and bring it right here! The Puritans of New England – yes, it’s true – banned the celebration of Christmas in the mid-1600s not because they had issues with the legendary December birth of Jesus, but because misrule had a tendency to get out of hand. So bring it right here!
One of the unwritten rules of misrule, however, was the continuation of a social bargain. The peasants, satisfied with the brief turning of the tables during misrule, were to offer their goodwill and deference to the wealthy and powerful for the rest of the year. If you’ve ever received a Christmas bonus at a job where you felt you were underpaid, you can see that misrule is still with us. It’s the misrule bargain: accept your once-a-year bonus and do not grumble about your low pay for the balance of the year – a gift given in exchange for goodwill.
Misrule became domesticated in mid-19th century America: peasant and working-class folks were pushed aside as children became the season’s focus of charity and display of social inversion. Christmas celebrations would newly consist of private family gatherings inside homes; roving bands of young men pounding on doors and demanding the spoils of misrule disappeared. Gift giving – ah, the memory of St. Nick yet alive – was rediscovered and the church was most pleased to be part of a toned-down, family affair focused on another child, the babe of Mary. Not all churches in mid-19th century America held Christmas services. That began to change, however, and the societal move away from excesses so ingrained into the season by climate, culture, and practice was gaining momentum – until, that is, Sinterklaas took on American shape and form.
Sinterklaas, Dutch for St. Nicholas, became Americanized awfully fast. The Dutch version of St. Nicholas was transformed significantly to become the American Santa Claus: stripped bare of all religious symbolism and enhanced according to the traditional seasonal excesses. No mitre, but a cap; no shepherd’s staff, but a whip for his reindeer; no crosses, but gifts galore. The cleric red vestments were replaced by a snowsuit, covering an extensive paunch. As a matter of fact, depictions of Santa show his belly growing larger and larger as the mid-19th century gave way to the Gilded Age (1870-1900) and its proliferation of excess.
James Farrell (One Nation Under Goods: Malls and the Seduction of American Shopping, Smithsonian, 2004) calls Santa the most appropriate icon for an affluent society. Santa made his first Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade appearance in 1924, and then became comfortably ensconced into malls when they came to prominence in post-WW II America. Malls in America: where else would Santa, the very embodiment of consumption’s blessings for the youngest members of our society, be more apropos? The united values of consumption and materialism are effectively reinforced in American malls. The domestication of misrule moves forward, as the bearded and bellied commercial icon par excellence looks into the eyes of a child and all but promises her that her material dreams will be fulfilled – with a similar misrule social bargain – as long as she behaves.
Ol’ Claus by Ferrell’s estimation is the national “symbol of material abundance and hedonistic pleasure.” Even so, the big old man has a religious aura – he’s supernatural and omniscient, somehow all-knowing of our activities, good and bad. In Santa’s kingdom, the nice receive pleasing gifts and the naughty get a second chance. And just like that, with a twinkle in his eye, he gives his divine-like blessing upon our materialistic American Christmas. More Americans exchange gifts during the season than make traditional religious observance. What St. Santa represents – commerce, materialism, consumption – qualifies as the dominant religion of the land.
In my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good I argue that this dominant religion or ultimate concern (to use theologian Paul Tillich’s phrase) has for the most part been a good religion that has fed, clothed, sheltered, and employed millions – lifting many of these from the grips of economic poverty. But when this religion goes too far, and becomes an end in and of itself – the religion breaks bad and the societal common good suffers. Our unexamined proclivity to trust in economic growth as the healer of all our ills is misguided; economic growth has done its good work for American society, but we’ve reached a point of diminishing returns. Further gains in income and wealth for affluent societies don’t give its citizens the improvements once seen in the societies’ earlier and less affluent days. Since 1980, economic gains in the United States, going mostly to the richest Americans, have unfortunately helped exacerbate social problems related to inequality: mental illness, teenage pregnancy, obesity, incarceration rates, and (decreasing) upward social mobility rates. Many of these problems directly and indirectly affect American children, one out of every four of them living in poverty in the richest country in the history of the world.
It’s naturally based in history that the Northern Hemisphere’s season of winter solstice and accompanying holidays come with a touch of excess celebration, leisure, and the sharing and consumption of material goods. The grand majority of us look forward to and appreciate the December/January holiday season. It’s good to have a change of pace and break from that which the rest of the year consists: work and necessary routine.
Santa, the quintessential icon and patron saint for a highly consumerist society, tells us quite a bit about our own character and identity as a society (and what it is we teach our children). Does it all boil down to this: If we have enough stuff we’ll be alright?
