Shocking

Faced with a choice between being ignorant or being depressed, the bliss of ignorance begins to look more attractive. Being informed is hard work, and since fact can also lead to cognitive dissonance, it doesn’t always make us feel good.

Being entertained is much easier. Nevertheless, some of us still prefer knowledge. Peddlers of media realize this, and they are also very aware of our tendency to rubberneck at the scene of an accident. So the facts they present are often dire, urgent, and breaking. Their facts have shock value to get our attention, but we can only stand to be shocked for so long. This is a win-win for the peddlers, as we are soon driven to consume entertainment to assuage the pain of being shocked.

Those of us who still want to be informed consume action-scene-live-breaking commentary in an effort to seek knowledge, and we consume entertainment to ease the pain of the harsh reality of broken news. Every year that passes finds more of us skipping right over being informed and going straight to entertainment.

Network ratings are high this year on the heels of a very painful (though not very factual) presidential election. Many people simply refuse to discuss politics now. This is unfortunate, but understandable. However, the disdain for knowledge is expanding to include world events and scientific advancement. We can all remember the last conversation we had about “Dancing with the Stars” or the latest sports scores, but when was the last time we discussed a documentary?

The largest single group of people eligible to vote last year – did not. Those of us who did vote have done little to entice non-voters into our camp. We, the fact seeking voters of the United States of America, are partisans. We suffer in various degrees from confirmation bias, allowing only those facts which agree with our preconceived notions to penetrate momentarily into our consciousness. We are so partisan, in fact, that we make value judgments about world events and decisions by our elected officials based, not on merit, but on political affiliation.

So we gather here this week in yet another attempt to overcome partisanship and transcend confirmation bias while we seek the truth. To aid in this quest, we offer you something to rubberneck at the scene of an accident of historic proportions in a long and ongoing emergency. It is shocking in its own right, but doubly so because of the fact that so many people have overlooked it. If it does not shock, we hope that it will at least offend. Offense also increases the flow of blood to the brain.

Without further delay, here is the statement most shocking: President Trump and President Obama are very similar, and in some ways identical.

Bet you didn’t see that one coming. It occurred to me while watching a video of Trump’s entourage and Saudi royals in a traditional dance with swords to celebrate “peace after war.” This, after the largest single arms deal in history. One could choke on the irony.

You see, Obama, the Nobel laureate, was overall the biggest arms dealer in history. Not to be outdone, Trump has already penned the single biggest arms deal in history barely 100 days into his first year.

Obama ran on hope and change for the middle class and the oppressed and spoke of peace in our time. He abruptly packed his cabinet with Wall Street bankers and war hawks, bombed someone somewhere every day for eight years and instituted a program of global assassination. Trump ran on a platform of “draining the swamp,” and then abruptly packed his cabinet with Wall Street bankers and war hawks.  Obama talked of a world free from nuclear weapons, and then spent over a trillion dollars upgrading the US arsenal. Trump accused Secretary Clinton of being a warmonger for her suggestion that we bomb Assad, then soon after getting elected, launched a cruise missile attack against Assad.

No doubt there are distinct differences between the two presidents. Obama abandoned his campaign promises by redefining terms and violating the spirit if not the letter of those promises. Obama was more sophisticated while Trump is more blunt and abrupt, already flipping positions on NATO, China, Russia, The Federal Reserve, and most recently, Islamic terrorism.

Both presidents ran, or rather “postured” against the establishment, but as Sam Husseini of Vote Pact wrote recently, they simply “rebranded” the establishment.

I saw an economic analysis recently which demonstrated that earning power for Americans peaked with those born in 1942. Washington has been occupied almost exclusively by Democrats and Republicans (and lobbyists) since then, so it would be almost impossible to blame this political philosophy or that for the decline in our fortunes. Yet we still do. We are supposed to. Our blame and our partisanship is essential for business to continue as usual.

In all these years, throughout all the arguments over social justice, fiscal policy, immigration, abortion and gun control, gender studies, wars on drugs and wars on concepts, with the changing tides and shifting sands of party platforms and talking points, we have seen quite a show. Somehow we were so distracted by the theater that we often failed to notice that our pockets were being picked. We failed to notice that the same companies always prospered. The same lobbyists stayed in Washington year after year. We failed to notice that every president, no matter what their party or platform, was always the chief salesman for the biggest arms dealer on the planet.

Are you beginning to notice yet?

