Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Many Reactions To Newtown, Connecticut And Possible Ways TO Move Forward

In seeing the varied reactions of many of my friends to the horrific tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, I've seen some focus on the problem of gun violence being so pervasive in our culture far and above almost anywhere else on earth. And others have focused on the chronic problem of the lack of treatment for the seriously mentally ill, and their easy access, in many cases, to high powered firearms. Them some of my friends have, rightly to my mind, decried the way the mainstream media reports these tragic events, in effect giving so much attention to the perpetrators that they end up glorifying them even while condemning them. But in any event, these sick and evil individuals end up getting most if not all of the attention, when their victims typically remain anonymous in the long run. Others, in contrast, wish we would simply take the time to mourn the tragic deaths of those violently taken from us without immediately jumping on whatever bandwagon we're particularly incensed about. I have a lot of sympathy for that perspective myself, since it's far too easy to turn these little children and adults, loved as individuals by individuals who loved them in particular, being turned into symbols for some great and abstract cause, meanwhile leaving them as real people behind. I agree with each of these concerns. They're ALL valid expressions in reaction to the horror we all experienced on Friday when we heard the awful news. And, in time, we MUST begin addressing all of these aspects of what has happened; not only in Connecticut, but in Aurora,Co., in Portland, Or., in Tuscon, Az., and on and on and on... We MUST deal with the constantly deadly problem of a nation awash in guns causing our country to have one of the highest death rates due to handguns on earth. We have 300 MILLION guns in this nation! And 30,000 people are killed by them EVERY year here in the U.S.! And yes, the NRA and it's lobbying and control of politicians MUST be confronted for what it is, a straight out subverting of the democratic process, a subversion which directly threatens the lives of thousands of Americans every year! And the long term issue of how we treat the seriously mentally ill is, to my mind as someone who has worked in the mental health field, a national disgrace. I cut my professional teeth in the mid to late 80's when big cities like NYC were hit with waves of seriously mentally ill adults who had been "de-institutionalized" but without ANY subsequent services provided, just homeless shelters and abandoned buildings and public terminals. We still haven't recovered from that turn of events from over a quarter of a century ago. And related to that is the problem of treating and caring for the seriously mentally ill before they become so destabilized that these kinds of tragedies occur. Our schools, our churches, our synagogues, our mosques, our police departments, our social service agencies ALL need to be brought up to date on EARLY detection and treatment options! And yes, this needs to be seen as a BASIC healthcare issue as well. When we consider the sheer number of deaths and injuries sustained by this epidemic of gun violence, how could we possibly NOT see it as a national health emergency??? Early mental health screening and treatment MUST be a basic part of covered healthcare! And of course our sick media culture of never ending images of death and carnage flashing across every cable "news" screen in an endless loop of visual bloodlust has not helped us one bit! The old adage "if it bleeds it leads" has never been more true and more dangerous to our nation's well being. The major news outlets MUST come to terms with how it has become complicit with this culture of glamorizing death and destruction, so that those most sick in their minds watch others being made famous and fantasize about their own names going down in the history books for some act of infamy. I'm not asking for any kind of governmental censorship of this, but only for a true accounting to be made by those in authority at the heads of our media empires for how their short term profit cultures have played into and even exacerbated violent tendencies in the larger culture. And lastly, as mentioned above, we MUST remember the victims of the tragic massacres. The children who will never grow up, the parents who will never see them grow up. The adults whose lives were cut short as they were living out their dreams. The many family members and friends left behind, grieving, desperately trying to live lives forever changed by "one" day, one evil day they all, we all, wish could be erased from the history books. Because, after all, each one of these victims was a beautiful life, a promising life, a life deeply loved by everyone around them, and we are ALL made poorer by their absence. But let us, in remembrance of them, no matter how young or how old, be ENRICHED because of the time we've had with them. That will honor their memory and keep the love alive which they all so inspired in us.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Pearl Harbor and My Father

My father, Herbert Brandkamp, served at Pearl Harbor. Admittedly he didn't serve until after the devastating attacks of December 7, 1941. He also served as a civilian because of being deaf in one ear, so he was, by military standards, 4-F. But serve he did. He lived in Hawaii during the war and fell in love with Hawaii and the terrain and people. He revisited the island many times in subsequent years, sometimes just to see the lava flow from Kilauea up close. But during the war he worked for the Navy as a civilian, knowing that the Japanese might revisit their attack on the island. It might have seemed to be the safest place to serve during the war, but those who did, didn't know that. They were always waiting for the next attack.

