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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

THE FORGOTTEN VIRTUE

"England expects every man will do his duty"
-Admiral Nelson

It is still a tradition in the military to view certain actions and behavior as one's duty.  In the rest of the western world, however, this has fallen out of common use and into strong disfavor.  Mention someone has a duty and they immediately rebel, crying freedom like at the end of Braveheart.
For an American, the word duty carries with it an awful burden of requirement, force, tyranny, and misery.  Jury duty is something "smart" people try to get out of.  Marital duty is mocked and attacked as oppression.  Civic duty is something only fascists believe in.
Duty is viewed as evil, as compulsion.  If you only do something out of duty, then you should stop, we're told.  Its no longer worth doing.  If your job has become only duty: show up to get paid, then its miserable and you need to find new work.  If you stay together only out of duty in a marriage, then its time to get to a lawyer and break it up.  You shouldn't ever do anything out of duty, that's like slavery, we're told.
But duty is one of the finest things in human existence.
All the great things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom, justice, honor, duty, mercy, hope.
-Winston Churchill
It might seem like I'm overstating things, but I'm not.  Duty is something higher that we're called to, not some horrific drudgery.  Yes, when you're a child having to do something seems horrible because you spend most of your life doing what you want, when you want, and how you want.  The few times when you're required to do something, its a horrible imposition on your self-serving existence.
But as we grow, we learn that life is about more than ourselves, that we are meant to be outward-facing, and are at our best when we focus on others, not ourselves.  Even the most secular, atheistic psychologist recognizes the benefits of looking outside yourself toward others when you're feeling miserable.
Duty is what compels us to keep doing things we don't care for, are distracted from, and tire of.  Duty is what keeps life going when we would rather not.  Its what makes the coward appear brave, the weak appear strong, and its what delivers the future to our children. 
One of the best signs of maturity is when someone does their duty when they do not want to.  Its why you go to work when you feel no motivation at all, its why you walk the dog on a rainy day when you'd rather be snuggling with your girl watching TV, its why you talk to your grandma on the phone when she's boring and repeats herself a lot.
This concept of duty as maturity is the central theme of To Kill A Mockingbird, when Scout is taught about courage by her father.  She sees him kill a rabid dog in the street and thinks he's the bravest man alive, but he sends her to spend time with a dying old lady to read to her and care for her all summer so she can learn what real courage is.  She faces what she does not wish to do, learning discipline, courage, and duty: to keep at something you must do and know you should do, even when you do not wish to.
Creative, artistic types have a particularly difficult time with this principle.  Duty seems horrible because its easy to fool ourselves that what makes us tick and gives us our creativity is impossible to harness, an ethereal muse that we cannot control and must wait for.  Its nonsense, a fiction we invented to justify our tendency toward sloth, irresponsibility, and selfishness.
Duty is the essence of manhood.
-George S. Patton
The problem is that duty is its own goal.  You don't get a pat on the head or an award for doing your duty, that's what you were supposed to do.  Its what you get punished for not doing.  And in a culture so self focused as our own, we think something is only worth doing if we get rewarded for doing so.
The concept that there are things we should do merely because we have a duty to do so, rather than what we get goodies for like a dog being trained is increasingly inconceivable to modern folks.  And yet that's how the world works; all of us doing what we should do, when we should do it.  Its everyone doing their duty, carrying out their jobs and responsibilities that results in a functioning society and gives us a world we can live in.
The more we require an "attaboy" for doing even the most basic, ordinary tasks, the worse the world becomes.  Stopping at a stop sign, paying for your meal, looking both ways at a cross walk, etc all are basic duties that we regularly fulfill in life but require no reward for.  Indeed, many carry punishment for not doing them - either by law or consequence.  Just showing up to work and feeding your children is duty that we do not for reward but because we should and must.
Should we ever reach a point where people consistently and regularly stopped doing their duty everywhere, society would utterly collapse.  And there are signs we're increasingly headed in that direction as more and more people presume basic things as their birthright; something they need not work to achieve, but should be handed simply by being alive.
I slept and dreamt that life was beauty; I woke and found that life was duty.
-Lord Byron
And a world where no one does their duty, only what they desire, is a world that is so corrupt and destructive we all end up like the hover chair jockeys in Wall-E: unable to do anything for ourselves, unable to survive.  A worthless, continual drain on the world around us.
The child in us desires that life.  The adult knows better.

