A Path With Heart

(Yes, I stole the title)

What do you want to be when you grow up? We have all heard that question, some of us far more often than others. When I was younger, the answer was simple- become a lawyer and hold elective office. Over time, that changed as I moved from job to job and grad to school to law school to grad school, etc. But the overriding goal was to have an impact on the world, to improve the lot of others. Over the years, I found many ways to affect change in the world- served on the school committee, crafted policy, conducted research- but only one position truly held my interest and fueled my passion. My work with suicidal children, and then with children who had emotional and behavioral disorders, fulfilled me in ways that are at once enormous yet intangible.

After being laid off from the Donahue Institute I thought of many different paths that I could choose. I had been focusing on completing a PhD in health care policy. It would certainly have provided the intellectual challenge that I find so rewarding and necessary. But the more I really sat with my ideas and listened deeply to my soul I realized that it was not the right path. My work in politics and policy have provided me with some opportunities to make change, but they have given me many more moments of frustration (and boredom). For much of that time, I allayed my concerns by buying into the myth that I was making change on a macro level, and therefore improving so many more people’s lives.

But the sad reality is that politics and policy is not only far removed from actually helping others, but itself has been so overtaken by money and powerful interests that what was once a small glimmer of hope for making societal change is now nothing more than a fantasy. Our politics is beyond broken. Our government is captive to monied interests, whose scores of lobbyists and campaign contributions serve to tilt the playing field even more in their favor. I look back and realize that much of my work in the field was a mere parlor game.

While many people share these views about our broken political system, so few are willing to work to make change. And those same powerful interests do their best to ensure that there will always be not merely atomization of reformers, but very real wedges between groups. I hesitate to call the situation hopeless, as that word is not a normal part of my vocabulary.

But what we do need is a change of consciousness. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the Occupy Movement, they are getting to the heart of the matter in many ways. We need to rethink our values, reexamine what we hold dear, strengthen relationships among people, empower ourselves and others, focus on creating (rather than destroying) communities and so much more.

Which leads me back to the original question- what do you want to be when you grow up? Well, I’ve grown up and realize that I need to be on a path with heart. Whether that means becoming a social worker or a minister is still to be determined. Each one takes care of souls, albeit in somewhat different ways. But both are committed to social justice, to building community, to empowering individuals and to helping place the focus on people, not profits.

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The Best Present I Ever Got

With the holidays passed it is a good time to reflect not on the presents I received this year, but rather to write about what is, without doubt, the most important gift I ever received. It will probably come as no surprise to the people who know me that this gift came from my parents, with whom I am still incredibly close. This gift is not something tangible, but it is (one would hope) something that all parents would give to their children, along with love- my values.

This year, like the past several, I gave to charity in my parents’ names. As I sat down at my computer to select a charity and to find just the right quote to include in their e-cards, I meditated on why I was doing this and what it means to be engaged with the world around us. What follows is my attempt to capture those thoughts and feelings and something of a description of from where they came.

I was raised in a decidedly non-religious household. My folks seemed to only go to church for weddings and funerals, though I would frequently go to Sunday school and later church with my paternal grandmother. I do not believe that any of my grandparents (other than paternal grandmother) were particularly religious, either. Yet, my parents both grew up in families that we are at least nominally Christian/religious. All that is to say that I am not convinced that the values my parents passed on to me were driven by religious teachings or beliefs, no matter how much they align with what might be called Christian social justice teachings (of a Protestant/Methodist character).

From a pretty young age (probably younger than I can recollect, as I am old), I was taught not only to respect others, but that we had an obligation to others. That meant giving to charity, donating clothes, and volunteering time (especially my dad with youth sports). My family was not wealthy (probably middle that rose to upper middle by my teen years), so this service to others was not rooted in any sense of noblesse oblige. Rather it was a deep and abiding belief in the value of others, regardless of personal characteristics like income, race, or education. I was taught to always think of others and not to be consumed with material things (I still struggle with the latter).

These core values have driven or at least helped to shape every decision I have made as an adult. I entered politics because I wanted to serve others and improve the lot of children in our public education system. I worked in direct care of children, rather than the far more lucrative financial services sector, because so many things are more important than money. (I should note that my ability to work for less than market wages was completely underwritten by my parents’ willingness to subsidize my rent and other expenses.) I went to graduate school for public policy so that I might hone the skills necessary to create a better society, via robust social welfare and educational systems. I’ve worked in public finance for much of the same reasons. And, I now work in program evaluation in STEM education as a way to address dramatic educational achievement gaps. Along the way I have also continued to give to charity, volunteer my time and advocate for policies that would help to ensure a more just society.

