Saturday, May 6, 2017

Candy bars and false equivalence

Saturday. Sofa. Coffee.

When I was a young child it was a regular experience to share the last piece of something, candy, cake, watermelon, mostly anything that tasted good, with a friend or sibling.  These moments of reasonable civility did not come naturally, as I recall.  Most times the sharing was done only after a few things happened.  First there may have been an effort by one or all parties present to surreptitiously snake the last sweet treat into one's palm or pocket without being seen. Sometimes there was just a bold, outright grabbing.  This was normally followed by a hue and cry from the other party.  The hue and cry escalated into a brouhaha (sorry, I just love this word).  At some point another presence entered the scene. An adult. A parent or a teacher, or a friend of parents and teachers seemed to be inherently attracted to these moments.  

"If you can't share the last piece, then nobody can have it,"  was the gist of what the adult normally said.  Sometimes that would result in the adult confiscating the goody, and, I always assumed but cannot prove, eating it themselves.  But usually all parties took a breath, weighed the options, and entered into negotiations.  

"Each of you take half of the last piece," the adult would say.  The wisdom of years is priceless.

Begrudgingly the parties would enter the process of carefully dividing the object of our desire.  Another argument might ensue.  It was quickly obvious, even to the young eye, that dividing something equally is difficult.

The adult voice might suggest, "Okay, one of you gets to divide it into two pieces.  The other one gets to choose which piece you want."   I could only hope to achieve that kind of maddening, Solomonesque wisdom someday.

Another crisis averted. 

 I learned a lot from those experiences. Eventually sharing in times of scarcity became natural, and all of those machinations of assuring exact equality seemed like a waste of time, not because it was not important to be fair.  It's just that it was impossible for things to be exactly equal. 

But sometimes, in the midst of the above scenario, another strategy was executed. 
The quicker, usually older party might grab the last precious prize, break off a small piece and with an exaggerated gesture of magnitude, give it to the other.  "There, you can have that.  Now we can both have some.  That's fair."  Even a slow, younger kid knows that ain't right and another hue and outcry would ensue.  "But you got some, I got some, we both got some, you can't get more fair than that," the older might protest. I laugh at that childhood memory now.  It was my first introduction to a concept called "false equivalence."  

False equivalence is a logical fallacy in which two opposing arguments appear to be logically equivalent when in fact they are not. This fallacy is categorized as a fallacy of inconsistency.  I got this definition off of Wikipedia, and it is a little high minded.  But bear with me.

A good example is in the news right now.  During the recent discussion and votes on the new health insurance bills passed by the U.S. House of Representatives this week many of the proponents of the quick vote publicly defended the rapid movement, saying it was no different than when the Affordable Care Act was passed during the Obama administration, saying that Obama's ACA was rammed through without input or discussion in a short time.  In other words, the Republicans who supported the new act said they were handled the same, so why should anyone complain?  

 The ACA was debated, in Congress, and in the public forum for almost a year, from the time of President Obama's address to Congress in early 2009 until it was signed into law in March, 2010. Changes were made at the suggestion of Republicans that were concessions by President Obama.  More than fifty Congressional hearings were held. Groups of insurers, medical providers, government and business entities were brought in to discuss and have input.  Citizens groups had almost a year to make their case one way or the other. The Congressional CBO did a cost-analysis of the bill.  Private think tanks of all stripes and persuasions had ample time and published their own studies. It was a long, laborious, public process.

In contrast the new American Health Care Act (AHCA) was not publicly proposed until March 6, 2017. It failed on its first vote in late March due to a split in the Republican majority in Congress. An amendment was proposed in late April. The bill was passed by the House on May 4, 2017, less than two months after it was first made know to the public, and less than three weeks after it was dramatically amended. There have been no hearings, no systematic input from business, healthcare providers, insurance companies, or other government entities, no CBO cost analysis or opportunity for private groups to do cost analysis. There has been little time for the public to digest the content of the legislation and express opinion, although some have done the best they could.

Forget policy considerations for the moment.  The point is, the process by which these two pieces of legislation were handled could hardly have been more different.  To suggest the rapid action by the House of Representatives was justified because President Obama's ACA was passed in the same manner is a false equivalence.  

And the reason for the creation of that false equivalence is worthy of pause and examination. 

We use false equivalence to justify our thoughts and actions. But if they are false, shouldn't we be concerned about the harm we are causing?  Or even if we believe the cause we are supporting or protecting is right and good, have we lost our moral compass in accepting, even promoting lies to get what we believe to be correct?

