Cutting Off Your Nose to Spite Your Face

Heather C. McGhee notes (as heard on the radio) that racism has a cost for everyone.


Let me tell two stories from my time in local government. One involves an easement for a walking trail. One involves a pool.

The Town of Beekman began construction on a walking trail between the town parks, which went speedily enough as long as the trail was within the right-of-way along a town road, but construction stalled once the town needed to seek permission from adjacent property owners and other government entities. The two largest landowners along the proposed route were the Dalton Farm Homeowners Association and the Dutchess County Water and Wastewater Authority. The water authority punted: the town could cross their property, as long as the HOA agreed to an easement to continue the trail along the county road. So the highway department marked the county’s right-of-way, and the trail committee marked a route for the trail, and we walked the proposed route. We then solicited comment from the residents of Dalton Farm along the route. None of the comments were in favor of the trail. They all expressed concerns over strangers using the trail, people from out of town peeking in their back yards, and thieves breaking into homes in the dead of night. The Dalton Farm board tabled the idea of an easement, and the town’s trail still leads nowhere.

Dalton Farm owns a swimming pool and is required by its bylaws to maintain it in satisfactory condition for the use of the residents. Each year we contracted with a pool management company to clean, maintain, and staff the pool. After some years of trouble with late openings and the lifeguards—the pool company hired young women from Eastern European countries who could not always speak English well and so had trouble with the part of the job that involved communication with swimmers—the association board began looking at alternatives. Several alternatives were considered. The two I put forth, neither of which was accepted, were to hire local lifeguards to staff the pool, much as the Town of Beekman does, or to have the pool unguarded and unstaffed. The board decided to hire a security company to check identification—for slightly less expense than the pool management company—in order to prevent the wrong people from using the pool. The wrong people were those from outside of the association, non-residents, or who owed payments to the association. If memory serves, one of the board members suggested that people “from Poughkeepsie” might try to use the pool. Some years and a couple hundred thousand dollars later, the security company’s services were no longer required because it was found that one of the guards had placed video cameras in the rest rooms. The association now hires promising young persons of good character from the neighborhood to check the pool’s pH and guest identification.

“From Poughkeepsie” means “black” and “poor.”

Beekman is 15 miles, 30 minutes from Poughkeepsie.

No one is coming here from there to use any of the amenities we build. And if they did, so what?

The only people not from here who might are our neighbors, whom we see each week at school or the grocery store or church, with whom we play baseball and soccer. The people who use the pool are our children. The people who would use the trail are us: we would walk our dogs there; we would ride our bicycles there.

But we let our fear and prejudice lead us to make the stupidest decisions.

Frankly, I don’t understand why the response to “police must not kill people” has reflexively been to make excuses rather than “OK.” Heck, my youngest even knows to say “OK” when he means “No.”

You Kiss Your Mama with that Mouth?

Many years ago, as a young man in my early teens, what convinced me of the falseness of Christianity was the behavior of the Church and people who called themselves Christian. I could not reconcile the teachings of the Bible as I understood it with all the death perpetrated by a Church corrupted by worldly power. I could not reconcile Constantine, the Arian Controversy, the Great Schism, the Crusades, the Inquisition, battles between the Pope in Rome and the Pope in Avignon, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation wars of religion, the splintering of Protestant sects over exactly how poorly to mistreat others. I could not reconcile the obvious contortions the Church went through to excuse slavery and the attendant ills of segregation and apartheid, to inspire pogroms and ignore the Holocaust. I could not reconcile its apparent insistence on seeing others as less than human. I could not reconcile Bob Jones University’s not permitting my father to study math. I could not reconcile Jim and Tammy Faye fleecing devout old ladies of their last penny. I could not reconcile Pat Robertson preaching hate. I could not reconcile Jerry Falwell’s expensive suits and expansive corpulence. I could not reconcile the claim to absolute Truth with the daily practice of lies.

And so I did not join our local church, despite not seeing, personally, any of these problems among its members. And so, skeptically, expressed no opinion on matters of belief. Does God exist? Who knows? Does it matter? And yet kept certain ideals of behavior.

To this day, a knot of rage gnaws at me when the coterie of thieves surrounding Donald Trump includes fawning pastors of Mammon posing as servants of God. The rage is stoked when Trump beats his way through the crowd to stand sternly frowning in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church holding a Bible he hasn’t read and whose teachings are anathema to him. The rage burns hot as those who claim the Bible’s every word is literally true find it in their hearts to joyously exclaim over abuses of power, who give their time and money to help usher in the Second Coming, who welcome the trials and tribulations–of others–even though Jesus says explicitly that no one knows the day or the hour. The rage boils over when those who purport to uphold the tradition of the Church mock those who emphasize mercy–as if love and mercy were not the entire point of the Gospel.

