Yearly Archives: 2021

In the Vacuum, there is Opportunity: Three Insights for America’s Future

Last October I predicted a close election and that many unhappy with the Trump Administration would hope for the best in a Biden Administration. Well, disappointment is now rife on both sides, with thoughtful women and men thoroughly frustrated with the state of our nation. In this moment is an opportunity for a new centrist consensus of conscience, a reaffirmation of key ideas, and new collaborations across the chasms that social media expands.

An astounding reality confronts me as I travel and speak with people in local communities across the USA. The anger and divisions fueled by the 24/7 news cycle and social media do not reflect the experiences, ideas, and principles of most people that wake up each day, raise their families, and work hard making our world a better. Yes, real political, religious, cultural, and ideological differences abound, but most folks are good neighbors and desire a more peaceful and prosperous future. In my own neighborhood, we have many types of families and diverse cultures and vocations, yet there is a goodwill that extends to all and a desire to help one another.

Political power usually reflects the loudest voices and craftiest image-makers, not the thoughtfulness of most voters. This said, it is stunning seeing how uninformed and poorly-served the public is from most media outlets, with ideology and opinion driving the presentation of cherry-picked facts and the hard work of investigation taking a back seat to talking points published by think tanks funded by elites promoting their narratives. Their goal is power and personal destruction is permitted so the “narrative” goes forward.

Is there a pathway toward peace? Can our deep divisions and suspicions be healed? After much listening, I have discovered three insights for the American experiment in virtue-based liberty go forward. These are not simplistic and the require much effort. If pluralistic and principled liberty is going to survive, here are the necessary building materials for the “road less traveled” ahead.

First, we must rediscover humility before God and toward one another. Humility is not self-hatred or false displays of flattery – it is a disposition that removes oneself from being the center of the universe and deeply listens to one’s neighbors. Humility allows new facts to inform our opinions and the stories of others to enhance our perspectives. Humility engenders peace as people are heard, not just tolerated. We need moral and spiritual awakening in individuals that leads to the transformation of local communities.

Second, we must reaffirm the search for objective truth and stop hiding behind fabricated constructs and narratives that avoid inconvenient facts. Ecological issues are real, but our planet will not die in a decade. Class, gender, and race issues are real, bit substantial progress has been made globally and nationally in the past half-century – we must not allow the agitation of a few to destroy the progress of many.

Third, we must promote bipartisan political dialogue leading to principled compromise and stop assuming lock-step alignment of very public servant with the party line. It is out of forging a third way that new wisdom emerges and improvements are made. There is SO much waste in our governmental systems – let’s have wise business minds helping us balance budgets. Let’s listen to real community activists that demonstrate what works so all can flourish.

It is time for thoughtful people to stop being victims of unelected autocracies. It is time to hold politicians accountable and call on journalists to do their jobs with integrity. Above all, we need to own the future of our nation one conversation and community event at a time.

Totalitarians Unite: August 22-23, 1939 and 2021: Will Democracies Capitulate or Find Courage?

The triumph of the Taliban in Afghanistan is a devastating blow to US prestige and the cause of pluralistic liberty everywhere. Afghan history reveals a region that is a collection of tribes and utterly unconquerable by outside forces. From Alexander the Great three centuries before Christ, to a variety of empires, this inhospitable and divided land will not subject herself to colonialism, communism, or western democratization.

US/Allied policy for nearly two decades has wavered between simply rooting out terrorist dens and trying to instill some cohesive and democratic regimes. The former would have been a wise policy, with a strong Allied base and less occupying influence. All this is now water under the bridge. What is instructive are the implications of this current moment for the future of freedom and the historical connections that should inform the responses of nations and peoples that love liberty.

The Taliban are presently supported by a variety of jihadist networks, Islamic states, and totalitarian regimes such as China. Even though China is persecuting Islamic groups in its own nation, she has vested economic interests in ousting western nations and being in position to mine the resources of Afghanistan. What we have is a pragmatic alliance of two totalitarian systems that equally hate the USA and her allies.

