Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Defining Self

At Pithy Banter, I was asked in a comment to do some defining.

I have a hard time defining myself because I have more questions about life than I do answers.

That doesn't mean that I'm so open-minded that my brain has fallen out, though. I realize that I embody fairly easily understood characteristics as well.

Here are a few:

1) I tend to be socially liberal and fiscally conservative. However, my socially liberal leanings have become more moderate in the past few years.

2) I am neither a Democrat nor a Republican, but I vote for more Dems than Repubs.

3) I am more interested in good reasoning and sound judgment than I am in party politics or philosophical assignment.

4) I'm highly educated.

5) While I and others consider me intelligent, I constantly strive to be smart. There's a big difference.

6) I'm an attorney. But I don't always like defining myself as one. I'm also a journalist, a photographer, a drummer. Most importantly, a husband, a father, a first son. I like science and technical details. I like tools.

7) I grew up in the United Methodist church, which overall is more liberal than, say, the Southern Baptist church, or Presbyterianism, but has its own liberal/conservative divide. (Hence, the internal fight over whether gays can preach has been raging for some time.)

8) I struggled between boredom and utter transfixion in my early years in church. Today, I don't often go, but am interested in finding a place where my intellectual investigations are welcome, and the singing is not just mediocre.

9) To be truly convinced of anything important, both my head and my heart must be in unison convinced.

10) I am mostly comfortable with my Christian upbringing but also constantly struggle with my faith and with some of the tenets (at least what some Christians consider tenets) of Christianity. I am curious, skeptical, full of questions, and hard to please.

11) That said, I believe in God and His way (whatever that might be), and strive to better understand and apply the tenets of Christianity. I also have many Jewish friends whose varying degrees of genuine interest in spirituality I admire and respect. And I very much respect and hold in high esteem those who are committed to doing good in the world.

12) I have severe and incredibly lucid moments of doubt.

13) Luckily, I suppose, those are balanced by moments that I comprehend as filled with God, brought on by the love of my wife and daughter, the love I feel for others, the spirit and company of family and friends, the kindness of strangers, the witness of mercy and compassion and humility, acts of incredible justice, and being outside: fishing, in the mountains, camping, breathing fresh air, watching birds, and generally loving the complex, always intriguing beauty of nature.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Worth Protecting

This is in response to AJM's comment, below.

Africans, like American teens, can be taught abstinence. Of course. The problem is, the "message" takes time and energy and money--a lot of time and energy and money--to disseminate. I'm not sure when all of the potential HIV vectors (read sexually promiscuous men and women) are are going to be contacted and lectured on abstinence. But I know--as an absolute fact--that thousands, ney, millions more will be infected and die before then.

I've heard the "mixed messages" argument many times. I totally disagree that encouraging condom use is "encouraging people to engage in an act that affects much more than their immune systems." Whether it's viewed as condoning or not, I really don't care. People are smart enough to understand the difference between short-term solutions that put out fires and long-term solutions that cure the arsonist. The bigger point: until (and in many cases after; I'm doing everything I can to resist quoting last month's Yale/Columbia study) people are educated about the negative consequences associated with extramarital sex, people will engage in extramarital sex. It's the lesser of two evils to prevent the spread of AIDS at all costs.

I also disagree with AJM that telling Africans (or teens) to use a condom is patronizing. Hardly. It is recognizing their human vulnerabilities in a way that saves the lives of them and their families. To hold back is to patronize. To keep condoms from them is to say you and your family are not worth protecting because you have not committed to change your behaviors. Worse, from the outside, it might look like Conservatives are saying "you're not worth protecting because you're not like us."

We are all human, all sinners, all prone to weakness. AJM is saying that by acknowledging this weakness and somehow "allowing" it, we undermine the ability of these people to change, become more God-like. I can understand his concern. But it's secondary to the bigger problem. While I agree that behavior modification in the long run is the way to go, I cannot condone putting scarce resources into behavior modification only when incredibly cheap and, contrary to AJM's assertion, effective condoms are available and could be widely disseminated.

And--by the way--I know a lot of Christians who happen to agree. This is an example of where the liberal Methodists and other Protestant denominations diverge from their Evangelical cousins.