Under the rage is sadness for all those for whom this is the example of the Church.

I’m just a poor preacher’s kid from Virginia and not some fancy-suited televangelist, celebrity priest, or professional theologian. Others are finer Biblical scholars. I don’t have a national pulpit or a famous byline. But it seems to me that if someone can’t get the basic order of instructions right, even in simplified form, perhaps their opinion should carry no weight.

If you can’t not be an asshole, if you can’t not support assholes, try not claiming to follow Christ.

WWJD?

The execution of Jesus Christ was political murder by the klepto class, done with the force of the state, because he demanded lovingkindness, justice, mercy, and the forgiveness of debts.

You may have been pre-occupied with other things this Easter season, like all the rest of us this year, and couldn’t make it to church, or refresh your memory of the story. Perhaps you were caught up in thoughts of plastic eggs, or perhaps you attend a church which likes to pass over where Jesus says, “Love one another,” so that the teaching can get straight to the important part about obedience–which skips the whole point of the law to focus instead on enforcement and punishment, pain and suffering. However, the story tells us why he was killed, not just why he died.

We like to think that Jesus was outside the mainstream of his society, and he was, much as Mr. Rogers was outside the mainstream of ours, but he was grounded in and closely in line with Jewish tradition. One might even call him a fundamentalist. And in that tradition he took exception to the abuse of authority.

On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”

The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching. [emphasis mine]

Mark 11:15-18 (NIV)

There might have been a riot, and then where would they be?

So perhaps it’s not surprising to find that a number of the voices calling, not for an examination of their souls but for the violent imposition of Law and Order–by which they mean Power and Obedience–are those same voices who, given every opportunity to do so, insist that God teaches us that it is vastly more important to obey rather than to care, to exploit rather than nurture. It is they who, seemingly in all cases, put the interests of the powerful above the meek, despite every evidence to the contrary from the text.

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:8 (ESV)

Nor is it surprising to find widespread outrage at yet another blatant murder by agents of the state. Because, believe it or not, most people think thou shalt not kill.

Caring for others is not some grand conspiracy by deviants, anarchists, and Marxists. It is the very minimum that your mother expects of you.

Budgets are Statements of Values

[A]usterity remains a political choice. … Beneath the narrow debates about how debts can be repaid reverberate larger, as yet unresolved questions about what kind of society we want to have, about who will pay for certain kinds of social provisions and whether we will have them at all. At the end of the day, these are inescapably political questions, not accounting ones.

This week’s book is Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics, by Kim Phillips-Fein (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2017) 📚. Seems like it may be appropriate for the current financial climate.

Leading Questions

No. 2 Son, 12, has always been curious about how things work. He’s currently fascinated by computer operating systems. Yesterday he asked which was the worst version of Windows.

Which led me to talk about how difficult it was to get people to upgrade from Windows95, tools that are good enough, planned obsolescence, creation of demand for useless things, tailfins on cars, fast fashion, and the insanity of an economic system that relies on creating wants and cannot satisfy needs.

Good times!

in which Mr Cox is a stodgy old man

When will publishers once again have the courage to publish footnotes instead of endnotes? At least Eric Asphaug’s When the Earth had Two Moons (Custom House, 2019) 📚 has proper superscript notations instead of vague page references in the notes. Anyway, with all this back-and-forth I’m still only on page 5. Good book, so far, and good notes; and, no, electronic media would not help.

Full Faith and Trust—in Nixon?

Today’s much more relaxing book, though one might not have thought so, is Tom Wicker’s biography of Richard Nixon, One of Us: Richard Nixon and the American Dream (1991) 📚, which has been waiting on my shelf since I was at Fordham. Judging by the bookmark inside I gave it a go poolside in 1996, leaving off just before reading about the 1952 Checkers speech. That speech was extraordinary, if only because it began an expectation of uncommon candor regarding the finances of presidential candidates.

Mr. Sparkman and Mr. Stevenson should come before the American people, as I have, and make a complete financial statement as to their financial history, and if they don’t it will be an admission that they have something to hide. And I think you will agree with me — because, folks, remember, a man that’s to be President of the United States, a man that’s to be Vice President of the United States, must have the confidence of all the people.

How is it that the confidence of all the people is too much to expect these days?