This blog post and others on this website are representative of my views and writing in Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, distributed nationally by ACTA Publications, and available at Amazon or any other bookselling venue.
Fifty-four years ago on this date, December 9, John Coltrane recorded A Love Supreme at Van Gelder Studio in New Jersey.
John Coltrane released his masterpiece A Love Supreme in February 1965. For those of you unfamiliar with Coltrane’s work, A Love Supreme is as fresh and timeless today as it was more than fifty years ago. Accessibly melodic, Coltrane’s exuberant tenor sax fuses with McCoy Tyner’s teeming piano chords and riffs to produce an unparalleled thirty-three minute session of ascendant and flowing grace.
Give it a look and listen here:
Coltrane’s road to A Love Supreme was anything but straightforward. An incredible talent, he often travelled a wayward path. The hungry ghost of addiction haunted him; he was booted out of Miles Davis’s band in 1957 for continued heroin use, including a near overdose. The close call propelled him to clean up, however. From the autobiographical liner notes of A Love Supreme: “During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life.” His calling was “to make others happy through music,” which, he claimed, was granted to him through God’s grace.
Coltrane was raised a Christian, and he also sought out other faith traditions after his epiphany. His conclusion: “No matter what . . . it is with God. He is gracious and merciful. His way is in love, through which we all are. It is truly – A Love Supreme – .”
Yes, Coltrane’s credo – like some of his music later in his career – is a bit vague and esoteric. Let me put the credo in other terms, more accessible: love is a sufficiency all its own. In Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, I detail the societal desire and drive that is never satisfied with enough, always seeking “just a little bit more.” Love is the antidote to the pursuit of more and more; it helps us to be grateful, to relax, to rest, to enjoy, to share, and to know what and when is enough. Love also helps us to do great things – busting our tails in the process – for our neighbor and the common good. Love covers it all.
John Coltrane died of liver cancer in 1967, having completed only 40 years of life on this earth. Forgive the obvious cliché – his music does live on. Coltrane biographer Lewis Porter (John Coltrane: His Life and Music, University of Michigan Press, 2000) explains that Coltrane plays the “Love Supreme” riff (four notes) exhaustively in all possible twelve keys toward the end of Part 1 – Acknowledgement, the first cut on the disc. Love as sufficiency – it covers all we need and then some.
The conclusion of Coltrane’s liner notes: “May we never forget that in the sunshine of our lives, through the storm and after the rain – it is all with God – in all ways and forever.”
May A Love Supreme reign for another 50 plus years, and then some. Amen.
Just a Little Bit More is available through Amazon, and wherever books and ebooks are sold.
A version of this article has been printed in a handful of Texas newspapers on their Op-Ed pages, notably the Austin American-Statesman on December 11, 2018, and the Houston Chronicle on December 24. Special thanks to ministry colleague Jim Harrington, former Director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, for collaboration on this article.
The story of a pregnant woman, on the road and needing shelter, is retold and reenacted throughout the Americas every December. Raised in a family of European descent, I heard the story in detail each winter of my Midwestern childhood. It wasn’t until adulthood in Texas, however, interacting with Latino communities, that I delved deeper into the story’s themes of exclusion, welcome, and sanctuary.
Originating in Mexico more than 400 years ago, “Las Posadas” (“The Inns”) is the Latin American reenactment of Mary and Joseph seeking shelter. US citizens—many familiar with the biblical story—are faced with a reexamination of societal values, because of heightened political polarization which threatens our ability to deal with societal problems. Whether or not you are a religious adherent, I advocate digging deeper into this story as a way forward.
Demonization of the other is currently accepted behavior in our society—whether seeing a caravan of migrants as a hostile force; nonchalantly accepting as normal our entrenched inequality, including the callous assumption that anyone who is poor is lazy; or, dismissing our unconscionably high rate of gun killings (massacres and suicides) by calling the majority of actors “mentally unstable.” We know from recent history—from Germany in the 1930s to Rwanda in the 1990s—that demonization of the other is a deadly ideology. The majority of problems that our society suffers from does not originate outside our borders but from within them, creations of our own decisions and values (or lack thereof). “We, the people” means that we are responsible for dealing with our problems in a proactive and cooperative way. Demonization of the other is a convenient cop-out which allows us to point fingers at others outside our borders and, within them, at each other. Rather than solve problems, it exacerbates them by the misallocation of political energy and societal resources.
Religious leaders (including those of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian communities, and those of other faith traditions) have the responsibility to lift up their voices, as did the prophets who came before. In America, it’s not the purpose of religion to support the state, but to keep it honest and to call our leaders to accountability when they deviate from the commonly-held values of our faith traditions.
