Sunday Afternoon

October 4th, 2004  |  Published in etc

Sunday was a good day for thinking. Maybe not a lot of conclusions, but some thinking.

i.

Yesterday we went to the second service at the Unitarian church downtown. My first-ever Unitarian service, and a look at a kind of church I didn’t ever see when I was going as a kid.

I went in fairly free of preconception. Al stopped me from putting on a jacket and tie, telling me I’d be pretty overdressed (it wouldn’t have been that bad) so I switched to my nicest guayabera. But the service was pretty much the kind of service I’ve seen in any other church: invocation… offertory… doxology… sharing of joys and concerns… children’s time (which is used to move the children off to “religious education,” which is a minor shift from the Sunday-school-then-service pattern)… then a moment of silence and a sermon. Hymns scattered in the midst of it.

The only things that really indicated to me that I wasn’t in a standard, mainline Protestant service would probably have to be the lack of any overt religious symbols in the sanctuary (that I could spot, anyhow) and the minister’s mention that the children’s “religious education” would be moving through a period where it focused on “our Judeo-Christian history.” And the bulletin mentioned a class in the Bhagavad-Gita, but without any comment on how it was being taught.

The other thing that caught my eye was a Thursday meeting with members of the church board so they can explain their reasoning behind coming out with a statement against constitutional amendment 36 to members of the church. I’m thinking about going. (Sidenote: Unlike Sven and Gretchin’s, my “No on 36” sign has lasted for a few weeks. We even bought a spare in case something happened to the first one, but so far so good. Our neighborhood’s like that, I guess.)

I suppose I want to go because I’m curious about whether they’ll address what they plan to do if the amendment passes and we do get a fully heterosexual definition of marriage written into the state constitution. Will they conduct unlicensed marriages in defiance of the law as a matter of conscience?

I guess another reason it seems useful to go is because of a nagging sense I’ve got that one of the things we’re (we in a societal sense) losing is a collective agreement on the existence of “people of good will who disagree with us.” That’s been rattling around in my head for several weeks now, since reading Phil Agre’s “What is Conservatism and What is Wrong With It?” several weeks ago. Everyone I know probably doesn’t want to hear about it anymore, but it’s still bobbing up and down in the front of my thoughts. Especially this paragraph:

Liberalism is a movement of conscience. Liberals speak endlessly of conscience. Yet conservative rhetors have taken to acting as if they owned the language of conscience. They even routinely assert that liberals disparage conscience. The magnitude of the falsehood here is so great that decent people have been set back on their heels. […] The flamboyant nastiness of rhetors such as Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter represents the destruction of conscience as a type of liberation. They are like cultists, continually egging on their audiences to destroy their own minds by punching through one layer after another of their consciences.

Agre has keyed into something that has consistently bugged me, but that I hadn’t figured out how to articulate for myself.

The corrosive secondary effect of that assault on conscience, besides serving to marginalize people acting on a different set of principles, is the self-demonization of people who perceive “morality” and “goodness” to have become the property of a narrow collection of bigoted fundamentalists who presume to judge others’ faith. Those bigoted fundamentalists make it difficult to speak about moral or ethical behavior without invoking notions of abstemious piety and literal-minded intolerance of dissent. That’s a side matter, and I haven’t really gotten around to articulating it very well, so I’ll leave it be.

It seems useful to go because I want to see faith communities (this afternoon Phil called them “communities of conscience,” which is better) that aren’t on that side.

ii.

That side has been very much on my mind lately.

I think the reaction to Bush’s poor performance at last week’s debate is what got the wheels turning… the way people on conservative Web sites were in denial about his shoddy performance (not across the board… some were pretty game about the whole thing), as if there’s ever been any doubt that Bush in a formal debate setting is worse than a fish out of water.