As cliche as this might sound- I owe who I am to the values my parents have instilled in me. They taught me to be a compassionate, loving person. And that is the greatest gift anyone could ever receive. I am forever grateful.

What We Owe (archives)

Does God call us to take care of our less fortunate fellow men? That is a question much on my mind in recent weeks. You see, as part of my daily commute to school and the gym I pass by areas where the homeless of Atlanta congregate and sleep. Every night I drive by church steps where men and women sleep. Every day I see the lines for food at the soup kitchens. And I think to myself, what is so wrong in our society that these men and women are forced to live their lives in doorways and public parks. And, why aren’t we doing more about it?

All too often we turn away from the problems of homelessness. We either chose to lament that our government does not do more to alleviate their plight. Or, we simply chose to ignore the downtrodden among us. Perhaps it is because we see ourselves in these faces. What makes me or you or any of us different from the man or woman sleeping on a park bench? Think about it. Maybe you can persuade yourself that you are somehow better off because of your own life choices or that you are inherently better than these people. But, if you look deep inside your soul, do you really believe that?

I look at my own circumstance and I have a very comfortable life. I have a graduate degree and will finish my law degree in another 18 months. I drive a reasonably nice car and have a fairly high standard of living. But what if I was not born into the family I was? What if my parents could not, or did not, have the means to support me? What if my dad had lost his job when I was ten? Or if my mother had been stricken with breast cancer? Any number of small changes in life could have put me in those same soup kitchen lines and sleeping in church doorways.

There are those among us who content themselves by blaming the homeless and poor for their plight. And, sure there are some folks who made wrong decisions that caused their problems. But there are many others who simply have not made it in our society through no fault of their own. If you are passed through school without being able to read or write, is it your fault? If you have a mental illness is it your fault?

There are tens of millions of people in America who go hungry and without shelter every day. And yet we can spend billions of dollars to invade foreign countries? We give away huge tax breaks to millionaires while others cannot afford a cup of coffee. We encourage the exportation of jobs to third world countries while the only job some people have is washing windshields in traffic.

To say that we have our priorities skewed is an understatement. All of the world’s religions include in their teachings a calling to serve the poor. Yet we fail to heed this call. We have grown selfish and callous towards those who are less fortunate. We seem to be of the belief that the way to happiness and knowing God is to have the latest and shiniest goodies. We build ornate palaces in which to live, spend and worship, while allowing our brothers and sisters to sleep outside like wild animals.

We must change our ways if we are to ever attain salvation. We must help her out when she is down; mend his scars when he is injured; feed her when she is hungry; clothe him when his clothes are torn. In short, we must heed God’s call to service; we must cease our consumerist ethic, where happiness is judged by material wealth and replace it with a new one in which service to others and being a good person are of primary concern.

(originally posted September 2006)

There’s Nothing Wrong With Getting Off

Despite the lessening anti-gay rhetoric coming from the political right this election season, as discussed below, there are still a great many vigilant cultural warriors engaging in the battle for sex. These anti-sex warriors decry all sex that is not at least hetero-normative, and would prefer that all sex be procreative. They oppose any sexual pleasure, and one wonders whether they all do it on Saturday night, with the lights off, whilst wearing socks. And, if any pleasure should occur, do they self-flagellate?

I refer to this group of people as anti-sex because they oppose things like contraception, abortion and equal rights for the LGBT community. For these folks, sex is nothing but an animalistic procreative act. Animalistic in that it is done solely for the preservation of the species. Thus things like contraception, anal sex, sodomy and other sexual acts that cannot result in pregnancy are verboten.

Certainly, some animals do engage in sexual activity for pleasure. However, they are rare. In permitting procreative sex only, the anti-sex warriors undermine what to them is a central organizing principle- that humans are, by the grace of God, special among God’s creatures. This begs the question of what is so special about an animal that only copulates according to some unwilled desire to preserve the species. In other words, the anti-sex people, who are near universally religious, have taken away free will over one of our core abilities.