Rabbi Josh Whinston of Ann Arbor, Michigan, helped organize a prayer protest outside the prison-like Tornillo, Texas tent camp where our government detains hundreds of unaccompanied minor children. In similar courageous fashion, Brownsville Catholic Bishop Daniel Flores denied access to surveyors tasked with border wall construction on his church’s property in Hidalgo County. For this leader, construction on church property would severely restrict his church’s mission to serve all its neighbors.
The best of our traditions mandate that we live together by just laws that establish subsequent order. Religious teachings help infuse our social contract with compassion: feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, demand equal treatment for all, welcome the migrant, and enter into purposeful dialogue with those whom we disagree. The only question about these practices is how we do them, not whether we do them.
After the birth of Mary’s baby in humble circumstances, the story continues with the family having to flee for their lives because of the murderous intent of a ruling tyrant named Herod. The refugees cross a border to find shelter and hospitality—again.
On January 6—Epiphany—many Texans of Mexican heritage will gather around a King’s cake, called “Rosca de Reyes,” in search of an embedded miniature plastic infant boy, representing the baby Jesus, hidden in the cake. The knife that cuts the cake represents Herod and his murderous plan. The gathered ones, however, will do their best to protect the innocent child from tyranny and death.
We don’t make America great by demonizing other people, but by welcoming and befriending vulnerable persons—that’s the message and challenge of this popular Christmas story.
Happy Thanksgiving . . . I mean, Happy Black Friday Eve.
Daaammmnnn – I’m doing my best to adjust to the new reality, but I’m having some trouble.
I’m so deplorably old-school. I just can’t get the hang of the new lingo or the new way to roll.
Gathering together with family and friends around the table and enjoying turkey, ham, Tofurky (that’s vegetarian tofu-turkey for you extremely old-school types) and all the trimmings, toasting the day of gratitude with some nice oaky California Chardonnay . . . I now realize this description represents a by-gone era, like a black-and-white Jimmy Stewart holiday classic.
Today – early twenty-first century – “Thanksgiving” is increasingly about getting ready for Black Friday Eve and Black Friday, the biggest shopping days of the American calendar year. Turn on the football games if you must, but get ready to go! Shop!! And for our hard-working Americans, go and get the Walmart, Target, and the plethora of mall stores ready to rock, stock, and roll! Push away from the table and do your duty!
This is our time.
Or, at least it used to be.
We’ve seen commerce-based Christmas commercials on TV before Halloween for years now. I’m not knocking commerce; buying and selling defines the modern world and provides goods, employment, services, and meaning for the vast majority of us. Market activity is a good thing – unequivocally. We’d rather the youngest generation – able, creative, and impressionable – become integrated into the world of commerce than one of other-worldly disinterest and hate, which in extreme cases, can lead to terroristic activity.
Even though commerce is a great civilizing force, it ultimately does not make the world go round. The words of a Jewish prophet from long ago, “Life does not consist of the abundance of possessions,” cut against the grain of commerce’s ability to dominate. Maintaining balance and perspective in the midst of all the pots, pans, smartphones, sofa chairs, and cars that surround us requires either poverty or discipline.
Thanksgiving Day 2011: Walmart, Kohl’s, Target, and Best Buy annex the holiday for commercial purposes by opening their doors at 10 p.m. That very night “customer versus customer shopping rage” is reported and responded to by police in at least seven states. This year, Walmart and Target are hitting the airwaves unabashed with advertisements inviting shoppers in at 5 p.m. for Black Friday Eve. J.C. Penney – on the bring of extinction – opens its doors at 2 p.m. Yes, it’s just slightly ironic. Kudos to the checkout aisle workers who, upon handing shoppers their receipts, crack a wry smile and go subversive: Have a good Black Friday Eve holiday weekend.
Not all Americans are falling for the ploy. The pushback to maintain Thanksgiving as holiday without street fighting at the local big box retailer is gaining momentum. Increased internet commerce mitigates the big box stores’ physical lure. And that really cheap 40″ LED television on sale for Black Friday? It truly is cheap – made exclusively on the cheap for Black Friday and only sold on Black Friday.
On the positive side of the ledger, REI, the national outdoor equipment store, is leading the way by being closed on Thanksgiving Day and Friday – #optoutdoors.
Two exemplary theologians of our day – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Dr. Walter Brueggemann – have done excellent work lifting up the classic teaching of biblical Sabbath. Sabbath is time to give thanks, slow down, take inventory, breathe deep, and get away from some of the distractions of everyday life. I’m looking forward to Sabbath time this Thanksgiving with family and friends. And then I’m going to sleep in on Friday . . .