 

A Successful Life

How do we measure success? Popular culture has an answer, and we are all too familiar with that. But there is a better answer, and no finer example can be found than the life lived by our friend, Joe Anderson, of Upper Hightower. Joe passed away last Friday at the young age of 84.

Mothers cherish those days when the family is back home again,  together under the same roof, but most families today are scattered. Parents with an empty nest wait for the phone to ring and wonder why it doesn’t. We blame our “busy lives,” but that excuse brings no comfort. Our longing for community and for the sense of belonging that family once gave us is painfully evident in the empty hours we spend on social media. We left the village for a commute on an Interstate highway, and watched our families receding in the rear view mirror. We attempt to fill that void in the virtual world, and today we cannot drive or even walk without a phone in our hands.

Joe chose a different kind of life. He served in the Army and saw what the world had to offer beyond our green valleys, but he returned here to make a life in the mountains he loved so much. Anyone who grew up here can tell you what a challenge it can be to make a living in our isolated and limited economy. Joe and his wife, Totsy did it, however, and raised five children who built their own homes and raised families here as well.  Joe’s success was easy to see, especially on Sunday afternoons, holidays, and on any given day throughout the year when his home would welcome visitors: friends and neighbors, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He raised a family that continues to keep parents and grandparents as a priority in their own busy lives.

I mentioned earlier that Joe passed away at the “young” age of 84. I know people thirty years younger who are less engaged with life than he was. Joe had planted two gardens already this spring. He had just built some homemade bee hives to add to his apiary.  His yard was immaculately kept, and he was often seen around the valley on his ATV visiting neighbors or carrying his granddaughter to her house sitting job.

Joe was the first person to welcome me when I moved into the valley, back in the days when I was young, untamed, and in a hurry. He was patient with me, and always kind. Some people are “horse whisperers,” but Joe knew how to guide people back onto the right path with good humor and common sense, softly spoken.  Somehow in the midst of raising 5 kids,  Joe helped keep an eye on my grandparents when they were old, contributing greatly to the time they were able to stay together in their home. This is just one of many such stories that are told all around our area. When the community came to pay their respects Saturday evening, the line of people waiting could have circled the entire church.

I will miss Joe’s wisdom, rooted in the Faith that was central to his life. His Faith was an example to any who seek God, never judging, always welcoming. I will miss Joe’s wit, his easy smile, and that twinkle in his eye. I will miss his stories.  He is one of the last few people alive who knew my grandparents and the forgotten stories of the pioneers of the Southern Appalachians. He was a bridge between the past the the future.

No one expected Joe to leave so soon, but he lived his life fully, and he was spared the painful, lingering – and lonesome departure that awaits many who live so long. The only true measure of success is the impact that we have on people’s lives, and Joe Anderson touched many lives. His legacy will continue in the family he leaves behind, strong in Faith, rooted to the land they cherish, and devoted to family and community. To his children, those of us who have stood where you stand now can only tell you that it will get easier in time, but it will always hurt. Always. But the pain will change to longing, and it will remind you to cherish every moment. Your dad is not gone. I see him in your faces, and in the lives that you live.

 

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Click “Like” for The Earth

When my father was a child, there was a remote spring in the mountains alongside a forest road traveled by horse and wagon or on foot. Travelers would sometimes water their horses at the spring, or take a drink and rest awhile in the shade of the tall chestnut trees. The spring was tiled with “pretty rocks” collected by a farmer who found them in the creek that ran nearby. My dad said that when the sun shined on the pool, it sparkled and cast dancing lights all about the shaded grove around the spring.

The “pretty rocks” were actually amethysts, which can still be found in Northeast Georgia, if you know where to look.

My father understood that the spring had been dug in his grandfather’s day, sometime in the late 1800’s, and lined with the amethysts soon after. He estimated that the spring had been there for at least 40 years by the time he first saw it, respected and maintained by the travelers who used it.

One day my uncle, who was a few years older than my dad, came home with some amethysts in his pocket and my grandfather asked him where he got them. “At the old spring,” was his answer, and sensing that he might be in trouble, my uncle added, “but everybody else is taking them.”

“You’ll put those right back where you found them,” said my grandfather, “and see that you do it quick if you want any supper.”

But the magic spell of the spring had been broken, and first by ones and twos, then by pocketful and at last by the bucket, it was not long before all the amethysts had disappeared. The valley was growing. What had once been frontier to the white settlers (it was home to many peoples before them) was becoming more civilized, and greed is often a side effect of civilization.