Monday, August 25, 2014

HOW RUDE

Modesty, propriety can lead to notoriety
You could end up as the only one
Gentleness, sobriety are rare in this society
At night a candle's brighter than the sun
-Sting, "Englishman In New York"

A while back I wrote a piece examining the nature of masculinity in a culture that no longer needs men for their traditional roles of provider, protector, and constructor.  In it I noted:
As society becomes more civilized and technically advanced, those things men are relied on for become obsolete: we have police, firemen, contractors, supermarkets, and so on, all of which take care of the problems men were needed for in a family.
I suggested that the proper approach to this is to become a gentleman, to demonstrate strength through character, protection through moral example, provision through instruction and behavior, and so on.
We live in a culture that not only lacks this level of dignified character and proper behavior, but actively mocks and derides it.  Someone who behaves with polite character is thought of as at best an eccentric, possibly mentally deranged, and certainly an idiot.  In our culture, snark, sarcasm, and mockery are considered high forms of wit and humor.  That's how you demonstrate your sophistication and intelligence: by hitting someone with a great zinger - ooh burn!
Roland S. Martin recently wrote a column in The Daily Beast about rudeness in which he gave half a dozen all-too-familiar examples of rudeness in modern culture and wondered:
You may say, “Man, get over it,” but when I see rudeness everywhere I go, it tells me that we have a generation of parents who did not do and are not doing their jobs. When and why did this happen, that parents stopped teaching manners? Conservatives would blame the 60s, since they blame the 60s for everything. Liberals would blame the 80s, the rise of the selfish Gordon Gekko type, the creation of the uber-class that expects and demands perfect service at all time and in all places. Sandwiched in between of course is the 70s—“The Me Decade,” as Tom Wolfe called it, the time of retreat to individualism after the demanding social commitments of the 60s. I’m not sure which decade to blame or when it happened, but it did. American parents started raising rude children. We really need to emphasize again the notion of common courtesy to our kids and teenagers.
I don't notice this so often personally where I live.  People tend to be reasonably polite in stores and on the street, even driving in my town.  But I know that's not typical and certain online its rare. But get this: the picture accompanying the article?  A really rude gesture, in wide screen technicolor.
In fact, rudeness seems to be a badge of honor, something to strive after and achieve rather than avoid.  And I do believe that it is not common for parents to emphasize politeness any more.  Writing thank you cards, saying please, letting people go first, giving up your seat to a lady or an elderly person, etc have largely disappeared.  Even little stuff like taking your hat off when you go indoors or for a national anthem are unheard of.
Part of this certainly is teaching and cultural.  People have gotten away from wearing hats so much that nobody remembers the etiquette; when do you take your hat off?  Military still teaches this, and you can usually tell when someone has served by how they behave with a hat.
But it goes deeper.  A society that has rejected any foundations or structure of behavior and has abandoned tradition and the past as any guide for the present will find its self cut adrift.  Polite behavior and dignity have no measurable, tangible, or immediate benefit for the individual.  And without some sort of external pressure, people tend to ignore future benefits for the immediate.
So rudeness becomes the norm: I'm gonna get mine.
What's worse is that this has become so normal and assumed that if you point out that they are being rude or impolite you're cast as the bad guy for making them feel bad about themselves.  Their rudeness is only reasonable; your response has bruised their inner child, its time for sensitivity training.  So Politenessman is an old alternate newspaper bad guy, the brutal fascist who punishes people for breaking societal norms, a thug that is mocked and derided in satire.  For trying to get people to be polite.
And then there's the internet.  We all know about the bravery of being out of range: if there's nobody there to enforce politeness or intimidate you, there's no price to pay for rudeness.  In fact, people might praise and enjoy your cutting comment or comic dig.  You can become popular and well-liked by being the biggest jerk in the room.
And without the immediate, physical reaction of people to your behavior such as a hurt look, a pained tone of voice in response, a flinch, etc, you tend not to get the feedback that might otherwise restrain your speech.
But there's another aspect to this, which I wrote about a while back in The New Illiteracy:
There is some evidence that young people are even starting to lose the ability to accurately read facial expressions and tone of voice in their fellow man because they primarily relate through screens and texting than through interpersonal communication.  This shouldn't be too shocking; you've probably seen groups of young people all face down in their own device and shut off from speech by ear buds.  They might be communicating with each other, but smiley faces and so on only work in text.  It takes a different skill set to learn, display, and read facial expressions and tone of voice.
If you communicate primarily through text and not face to face, if your primary means of interaction is through a keyboard rather than physically with someone else, then you begin to lose - or perhaps don't even learn - cues that teach you how your words hurt people.
I've noticed that younger people are much crueler, more brutal and hurtful, and more mocking in their speech than older people are.  Not just the child hood digs at people we all grew up with, but a near-continuous use of mockery and attack that is shrugged at by their peers.  They all understand that being called a stupid fag means nothing, having grown up being hailed constantly by this kind of thing.
Its one thing to bust someone's chops to mildly poke fun at a friend or colleague for something they do or say.  Guys do that all the time.  Its another to do so, continually, to everyone, for the slightest action.  You break a pencil and get laughed at for being a gay loser who FAILED.  You drop something and people laugh at you for failing at life.  And they're so used to it, it means nothing to them.
They seem to have virtually no concept of being polite, friendly, or dignified.  In fact, they seem to be deliberately doing the opposite and I wonder if this isn't backlash at being continually taught to be multicultural, careful not to hurt feelings, and pushed to be constantly supportive and diverse.  Don't make fun of Billy in his wheelchair, don't say that about Sally's hair.  And kids usually get sick of that and rebel.
In the place of objective, time-tested standards of ethical behavior, kids are instead being showered with a dizzying, incomprehensible, and ever-changing array of social behavior based on the latest academic theories and leftist ideas.  The more you throw rules at kids, the more they're going to rebel in other areas.
So we get ruder and ruder, and as Sting's song suggests: the one who isn't that way stands out more and more.  So the man and woman who behave politely, with dignity, honor, and truth, becomes more and more starkly set apart from their background culture.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