This post touches upon some of the connections in American society between football, military service, and violence. Special thanks to Vietnam-era veteran Arlin Buyert (USN) for permission to reprint his poems “Big Brother” and “‘Oh Say Can You See’.”
God bless Mack Brown, the former head football coach at the University of Texas. His sixteen-year tenure exuded victories on the field and classiness off it. He, by all appearances, treated players the right way; there won’t be any legit “tell all” books coming out anytime soon exposing a dark side of the Brown era. He shepherded a minority of his players on to the NFL, while maintaining during the last half of his tenure a 70 percent plus graduation rate – pretty good for a major college football program. Part CEO, PR master, and recruiting glad-hander – he eventually was done in by his own success. Longhorn partisans took umbrage at his 30-21 record during the final four years of his reign, and it was time for him to go.
I’m not the only commentator to have noticed the increasingly cozy relationship, in the past few years, between football (major college and professional) and the military. Fighter plane flyovers at the beginning of games have been around for a while, but ceremonies honoring service men and women at games – in large part due to the fact the US military has been at war since 2001 – are now commonplace. The tragic death of Arizona Cardinals football player and US Army Ranger Pat Tillman in 2004 cemented this relationship in our current day. And this relationship is a natural one; scholars have argued for years that football is not only an extension of military combat, but a good substitute for war. [Michael Mandelbaum’s The Meaning of Sports, Public Affairs Books (2004) is especially noteworthy.]
Since I live in Austin and pay some attention to football, I heard Mack Brown many years of his tenure proclaim – mostly during rushed twenty-second halftime interviews – “We support the troops,” “Thanks to the troops,” or “God bless the troops.” Yes, yes, and yes. Mack Brown wasn’t and isn’t the only football coach to say so, conveniently, during the weekend games on or around November 11. But, wait a minute. The troops and their plight deserve much more than passing or canned accolades as the coach runs to the locker room. Coach Brown no doubt meant what he said, but it was also part of the PR recruiting show intended for millions on national TV. How deeply do we support the troops? Numerous veterans hear “Thanks for your service” as the four quickest words of patronization, wondering if the ones uttering said gratitude have the remotest clue about the fragmented shards of a soldier’s soul that are ripped out and left for dead in a war zone. As a nation, we are undoubtedly guilty for the way we casually accept war and inadequately treat the PTSD many of the troops develop and bring home as result of combat situations.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Wood calls attention to PTSD and something else he calls “moral injury” (originally coined by clinical psychiatrist Jonathan Shay working with Vietnam vets some twenty years ago). To be clear: Wood claims, in describing moral injury, that troops in battle have not necessarily committed a wrong. Moral injury “is a relatively new concept that seems to describe what many feel: a sense that their fundamental understanding of right and wrong has been violated, and the grief, numbness or guilt that often ensues.” Wood calls moral injury the signature wound that Afghanistan and Iraq veterans deal with – a “bruise on the soul” that has lasting impact on the individual and his or her family.
Arlin Buyert’s poem Big Brother, dealing with a war two generations previous, poignantly describes some of the angst and brutal consequence of moral injury.
I was ten years old
when we took Bobbie
to the courthouse in Orange City.
Dad and Mom wept
as he boarded the Greyhound
bound for boot camp.
After graduation, Korea,
Third Infantry Division.
Two years later
someone else came home:
quiet and brittle as a dead tree,
non-stop Old Gold cigarettes,
quivering fingers, drunk
in his 1949 Ford, in the ditch,
a ditch that held him forever.
Mom cried again,
Suicide, tragically, among military personnel (active duty and veterans) is near double the general population rate. Twenty military personnel per day take their own lives, according to 2014 data. Ray Rice, the former NFL running back, was initially given a slap on the wrist for slugging to unconsciousness his then fiancée (now wife) Janay Palmer; later he was both suspended and scapegoated by a league that cashes in on a level of violence, although regulated, raw and primitive. Colleges and universities with football programs have higher rates of sexual assault on campus than those without. Military institutions are plagued with misogyny and the mistreatment of women; both institutions are guilty of not taking proper care of all of their veterans (both use the same term for retired participants) – especially those injured in action. Both institutions target recruits that are young, able, and not yet risk-averse – the pre-frontal cortex in the human brain, inhibiting risk-taking, is not fully developed until the bearer of that young brain reaches twenty-five years of age.
