Category Archives: Temper of the Times

Stopping America’s Slide to Self Destruction

Crying I cannot believe the world that I see
Is not for me
Praying please take me home
I’m here all alone and slowly I fade
If you could see my misery
Would you believe in opacity?-Ebony Tears

I am no philosopher. I don’t have the mind for it. But I know I have to have some understanding of this field of study because I am pretty sure the current problems between people in my country boil down to  differences in world view.

Even this non-intellectual can see that there is an underlying cause to the self destruction going on in American today.  In my lifetime, we Americans have gone from a people who had a basic faith in God, country and each other to a certain nihilism.

It has gotten so that I don’t want to open up news sites on the Internet anymore, although I am an avid follower of world events. I try to avoid following the news too deeply because I become anguished. It brings me evidence of the condition of the human soul in the 21st century.

The media tells me that political nihilists are using violence to do away with the previously established order in American society. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that the culture I was born into is no longer there and has been gone for many years.

For example, I heard the sermon of a now-deceased pastor yesterday describe how an asinine judge (his words, not mine) entered a judgement against a man who had shot an intruder. The latter had sued this man, minding his own business in his own home, and won. This was 30 plus years ago.

I confess that my own basis for life comes from the Bible. From the Scriptures I can tell right from wrong, although I also admit that I am not always good at following their instructions. That a man could win a lawsuit against someone who was defending himself and his loved ones in his own home just seems completely upside down and definitely violates the tenets I have garnered from the Word of God.

By definition (I am informed by a group called “All About Philosophy”), nihilists reject the values I believe in. In fact, they oppose any values or truth at all, believing that values are worthless and knowledge of truth is not possible. Further, those nihilists involved with politics believe if any good is to come they need to do away with religion in addition to political and social orders.

As I contemplated these philosophical thoughts the last couple of days, the New York Times published a column by Pankaj Mishra which basically confirms my idea that nihilism is alive and well in America. Mishra finishes his discussion, entitled “America, from exceptionalism to nihilism” by noting that America has accelerated it. He calls nihilism our country’s “most insidious tendency”and that we are helpless to stop it. His article is worth reading for his tracing of how we have arrived at this point in our history.

In my view America’s plight is primarily a spiritual issue. Many of our people it seems have so rejected God that they are incapable now of accepting truth.

This situation is not new. Swedish death metal band Ebony Tears discussed the condition of such individuals in lyrics published 20 years ago. In their song “Opacity” they describe a person full of hate, confusion and pain.

Today some of these folks portrayed by Ebony Tears are out on the street dressed in black and covering their identities in masks, lashing out at the institutions and people they believe have caused their demise. They are living through a nightmare and involving the rest of America in their haunted ordeal.

It’s easy to throw up the hands over the darkness around us in America today. But as one who believes in a living God I know He is powerful and I therefore can be hopeful of renewal in the nation that I love.

Evangelical pastor Greg Laurie noted a few years ago in the Christian Post that America has had four spiritual awakenings in its history, all during tumultuous times: during the formation of the nation; during the expansion to the West when lack of love and sexual sin was common; at the time of a stock market crash in the mid-19th century; and in the 1960s when the Jesus Movement took hold in the midst of the assassination of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, Jr and the debilitating war in  Vietnam.

Given the prevalence of evil our current times are surely a candidate for revival. Only the intervention of God and his truth will overcome the closed hearts of today’s nihilistic Americans.

How do we get to revival? I do know that revival starts with the individual. I cannot influence what others do, but I do have control over myself. So I can begin revival by starting with myself.

I can also ask God for it. Over 40 years ago Phil Keaggy, one of the greatest musicians America has ever produced wrote about how God can effect my own personal transformation:

All my life I have been searching
For that crazy missing part
With one touch You just rolled away
The stone that held my heart
Now I see that the answer was as simple
As my need to let love in

Keaggy further describes the consequences of opening the heart that has heretofore refused to allow God’s light and love in:

Like waking up from the longest dream
How real it seemed
Until Your love broke through
And I was lost in a fantasy
That blinded me
Until your love broke through

I don’t have to continue living in a horrible dream. Neither do my fellow Americans. All of us– progressives, conservatives, libertarians, and even the nihilists can allow God’s love to break through and change our dark, self loathing, destroyed hearts.

With a nationwide heart change, one caused by a turning to God, Americans can stop the self-inflicted damage we are causing to our country and turn it around.

 

 

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Dr. King’s Dream for Us All is in Danger

As the weekend approached, I chose to introduce my international students to the Martin Luther King holiday. I told them that when I was overseas I had been annoyed by not understanding why I had a day off or why the national flag had gone up the pole. It was my intention to educate them on the reason why they could sleep late on Monday.