When I was a child I went with my grandmother to visit the old homestead where she grew up. There was a chimney still standing there, and some stone works around the site where the house once stood. I remember the deep shade of huge trees, and numerous flowers and herbs surviving from plantings made a half century before. Water still flowed over a stone watercourse made by hand. The summer sun was hot, but the old homestead was cool, quiet and peaceful.

Not a trace of it remains. As the property changed hands and subdivided, the trees were cut down, the stone works bulldozed under, the creek dammed, and the variety of plant life replaced by some kind of hybrid fescue over ground that cracks open during dry weather.

Another shaded grove I once knew disappeared in more recent times, during the big real estate boom that started here when the Olympics came to Atlanta. There was an avenue of giant maples and poplars that followed a meandering stream. Numerous springs fed the creek along the way. One spring was particularly intriguing, as it emerged directly from the roots beneath an ancient maple. The roots formed a grotto over a deep pool of water where mayflies danced in the summer. One might have fancied it as an entrance to the underworld guarded by fairies, though my nosy hound once found it guarded by yellow jackets instead.

The springs survived the first couple of attempts to develop the property, but then came a developer who was more aggressive than the others and decided to try and “recover” all that “wasted” land. Trees were cut. The springs were bulldozed, filled in, destroyed. Of course this was a violation of environmental regulations, and the property owner was fined a few hundred dollars. He eventually lost his land to the bank. What once was forest is now another field of fescue in a vacant lot that has been sold and resold. The mayflies are long gone, but the yellow jackets are still there.

We humans have always been greedy. We have always been prone to treating the natural world in a ham fisted manner. But as our negative impact on the earth has escalated, some of us have tried to seek comfort in the past, looking for that magical time and place and that special people possessed of a set of values that were kinder to the earth, and more sustainable.

Sadly, no such time, place or people ever truly existed. Perhaps the closest our species ever came was the First Peoples of North America, who cultivated and nurtured field and forest. It was not a wilderness that European settlers found here, but managed land, empty, but recently occupied by a million people or more who had died from the diseases brought here by the first European explorers.

But even among the indigenous tribes that we like to think of as being fundamentally purer in some way than we are today, we find those who were responsible for deforestation and the extinction of species.  We have also seen a community of conservative Christians, (the same people who today are stereotyped for an eagerness to drill and mine and develop) who were able to leave a public spring full of semi-precious stones untouched for two generations. If respect for the land is not a function of culture, then what?

Such thoughts seem appropriate as we observe Earth Day, and consider that many of our current 7 billion inhabitants may live to see 10 billion. We are in the midst of a great extinction event that some fear may grow to rival the Permian, when three fourths of life on the Earth was extinguished. Meanwhile our tapeworm economists worry where we will get the extra population to pay the bills we have already run up.

So far the tapeworm view is the dominant paradigm, supported by the myopic impulse to reproduce that continues to plague those parts of the world least able to afford more mouths to feed. The economy must always be growing, and we seem to lack the imagination necessary to grow it without also growing the population. Population growth (by birth) has slowed in the developed world, but it will continue through immigration in order to sustain the current economic model that is dependent on borrowing from future generations.

When there are more people, there are less natural resources to go around, and as freedom requires a certain amount of elbow room, there must also be less freedom. There will be fewer shady groves and cool springs to enjoy. When we had a choice to value such things, we often sacrificed them for short term gain. Today, separated from the natural world by the virtual , we value Nature less. Who knows what we will value tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Idealism is a Hothouse Flower

We’ve taken a much needed break from writing about political things here. It’s better for our mental and digestive health that we do so. But today we couldn’t resist a brief return to the bread and circuses.

We’ve been feeling a little better about politics lately. No, politics has not changed, but we have redefined some terms and lowered some expectations. Idealism is a hothouse flower.

When it comes to the American political scene, “feeling better,” for those of us who insist on thinking about such things, is perhaps more accurately described as “not feeling sick all the time.” In order to achieve this dubious improvement, we needed a new working definition of “president.” See if this works for you, too: “A president is a politician chosen from a small group of people selected by corporations. An aspiring president says whatever is necessary to get elected. Once elected, the president can then pursue whatever personal political agenda is necessary for re-election, as long as the corporate agenda is fulfilled.”