I don’t write this piece to ridicule either institution; the military is necessary in a diverse and conflicted world, and football is a loved diversion – and, again – a desired substitute over actual war. If you’ve not read Chris Hedges’s War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (Public Affairs, 2002), I urge you to do so. Hedges worked as a journalist, covering wars from Central America to the Balkans, and he famously describes war as a drug – potent, lethal, and exhilaratingly addictive. War, he claims, gives us meaningful purpose in a world besieged by seemingly insignificant pursuits. It can be, however, a seductive purpose. “Each generation again responds to war as innocents. Each generation discovers its own disillusionment – often at a terrible price.”
Of course we support the troops. Yet in gratitude for their sacrifice and service, perhaps it better we purse our lips, remembering that we have been endowed with two ears and only one mouth. Two ears to listen; two eyes with which to see and better understand the experiences of our fellow brothers and sisters. There are no easy answers. But there are experiences that instruct and inform. We need to pay better attention – Wood’s piece on moral injury is must reading.
War has been around a lot longer than football. Whereas football is derived in part from war and its battle scenarios, we risk confusion when we look to football as being instructive or indicative of war. War is not like football, a bigger and badder version. To the contrary, war is burdened with much more gravitas, obviously, than football ever will be. We Americans invest a lot of time, effort, and energy into our teams following their travails and successes. The least we can do to respect the troops: put in just as much if not more time, energy, and effort learning about the realities of war, and how those who fight our wars are affected by them.
“OH SAY CAN YOU SEE”
As preamble to high school basketball games
it felt fine.
As highlight of Memorial Day at cemetery,
it roused my youthful joy.
As crown jewel of Saturday parades in boot camp,
it drummed shivers through my blood.
As “bombs bursting in air” became my bombs bursting a village in Vietnam –
I can sing no more.
I saw too much.*
* “Oh Say Can You See” – War Poems by Arlin Buyert
Chapbook, 39 pages.
Buyert Books, 2014. Reprinted with permission.
Order directly from Arlin Buyert, $10 (no charge for shipping) by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
This blog post was originally published on this website November 18, 2014.
Now that we’re two years removed from the Bernie Sanders campaign, the claim that American society suffers from rampant inequalities is no longer a shocker. If anything, Senator Sanders’ candidacy proclaimed inequality as public enemy number one. He’s helped us understand that inequality in the US (and elsewhere) consists of three sub-categories: income, wealth, and opportunity.
Income inequality is the most accessible of the three, revealed by comparisons in hourly wages, daily wages, and yearly salaries of workers. Income inequality is on the rise in the US, and has been for more than thirty-five years.
To understand wealth inequality, consider that the Dow Jones Industrial Average has hovered around 25,000 for all of 2018. Are you among the 55 percent of American adults who own stocks? Before the 2008 “Great Recession” when the Dow Jones index fluctuated between 12,000 and 13,000, close to 65 percent of Americans owned stocks. Today, the pool of stock owners as a percentage of total population is the smallest it’s been in a generation, concentrating wealth. Increases in stock market indices generally mean those that already have plenty get more.
A number of us (myself included) have retirement pensions and other holdings in the stock market. I fit the majority stockholder profile: white college grad living in a household making more than $75,000 per year. According to the Pew Research Center, 55 percent of whites, 28 percent of blacks, and 17 percent of Hispanics held stocks as of 2013. Financial market holdings, along with business and home ownerships are the main markers of accumulated wealth. The racial wealth gap has increased since 2008 in the US – whites have thirteen times greater wealth (overall assets minus liabilities) than blacks, and ten times greater than Hispanics.* Double or triple would be a significant difference – thirteen and ten times greater reveals a rigged system, historically and currently so.
Economist, financier, and author Mohamed El-Erian best explains opportunity inequality in his book The Only Game in Town: Central Banks, Instability, and Avoiding the Next Collapse (Penguin Random House, 2016): “The worsening of income and wealth inequality has been so pronounced within countries that it now also undermines opportunities” (p. 84). In other words, as inequality continues to increase in the sub-categories of income and wealth, opportunities decrease. This explains why the great American tradition of economic and social mobility is morphing, especially during the past thirty-five years, into economic and social immobility. El-Erian, an American with extensive work experience worldwide, warns that the important role of inequality serving to incentivize and reward hard work and entrepreneurship now takes a back seat to excessive inequalities that harm society in many ways. We’re becoming stuck, and it’s not a good place in which to get stuck.
El-Erian further details inequality’s tightening grip. Wall Street has recovered from 2008’s Great Recession. Corporate profits, as a share of GDP, have reached record highs in the post-Great Recession era. Job creation has improved, but wages remain flat. El-Erian says while the rich continue to get richer, “conventional cyclical redistribution policies have been noticeably absent. With active budget policy making heavily constrained by political polarization, there has been a reduced emphasis on transfer payments and other support for the poor” (p. 87). The 2018 Republican tax cuts, many inequality watchdog groups claim, will only exacerbate the inequality trifecta.