Much has been written, particularly by Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon and other places, about the Right’s anti-woman, anti-sex agenda. And I think Amada is entirely correct in her critique. However, I would add that its agenda is also anti-man in some respects. Let’s take the example of abortion. While some prolife individuals and groups really do focus their opposition to abortion on their belief that it is tantamount to murder, looking beneath some of that rhetoric reveals a very strong anti-woman bias.

It’s best encapsulated by the following- “we need to punish those dirty little whores.” This is part of the anti-sex crowds desire to make sex something more than just getting off. They want it to be something that has CONSEQUENCES. And so, they think forcing a woman to carry to term a fetus and then, presumably, mother that child for 18+ years will teach her some sort of lesson about keeping her legs closed. Or something. Never mind that of all the industrialized countries we have some of the worst birth control options and availability, because the anti-sexers want it that way. Again, consequences.

But consequences also flow to the father of the fetus and child. No matter how much paternal responsibility has diminished in our society, there are still fairly strong societal pressures for fathers to live up their responsibilities. So not only does forcing a woman to carry to term her fetus provide consequences to her, but also to the male in the reproduction equation. Perhaps we should punish all the sluts- male and female.

What’s underlying all of these positions (prolife, anti-equality, no contraception) is the notion that sex ought to have meaning. Of course, for the vast majority of anti-sexers, meaning is rooted in religious notions of morality. They are, in a manner of speaking, sexual ascetics. Unlike other ascetics, they seek not only to deny themselves pleasure, but the rest of us, too.

And that is where the problem lies. Sex is something so inherently personal that we might each attach different levels and types of meaning to sexual activities. Or maybe no meaning at all. I might even argue that the anti-sexers are, on some level, stripping meaning away from sex. Taking it out of the realm of pleasure and feeling and making it a mechanical operation.

It is certainly their right to conduct their sex lives in a manner that fits with their desires and values. Just as it surely is my, and your, right to have what we consider to be healthy and fulfilling sex lives. There really is nothing wrong with getting off.

An Enduring Peace?

Over the past several months, several prominent Republicans and conservatives have signaled something of a retreat in one of our ongoing cultural wars- gay rights. Ann Coulter spoke to GOProud, a gay conservative group. Rush Limbaugh had flaming queen Elton John sing at his wedding. Glenn Beck told Bill O’Reilly that the federal court decision on Proposition 8 was not the end of civilization. And the list goes on.

There are at least two factors driving this change on the Right. (I should note here that by Right I mean the elites/opinion leaders on the Right.) First, most of the conservative elite is, in some respects, similar to the liberal elite. They went to some of the same schools, share some of the same cultural affinities and have encountered many gays and lesbians in their private and professional lives.

Conservative and Republican elites have probably never shared the prejudices of their base, especially with respect to gays and lesbians. There are any number of studies showing support for gay rights (this can include equal marriage rights, ENDA, etc.) tracks positively with educational attainment, exposure to homosexuals and other personal traits often held by elites. So it’s really no surprise that prominent conservatives employ and befriend gays and lesbians.

What those same people realized a long time ago, though, was that there were votes to be had by antagonizing homosexuals. It’s no different from the Southern Strategy and the dog whistle politics employed today. It’s not so much giving the base what it wants as it is exploiting their prejudices to electoral advantage.

But the country’s demographics are making that advantage smaller and smaller each year. Younger voters, and voters with post-secondary education, tend to be highly supportive of equal rights. Over the past twenty years, they have started to displace the older, more traditional anti-gay voters. The voters whose fears were being exploited are, quite simply, dying off.

I would not argue that we are yet at a place of parity between gay rights supporters and opponents, but we are narrowing that gap each year. Conservatives and their GOP allies realize that not only does their anti-gay rhetoric turn off a large bloc of voters now, but could come back to haunt them in the future are people’s perception of the Right/GOP as the anti-gay party harden.

One other variable is at play here, too. Its magnitude right now is unclear and will only surface over time. I would argue that the Right/GOP have always exploited some out group, whether it was blacks, gays and lesbians, the poor or some other group outside of the white, male, Christian majority who comprise the Right/GOP base. Most recently those attacks have focused on two other groups- Muslims and illegal immigrants. We are close enough to the midterm election to see the shape of the Right/GOP plan of attack, and the target out groups are clearly Muslims (see, for example, Lower Manhattan mosque, but also other mosques) and illegal immigrants (see, for example,  Arizona’s SB1070).