The 1939 Connection

On August 22-23, 1939, the world was stunned as the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed a 10-year non-aggression pact and trade agreement. These mortal enemies suddenly were friends. Communist parties around the world were told overnight not to disparage Germany. Of course, for both Hitler and Stalin, this was a marriage of momentary convenience, until each had sufficient forces to oppose the other. The secret protocols of the agreement divided Poland between the two empires, gave the Soviets free reign in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, with Germany also willing to let the USSR wage war against the stubborn Finnish nation. Hitler was given freedom for his eventual invasions of the West.

The significance of the moment for today must be clearly seen, with no illusions: jihadists are happy to unite with other groups that desire the demise of democratic and pluralistic nations. Each totalitarian group thinks they will eventually triumph, while the immediate impact is harm to liberty. Hitler and Stalin hated the democracies and they united for their dictatorial ends. The various forces of jihadism are willing to work with Marxists to undermine the West.

Here are the signs of 1939 in 2022:

  • The irrational hatred and delegitimizing of the State of Israel and the enormous rise in antisemitism around the world. Jewish heritage and a democratic Israel stand in the way of the “long march of Marxism” (Os Guinness) and Jihadist goals, just as both Hitler and Stalin saw the Jews as the impediment to their utopias. 
  • Among many Marxists in the West, there is an unwillingness to criticize the Islamist oppression of minorities and women while projecting Nazi and Taliban identities on conservative political parties in Western democracies. This includes castigating any African-American or Hispanic-Latino conservatives, and refusing to listen to serious empirical and historical arguments that do not fit “the narrative.”
  • Utter disregard for the suffering of Cubans and Venezuelans while keeping an open border with Mexico reflects the political strategies of those aiming for a one-party state in the USA.
  • The refusal of the current administration to see global situations clearly and work in concert with democratic allies.
  • Fueling greater divides among cultural and economic groups.

Our response to this serious moment must not be ideological polarization or personal insults, but affirmation of core principles that cultivate the character and community ethos needed for a more loving and just world. In next week’s essay, I will propose new ways forward that refuse to look to political leaders as messiahs and empowers caring people for participation in community flourishing.

We can learn from history and forge a fresh future without the subversions of totalitarian ideologies and regimes. The choice is ours: fear or faith, capitulation or courage.

The Way Forward, Part Seven: The Gift of the Jews…and Israel

The recent Hamas-initiated violence against Israel has brought antisemitic voices to the public square once again. Thousands of rockets were aimed indiscriminately against a peaceful, tolerant nation. And for inexplicable, but predictable reasons, Israel was blamed for this latest “cycle of violence.” Though Israel is far from a perfect nation, she is the only multicultural democracy in the entire region and has offered generous peace terms for decades to leaders dedicated to her complete destruction. Calling Israel an “apartheid state” (she has nearly two million Arab citizens) and “Nazi-like” is inverted and perverted thinking of the highest order, especially when Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic jihad, and Fatah (The PA military wing) all scream for her utter destruction and praise the policies of Hitler.

Before offering some ideas for peace, it is right that we remind ourselves of the positive contributions of Judaism to our world, even as Jews have faced racial and religious persecutions, pogroms, and the unutterable horror of the Holocaust.

Our Jewish neighbors bring three millennia of monotheism and morality, quests for justice and wisdom, and the foundations of individual dignity and socioeconomic fairness to our world. Christianity is built on these foundations and when it is not linked with coercive power, her adherents have shared with the Jews the values of compassion, love, and liberty. Tragically, Christian persecution of the Jews has been (and sometimes still is) an inexcusable part of her history and theology and was a foundation for the mutation of racist antisemitism that emerged in the 19th and 20th century and turned into industrialized murder by the Nazis.