MARKED ABSENT

"...if you don't like your job you don't strike, you just go in every day and do it really half-assed: that's the American way."
-Homer Simpson

I went two whole years in a row without missing any school.  That was unusual for me because usually in the second semester would struggle a bit and I'd miss a few days then pick up again in Spring.  But it was rare to miss even one day a month; I liked school until my senior year and I looked forward to going back so if I could possibly go, I would.
I don't suppose that's particularly typical of kids, but I'd guess that it is unusual for students to miss too many days a month unless illness or disaster strikes.  Apparently the story is different for teachers these days.
In the San Francisco Chronicle, we find this story from Jill Tucker about the SF school districts:
While absenteeism is usually considered a student matter, in San Francisco - and many other districts - the average teacher misses more school than the average child.

If last year's numbers hold steady, the 4,100 teachers in San Francisco, on average, will each be absent about 11 times this school year, about once every three weeks. That's four to five days more than a typical student, out of 180 days total.
Ms Tucker notes that four of those days are in service and other required days.  The rest, teachers are skipping class.  And the days they miss are often pretty obvious:
In San Francisco, where classes start Monday, teacher absences gained attention last year when the district struggled to find enough substitutes to fill classrooms the day before Thanksgiving break, when more than 1 in 10 teachers called in sick, took the day off or were in training. Similar spikes in absenteeism happened several other times on a Friday or before three-day weekends.
This isn't unique to teachers; taking a day off before an extended weekend or holiday is pretty common.  But teachers are the ones who constantly claim they're in it for the children, that education is the most important thing ever, and so on.  So in theory, they hold a higher moral standard and dedication to their work than Joe Blow at the tire factory.
And that's the thing: whatever standards teachers once held, it seems the majority of them have let slide, or drop entirely.  Because this article points out that while slightly high, this is close to average in every major city in America.  San Francisco isn't unusually plagued with lazy teachers, this is pretty typical for big city schoolmarms.  
In fact, across 40 school districts studied, 16% of teachers are "chronically absent;" missing 3 or more days in a row repeatedly, excluding maternity leave.
You're not going to get an apple that way.
Now, this approach to work isn't unusual as I've said before.  Its kind of become the standard for workers of all sorts of age groups and demographics in America.  The attitude is that you do the least amount of work possible to retain your job, whine until you get raises, and then go spend your money on what really matters in life: yourself and having fun.
I wouldn't at all be surprised if this hasn't infected every layer and type of job: pastors to brain surgeons, cops to judges.  Our president at the moment is a perfect example of a guy who seems like he'd rather be out partying and having fun than doing his work, no matter what is happening around the world.  Its become sort of a cliche now: if something has gone horribly wrong in the world, if some crisis erupts that requires the president's attention, he's either at or about to go to a fund raiser.  And fund raisers are not hard work, they are a party you might say a short speech at then go hang out with rich people and eat expensive food.
But he's not the cause of this or particularly unique, he's just a symptom.  Presidents are elected that represent their culture, not lead it.  He's very prominent and visible at it, not unique.  A concept of work having innate worth and being something valuable in its own self has been lost.  Work is drudgery, slavery you must endure so that you can get the money you deserve before even setting foot in the job - indeed, you deserve more but the boss is a stingy money gouging jerk.