AJM's comment:

First of all, The Accipiter's obvious anger is understandable. Any policy that has as a known effect the unnecessary infection of innocent women and children with an incurable disease is beyond justification. (As an aside, I know that, while The Accipiter and I disagree on this point, neither of us doubts the other's good faith or thinks that the other is unmoved by the AIDS pandemic and its tragic consequences.) But to put aside an irrelevancy, the movement toward abstinence-first education and away from condom distribution is not about judging others or punishing the wives and children of "sinners." As The Accipiter correctly points out, we all are sinners (I would add: in the hands of a just and merciful God).

From the Christian perspective, AIDS is merely a symptom of an even more fundamental problem. It is one of the natural and disastrous effects of extra-marital sexual activity. The other symptoms include other sexually-transmitted diseases, divorce, depression, low self esteem, teen pregnancy, and deadbeat fathers. So, we Christians believe that stemming AIDS with condoms is a little like treating a massive head wound with a band-aid. And yes, as The Accipiter anticipates, I would very much like to include here a reference to Uganda. While Uganda is dealing with the source problem -- sexual promiscuity -- the symptoms, including AIDS, are being held in check. Other African peoples need not convert to Christianity in order to see the effectiveness of abstinence-only education and programs in Uganda and to adopt such programs within their own nations.

I say that condoms are a little like band-aids because the analogy cannot be pushed too far. Band-aid distribution occurs with the tacit understanding that their necessity can be expected, though that necessity is never sought. People are generally not tempted to suffer wounds. They are, however, tempted to engage in extra-marital sexual acts, which adversely affect not just their bodies but also (if the Christian view is to be believed) their souls and psyches. Condom distribution may stem the spread of AIDS a little (they are not 100% effective and there is no guarantee that they will be used, in any event). But it has been proven (in Uganda and elsewhere) that incentives toward sexual purity reduce the spread of AIDS a lot. And by distributing condoms we are mixing our messages -- encouraging people to engage in an act that affects much more than their immune systems.

You might disagree with imposing the "Christian" approach upon non-Christians if it can be established that it is, in fact, within the exclusive purview of Christians and effective only for Christians. (In any event, the Christian approach is hardly "appalling.") However, we Christians happen to believe that our approach is in the best interest of everyone, whether they recognize our God or not. The evidence favors that view. To throw up our hands in resignation (they are going to have sex anyway; we might as well make it safe) is patronizing. Africans, like American teens, can be taught. It is also against the best interest of us all.

To promulgate anything but abstinence education and incentives is to do a disservice to those whom we are trying to help.

AIDS' Collateral Damage

Today, in a thoughtful critique of the Left's use of the word "progress," AJM wrote that one of the tenets of Evangelical Christianity is that "Human life is precious at all stages of development and degeneration." O.K.

If that's true, I find it appalling that Conservatives are so ardently opposed to the provision of contraceptives to those in third-world, developing nations ravaged by HIV. Instead, they say, teaching abstinence is the only ethically justifiable way to quell the raging viral firestorm sweeping the continent. I heartily disagree.

No one doubts that extra-marital sex is one of the main transmitters of the disease. Migrant workers who often must travel hundreds of miles to find work outside their villages spend nights away from their wives, have sex with prostitutes, contract HIV, then bring it home to their wives. These innocent women then pass it on to their innocent children.

Conservatives believe that teaching these men that sex outside of marriage is wrong will help. I'm the first to concede that such an approach--if the men commit to it--will help. Of course, not all of these men will listen or be convinced. And fewer will be contacted by those preaching this agenda. And as long as prostitution runs rampant (and is governmentally supported in many cases), many men will purchase those services.

In the very, very long run, when and if the vision of all Evangelicals--to convert the world to Christianity--is realized, abstinence training could work.

For now, millions of innocent women and children--not to mention the men for whom customs accept extramaritial sex--are dying from a loathesome, preventable disease.

Christ was asked, "Which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jesus replied: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." Matthew 22: 36-40.

This has a natural corollary. One way to "love our neighbors" is to "show them the way," so their souls can be saved. But before their souls can be saved, their lives must be saved.

Jesus spent a lot of time saving lives without judging the behavior of those whose lives he saved. If I happen upon a man in a pool of blood dying in the street with a bag of money and a gun next to him, do I refuse to try to save his life because I suspect he's a criminal? No.