Our Jewish neighbors have lived in the Middle East for over 3000 years. In spite of enforced emigrations, they never left Jerusalem and the surrounding areas completely. “Palestine” was a manufactured term by a vindictive Roman Empire in the 130s AD as they banished the Jews for their resistance and renamed Israel after their historic enemies the Philistines. The land that is now Israel was under Roman, Byzantine, Islamic/Ottoman, and from 1917 to 1947 British rule. There was never a cohesive Palestinian state or national identity – until Jews began to return to the land of their ancestors in the 19th and 20th centuries.

This return – led by a variety of Zionist movements – was not a military conquest. Land was purchased legally from the locals and with approval of the Ottoman Empire. Often the parcels purchased were of little value – desert and swampland, overpriced urban real estate, etc. With the help of global friends and much hard work, flourishing villages emerged and Jewish culture was revitalized. The end of World War I brought a surge of Jewish immigration, with the initial approval of the British and even the welcome of King Abdullah of Transjordan. With both League of Nations and local approval, a variety of plans were made for a homeland. Several Zionist groups agreed to an autonomous Jewish zone within Abdullah’s kingdom in 1922. Alas, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and the leadership of the Mufti of Jerusalem shattered such peaceful plans with their calls for violent jihad. From the 1920s to the present, all attempts at peace (including offering a co-capital in Jerusalem and 96% of territories gained by Israel in her victory of 1967) have been rejected. Yet Israel is blamed for her “occupation” and “oppression.”

Peace in the Middle East will only come when Arab leaders acknowledge the right of Israel to exist as the national homeland of the Jewish people and stop questioning her legitimacy and calling for her destruction. It is chic for some Western progressives to demonize Israel and see Palestinians as the oppressed, even to the point of calling Israel (and by extension all Jews) “White” colonizers! Such ignorance of anthropology, ancient and modern history, and the facts on the ground is appalling. The surge in global anti-Jewish violence is a direct result of such deceptive ideologies and narratives.

The enormous contributions of Jewish tradition and the current State of Israel are gifts to our world. Israeli global compassion, leadership in medicine, science, and technology, flourishing cultural expressions and willingness to cooperate with others are signs of goodness that no agitation propaganda can completely erase. Sometimes there are not two equal sides to every issue. In the case of Israel against the world, our Jewish friends have the high ground. Should Israel be criticized for some of her actions? Yes – and there is no livelier public square than Israeli politics! But turning our ears and eyes away from the real issues will not foster lasting peace.

The Way Forward, Part Six: A Public Ethics Primer: What Do We Prohibit, Promote, and Permit?

Common sense and genuine consensus are in short supply in a world on edge and poised for a fight. Objectionable ideas are labeled, ‘triggers” and “violence” when they do not conform to the sensitivities of ever-changing groupthink. Free speech is under assault and critical words about cultural, political, and religious ideas are now “phobias.” Denouncing historical Jewish and Christian beliefs are fair game, however, because they symbolize oppression for the chattering classes untethered to religion.

How do we forge a principled middle ground in the wake of the onslaughts from ideologues more in tune with totalitarianism that pluralistic democracy?  How do we ensure that freedom of conscience and religion, speech and government redress, and peaceable assembly remain foundations for our future?

One way forward is robust debate on ethics that affect public policy. We are not speaking about religious diets, dress, or deportment or the beliefs of peaceful communities. We must have civil discussion toward consensus on the values that will guide our experiment in virtue-based liberty. All societies have explicit and implicit values that help them cohere. For example, keeping promises is not only important for personal relationships. The entire (global and local) economy rests on trust: invoices paid, deliveries made, and the diligent efforts all engaged in the choreography of work. So, there is at least implicit agreement that trust matters.