The thing is, teachers were supposed to be different.  They endlessly, continually complain about never being paid enough for their hard work which they are so dedicated to and so honorably engaged in for the future.  Selfless, tireless, setting an example to the children.  Its not their fault that kids turn out badly, its the parents, the curriculum, the society, the gangs, the Republicans cutting their funds that are all to blame.  Teachers try so hard and work so hard, surely we can pay them more?
There are a lot of much harder jobs out there.  Firemen, oil field workers, soldiers, prison guards, etc.  You can list several dozen harder jobs just as critical to our lives and future, and none of them whine as much as teachers about their pay and work.  Not even half as much.  Soldiers grumble that they get lousy pay for risking their lives, but they don't go on strike and tell everyone, everywhere, all the time that they're paid so awful like teachers do.
Its such a constant drumbeat it is ridiculous.  According to US News and World Report, teachers are actually paid pretty well:
The BLS reports the median annual salary for high school teachers was $55,050 in 2012. The best-paid 10 percent in the field made approximately $85,690, while the bottom 10 percent made $36,930.
You're not going to get rich at the job, but that's not the point, is it?  And those numbers are two years old, showing a five year trend of going up on average, across America, every year.  Fifty-five grand a year for working nine months ain't bad, particularly when you claim your job is really about children and the future, not getting wealthy.
But what do we hear every time?  Teachers should get paid more, why do athletes make so much?  More, more, more.  And yet teachers seem to want to work less, less, less, taking extra time off.  This does not present a unified front of selfless sacrifice and honorable dedication to the children.  If you cared so much about the kids you wouldn't skive off an extra vacation day at their expense, would you?
Part of the problem is that school districts like San Francisco don't even require asking permission to take time off; you just call an automated system which gets a substitute.  They don't have to tell anyone at the school or ask the principal if they can get a day off, they just do it and call in to get a sub.  This kind of "innovation" simply makes people more likely to use it.
And teachers' unions have succeeded in making it so hard to even discipline a teacher, let alone fire them no matter how heinous their behavior, that there's no pressure or encouragement to stay at the job and work hard.  
Think about your job right now.  If you didn't have to call in sick, just set up a replacement, if you were very difficult to fire no matter what you did, if you didn't even have to talk to a supervisor to let them know you won't be in... how many extra days off might you take?
Culture, system, and human nature are conspiring to make matters worse than ever in education.  More funding won't make a difference to this, not even a small difference.  If you paid teachers ten times as much they still have no motivation to not take extra days off.  If you quadrupled funding per class room it wouldn't make the slightest difference to this.  Money wouldn't change this.
The system is practically designed to encourage taking time off, and culture encourages people to do so because after all, what matters is how you feel, how happy you are, how comfortable, healthy, and good you feel about yourself, and oh yes, how much sex you have. We're told that children are our future, that educating young people is the most important thing someone can do, and that it is a travesty that Biff Linebacker gets paid ten times as much as a teacher every year.
But the system and culture doesn't act like that's true at all, does it?