For another example, a politician lies on a daily basis.  His or her opponent, who does not lie often is caught in a lie.  The politician who lies daily stands up and calls his or her opponent a liar and that he or she cannot be believed.  The pundits and supporters who favor the politician who lies daily adopt the argument, "both of them have lied, that's just politics. How dare you criticize my candidate.  Your candidate lies too."  Regrettably it is true that both have lied. But clearly one lies much more than the other.  The acceptance of the false equivalence without question prevents a real examination of the respective character and qualifications of the candidates.  All politicians lie.  Don't get too smug. All of us normal people have lied too.  But the candidates are not equal in their propensity to lie.  It is a mistake to disregard a true inequality in character. But that is what we do when we accept a false equivalence without pause or examination.

Statements of false equivalence pop up in all of the political and policy issues that we face today.  Equal opportunity. Equal justice. Gender equality. Tax policy. Crime and punishment. Poverty. Even health and pre-existing conditions.  Nothing is simple.  These problems cannot be addressed by a dismissal of reality that comes with false equivalence. The truth is, equivalence is usually impossible to achieve. Perhaps theoretically, as in mathematics, it can be done.  But in the real, physical world, and in the world of thought and ideas, perfect equivalence is difficult.  It would have been virtually impossible for us kids to perfectly divide the candy bar.  We can get close to equivalence, and learn to accept the slight imperfections in our calculations.  But some inequalities are significant and are worthy of examination in dealing with problems.  

This notion of declaring a false equivalence disturbs me more as an adult than it did as a child on the wrong end of the candy deal.  The use of false equivalence in our public discourse is an insidious obstacle to the identification, discussion and resolution of serious problems that face us.  At best it is a misguided effort to appear fair, an intellectual laziness or willful ignorance.  At worst, it is like the older, smarter kid trying to justify his or her unfairly large hunk of a candy bar, hoping that no one challenges the lie he has perpetrated, even criticizing the other child for complaining after he received his "share" of the candy.

It's time to grow up.  It's our turn to be the adults in the room.


Saturday, March 11, 2017

It's a hawks . . .

Saturday. Sofa. Coffee.

I am facing a tough decision and a tougher course of action on this cold, crisp Saturday morning on the hill.  After tossing and turning for what seemed like a couple of minutes I came to the realization that I must take an unpopular stand.  My sister Deb and her husband Robert must be banned from the hill.  

Yesterday, while I was at work, they came up the hill to our parents' house, which has finally been cleaned up and out. Mom and dad have been gone for more than a couple of years now.  I don't know what Deb and Robert were doing exactly, probably one of those bizarre United Methodist rituals, like a blessing of the wild animals or something, (Robert is a UM pastor), but as a result of their mysterious incantations they lured a hawk into my parents' house.  Yes, that's what I said.  Into the house.  Not the yard or the carport.  The house.  We'll never really know what was going on in that house all Friday morning. All we know about the incident was the light-hearted video that Deb and Robert produced in the yard.  She giggled innocently as she operated the camera.  He held the hawk under a shroud, suddenly throwing it into the air.  As it turns out, hawks can't fly so well when wrapped in a shroud.  The shrieks were frightening.  And that was just Debbi.  The hawk was too shook up to say anything.  It fought itself clear of the shroud as it hit the ground, its wings exploding from its sides frantically grabbing for the sky.  The hawk circled the yard crazily, and coming to its senses, made its escape. Toward my house.

But that's not all. Later in the day I received a text that the driveway up to the hill was blocked by a huge tree.  Robert said it had "fallen" about the time they were getting ready to leave.  And then I found this photo:

No, that is not Bernie Sanders, although now that I look closer at this photo there is more resemblance that I have noticed before. That is Robert, my brother-in-law who had just claimed that the tree had "fallen" across the road.  "Fallen?"   I think not.  Clearly Robert grabbed that tired old pine by the trunk and pulled it down till it broke, and then, as proven here, carefully placed it across the drive, completely blocking the way for those of us without super powers.

So I hate it, but I really have no choice.  Deb and Robert must be kept off the hill. It's just too dangerous to let them come.  I can see clearly now what they have been up to, working for weeks with little help from the rest of the siblings to clean out the house.  I knew they were up to something.  Thank goodness I figured it out in time. Thank goodness they got the house cleaned up before I figured this out.

Figured out what?  I don't know for sure.  But it is obvious that they are up to something. There's the mysterious religious hawk incident (I've seen the video) and Robert's freakish super strength (you've seen the photo) being used to block the drive. All on the same day.

