Saturday, September 25, 2010

Who was Colbert mocking?

At the risk of making a mountain of a molehill, I am about to air my concerns about Stephen Colbert's testimony in character before the congressional hearing on immigration reform. His performance was a masterful expression of the irreverence and cynicism that plagues so much of our popular culture. Imagine it, a well know comedian is invited to testify before congress on an important public policy question, and he uses the opportunity to both enhance his own hunger for publicity and to mock the powers that be.

If I may unpack the significance of the event, Colbert is an expression of the modern view of events and institutions. He is first of all mocking formality and the idea that an institution should be respected and taken seriously. While this has been happening for a long time, I have never seen it taken to the level of dis-respecting the United States congress. It is one thing to wear blue jeans and a baseball cap to school or to church, it is another to treat a congressional hearing as a comedic opportunity. This takes the nihilism of this generation to a new level.

But there is more to mocking than dis-respect, it is an expression of denial. It is saying that what you stand for is not good nor true, it is evil and wrong. Mockery is not just opposition to a point of view, it is the attempt to demolish it. It doesn't just oppose what it mocks, it despises it.

Then the question becomes, what does Colbert despise. Well, his character is patterned after Bill O'Reilly and the conservative view point of Fox News. This is what he is really mocking and this is what he despises. The point is not to defend O'Reilly (he can take of himself pretty well) or Fox News, it is to defend the conservative values that they alone in the media support. It is also to raise concern about the rejectionist approach in our political discourse. We don't even argue anymore, we deny and denigrate. There is only one thing that can come next, repression and persecution of those who hold contrary views. (I am quite concerned about the rhetoric directed at Evangelical Christians in some circles. We are being demonized, and the stage is being set for the public approval of the repression and persecution of Christians.)

So, let's talk about what the Bible says about mockery and those who practice it. Mocking is actually the end point of a progression. Psalm 1 warns us to avoid walking "in the counsel of the wicked." In other words it tells us to avoid taking the bad advice that comes from those who reject sound moral principles. Next, we are warned to avoid standing "in the path of sinners." A path is a track worn by repeated use, and a sinner is one who habitually sins. Notice that this condition is less mobile and more entrenched than the first. The first is innocent, looking for guidance on life decisions, the second has already made a number of choices and has taken a position of identification, he is a sinner. But the final stage brings us to the place of the "scoffer" (mocker). This is the ultimate expression of rebellion against God and goodness. It is the person sitting "in the seat of the scoffer." This person is completely immobile, he cannot move and thus he cannot change. He is totally dedicated to his position, as if his life depended on it. Whatever he has given himself to now has him completely in its grip and he will defend it to the death.

Sitting in the ancient world was also seen as taking a position of authority. A scoffer speaks as if he has the final word and that only a fool would disagree with him. But it is all bravado, they are mocking the true and the good, because the evil has them completely in its grip.

The lesson of Psalm 1 for us is that we should never start down the road that begins with the false wisdom that predominates in our hedonistic, self-centered culture. Because it will take us to the place where sin is habitual and very difficult to overcome. And, if we aren't careful can lead us to the place where we will be literally addicted to sin, and couldn't let it go even if we wanted to.

How much better to follow David's advice in the second half of the Psalm, to delight in the Torah (teachings) of God and to meditate upon them day and night. Here we find wisdom for our daily choices. Here we find a path that leads to life and ultimately to Jesus for He is life. Here we find a place of true conviction and authority based upon the proven certainty of God's word and ways.

I feel truly sorry for the Stephen Colberts of the world. I certainly don't know any of the details of his life, nor can I stand as judge over him. Only God knows his heart. But his choice to mock things he doesn't fully understand or appreciate such as the core conservative moral vaues of American society do tell us where much of the popular culture that he represents stands or rather sits.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Are we facing a sea change election?

The story of the twentieth century in America has been the influence of progressive ideology on our government and society. The democratic party, at least the liberal wing of the party, calls itself "progressive." But we must make a distinction between what I am referring to as progressive ideology and modern American liberalism.

Progressive ideology has been in the driver's seat of our government and politics from at least the 1940's. Both political parties have operated from its basic assumptions for the last 70 years, and it has brought us to the current economic mess we are facing today.

Progressive ideology is a product of the Industrial Revolution and is concerned about three things; the "equitable" distribution of income within a given society (no extremes of wealth or poverty), a scientific management of society and the economy to achieve important social ends (universal access to health care, proper nutrition for all, old age security, etc.), and the continual pursuit of "moral progress" (the reduction of racial prejudice, an increased concern for the environment, the pursuit of a more humane treatment of prisoners, etc.).

These three goals were front and center in the administrations of Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and saw their greatest advance under Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Progressive ideology was certainly well intentioned, and has produced many of the values and institutions that we take for granted today and that bring great benefit to our lives. Both parties have endorsed and advanced the progressive agenda, and many of its fundamental institutions such as social security, federally governed public education, and medicare/medicaid are "third rail" issues that cannot be touched for fear of the political backlash.

On the other side of this equation, stands some serious unintended consequences to this attempt to create an improved society. Included in this is the massive growth in the size and reach of the federal government, with unsustainable deficits and a gigantic inventory of unfulfilled promises. We are failing at the education of our children, our entitlement regime is breaking down, we just saw a dramatic increase in the percentage of Americans below the poverty line, and we see a reduction in our economic competitiveness.

All of these things are adding up to a serious questioning of all the assumptions of the progressive ideology. When the Tea Party candidates talk about a return to the constitution and to federalism (more power returned to the individual states), this is exactly what is going on. It seems to me that we are at the beginning of a sea change in the way we view the federal government and how it operates. The question will be, do we have the political will and wisdom to restore the freedoms coupled with the sense of individual responsibility that made America so successful?

At this point, it is very important that we, the American voters, understand that this is what it is going on. We have the chance, with this election, to begin to bring America back from the brink of bankruptcy and to start down a long road of reforming many of the basic institutions of our society in order to make them a reflection of our constitutional government. A government, by the way, that has provided more abundance and freedom to all classes of people than any other government in history.

The United States is not the first to pull back from the financial brink. Great Britain under Margaret Thatcher went through a dramatic transition that privatized whole industries and reduced the power of labor unions throughout the country. Many of the European nations are taking dramatic steps to reduce government deficits and reduce entitlements. They have been forced to by economic reality, a reality that is just now beginning to become apparent to the American people. It is no accident that we presently have the second highest corporate income tax in the world (Only Japan exceeds ours and who wants to imitate Japan right now?).

Our goal in the next two elections (2010 & 2012), must be to substantially reduce the size and reach of the federal government. We must next have an intelligent conversation about reducing the long term costs of entitlements and discovering a way to make them sustainable for the long run. My other hope is that the Tea Party movement will have some influence on the debate over education in America. The best case scenario would be much greater local control and parental involvement in a meaningful way that includes vouchers and school choice.

My hope is that this truly is a watershed moment for American society, and not just a short lived conservative backlash against a struggling economy. The liberal narrative about the Tea Party is that it is just a lot of old white people afraid of losing their medicare. There are two things about the Tea Party that should give us all hope for the future, and of which the liberal media is either unaware or mis-understands. The Tea Party is focused on restoring constitutional government to the United States, and more than any movement before it, is committed to reducing the size and cost of government. If we don't appreciate what they are trying to accomplish, our children and grandchildren certainly will.