Let us pause for a moment to reflect on the possibility that those of us who appreciate irony are drawn to politics because irony occurs so often in that realm. Perhaps we’re getting a little sick of irony too, but this next case could appear as an example in a Wikipedia definition:

Trump orders a missile attack on Syria during a visit from Chinese President Xi. Did you catch that? The fact that Trump’s first “superpower” meeting is with Xi and not, as many would have suspected, with Putin? Of course to accuse the Russians of being a superpower we have to ignore the fact that the Russian economy is smaller than that of Texas, but they do have a lot of nuclear missiles.

Nevertheless, it all makes for great political theater, unless you are one of the unfortunate people killed during the attack. (We might add to our working definition of “president” something about the ability to kill people in foreign lands without being charged with murder.) Trump warns the Russians before the attack, giving Syria time to move their jets from the air base about to be destroyed. The Russians appear to be outraged. Trump appears to dispel the notion that he is actually a Russian agent. The Syrian jets continue their own attacks. Defense stocks soar.

The left accuses Trump of starting World War 3, although Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer praise the attack. Hillary Clinton agrees and reminds us that she had already suggested such an attack long before Trump ordered it. In Stockholm, discussion begins on nominating Trump for a Nobel Peace Prize, although he has much more bombing to do to catch up with Obama. Defense stocks soar.

“Disgraced” talking head, Brian Williams, refers to pictures of the attacks as “beautiful,” and quotes a line from a Leonard Cohen song: “I am guided by the beauty of our weapons.” (Add “The ability to lie to the public without disgrace” to our working definition of “president.”) Defense stocks soar.

Meanwhile, ever the gracious host, Trump tells Xi that an American aircraft carrier is headed toward Korean waters. Xi appears to be concerned, but not overly concerned. The planes on board that carrier were probably built with components manufactured in China. You guessed it. Defense stocks soar.

Did we offend anyone today? If we did, let us hope that the offense taken is from a concern for humanity rather than any political grievance. As always, letters to the editor are encouraged, and you are invited to comment on our blog at onthemiddlepath.com. If you do, a note of caution: you might want to brush up on your sarcasm, as it seems to be a second language for many of us who spend too much time thinking about politics and politicians.

 

 

 

 

The Oxen are Slow, but the Earth is Patient

It was Sunday afternoon and we were waiting to turn right onto a divided highway. Vehicles kept coming in the right lane just frequently enough to extend our stay at the intersection.

“It doesn’t look like anyone is going to give us a break,” my wife said, “but we’re not in a hurry.”

“It’s a sign of the times,” said that voice in my head, the one that reads too much mainstream media.

The situation gave me pause to consider, and since I had the time to consider, sitting there at the intersection with my blinker on, I did.

If we only had a system for driver taxonomy, it might be possible to divide most drivers into two main families: Those who consciously contribute to the safe and efficient flow of traffic – and those who prefer to get where they are going before anyone else, by whatever means necessary.

I think there has probably always been such a division, even when the “drivers” were driving oxen to pull carts. “I have to get to the market before all the best goods are sold,” said one angry driver, laying the whip to his ox. “The oxen are slow, but the earth is patient,” said the farmer, shaking his head, bemused.

Not too many years ago, an observant driver seeing me waiting to turn onto a divided highway might have signaled a lane change and given me space in the right lane. The same driver, if he noticed he had a line of cars behind him going over the mountain, would have used one of the many turnouts available to facilitate such a courtesy. He wouldn’t dream of tailgating someone in front of him, especially when that driver was behind a line of cars impossible to pass safely.

But we all know that this kind of highway courtesy (and what is courtesy but another form of common sense) is increasingly rare, and those of us who have time to consider such things, might ask why.

“City folk,” says the voice, and he sounds just like the memorable line spat out by Jack Palance’s character, Curly, in the movie, “City Slickers.” The voice has obviously forgotten the number of years we spent living in cities, but he may be onto something.

If you have lived in a city, or spent much time on Interstate highways, then you are aware of the level of aggression on the roads there that is so common that it isn’t even considered aggression. When there are more people living in a given area, then there is less to go around of many of the things we value in the country. There is less space. There is less privacy. There is less time.

A friend from the city visited me for a long weekend. He spends several hours every day on 285 getting to work and back. As he was driving us to dinner one evening, I noticed that he attached himself to the bumper of every vehicle in front of us. When I mentioned this to him, I realized that he was totally oblivious (though he couldn’t understand why many of the cars in front of him were suddenly slowing down). He wasn’t in a hurry. He wasn’t angry; in fact, he was chatting away happily during the whole trip. It was simply that his behavior on the road was common, perhaps even necessary where he lives. (Tailgating can be a sign of impatience, but it also prevents the idiot whipping his ox from pulling his cart into the narrow space between you and the driver in front of you and causing you and all the drivers behind you to slam on the brakes.)