I love them with the love of the Lord and I want the best for them, but the evidence doesn't lie.  Deb and Robert are up to something and it is scary.  For the sake of the children, as much as I hate it, we have to keep them off the hill.

Yeah I know, I can't believe it either. 

 But the facts don't lie.


Friday, November 11, 2016

I can drink the wine, but can I drink from the cup?

"For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.”

It is no surprise to those of you who know me or have visited in the past that this week provided some deep disappointment for me.  My candidate did not win.  And a big buck decided to lay down between the shrubs in the back of my house and die, wedging himself against the foundation, his adolescent rack  preventing his removal from behind the shrubs like a fish hook caught in the weeds.  He was so rotten by the time I figured out what that horrible smell was I could not just move him without him busting wide open.  Both events stink, at least from where I sit. You may think the election results smell sweet, but I think we can all agree about the stench of a rotting carcass.  So there's hope for unity after all. For the first time in awhile I am chilling on the sofa, enjoying some quiet and Merlot, listening to some tunes, and conversing with God.  It is nice.   

For many Christians this week, their helmet of salvation (Ephesians 6:17) sports a "Make America Great Again" logo.  I must admit, I am one of "those" who are concerned about the slogan "Make America Great Again"  ®DT.   But if we are the Christian nation we pretend to be, maybe it's not a bad idea.

What would Jesus say to me about my judgment about the slogan?  Or to someone who celebrates its message?

He wouldn't let either of us get away with it.

I think Jesus would create unity between us by teaching us each a lesson in humility, which is one of his best gifts.  He might say something like, "In worship every Sunday you sing to God 'How Great Thou Art' or if you like that contemporary stuff 'How Great is Our God.' So Bob, are you saying that greatness is not a good thing when you sing those words about Us being great.  Is greatness necessarily a bad thing?"

"Well, of course not, Jesus, that is not what I meant," I might respond. "I just . . . nevermind. I know how these conversations go with you, Jesus."  It is not always easy to be in a relationship with One who is always right.

"And you with that cap on your head and that grin on your face," Jesus might continue, "there is no need to re-invent the wheel here.  Have you read the red letter parts of the Bible, you know, the things I said?  You want to be great? You want America to be great now? Two of my disciples, the sons of Zebedee, James and John, brought it up constantly. They kept wanting to know if they could sit at my right and my left, which they felt would be the greatest seats in the house,  when I came into my Kingdom, bless their hearts.  Their mother even came and asked me to let them. I told them:

 “You don’t know what you are asking, Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” 

"I said that in Matthew 20:22," Jesus might continue. "You may want to read the whole chapter.  In fact, let me share it with both of you.  It's more of the red words."

24 When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. 25 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."

Jesus might continue, "Desiring to be great is not the problem. Defining what it means to be great is your problem.  Like I said in Luke 9:48, 'For it is the one who is least among y'all who is the greatest.'  That is the way I define greatness. To become great you must become least.  I defined the least quite a bit.  How did I define the least?"

"The poor, the orphaned, the widow, the lonely, the outcast, the stranger in your land, the sick, the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the children, the oppressed," Jesus might explain. "These are the least.  I said it many times. In red letters.  You can start with Matthew 25 and go from there. "To be great, you must become like them. Maybe even become them sometimes."

"So make America great, America.  It's not a bad thing.  It's a great thing. The most beautiful thing ever, as far as I'm concerned. But I need to know, can you drink from that cup?"

I don't know whether Jesus would really say that to us tonight.  I for sure know he would say it more plainly.  In fact, He already has. In the red letters.

It would be great if we could try Jesus' way.  

It's the least we can do.


Thursday, September 15, 2016

Vote your hope . . .

Every morning when I look in the mirror I see a little bit of my parents looking back at me.  It's a mash-up of dad's furrowed forehead, formidable nose and sharp chin, and my mom's wild hair and soft eyes.  It's a nice thing.  Except for the wild hair sometimes, especially in the morning.  I like that I can see them looking back at me in the mirror.  But they gave those traits to me without a choice. It was a matter of the luck of the gene pool.

The same thing happens when I look at or talk to my sons.  I can see a bit of me in each of their faces and hear the tone of my voice when they speak or sing, bless their hearts.  Again, I did not choose to give them those traits.  It just happened.

But most of the things my parents gave me, and most of the things that I gave to my sons, had little to do with DNA.  There were choices.  There were examples.  There were sermons.  There were tears and there was laughter. There were even a few spankings.  It certainly was not all perfect or even good.  But it was as effective and certain as genetics in shaping the next generation.