“Redistribution” – El-Erian knows that the use of the word is dangerous in today’s era of inequality. Since the first era of rampant inequality – the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century – redistribution, however, has been an important tool to help make an unequal society a better society. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, Title 1 of the Education and Secondary Education Act, and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps)are some examples of redistribution and transfer payments that specifically benefit the elderly and children in America. Without these programs, American society would be decidedly worse off.
What kind of society do we want to live in? What kind of society do we want our grandchildren to live in? I’m all for continuing to advocate for a society that is egalitarian, civil, and full of opportunity with just rewards.
And for those of us concerned that “big government” is creating a permanently dependent “slacker” class? I offer the following counter-argument: Governmental policy and actions in the past thirty-five years have favored the richer classes and are chiefly responsible for the creation of today’s rampant inequalities that threaten our shared common good.
*For you curious types (like me), as of 2013, Asian-Americans have wealth stores that are 70 percent of the level of whites.
The original version of this post was published in September 2016.
An engrossing article in the June 2018 issue of The Atlantic by Matthew Stewart, “The Birth of the New American Aristocracy,” exposes an America that still regards itself as egalitarian – providing equal opportunity for all – while making itself increasingly aristocratic. Being born of well-off parents is now the best bet for ending up in the same category as an adult. More so, if one is born of white parents who are well-off, staying in the economically advantaged category is a virtual lock.
The article’s length is stout – I’ve linked it here for purists. For the rest of you, read on for a pertinent summary!
Early on Stewart writes: “Imagine yourself on the socioeconomic ladder with one end of a rubber band around your ankle and the other around your parents’ rung . . . If your parents are high on the ladder, the band will pull you up should you fall; if they are low, it will drag you down when you start to rise. Economists represent this concept with a number they call ‘intergenerational earnings elasticity,’ or IGE, which measures how much of a child’s deviation from average income can be accounted for by the parents’ income.”
Zero IGE means there’s no significant relationship between parents’ income and the eventual income of their offspring, and that the rubber band is flimsy. An IGE of 1.0, on the other hand, means no variation whatsoever and a rubber band of unbreakable strength. Fifty years ago, the IGE in America was less than 0.3 – today it has increased to 0.5, which is higher than that of almost every other developed country. What it means: the American rubber band of today’s IGE is more taut than it’s ever been and the great American virtue of high social or economic mobility is a fairytale.
A robust economic mobility did exist two generations ago in post-WW II America – again, mostly for white people – but those who insist it yet exists today for all Americans risk a credibility problem. Either they are stuck in the past, or they champion a belief, as if religious dogma, that claims that those who haven’t made it in America are mistake-laden, lazy, on-the-dole, reprobate slackers. Of course, some perfectly fit the description. But most economically poor today in America don’t. And many of these who haven’t “made it” are working poor, many of these with children. And a large portion is elderly on fixed incomes.
A corollary to the above stated dogma in today’s faux-meritocratic America: Since the poor only have themselves to blame for their predicament, I – and certainly not my tax dollars – don’t have to help them.
Escaping poverty in America today is a complex process requiring discipline and will-power, but also access to opportunities that middle- and upper-class folks take for granted: social connections and infrastructure that provide ready access to childcare, healthcare, education, and money. Only 4 percent born into poverty make it to the middle class in today’s America. The lack of access to opportunities strengthens the downward pull of the rubber band.
Stewart pooh-poohs the much publicized divide between 1 and 99 percenters that emerged from the Great Recession of ten years ago. Instead he fingers the top 10 percent of wealth possessors, regardless of yearly income – $1.2 million net wealth (cash, stocks including retirement, house value, and other holdings minus liabilities) gets you into the top decile – as those who are most culpable, led by the top .1 percenters, in today’s entrenchment of inequality.
He includes himself in this culpable faction, and divides American society into three separate economic groups: .1 percenters, the next 9.9 percent (I combine these two groups into the top decile), and the bottom 90 percent.
The top .1 percenter class now tightly holds 22 percent of all American wealth, the highest level since before the Great Depression. It has pilfered the wealth holdings of the bottom 90 percent, now also holding 22 percent, the lowest level since during the Great Depression. Stewart’s class, the top decile excluding the top .1 percent, holds the remaining 56 percent.
Stewart comments: “The meritocratic class has mastered the old trick of consolidating wealth and passing privilege along at the expense of other people’s children. We are not innocent bystanders to the growing concentration of wealth in our time. We are the principal accomplices in a process that is slowly strangling the economy, destabilizing American politics, and eroding democracy. Our delusions of merit now prevent us from recognizing the nature of the problem that our emergence as a class represents. We tend to think that the victims of our success are just the people excluded from the club. But history shows quite clearly that, in the kind of game we’re playing, everybody loses badly in the end.”