Due to the focus on Muslims and Mexicans, the Right/GOP has been fairly muted in their anti-gay propaganda. But only time will tell if their jihad against gays and lesbians is over. Or if it is just a temporary ceasefire while they are busy persecuting others (see, for example, invading Iraq while Afghanistan was still a mess).

A Profound Sadness

The revelation that Religious Right/anti-gay bigot George Rekers hired a traveling/sex companion from rentboy.com has brought about much of the usual ridicule and fun-making. And while that is all well and good (I like a good stab at hypocrisy as much as the next person), what gets lost is the profound sadness that we ought to feel for Rekers and others like him.

Perhaps George Rekers and Ted Haggard are not the most sympathetic folks. Their crusades against the LGBT community are many, and their work has produced untold suffering for gays and lesbians. People like Rekers and Haggard use Christianity, a religion that teaches love, acceptance and forgiveness, as a cudgel to impose their own twisted morality on others. And for that, we might rightly condemn them.

But when a Rekers or a Haggard are exposed for being homosexuals themselves, might we not show them some compassion? Sure, they demonized fellow homosexuals for their own advancement in Religious Right politics. But how much of that was motivated by a deep sense of self-loathing.

I do not claim to be know what is in these men’s hearts or souls. But I can imagine that for someone who grew up in a certain environment, in a certain time period, coming to terms with their homosexuality could have been beyond difficult. Though we have made strides towards a more inclusive culture, even today countless LGBT children and adolescents suffer from bullying and worse. And some suffer so much so that suicide becomes a way out of that nightmare.

So imagine what it must have been like decades ago, coming of age in a conservative Christian household, where being gay or lesbian was a one way ticket to the fiery depths of hell. The societal and familial pressures to be hetero-normative must have been enormous. Maybe so much so that denying one’s own sexuality led to bitterness, resentment and despair. Which in turn may have lead to persecuting others gays and lesbians as some sort of sick self-punishment.

My point is not that Rekers or Haggard or Craig or any of the numerous other anti-gay homosexuals should be excused for what they have done to our community. Rather, it is that we ought to extend, in a way that they were never willing to, a bit of forgiveness, acceptance and love to these deeply flawed humans.

Stupid Religious Tricks

The pro-lifers want to spend $4 million on a Super Bowl ad. What would possess anyone to waste that sort of money on an advertisement that will be tuned out by 99.99% of the viewership? Considering that such ads have not been approved by the networks or the NFL in the past, I sense that much of this story is an attempt to get some free publicity for the forced childbirth lobby.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the ad does air. And let us further assume that the true goal of the pro-lifers is reduction of abortions (this is debatable; and I say that as someone with deep experience in the pro-life community). Is this money well spent? In other words, will anyone considering an abortion not have one due to this ad? I would say that is very unlikely. But imagine if we used that $4 million to promote better access to birth control, or provide comprehensive sex education. In other words, why not spend the money on programs that will actually reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies in the first place?

I will tell you why. Because most of the pro-life community are religious zealots who not only oppose abortion, but also oppose birth control and sex education. And there is more than a little bit of a desire to “punish those dirty little sluts.” To the pro-life community, the fetus is nothing more than a fetish or idol. It’s tempting to say that their concern for life begins at conception and ends when the baby passes through the birth canal, but they do not even care about prenatal care for the fetus or its mother. You won’t see them lobbying for adequate children’s health care or increasing aid to poor families with children, either.

And beyond the lack of efficacy is an even bigger question about priorities. Why spend $4 million to air a 30 second ad about abortion when there are tens of thousands of children going hungry each day? Or when many of those same children do not have a bed to call their own?

It’s because the Religious Right is obsessed with sex. Never mind that the Bible speaks far more often about alleviating poverty and taking care of the needy than it ever does about human sexuality. Why bother helping to feed the hungry when you can rail against some gay people who want to get married? Why try to alleviate homelessness when there are women who want an abortion?

Nothing makes me more angry than these religious assholes. They are exploiting people’s faith for monetary gain. It’s all a fucking scheme. Many, if not most, of the leaders probably care very little about gays or abortion. What they do care about, though, is the amount of money that will come rolling in every time they attack the “sinners.” I hope that there is a special place in hell for these hucksters and their flocks.