I read some commentator somewhere noting the way it’ll be very hard for people who backed Bush early on to climb down from positions they were maintaining with great stridency. Yeah. It will be hard. Most of them won’t do it. Bush was the guy who acted when they were at their most afraid. I knew people like him (and like his believers) in the army, too: Something goes wrong, and the first guy to wave his arms and run around yelling usually gets the most social traction. People are funny that way. And if you came in second in the “running around waving your arms and barking orders” running, pointing out that the guy who beat you to it probably messed something up just gets you a huffy “At least I did something.” Sort of like Bush in that debate. And like his backers. “At least he did something.”

But I haven’t been engaging on that front much.

Phil sent me some links from writing I did last year. I was pretty surprised at myself. It was pre-Ben, so I had more time and probably more energy, but I engaged in a manner I just haven’t in a while:

If you needed any more evidence that these people are nauseatingly false when they solemnly acknowledge the horror of war before beating its drums, this is pretty much it. Having destroyed Iraq’s government and thrown the country into chaos, our responsibility is to fix the damned place, not use it as bait in a “plan” I suspect is primarily a fever dream of hack commentators who can’t admit that Bush & Co. had no exit strategy. Sullivan, no doubt, thinks he’s demonstrating more of that “steely resolve” a civilian with no input into foreign policy and at no particular risk from dying in the conflicts he incites must demonstrate.

So if I could be that strident a year ago, why not now? I noticed a moment of genuine outrage yesterday when I heard a piece of Bush’s stump speech. Here it is as quoted by Slate:

He [John Kerry] said that America has to pass a global test before we can use American troops to defend ourselves. That’s what he said. Think about this. Sen. Kerry’s approach to foreign policy would give foreign governments veto power over our national security decisions.

So all the blood rushed to my head because I watched the debate and knew he didn’t say any such thing. The rest of the Slate item pretty much makes the case. The charitable interpretations we could apply to the president… that he’s surrounded by Svengalis… that he’s the feeble boy prince with wicked and domineering advisors… that he cuts corners to keep things simple because he’s kind of simple, but that he’s still relating the world as he knows it… have to go out the window.

The man is lying. He got his ass kicked in the debate, so he’s gone skulking back to his fans to lap up a little adoration for something even more petty than representing “I should’ve saids” as things he actually said. He’s inventing “He should’ve saids” for his opponent. And he’s treating his supporters with contempt.

So I let myself get a little angry over that.

iii.

Getting angry isn’t something I like to do much. I remember when I used to go looking for reasons to get angry. Not “go hit someone” angry. Just “ineffectually outraged.” It made me sort of sour and preachy and difficult… along with judgmental, hostile, and snide. Can’t leave those out.

So for a while, after a few formative experiences I don’t choose to relate, I got over being angry so often. It was a good move. I wasn’t doing anything… I was just stewing. But I took from that a certain distrust of people who get angry when I’m not sure their anger is doing them any good. Or rather, I distrust strangers I sense get angry easily, and I become disappointed with friends when I think they’re indulging anger needlessly, or to no effect. Maybe it’s because I associate anger with a sort of weakness or failure. I know I think of my own irritable years as a period of weakness.

And it’s not that I think anger is bad all the time. Some of those formative experiences I alluded to included learning that anger can make will tangible in a thick, humming, vibrates-in-the-air sort of way. Sometimes you need to get angry.

All the same, I mistrust anger. I mistrust myself when I feel myself getting angry. Sometimes I channel it into something else, as when the Abu Ghraib story broke and I found myself thinking “I wore the uniform those soldiers besmirched, and I hate them worse than any civilian who thinks he hates those soldiers could possibly know.” The anger gave way to a different kind of misery, shame, and sadness.

iv.

So I’ve watched the swaggering this administration has indulged in… everything from the reductionist lying of this past week to Paul Wolfowitz declaring that a disgruntled Special Forces commander could come “tell it to [his] face,” to the public destruction of Colin Powell’s credibility in the name of an ill-conceived, poorly planned rush to war, to a mounting list of people who face character assassination and professional compromise for daring to speak the truth as they know it.