Hindsight is amazingly insightful, unless of course it blinds us to the realities that existed at the time. Just today I wondered if my father saw the wreckage of the ships before him every day as he served there at Pearl Harbor. He never mentioned that. He mentioned his buddies, the tall tales, the fun stuff, the local culture. He didn't talk about the flights that went out, not knowing if they'd return. Sometime they didn't. Not all of his friends came back.

This date, which FDR famously said will "live in infamy" is becoming more and more a mere date in history for more and more Americans. Of course our own generation has its own infamous "date" which we divide time before and after, 9/11. Just like 12/7 had its iconic meaning for our parents or grandparents 9/11 has a similar meaning for us today. Any culture that has an attack on itself as 12/7 did in years past, or 9/11 did more recently, is left scarred, shaped by that experience, left trying to explain the how and why of what happened. Of course, every culture can claim this reality in their own experience. Every culture has its own traumatic experiences which shape both their identity and responses. Every scar tells us as much about our self as it does about the one who inflicted it. This is true both on the individual and collective level.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011


Crucible, lens and prism
illustrate well the recent reality
having locked myself in a prison
of my own I was left alone
with my own mentality.

Healing does come over time
though the scars do still remain
but first it takes a diagnosis
and that means entering the pain
until the pain can take no more.

Though for a season transfixed
by the spectre of my pain
the answer is not an easy fix
or a throw away prayer said
like some magic incantation.

The pressure and burden of burdens
held within over years of waiting for the healing
to begin gives way to the knowledge that my strength
is not my own but a strength of weakness transfigured
transfiguring me in order to begin again.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Sharing and Bearing the Economic Burden

What is economic security?
What is economic insecurity?
What causes both?
Do we understand these issues and the causations behind them?

We are living, as Americans, as well as citizens of other country's, in an environment of economic instability which pits one against another like we've seen all too many times before. Left against right, religious against irreligious, white versus black, or any other ethnicity, and of course, the rich versus the poor. But these various partisan contrasts are all too convenient distractions and diversions from deeper issues driving our economic lives.

If we stand still for a moment (admittedly very difficult to do in this hyperactive internet culture we live in) and look for a moment at some wise voices from our past, just as our former President Dwight David Eisenhower, in his farewell address to the nation in 1961, where he spoke of the danger of the Military Industrial Complex, we'll hear a deeply needed wisdom we desperately need today.

But while he spoke of a military/economic threat from within in this speech, he also was working from a framework that assumed a certain baseline that we now no longer see assumed. For instance, in Ike's day, the income tax was extremely graduated. The top earners paid over 90% of their income to the feds, and as the income went down, the tax rate also went down. And yet, strangely enough, this was for many considered to be a "golden era" of America's economic prowess.

Was this era as "golden" as some would have it be? No. As in anything the picture is of course more complicated. But we should remember that this "golden" period was also the time when unions were also at their strongest, both public and private. At that decisive time, both corporations, government, and the power of workers through their unions were much more evenly divided. This division of power exemplified perfectly the political philosophy so well expressed by our founders in the Federalist Papers which I so highly regard.

But an issue which the American founders didn't fully consider (understandably so) was the full expression of the industrial revolution combined with legal corporatism as understood by the US Supreme Court. This legal issue of corporate "personhood" (please check out the amazing DVD "The Corporation") is, to this day, an unresolved question of what it means to be a "person" under the US Constitution.

Till we deal with this issue both politically and legally and constitutionally, the problem of sharing and bearing the economic burden will not be dealt with adequately. Either we are all equal under the law or we are living under a Huxleyan world where some are more equal than others.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011


Would you want to live in a world of only plains? Or maybe a world filled with only mountains? Or even a world filled with only cities? Or only small towns? Or only the ocean? Would you want to live in a world with only vast stretches of desert? And of course we can extend this image to other areas of life: Would you want to only taste sweet foods? Only spicy foods? Only salty foods? Would you want to live in a world filled with only extroverts? Or introverts?

And here it starts getting trickier. Should we want to live in a world filled with only Christians? Muslims? Jews? Atheists? Liberals? Conservatives? Post-Modernists? Libertarians? And then what about those within our particular "camp" who still disagree? Shall we only live in a world filled with our particular "vision" of atheism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc, etc, etc.

We have a very natural human tendency to want to shape the rest of reality to our own already set beliefs and behaviors (can we say confirmation bias?). Thus we also tend to want the rest of reality to reflect our own sensibilities. We can do this either by outright rejecting any competing claim to the epistemological terrain or by reframing (and usually distorting) those competing narratives so that they end up suiting our own desires. I know this tendency well, since I've engaged in it on a regular basis myself.