Friday, August 15, 2014

A CHRISTIAN RESPONSE: Israel and Gaza

"Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side, for God is always right."
-Abraham Lincoln

Every so often, violence explodes in the Middle East, particularly around Israel.  The very existence of the nation seems a magnet for anger and violence, and while every single president of the US since Nixon has tried to find a solution, they've all failed miserably.
The most recent spate of violence has dragged up all the same tired old arguments, with people picking sides and accusing the other of lying and staging news events.  Ancient animosities against certain ethnic groups are growing again, and people are dying.
It wouldn't be that hard to go through the actual events and weed out the core of what's going on and why, nor to find where the problems lie, but there's another aspect to this I want to consider.  How should Christians respond to these events?
Some instantly and without thought leap to the side of Israel.  For many in America, this is an easy call because of their theology: Israel is God's chosen people and the final battleground when Christ returns.  For others it is a matter of being sympathetic toward Jews as a sort of kinship: we share a Testament and thousands of years of religious history.  And for still others, the memories of the horrors in WW2 make them tend to side with Jews against anyone.
Meanwhile, others instantly and without thought leap to the side of the palestinians*.  For many this is a political issue, siding with the oppressed other and what they perceive as the underdog.  For others, it is a question of what they get from news and friends, and who seems to be the bad guy as they get information from popular media.  For still others, they see the Israeli response to palestinian actions excessive or extreme; lacking in 'proportionality.'
As Christians, our first and central concern in anything should be what glorifies God.  We cannot let anything, no matter how compelling or emotionally powerful, eclipse that central truth.  This is often to work out in the modern world, but at the very least it means that we should respond in love, humility, and truth.
Simply put, that means when presented with some event or story, we should first be humble toward whoever brings this to us, not dismissive and arrogant.  We should be loving, so that we are first concerned about the people involved and the cost in lives and family, whatever group they happen to belong to.  And we should be concerned with the truth both in our statements and in what we learn.
All war brings with it lies, distortions, rumors, misinformation, and propaganda.
Its easy to find examples of how these lies and propaganda are spread, and the more media-savvy and less scrupulous a side, the more willing they are to use it.  Christians should be more interested in finding the truth and ignoring lies than having their personal preferences confirmed or politics supported.  If Israel lies about the purpose of a tunnel, then we as Christians should recognize that and consider it.  If palestinians lie about where they are launching rockets from, then Christians should recognize that and consider it.
The key here as in all things is to be not motivated by what we wish to be or are inclined to believe to be true, but what is actually true.  And further to not choose sides out of some sense of team playing or what is gained politically, but to be on God's side, always.  Sometimes that will mean sympathy for one side of a conflict, sometimes it will mean the other.
And always our prayer should be for peace and an end to war and hostility.  Christians should always favor peace whenever possible and it is within our power. As the Bible says, there is a time for war, but we should be known as peacemakers and lovers of peace first and foremost - reluctant to fight, not eager.
Our prayers should be for the families on both sides, for the survivors of those killed in the conflict, for the leadership of both sides to seek peace and do right rather than what best serves them.  We should do what we can to aid people in need, and show Christ's love wherever there is suffering and want.
And we should always be first to recognize that all humanity, whatever group they are in, however they behave, are made in the image of God, so that their lives are sacred, and their souls may yet be saved to eternal glory.
Sometimes it seems like the whole world is burning, and that we live in the worst possible times.  Many times in the past people have felt this way - imagine what went through the heads of people in WW2, during the Napoleonic wars, during invasions by Genghis Khan, the black plague, and the fall of the Roman Empire.  All of these were times of horrendous catastrophe and calamity.
Is the world coming to an end?  Some day, in God's time, and for His glory.  Until then we have a duty to do what is right and obey Him to his glory where we are and when we are.  Christ's return should catch us doing His will and showing love, not squabbling and cheering for death.
*You may note I never capitalize "palestinians" even though spellcheck angrily scribbles red under it.  That's because the title presumes an ethnic, national identity, which they do not share.  There isn't and never was a nation of "palestine" only a region.  There is no ethnic group of "palestinians" because they were nomadic over a very large area, and many are simply there because they were dumped there from countries such as Syria to get rid of them.  My lack of capitalization is a protest against trying to craft a fictional, mythical history for these people, not out of disrespect for them individually.

This is part of the Christian Response series.