There are three categories that can help order our thinking. First, what actions must be prohibited, without qualification? Most people will stand against all forms of assault or violence, dishonesty, endangerment of others, and theft, among many more. But before we move on, we must debate some areas that were previously obvious. Will we continue to penalize sexual practices between adults and minors? Will we prosecute crimes that we think are non-violent, but hurt the community, such as shoplifting? Several pharmacies serving the elderly in San Francisco closed because the DA would not prosecute thieves. On the other side, are we going to impose Orwellian limits on speech because some folks take offence? Will we continue to intimidate and silence speakers?

Second, what ideals, values, and actions will we positively promote as a society? Most folks would argue that personal responsibility, hard work, educational advancement, professional excellence, family cohesion, and care for others should be part of a consensus values system. But wait. Many of these values are now considered legacies and memes of oppression. If a father wants to support the mother and child of their union that is noble…unless it gets in the way of an abortion. Some Marxist theories remove almost all agency from the individual, making everyone part of the oppressed or oppressing classes. We should debate what virtues are essential and we will not always agree. The challenge is finding shared ideals in a world that thrives on anger and polarization.

The third category gets at the heart of liberty: what will we permit in a pluralistic society? Will we live peaceably with deep differences and debate with civility? We often confuse permission with promotion, and disagreement with intolerance. Here is an example: a deeply religious person believes that sexual intimacy is reserved for heterosexual, monogamous marriage (Most Christians, Jews, and Muslims, as a start). This same person is a good neighbor to gay couples or common-law couples next door. Desiring others change their practices is not intolerance – it is fidelity to one’s code or faith. Our religious friend is not depriving anyone of love – she or he has their particular standards. We do affirm freedom of conscience and religion and thankfully have no coercive state religion (unlike the majority of Islamic nations that prohibit or severely restrict other faiths). Will we allow the free exchange of moral and spiritual ideas, or marginalize groups that disagree with whatever trendy ideas are capturing the public imagination? Conservatives must affirm full liberty and progressives must not assume certain moral stances are intolerant.

May we care enough about others and pursue such dialogues on our pathways toward liberty and justice for all.

The Way Forward, Part Five: Good People, Bad Systems: Steps to Liberation

In our contentious world, it is wise that we pause and examine some of the foundations of our current chaos. We are assailed with ideological inputs from all sides. The moment someone calls for personal responsibility for social ills they are labeled insensitive, racist, or worse. When another utters the words, “systemic injustice” they are branded a Marxist. Dialogues end in both cases and resolutions are far away.

This essay is not about ideological preferences or even specific public policies. My aim is unveiling a phenomenon that hinders human flourishing: we have many good people trapped in bad systems. For decades I have listened to thoughtful women and men offer innovative solutions in classrooms and over coffee, only to go back into their offices and organizations that stifle creativity and promote conformity.

These bad systems almost have a life of their own. They breed fantasies and fatalism – promising the world with just a bit more money or promoting a bureaucratic apathy of hopelessness that hopes next year’s budget includes them. These bad systems are in private and public agencies and recognizing the signs and refusing to submit to the inevitable are the first steps forward toward liberation.

There are three insights that will help us find freedom. First, we must recognize the phenomena of systemic captivity. These include losing sight of the mission, self-preserving activities, and forgetting that all systems are supposed to serve the mission, not become an end in themselves. Second, we must accept that real change is painful and includes many finding new employment or learning new skills. Effectiveness includes new efficiencies. Institutional systems must be nimble. Transitions can be compassionate, but they will not be easy. Third, advocates of systems change will be marginalized, even hated. The purest motives and the wisest pathways will still meet the inevitable resistance to change.

Here are two applications that can change history. The first is commitment to a balanced federal budget and more local administration of vital programs. We need the universal ethics of federal influence (to ensure fairness) and the efficiencies of local systems for many public programs. Of course, there will be many job changes if we get serious about this. A second application more fun: non-profit and for-profit partnerships that help further flourishing with each bringing the best of their ethos and systems to the particular causes they are working on together. Good ethics and best practices apply to both kinds of organizations.

Before we label or libel leaders, let’s pause and look at the systems in place and see if we can find common cause in reform that leads to better results.