Thus, I dredged up some exercises meant to provide English practice for my students while at the same time immersing them in the achievements of Dr. King. The “I Have a Dream” speech from 1963 was a must for my presentation skills class. It’s a great example of public speaking of course.

As I listened to the speech, given by to a large throng on the sweltering Mall in Washington, D.C.,  I began to think of Dr. King’s theme of freedom and his reference to the  “promissory note” signed by our Founding Fathers . America, he said, had defaulted on that promise for the black man. Now, over 50 years later, we have an African-American president and our nation has begun to pay the debt the reverend so eloquently reminded our people of back in the raucous 60s.

The “I Have a Dream” speech, however,  produced surprising consequences for me. What was originally an educational exercise for my students provoked their teacher to reflect on the state of our freedoms in the United States today. When I did, I was inflicted by mixed emotions.

First, I thought it ironic that this same president who is symbolic of the racial diversity of America is now presiding over an increasingly overbearing government which is negating the promise of the American revolution for all of us. Unless you have had your head buried in computer games or cell phone texts, you have to be aware of the hubbub over the spying of the U.S. National Security Agency leaked by Edward Snowden.

The former NSA employee, now living under the “protection” of Vladmir Putin in Russia, is a descendant of such famous government whistleblowers as Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971. These documents, given to the New York Times, divulged secrets about our governments decisions on the Vietnam War. This week Mr. Ellsberg was quoted in the Huffington Post as saying that America was on the verge of becoming a police state. Like most Americans, this snooping by my government has me worried.

On the other hand, I can understand why the spying has to be done. There are surely people out there who would like to destroy America, as evidenced by the attacks on September 11. It was George W. Bush who got the massive surveillance started post-World Trade Center, not Barack Obama. Our current president is just continuing the work of his predecessor.

In this Internet age it is difficult to keep one’s privacy. It’s not just the government doing the prying. The appropriately named discount retailer Target was put in the crosshairs of cyber criminals who absconded with the personal data of scores of millions of customers over the holidays.  One glance of the advertisers posted on your personal Facebook account will tell you that Big Brother knows your personal “likes”.

What is worrisome to me is that we live in a period of American history where trust in our nation’s leaders has hit rock bottom. Former defense secretary Robert Gates most likely represented the opinions of millions of Americans when he took special aim at Congress in his recently published memoir. “Uncivil, incompetent in fulfilling basic constitutional responsibilities (such as timely appropriations), micromanagerial, parochial, hypocritical, egotistical, thin-skinned, often putting self (and reelection) before country — this was my view of the majority of the United States Congress,” he wrote.

On  a personal and local  level, I am concerned about the behavior of police officers, flight attendants and bus employees these days. The threat of terrorism seems to have given these people the ability to become petty despots in their spheres of influence.

I once respected the police and thanked them for their service. No longer. Dr. King complained about their brutality in his speech, and it seems to have revived in the 21st century. Some police officers are  just as likely to shoot your dog as help a little old lady across the street.

So while African-Americans have made great progress within our system since August of 1963, the entire American experiment appears to be under threat. Fascism has its foot  in the nation’s door. It seeks to deprive us of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness   which the Declaration of Independence and Dr. King reminded us belonged to all of us from the Creator. Potential dictators are ready to take as much as they can get at all levels of society, and you know this power grab isn’t meant for our benefit.

I’m convinced that the only hope we have to maintain the freedoms men like Martin Luther King died for is for our people to return to the God who gave us our rights and seek His help. After all, he had dealt with self aggrandizing leaders before. The prophet Isaiah wrote of them:

For the leaders of my people—
the Lord’s watchmen, his shepherds—
are blind and ignorant.
They are like silent watchdogs
that give no warning when danger comes.
They love to lie around, sleeping and dreaming.
Like greedy dogs, they are never satisfied.
They are ignorant shepherds,
all following their own path
and intent on personal gain.
“Come,” they say, “let’s get some wine and have a party.
Let’s all get drunk.
Then tomorrow we’ll do it again
and have an even bigger party!”

The prophets words could describe the Washington party circuit in our own day. Isaiah noted a little later that God was “amazed that no one intervened to help the oppressed.” As a result, wrote Isaiah, the Lord stepped in to save them. I don’t think I would have wanted to be the leaders of ancient Israel when that happened.

I wouldn’t want to be America’s leaders either.

 

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Temper of the Times: Public Depravity

“There are some bad hombres out there.” This is what my close friend wrote on Facebook recently to justify going in a news fast. He stopped reading the headlines. He had had enough.

I can’t say that I blame him, even though I am such a news hound I couldn’t do what he did. You might as well ask me to give up coffee.

Technology has allowed all the decadence of mankind to spread instantly around the world. It is really discouraging.

I do not think today’s people are any worse than those of the past. All you have to do is look at history to learn of the murders, rapes, pillagings, prostitutions and other degeneracy of previous times. Even the Bible has stories revealing such things.