The course of what has become rampant inequality in the United States, building steadily since the early 1980s, is not natural. As Stewart points out, tax cuts for the rich, the influx of huge money into politics, and the transfer of power from labor to capital have helped create the current trends of social and economic inequalities. These commitments, Stewart also points out, can be and should be reversed.
“The defining challenge of our time is to renew the promise of American democracy by reversing the calcifying effects of accelerating inequality. As long as inequality rules, reason will be absent from our politics; without reason, none of our other issues can be solved.”
Tim/T. Carlos Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of fourteen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin. I’m also the author of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (Blue Ocotillo/ACTA, 2014) and There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (forthcoming on Walnut Street Books, April 2019).
The timing is dead-on perfect. Why wait any longer? With the Russian meddling investigation promising prosecutions and turmoil, with controversy yet swirling because of the Trump administration’s decision to split up migrant families at the border, and with the country’s collective blood pressure rising to dangerous levels from toxic overexposure to political pundit vitriol concerning the president – it is time. (Perhaps Americans will instead, in throwback fashion, watch good ol’ boring baseball on TV to reduce blood pressure levels. Suffering from insomnia? Just boot up some MLB on the DVR and you’ll be drooling on your pillow within ten minutes, guaranteed.)
Back on point: Let the nation take the next regressive step from its status as a once-upon-a-time democracy endowed with the separation of governing powers, and bestow a right upon President Trump which he would wield oh-so flawlessly: The Power of Infallibility.
Economist Paul Krugman, who leans so far left he can’t but walk in circles (so I’ve been told), beat me to the punch more than a year ago with his article “America’s Epidemic of Infallibility” but he didn’t give much historical backdrop. Keep reading – it’s your lucky day.
The Roman Catholic Church made the “Infallibility of the Pope” official church dogma in 1870. The doctrine doesn’t imply that the pope is perfect or without sin, but that when speaking “in office” – as the authoritative voice of church teaching, with the backing of the college of bishops – he’s spot on, every time. Fast forward to Pope John Paul II in 1994. He seemed to say “infallibly” that women would never be ordained as priests in the Roman Catholic Church. An American Catholic bishop at that time opined that the pope’s statement, of course, in no way diminished the equality or dignity of women. Hmmm . . . more than twenty years later, the all-male college of bishops is still hashing out the “infallibility” of JP II’s decree. Ahem.
Back on historical point: 1870 was also the year of Italian reunification – political resurgence and nationalism brought an end to the pope’s temporal rule of the Papal States. Pope Pius IX, as political power slid through his hands like dry sand, cloistered himself behind church walls in Rome and became the self-proclaimed “prisoner of the Vatican” where he remained until his death in 1878. A separation between church and state, non-existent for much of Catholic Church history, took hold.
The late nineteenth century was also the age of Darwin, Mendel, and Pasteur. Science was ascendant. Religion’s reign as the sole source and arbiter of “knowledge” – the meaning of the word “science” – was coming to an end. The church, in its attempt to maintain hegemony, reacted to the challenge of science by claiming to have its own incontrovertible facts. “Infallibility of the Pope” for Catholics, and a few decades later, “The Fundamentals” for Protestants (the inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth and bodily resurrection of Jesus), were institutional attempts at restoring lost place and power. True believers, id est base supporters, were told these salvos would counter modernity and all of its accompanying evils.
It’s in this same spirit that I propose infallibility for the president, so he can shore up power beyond his base (30-35 percent of voters) as modernity continues its barrage upon American greatness. “President Trump”? “King Donald” or “Pope Donaldo” carries much more gravitas and either would be the necessary remedy to make American white great again – like it used to be, before Obama became president, the guy who wasn’t even born here (that’s what Thee Donald said).
In today’s America, why should gays be able to marry and order wedding cakes from whomever they please? Why should slacker youngsters and old geezer hippies be able to smoke weed with impunity? Why should blacks and Hispanics expect fair treatment from law enforcement? And why should immigrants and asylum seekers, coming to the country of immigrants, expect even a hearing? This is why we need a real ruler (like Trump said of Kim Jong-un), as if an infallible king, to whom people will actually listen, at attention! – or else!!! Oh, yeah . . . when praising the dictator, Thee Donald said that he was being sarcastic. Thank God for sarcasm. It helps us laugh and cope with incompetency, injustice, and other inadequacies.