My mother could preach a sermon. More often than not she was inspired by one or more of her children making fun of someone, or getting the idea that we were somehow better than someone else. She was relentless.  Like a good southern revival preacher (except for the gender) she would break us down until, convicted of our transgression, we came to the altar in repentant submission, almost wishing for a spanking instead.

As a very young child, my snickering at the awkward movements of a disabled person suffering from a crippling disease was met with an immediate shaming and explanation.  Any hint of a racial slur or joke brought out Mom's A game. Making disparaging remarks about another kid in school who smelled bad or wore clothes that were dirty or didn't fit brought immediate, intense monologues pointing out how and why that was so wrong. Jesus was often mentioned. 

But mom did not just preach with words.  She preached with her life, and much of the time it was done while hauling a car load of kids.  Going to and from school and other places she often picked up an elderly gentleman who walked along the highway.  I remember him to this day.  He smelled like the earth.  He always had a few days growth of beard.  His clothes were faded and baggy and his shoes were heavy brown leather, what my grandparents called brogans.  It seems like he carried a walking stick, but that may just be my imagination filling in the blanks.  He had a  garden and would sometimes give us vegetables.  After school we would sometimes find another kid in the car who did not have a ride home.  Their houses did not look like ours.  And sometimes I remember feeling ashamed, because the family name of the child had  been adopted by the "in" crowd as a derogative term.  You know, like, "where did you get that shirt, a hand me down from the ________'s?"  In the early sixties in Alabama mother hired an African-American woman in town to do some work for her.  She chose to pay her differently than most people were paying household workers at the time.  A good wage.  And mom paid Social Security taxes and made sure they were all filed properly. They became life long friends, long after the woman no longer worked for us.  When that woman had health problems later in life, she was qualified for Social Security benefits. They both would have done anything for the other.  

Several years ago, after I was a grown up, there was a woman who walked around town a lot.  She was said to have a mental illness, but never harmed anyone.  Sometimes she would be eating at a local eatery.  She came over to me often, with Bible in hand, and tell me that my mother was a good, good woman, who really knew her Bible.   I still don't know her name.  I do remember picking her up and giving her a ride myself one Sunday morning . . . with a van load of youth from the church. They were just as wide eyed and perplexed as I had been as a youngster not knowing what to expect on car rides with my mom.   But I guess I did learn something from her sermons after all.

My dad did not preach sermons. But his message was the same as mom's, and just as strong.  We were to work to make a difference.  We were no better than anyone else.  We were given much, and much was expected. There were many people in the world who had it much harder than we did and we were supposed to help.  We were supposed to stand up and speak up for those who had no voice and could not be seen, the mentally disabled, the immigrant, the poor, the children, the oppressed.  The other. The different. 

So I was blessed to learn the best lessons from my parents, who learned them from their parents.

Be kind. Don't be mean.
Giving is better than receiving.  Share all you can.
Don't make fun of another's hardship.
Treat all folks with respect.
Every person on earth is created by God, and loved by God, no more or less than God loves me.
Everybody's got a story that needs to be heard. Take time to listen.
Help people all you can.
Tell the truth. But never simply to cause pain. Try not to lie, and never for personal gain.
Stand with the oppressed, the least, the last and the lost.
To those who much has been given, much is expected.
Knowledge is a good thing. Wisdom is a great thing. Learn all you can.
Violence is never a good response.
Count your trumps.
Don't smoke.

And so much more.  None of us are perfect parents.  But most of us know the good things we hope we can give to our children, things that will make them better people than we have been.   We know that probably, even after we are gone, our children will hear our voices in their heads when it is time to make decisions. We know that because we hear our parents' voices in our heads, even after they are gone. Sometimes that requires counseling, but all in all it's a good thing.  It is the way each generation gets better, building on the lessons of the past.

I like politics.  Maybe that's because my parents did. We spent hours around the round kitchen table talking about religion and politics throughout the years. It was no place for the weak. There was always a connection between the two, religion and politics, in our discussions. And the lessons they taught were always woven into the conversation.

It is all connected in my way of thinking.

So, that is how I decide who to vote for.  Which candidate seems to have learned and exhibits the lessons and values my parents gave to me, and my faith demands?  And which candidate best exemplifies those lessons and values that I wanted to give to my sons?

If we all did that, we still wouldn't all vote the same way.  Who would want that anyway?   But our decisions would be influenced by the best of the hopes our parents had for us, and best of our hopes for our children.   

Decisions based on our best hopes instead of  our worst fears?  Another good lesson to pass on to our children.  Let's start showing them how now. 

Sorry, this went on much longer than I expected.  But I am my mother's child after all. And that's not a bad thing in my book.

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