I've lived in a number of different "terrains" both physically and ideologically and spiritually and emotionally. If I only ever saw a city landscape, I'd either get bored with it or see it as the only possible reality. And my all too natural instinct would be to either deify it or demonize it. In that sense, I guess I'm extremely grateful that though I did grown up in NYC, I also grew up on the south shore of Staten Island, which was and is still quite wooded and rural. So while we climbed trees and traversed many wooded paths, we also were a stone's throw from the concrete canyon of Lower Manhattan.

I often only half jokingly say we were the Beverly Hillbilly's of NYC.

But along with being culturally rural so close to a city environment, my family was also quite politically liberal in a very conservative neighborhood. We learned early on that not being in sync with the political majority held it own costs.

Another beautiful benefit of my very broken family was that we knew and interacted with those different than us. I was exposed to friendships with Jews, blacks, Latinos, Asians, the developmentally disabled, the homeless, etc. from early childhood. Though, in the midst of our own brokenness, it was always tempting to retreat into an interior reality blocked off from outside experience, experience, and I believe God, gave me a sense what it's like to walk in other people's shoes.

So again I appeal to my conservative friends to get to know and learn from liberal friends. And likewise, my liberal friends need to truly listen to what conservatives have to say and why. And on another spectrum, my atheist friends need to know more religious folks, so that you don't only see the caricatures presented by the supposedly "new" atheists. And of course, my religious friends also need to know, as in actually know, those who don't share your own convictions, and listen with a spirit of generosity to those who deeply differ.

So, for me at least, I choose to walk a path that includes mountains and plains, oceans and rivers, cities and towns, liberals and conservatives, atheists and believers. It doesn't mean I deny a particular sense and sensibility of reality. But it does mean that, even though we may deeply disagree, I will listen to you, because you do have something good and important to say to me.

So in this spirit, let's talk. Truly and truthfully.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

What Do We Mean By Economic Rights?

How should we consider the ethics of economics? Ask an economic
"conservative" what they mean by "economic rights" and ask an
economic "liberal" the same question (at least in the American
context), and you'll get an affirmative answer from both. Yet
both will mean deeply different things in their seemingly identical answers.
To the "conservative", "economic rights" means individual liberty
in our individual interactions with other individual actors.
To the "liberal" this same term means something quite different.
To the modern liberal, to speak of economic rights is to speak of a baseline of equality that presupposes commonalities that sees social systems as being as much involved as individual actors.

Since I speak as both a conservative and liberal in different respects, in so much as I'm deeply conservative in my anthropology (seeing us a deeply fallen species), but also deeply liberal in so far as I see us as deeply bound together as one species recognizing that we are united, tied together, ultimately envisaged as all human, ultimately equal.

In light of this disparate reality, let's explore how we can move forward. We can differ in all of this without becoming disparaging?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Moving Forward Politically

We live in tumultuous times. Gee, what a surprise! The partisans of the doctrinaire certainties tell us that absolute certitude is the only way. My friends on the left, who are many, tell me that anything from a "conservative" perspective is automatically wrong. And likewise, my friends from the right, who are also many, tell me that anything from the left is automatically wrong.

I understand this impulse. I do. It's all too easy to see reality in starkly black and white terms. Us/them, either/or, all or nothing possibilities. However, when we engage in this behavior, we allow ourselves to become captive to a construct that ends up imprisoning us to the frameworks presented to us. It doesn't have to be that way. Each of us can make a choice to break out of this false dichotomy.

Here's how:

Make friends with people who disagree with you. Listen to opposing voices. Consider opinions based on different assumptions than yours. If you're liberal, make a conservative friend and do the hard work of listening to them. If you're conservative, make a liberal friend and do the same. If you're secular, make friends with a person of faith and listen to what they say and how it guides their life. And likewise, if you're religious (like me), make friends with a secular person, whether an agnostic or an atheist, and take the time to listen to what they say and why they say it.

Wisdom exists beyond our own shores. Sights can be seen beyond our own horizons. Are all views equal? No. I'm not a thorough going relativist. I believe in basic human equality against those who argue otherwise. So some arguments must be engaged forthrightly.

But even in this, we must acknowledge our common humanity among those with whom we deeply disagree. In the days ahead, we must seek truth, engage truthfully, and engage firmly with those we seek to both convince and learn from.