A Walking, Breathing Oxymoron

Hello from my office on a dreary and chilly pre-Apocalyptic Friday,

As I write this, I am doing it to clear my mind, to make sense of the nonsensical, to put my trust in something larger than myself, which is always needed, and to create the possibility that I might be able to focus a bit more accurately and fairly on my students’ work. As I noted in my last post, I do not want another email, text, tweet, FB post, or anything else about the election. On one level, I am disillusioned by the acrimonious nature of all of it, and simultaneously, I am energized that we might have the largest turnout of voters in a century, and that is democracy in action. Of course, the fact that well north of a billion dollars has been spent on the electing of the President alone is mind boggling. While I will not get into the politics of Citizens United v FEC, there is little doubt that the 5-4 ruling, which overturned about a century of restrictions has opened the floodgate of outside money into the political process (regardless of party). I looked up some figures today and it seems over 14 billion has been spent on the entire cycle so far. Incredible. It seems fairly evident that PACs and Super-PACs are nothing more than shadow entities of our two party system, and as such, it is not surprising that many individual people struggle with the idea of equity in our democracy. It should not catch anyone off guard that the talking point of the average contribution of the individual being $46.00 or whatever number is ponied out as an example of the importance of the citizen is regularly referenced. This is the political, the real, the actual landscape of our country as we barrel into next week’s Presidential election.

As I noted for my students, I still believe in the power of the individual ballot and I have encouraged all of them to vote. I have a young student who is proud beyond words of the time he is spending knocking on doors, sans mask, to support the President. My response to him is two pronged. I do believe you should wear a mask, but I commend you for your political activism. I should note that my mask conversation seemed more profound when I heard from him, unsolicited, that he visits his 94 year old grandparent, one suffering from COPD. This morning I was on a Zoom meeting and someone stayed with me following the meeting and noted that it was really nice to see someone who could be liberal and yet faithful, again something some might find as incongruent. I have been accused more than once of being an intellectual Christian, which btw, I do not see as pejorative. I regularly tell my students that God gave them a brain to do more than hold their ears apart. I believe both action and faith, which is not something that merely sits on a shelf, are integrally connected. This does not mean I believe that others are required to agree with me for me to appreciate them, but it does mean that I am more drawn to find commonality with people who will think, analyze, and struggle with the seeming inconsistencies in our present world. There are so many things our government does, regardless of party, that are self-serving. I could give a list, but in a general way the number of times we have propped up some really shady character or government because it has served our national interest, only to have it come back and bite us in the ass, cannot be dismissed.

What do the tropes like democracy in action, most important election of our lifetime, MAGA, America First, she’s a Karen, basket of deplorables or even real issues that have become tropes, like PTSD, opioid addiction, immigrant, and disabled veteran do to our political discourse? They are powerful ways to try to simplify something or someone who should not be simplified. As I age, what I realize more and more is our propensity for over simplification long preceded our current social-media-sound-byte-seven-syllable culture. While I lament my students’ desire for a recipe card, rubric-offering, existence, too many of us in the baby boomer generation are as guilty of this overly prescribed existence. We called it the American dream. Fareed Zakaria, the well-known commentator, television personality, wrote a significant piece in Time magazine a decade ago (almost to the day) titled “How to Restore the American Dream” (http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2026916,00.html). I grew up believing with all my heart that it is a reality; I would go as far as to say I am living it. I certainly make more than my parents ever did. I have been able to go to college and graduate school and travel in ways they never did, but is that all there is? I would argue in a sort of meta-argumentative way that this is certainly what the most wealthy in this country want me to believe. Certainly, there are those whose dreams have been achieved much more successfully than mine, but does that make them any less subjected to the same 1% most of us are? Again, as I shared with my students the other day, I believe the following equation is necessary to succeed: Educated+ Skilled= Competency. I explained further that competency is often misunderstood. Competency is not being average, but rather it means you both know how and why to do something and you do it really well. My example of competency is Aaron Rodgers. I am a serious Green Bay Packer football fan, so I have some strong sense of his accomplishments. I argued that Aaron Rodgers is competent. He probably understands football better than 99% of most in the NFL, and he is really good at what he does, to the tune of $33.25 million dollars this year. I then encouraged them to work to be that sort of competent in their studies. Certainly, Mr. Rodgers (pun intended) is glad to be in the neighborhood he is in. Still . . . while he has more money than I will ever have (for instance, I can write out his salary number and recognize it, I have no comprehension of what that kind of money means) he is as fragile as I am, and in some ways more so. He is one play, one injury away from not ever playing again. His dream is more fragile than mine, if you will. And both ironically, and appropriately, his vote is no more valuable than mine. That is the genius of our system (and I choose to intentionally not fall down the rabbit hole of the electoral college).