However, with the Internet, satellite TV, mobile phones and other technologies, the dissipation all around us is broadcast 24/7. There’s also a lot more people living today spreading their moral turpitude.

It is kind of a slow news day when it comes to debauchery in the press today.  Today’s there’s only stories about a football coach and a drug-crazed fiend molesting children. The rest of the news is pretty tame.

In past days there has been stories of cannibalism in various areas of the United States. It is not the kind of coverage you want to read while having your snack at the computer.

The problem of our debased culture is ongoing, and so is the reporting of it. I didn’t watch TV much for a few years when I went overseas. When I came back to the USA, reality television was all the rage.

I hate to sound like an old fogey, but a lot of the lyrics in the songs on the American Top 40 are just trash. Ideas that were just inferred when I was a youth are now spelled out in all their inglorious depravity.

I won’t even discuss the pornography. Everyone knows it is pervasive. I can’t remember where I read it, but one pastor recently wrote that the media is sex-charged in just about all of its products.

There’s something missing in today’s media, and of all people, Edgar Allen Poe-the Stephen King of his day-articulated it in a lecture entitled “The Poetic Principle”:

Dividing the world of mind into its three most immediately obvious distinctions, we have the Pure Intellect, Taste, and the Moral Sense. I place Taste in the middle, because it is just this position which in the mind it occupies. It holds intimate relations with either extreme; but from the Moral Sense is separated by so faint a difference that Aristotle has not hesitated to place some of its operations among the virtues themselves. Nevertheless we find the offices of the trio marked with a sufficient distinction. Just as the Intellect concerns itself with Truth, so Taste informs us of the Beautiful, while the Moral Sense is regardful of Duty. Of this latter, while Conscience teaches the obligation, and Reason the expediency, Taste contents herself with displaying the charms: – waging war upon Vice solely on the ground of her deformity – her disproportion – her animosity to the fitting, to the appropriate, to the harmonious – in a word, to Beauty. An immortal instinct deep within the spirit of man is thus plainly a sense of the Beautiful.

What is missing in our public discourse today is taste. William Safire, in commenting on this lecture, says that Poe identifies taste as the “sole arbiter” in poetic creation of beauty.

 Since much of what comes through our electronic gadgets today lacks taste, we are inundated in a sea of ugliness. What we need is a return to beauty.

The media can do more than just push this uncomely material on us. They have a responsibility to their audience.

Donald R. Kinder and Shanto Iyengar did a study on television news which showed that it didn’t just broadcast information, but engaged in agenda setting. Those in charge of the more responsible electronic news outlets today could do a better job of setting it.

If they did, the content coming from our computers and other media transmitters would minister to our souls, not our prurient interests.

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Temper of the Times: Poor Leadership

A few years ago, a boss with an ulcer came to me a few months before he headed out the door and said,

“I want you to form a committee. Ask two questions: 1)What’s going on? 2)What’s going wrong?” I personally think these two questions are applicable today. All you have to do is pay attention to the news.

One of the definite problems today is poor leadership. No one seems to be able or is willing to lead.

Leaders lack competency today. They also lack integrity.

Furthermore, the followers are lazy. We put all decisionmaking on our leaders and go about our business and live with the horrible consequences.

In addition, we followers are also easily duped. In this world it’s all about image. If the public image is successfully portrayed, who cares about results? At least our pain is felt.

Kimberly D. Elsbach writes in an essay called “Looking Good vs. Being Good” that we expect three things from our leaders: 1) Control-they are in charge and have the final say 2) Competence and Consistency-leaders will make good decisions and maintain right thinking 3) Certainty-leaders have great confidence in the rightness of their decisions.

Unfortunately according to Elsbach, this attitude toward leadership leads to some messy problems when things go wrong. The truth is that leaders do not always fulfill the expectations of their followers.

Elsbach’s essay concerns the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church which came to light in the last decade. It is part of a larger work on the subject called “Church Ethics and Its Organizational Context”, edited by Bartunek, Hinsdale and Keenan.

She notes that part of the problem with the Church’s management of the issue was their attempt to meet the perceived expectations of their followers. This resulted in poor handling of the matter and even a coverup.

What would have been better according to Elsbach is for church leaders to have done three things to manage the crisis. They should have 1) admitted their incompetence and apologized 2) ceded control by changing the structure, for example, through bringing in new leadership  3) repaired the damage, for example , by focusing on the future though new evaluation policies and training programs.

Leaders must be properly trained. In the Catholic Church training in ethics was sorely lacking, at least according to James F. Keenan, whose essay appears in the same work as Elsbach’s.

Keenan believes that clergy should be trained in professional ethics. He indicates that while this kind of training abounds in medicine, the business and law, it is missing in the Church.  As a result, there is a lack of discourse and proper due process in relation to sexual matters which helped lead to the crisis.