How can we justify punishing the wives and children of sinners (as we all are) for the sins of their men?

Condom use saves lives. Free, widely distributed condoms save more lives.

Teaching a man to fish so he can feed himself is one thing. Feeding the five thousand so they do not starve is another. Both are honorable, but one is a much bigger priority.

Otherwise, millions of innocent women and children are collateral damage in the Right's war on sin.


Some will likely respond by citing recent progress on the war on AIDS through abstinence in Uganda. I'll preemptively counter that for that country, with that Christian leader, some progress may have been made. But what of the other millions across the continent? What of the thousands becoming infected and dying every day?

Sunday, April 10, 2005

White Album Mono

While I appreciate and often myself delve into commentary about national issues of the day, especially ones with political implications that lend themselves to divisiveness, I am determined not to constantly devote space here to the things about which everyone else in the blogosphere is ruminating. Others are better at spending all their time talking about Tom Delay and the Mainstream Media. Or, at least, they devote enough bits and bytes to it to appear like they've got it covered.

And may I say, while there's a lot of great commentary out there, and sometimes even a unique idea or two, it's easy to get lost in adding one's own voice to an already overwhelming cacophony of he-said she-said and my-opinion-matters-most. I don't wanna get lost in it.

That said (and understanding that I've just added my own blather to the cacophony), I want to tell you about something simple and great.

It's 99.5 on the FM dial, The Mountain, Denver's preeminent, independently owned, classic-rock station. Now I'm not talking about "classic rock" like Foghat or .38 Special or Blue Oyster Cult or whatever the other guys (it seems like all "classic-rock" stations are named either "The Hawk," "The Hammer," The Eagle," "The Rock," "The Riff," or whatever) tend to play.

I'm talking about the really good stuff. Dylan, The Beatles, The Stones, Zeppelin, Hendrix, The Who, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Elton John, The Band, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, The Temptations, the folk singers, the blues guys, all of the movers and shakers in the '60s and '70s, and their progeny in the '80's through today (read U2, REM, Pearl Jam, Dave Matthews, etc.) Listen long enough and you're likely to hear The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Clash, Curtis Mayfield, Johnny Cash, XTC, Emmylou Harris, the inestimable Midnight Oil, Los Lobos, maybe even The Pogues.

The thing is, they play the songs you always hear AND the songs you only hear when you're at home with your CD collection and your stereo. Listen to it online at the link I put up there.

Now, this is not mind-blowing, change-your-life kind of stuff. Unless you love music like I do. Then it's easy to get wrapped up in the fact that every DJ is genuninely knowledgable: knows the history and inside scoop of the bands, the connections between one band and another, the common themes linking baroque, classical, gospel, ragtime, jazz, blues, rock, and pop.

Or the fact that before every relatively rare commercial break, the DJ leaves the listener with a teaser such as: "This next song was written by a Canadian who many regard as the godfather of Grunge." After the commercial, the listener in this example is told about Neil Young and his liner notes to "Heart of Gold": "This song put me in the middle of the road. Travelling there soon bacame a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there."

The gem--in my opinion--of The Mountain's various programs is Breakfast with the Beatles. For 3 hours every Sunday morning, Archer (forgive the single name; he's been in the business for a long time) spins Beatles sets, whole albums, alternative versions, rarities, and spin-offs. It's genious because of the depth of the commentary and the analysis.

Archer is the only person I've experienced who can rattle off details of one cut of Rocky Racoon and tell you all the ways it differs from another (volume differences, mixing parameters, vocal inflections, engineering nuances, recording ambiance, who ate what for breakfast the day of the session, etc). And he knows everything there is to know about the Beatles themselves: from what they emerged, how politics and culture influenced them and vice versa, the legacies.

This morning for instance, Archer spun all 4 sides of the original U.K. mono version of the White Album, which--to a guy like me who's owned the U.S. stereo version of the White Album since he was 16 and knows it in and out--was like hearing stories about a good friend's past that you've never heard before.

Plus, how often do you hear "Julia" on the radio?

The best part of it was having my 13-month-old in my arms and dancing around the house with her as she bounced up and down, smiling and spinning and Stevie Wonder head-swaying.