I won’t dignify it with a link, but I note this evening that someone’s still out there trying to make the case that Kerry’s Vietnam service wasn’t so great. And another piece of reading I’ve been working on is going through my head: George Lakoff’s “don’t think of an elephant!” reminds me that in addition to annihilating the conscience or monopolizing the discourse surrounding morality, ethics, and conscience, the conservative movement has truly mastered the art of the beneficial draw: They don’t need to win, and they’re often happy to not win. It’s usually enough for them to raise enough doubt to keep the foot soldiers in line and perhaps neutralize the matter for the swings and undecideds.

An example:

The Swifties are going for broke in their shameless slurs of a fellow veteran, but they don’t need to do anything more than plant doubt. No one wants any more than that. Just enough doubt for someone who’s asleep to cock an eye, murmur to himself that there was something about that Kerry lying about getting his medals or something like that, and snuggle back under the covers until November.

But the Swifties are the most petty of the list, and sort of pathetic when compared to an administration that exploits a fearful populace to suit the assorted agendas of militarist utopians, backwards would-be theocrats, corporate shills, and millenarian thugs.

An angry reaction to all that still won’t do me any good. It might make me write more passionately, but not much else at this point. I can’t really vote furiously. I could, but it might render the ballot illegible. But another thing I’ve realized in the past few weeks is how much absorption with my home and family… my “mom, dad, baby boy” family… has caused me to keep up less than I used to, and made me more timid about uncorking with the opinions because I haven’t taken the time to suss out all the angles and don’t know if the mad I’m committing to is even, you know, still within its shelf life.

v.

So yesterday afternoon, after coming home from church, Ben took a nap and Al and I watched “Spellbound”, which is a documentary about spelling bee contestants at the national bee. Being a spelling bee washout myself (on the morning of bee day at the school, I went to the nurse’s office claiming sickness, but she knew I was in the spelling bee and told me to leave her office unless I was really sick, so I went up and bombed in the first round), I felt for the kids who got eliminated, and I knew why they looked relieved when they walked off the stage.

People have made a lot of the suspense the movie generates, but I kept coming back to the children themselves. There’s something about the bright-eyed vulnerability of junior high kids. They probably know to act jaded in their own circles, but in front of the camera and surrounded by adults, an essential sweetness comes out.

I put Ben in his backpack carrier and we took a walk up Mt. Tabor while Al caught a nap. I was hoping for a glimpse of Mt. St. Helens from the park at the top, but it was far too hazy. So we just enjoyed the walk.

Ben liked it whenever I stopped under a tree to take a picture of the leaves. I could see the shadow of his little hands reaching up to touch them while I’d fiddle with the camera, trying to capture that incredible, radiant, living luminosity a changing leaf has when it’s not yet dried out, but its colors have changed and the sunlight is hitting it just right. I’m content to not be good enough to really capture that yet, because I have a few pictures that are close enough that I know what I was feeling and seeing when I shot them. Then I’d start walking again, I’d listen for the sounds that would tell me he’d managed to grab a leaf from a low branch, and I’d reach back to get it from him before he could eat it.

Ben chatters a lot on those walks. (If you’ve got QuickTime, I’ve got a movie you can watch from one of the last times we took him out in the backpack.) It’s a sweet, contented sound. Some moments, I wish the walk wouldn’t have to end, but it does, and there’s something also very nice about bringing him home and playing with him for a while after, because it feels like the day has been just like that moment all day long.

vi.

And that’s about that. No real beginning and no real end. Sunday was a good day that stretched out all over the place. And for as much as standing in the golden light of a changing tree or feeling Ben’s hands on my neck as I carry him would push all the thoughts of what’s not right away, they also demanded some thinking, which I did.

And because I spent so long confusing the act of being angry with “action,” and because that instilled in me a certain resistance to even getting angry once I realized how foolish it was to think that my anger was doing something, it was useful to think about all that from a quiet remove and realize that giving up my yearning for a clattering, grinding, tearing, angry confrontation with Them … that side… doesn’t mean I’ve given up my right to say “You people need to stop this.” They do need to stop. We need to stop them.

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