The Church is not the only realm where trained leaders are needed. Jeffrey D. Sachs believes that economists need to be better trained in order to solve the world’s lingering extreme poverty.  

In his work “The End of Poverty”, he calls for economists to become more like doctors. What is needed to solve poverty is clinical economics. 

Sachs says that economists are not trained in clinical methods. As a result they have “focused on a very narrow range of issues, such as corruption, barriers to private enterprise, budget deficits and state ownership of production.”

He would like to see economists be able to engage in differential diagnosis and look at economies as more complex, just as a doctor does with the human body. Because of their simplistic views,economists currently have developed a cookie cutter approach whereby they prescribe what he calls “standardized advice to cut budgets, liberalize trade and privatize state-owned enterprises, almost without regard to the specific context.”

Organizations like the International Monetary Fund, Sachs notes,  overlook other valid causes to the poverty and thus come up with and insist upon the carrying out of a  wrong treatment plan:

 “The current situation reminds me too much of the fable of the farmer whose chickens are dying. The local priest gives one remedy after another — prayers, potions, oaths — until all of the chickens are dead. ‘Too bad,” says the priest, ‘I had so many other good ideas.’

As Sachs says, it is difficult for a country to do belt tightening when it doesn’t have a belt.  Because of their lack of competence, economists miss this.

Elsbach indicates that if followers believe their leaders are competent and things are still going wrong, then they will perceive the problems as stemming from a lack of integrity. This can be seen all the time in the media.

Iyengar and Kinder in their book “News That Matters” note that television news managers engage in “agenda setting”.  The hypothesis they set out to prove (and did) was that “those problems that receive prominent attention on the national news become the problems the viewing public regards as the nation’s most important.”

Not only do TV news bosses engage in agenda setting, but they also are involved in another dubious exercise called “priming”. This term refers to the effect television news has when it calls attention to some items and ignores others. What occurs with priming they say is that “television news influences the standards by which governments, presidents, policies and candidates for public office are judged.”

There is not too much question that news people today are competent. However, I think their ethics are quite debateable.

What the world needs is leaders with character. Niall Ferguson claimed in Newsweek this month that the European debt crisis affecting millions of Europeans could be solved by the continent’s economic giant Germany.

However, things aren’t bad in Germany. As a result, Ferguson says, the country is complacent.  He writes:

“Life in Berlin is good. In Munich, the capital of the German manufacturing machine, it is even better. You should try explaining to the average Bavarian beer drinker at the Stammtisch why he needs to get ready to finance an annual transfer to the Mediterranean countries of up to 8 percent of German GDP. I never get very far.”

At least Ferguson is trying. Sometimes leaders need to be pushed.

Urban Meyer is a championship coach who just took over the reins at football factory Ohio State. Here is what he told Sports Illustrated (SI)  about one of his new quarterbacks.

“I hate to stereotype a kid as a typical high-school player,” Meyer said of Miller, “but I got the sense when I first got here that he was kind of a cool guy and, ‘I’m going to lift weights and take care of my business,’ as opposed to, no, you’re going to finish first in every drill, you’re going to be the first one in the office, you’re going to do extra work, you’re going to push yourself to be one of the best.”

For Urban Meyer of course, this is unacceptable. He will insist on his player being the best.

It doesn’t hurt to push leaders. Indeed, Colin Powell says that a little courage upon the part of his subordinates when he was Secretary of State may have kept him from having egg on his face in front of the United Nations.

Powell told Newsweek that he asks those he leads three questions: 1)What do you know 2)What is it you don’t know 3)What do you think? He says it is his job as the leader to analyze all this and come to decisions.

He says his followers failed him in that, although they knew certain truths, they lacked the bravery to tell him.  Powell says they are even out there writing books about him even though they are culpable.

Our leaders have to stop being children and grow up. When they do, it will look beautiful.

The results of a maturing leader are exemplified again from the sports world. In an article called “A Brand New Lane Kiffin”, SI tells of the growth of a football coach:

 He has reached a comfort level. He is driven, but not overwhelmed anymore. … Kiffin is smarter, more aware. He’s not accusing opposing coaches of breaking NCAA rules when they haven’t (Urban Meyer, February 2009). He isn’t popping off without an actual reason. “There has absolutely been a maturation of Lane Kiffin and that will continue,” says USC AD Pat Haden. “I expect him to be a different person five years from now as a coach than how he is now. He’s already come a long way as a head coach and I anticipate more growth going forward.”

This is the kind of growth in character we should demand from our own leaders. If we don’t get it, we ought to thank them for their service, send them home and bring in some fresh blood.

There’s an old saying that people get the leaders they deserve.  I think we deserve better. Surely the world can’t take much more from the current crop without getting an ulcer.

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