To return to the tropes listed above, there is so much that can be said. The rhetorical power of each of these terms or phrases is tremendous. One of the tropes I have known most of my life (not included above) is “Love it or Leave it.” The reality of that trope is its all or nothing tension. One can love something or someone deeply and still be disappointed in it or them. I have often noted the importance of my grandmother in my life. The most devastating thing she could express to me was being disappointed in me. It did happen more than once, and I was always ashamed when it happened. I am deeply disappointed in the character of our national conversation at the moment. Earlier this week I watched the first Presidential Debate between then-Senator John Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon. It was a debate about policy and the direction of the country. It was civil; it was substantive; and the debaters even complimented the character of their opponent. It might be worth a look if you want to see how the treatment of an opponent and our national conversation has changed in sixty years. Many of the issues are not that different, but the delivery would make you believe we are a different species. I love this country and philosophically what it stands for, the concept that both individual freedoms and being a country that believes in equality and justice matter. Yet if you even consider that combination, there is a certain oxymoronic quality to it. Can we believe, or more importantly practice equality and justice while focusing on ourselves? I believe it is difficult to do so, and there are times it is more difficult than we are able to manage. I believe we have entered a time where the divisive tropes and actions of too many across our ideological spectrum of true democracy has been become so fractured that living in the midst of this is beyond painful. Even the writing of this is profoundly sad to me. I have been more vocal about that, and even should I choose to leave, I would not give up my citizenship, for a number of reasons. Nevertheless, a conversation with a person I find to be astute, opinionated, passionate, and more kind than they let on noted if I choose to leave sometime in the next four years that I should not vote because that vote would be unfair. The more I have pondered that, the more stunned I am. There are a multitude of reasons, but in their texts, there was an argument that seemed to equate my being in another country to being an immigrant and that my vote should not be allowed. Even if I did choose to leave, what happens with social security and a number of other things with health care would still have possible consequences. They, of course, argue that because I might leave that voting is somehow unfair or selfish. In addition, it is amazing to me that their background experience most likely had them in a place where there was some need for government assistance in a variety of possible ways, but that seems to be forgotten. Again, there is the struggle between individual freedom and justice or equity. Am I offended by their request, no. Am I surprised by their request? Perhaps a bit, but not because they made it as much as by the lack of logic in it.

So how did I become this oxymoron of a person? That is also a difficult thing to understand or explain. I grew up in a blue-collar, union family through and through. I did not always understand my father’s passion for/about the union. Today, in spite of no longer being what some would consider being blue-collar, I have been active in the faculty and coach union in the State System and I understand his passion was based in his commitment to fairness, to equity, and to justice for the individual worker. How is it I can be what I believe is a faithful Christian and a liberal in terms of social action? Again, because I believe it is combination of thinking about how I believe justice and equity work in our daily lives and pondering my understanding of a Jesus that questioned the religious aristocracy of his day. I do believe the individual has accountability and responsibility for one’s self, but I also believe those in power are selfish in the use of their power. Therefore it is incumbent on faithful people to care for their brothers and sisters. The parable of the good Samaritan informs my idea of justice and love. One of the disconnects for me are those who argue they are Pro-life, but willing and active in their dismissal of that child after it is born. How is it Christian to protect life and then neglect it after birth? That is also oxymoronic, and, in my opinion, a form of brutality. Again, I am reminded of Dr. Friedrich Gaiser’s statement in my Pentateuch class, “Honesty without love is brutality.” Luke’s Gospel is not very kind in its portrayal of Jesus’s response to those who are wealthy (Luke 12; Luke 14:13-14; Luke 16; All of Luke 12-15; Luke 19:1-10;) and that is just the beginning. The Gospel of Matthew, which was written particularly to the Jewish people, addresses the importance of humility and care for the other. I argue against those who proof-text to understand Biblical arguments, but certainly the very nature of the Jesus’s ministry calls out those who believe their power gives them the right to neglect or take advantage of their fellow humans. It is the social justice element of the Gospel that compels me to question any proclamation that ignores that call. Dietrich Bonhoeffer publically confronted Nazism and the racism of his time. “The Reich’s political ideology, when mixed with theology of the German Christian movement, turned Jesus into a divine representation of the ideal, racially pure Aryan and allowed race-hate to become part of Germany’s religious life. Bonhoeffer provided a Christian response to Nazi atrocities” (Williams, Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance).