The president who wants be so much more has showed us, by his own vitriol, the real enemies of the people: immigrants, Muslims, Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, Central Americans, Syrian refugees, journalists, Democrats, the FBI, judges who don’t rule as he wishes, and women – not all women, of course, but some of them. At the same time, he’s made us see the good side of dictators and racists. Putin and the protestors at Charlottesville – who knew they were getting a bad deal? Now we know better . . .
Democratic principles – the aforementioned separation of powers, due process of law, equality – are so overrated. Bullying is the only real way to get things done, punctuated by extended campaign rallies long after the final tally of the election.
Pardon power? Immunity? These two are mere beginner steps for Thee Donald. Let’s allow him to take it to the next level – infallibility.
Presidential infallibility could help the country achieve even greater heights of excellent greatness. I can almost see Mitch McConnell coming into the oval office, with a promise of Senate approval, offering to make him the Great American Dictator. It would simply be the next logical step beyond infallibility: “Okay, I’ll take you up on that,” the make-white-great-again One would respond to the miter-bee senator, “but only if it’s for life, and then I’ll want it passed on to Don Jr.”
Wooosh! A midnight blue sedan barrels north on interstate I-35 near Waco, Texas, doing 85 mph in the far-right lane. I’m in the middle lane doing 78 mph – a few clicks over the limit – and turn to my wife seated in the passenger seat and say, “Welcome to the era of right lane passers.” We left Austin an hour and a half earlier en route to visit our son in Dallas and the dark blue wooosh in the far-right lane was at least the tenth car to make such a move.
Back in the day, my dad taught me these driving principles: the left lane is for passing, the right lane is entering and exiting, 3-5 mph over the limit is okay, and use your signals to let other drivers know your intentions when changing lanes. There weren’t too many three lane interstates back then. It was mostly two-laners and semi-trucks had access to both lanes. Rarely – but only rarely – would an aggressive driver accost from behind as if a bat fleeing hell and pass in the right lane with impunity.
Sure enough, times have changed. When our son began his studies at UT-Dallas in 2010, my wife and I became regulars on the 200-mile stretch of I-35 between Austin and Dallas. At that time, it was mostly two lanes but construction was promised for a decade or so to widen the heavily used interstate to three lanes. The construction is now nearly complete, and the third lane – the entrance and exit lane – seems to be the lane of choice for aggressive drivers, mostly younger, to exercise their freedoms at 85 mph or better. I understand a driver using a free lane – even if it is the right lane – to help alleviate congestion, making the roadway safer for everyone. But that’s not the case with the wooshes that blow by in the far right lane and then look for the next available lane to exploit.
The libertarian-infused “I can do whatever the f*** I want to and you can’t tell me I can’t” attitude is much more permissible today than a generation or two ago. It’s a negative freedom – part of our American DNA – but it’s typically counterbalanced by the presence of strong institutions and a shared sense of common good. Thankfully, the large majority of drivers on I-35 and other US freeways consists of people who drive considerately and give first priority to safety. But there seems to be an increasing number of super-aggressive drivers – tailgaters, weavers cutting in and out, right lane passers – who drive as if a public highway is their own private drag strip. The erosion of community and covenant on I-35 is indicative of the wane in public life (shrinking religious institutions, anti-government sentiment, moderation elbowed out by extremism in public speech and political representation) that increasingly defines our shared existence.
Something happens – linked to human nature – when we get behind the wheel, enclose ourselves behind glass and steel, and rev the engine. We become supersized, like Obadiah Stane in Iron Man, and use our enhanced power as an opportunity for self-gain at the expense of others. We also become incognito – nobody knows who we are (unless they track our license plates). I’m convinced that as I see people pushing beyond 85 mph on I-35, it’s not about getting there quicker. It’s about power, a supersized personal agency, that unfortunately can turn out to be deadly. Texas loses close to ten people a day on its roads, and nationally driving fatalities have increased for a second straight year. Speed does kill.
On occasions, I get quick-tempered behind the wheel. Later, after the moment has passed and I’m in review mode, I easily realize that harboring upset behind the wheel does no good whatsoever for anyone. Let it go: It’s not about right now, but it’s about still being here tomorrow. It’s a phrase a friend shared with me that aptly applies to the driving discipline. It’s too long for a bumper sticker, but it’s just right for a blog post.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says that the more affluent a society becomes the more individualistic it becomes. US society been going down this type of road for a long time now. Right lane passers are simply another manifestation of our current era of increasing inequalities – economic and social. When and where does this road end?
Tim/T. Carlos Anderson – I’m the Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of fifteen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin. I’m also the author of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (Blue Ocotillo/ACTA, 2014) and There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (forthcoming, April 2019).