The hijacking of the Bible for a photo up in Lafayette Park this past summer is an example of such an attempt to connect political ideology to some divine representation of what President Trump wants to claim is being faithful. It is time to put a “spoke in the wheel” and that spoke is done one vote at time this coming week. Democracy is oxymoronic also. Certainly, some will argue the electoral college undermines the idea of one vote equals another, but there was a strong reason for it. The electoral college was to stop demagoguery. It was created to limit the idea of unfettered majority rules. John Adams would write that “[d]emocracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself” (Beinart qtd. 21Nov 2016). There certainly seems to be something ironic, incongruent in the way we are acting now and some belief that we hold the sanctity of the individual sacred. There is so much I could write, but suffice it to say I am struggling with how we are currently treating the other.

Today is now Saturday, the 31st of October, that day where growing up I believed in the generosity of my neighbors and their care for us as children. We walked the streets of our neighborhood feeling safe and happy. It is also the day that Luther posted his 95 Theses on the Castle Door of Wittenberg. It is Reformation; it is the day to question any injustice of the powerful. It is also the beginning of All Saints Day, the time in the church year we remember those who mattered to us and how their influences in our lives still matter. As I write this, 230,000 people have lost their lives to Covid (almost another 1,000 yesterday alone). The need to remember those lost certainly goes beyond Covid, so I realize that well, but this sort of lost is staggering. As we move toward an election, I merely ask that you vote. Think about it carefully, and vote your conscience and your heart. That is the reality of our world. Please work to respect the vote of your neighbor, your acquaintance, your friend, and yes, those who might vote opposite of what makes sense to you. More importantly, help someone vote. Help them get to the polls safely, even it their vote might cancel yours. As we move toward the conclusion of this bat-shit crazy year, can we move beyond our individual selfishness and treat the other with the respect and dignity they all deserve? Even if you do not like that person, you can still respect them. That seems oxymoronic also, but it is the right, the equitable, the just thing to do. As I move into this All Saints’ Day, I remember those who matter to me, those who have shaped me into the oxymoronic, breathing human I am. I remember my Grandmother Louise who loved me unconditionally; I remember my adoptive parents, Harry and Bernice, who brought me into their house and gave me chances and opportunities I would have never had. I remember my Great-aunt Helen, my grandmother’s older sister, who treated me with love and fairness and was always there to support me even into adulthood. I remember both my brother and sister, Robert and Kristina, both who loved me as a sibling and taught me more in their lives than they will ever know. I remember my Uncle Clare, the curmudgeonly first grade-dropout, who is one of the most intelligent nature lovers I will ever know. I remember my cousins, Jim and Joanne Wiggs, who were like parents to me and taught me how to respect and care for myself in ways I found incapable of doing before them. I remember Ruth Peters was one of the first to teach me accountability, and important lesson beyond anything I knew at the time. I remember Bud Reese, who was a surrogate father to me in a time I struggled so desperately to feel loved or lovable. They are all saints in my life and I am better person because of them. I hope and pray our democracy works as it should this week and I wish you all comfort and peace. As we move into this season of giving, make we truly and lovingly give.

Thank you as always for reading.

Dr. Martin

Published by thewritingprofessor55

I am a professor at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania and the director of and Professional and Technical Writing minor, a 24 credit certificate for non-degree seeking people, and now a concentration in Professional Writing and Digital Rhetoric. We work closely to move students into a 4+1 Masters Program with Instructional Technology. I love my work and I am content with what life has handed me. I merely try to make a difference for others by what I share, write, or ponder through my words.

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