Life moves faster than it did, and not just in the cities. There are more of us everywhere, even in the country. Several generations now have been conditioned to expect a constant progression of “more and faster,” faster cars, faster computers, faster food. We are all a little fast and a little furious. A little courtesy would go a long way toward improving the flow of things, but the dominant paradigm, thanks to a culture steeped in marketing, is about competition, not cooperation.

“I think those drivers aren’t letting us in because they’re distracted,” said my wife. “They all seem to be looking down at something and not up at the road. They’re probably texting.”

She was probably right, and they won’t print what my “inside voice” had to say about that.

Sentimental

Some of us are sentimental and some of us are not. Sometimes there are very good reasons for putting the past behind us. Sometimes treasuring the past can enrich our lives and contribute to a sense of place and purpose

Nostalgia can encourage an attachment to keepsakes and memorabilia. I’m not talking about people who simply like to collect things, or those who suffer from the poorly understood affliction of hoarding, though if we live long enough, our accumulation of keepsakes might begin to resemble hoarding to an outside observer.

When it comes to sentiment I’m somewhere between the extremes, but with one foot firmly planted in the nostalgia camp. If it is possible to inherit a tendency towards nostalgia, I know exactly where I got it.

I remember relatives from both sides of my family who filled their homes with memorabilia. Both of my parents treasured their keepsakes. As they got older and began to lose family members to time, their collections swelled to challenge the available storage space with inherited items.

For most of their lives my folks made sure that everything they kept was carefully preserved, labeled and neatly stored away, but as they got older they began to realize that their collection was beginning to get a little out of hand. My dad would laugh and say “One day when I leave this house I’m going to come up out of that basement and lock the door behind me, and then it’s going to be somebody else’s problem!” If you live long and are lucky enough to be able to stay in your own home, see if the same thing doesn’t happen to you. Gravity gets much stronger as we age (I’m sure it’s not a matter of us getting weaker), and when you apply aches and pains and sickness to a steep flight of stairs, the antique quilts and handmade furniture stored in the basement and in the attic just don’t get as much attention as they once did.

Every new generation reaches a point where the halcyon days of youth can seem more compelling than what we face in the present, but I will always wonder if the generation of my parents was more sentimental than other generations because of the hardships they endured. Both my parents grew up during the Great Depression, when country folk who lived without ready access to goods and services, or money to pay for them, learned that you don’t throw away anything that might be useful. They also learned the value of things that modern Americans tend to take for granted. My aunt, who had all the money she needed when she was old, kept a drawer full of plastic bags and rubber bands that she would not throw away, because they were useful.

A large part of my dad’s collection was his WWII memorabilia. He was a combat veteran who served in the navy during some of the most intense campaigns of the war. One of his most prized possessions was an old periodical with a picture on the cover taken in Tokyo Bay on VJ Day, 2 September, 1945. Near the end of his life when he struggled to speak, he could still point out his destroyer, the USS Kalk, among the Allied ships escorting the Missouri during the official surrender of Japanese forces.

It was a cruel irony, but thankfully a short-lived one, that the little strokes known as TIA took away my dad’s “gift of gab,” as he called it, about six months before he passed away. He was a storyteller from a long tradition and a legendary talker among family and friends. On a family road trip to Canada he once talked non-stop across the entire state of Ohio. By the time we crossed the Michigan state line, even my mother’s indomitable patience was wearing thin when she very quietly said to him, “Can’t we just listen to music for a while?”

As a teenager, I would roll my eyes when my dad would say, “I’ve probably told you this before, but I’m going to tell it again.” As an adult accompanying my senior dad on many outings, I did penance for my youthful impatience, watching how people would react to the old man who had just cornered them at the coffee shop, intent on telling a story. There is no doubt in my mind that veterans are the most patient and respectful listeners on the planet. Dad’s “Tin Can Sailors” hat attracted quite a few conversations, and not once did a fellow veteran show any sign that they did not have all the time in the world to listen to one of the last of the Greatest Generation telling his story.

My folks have been gone now for several years, and their stories, (along with their collections of keepsakes) live on with me. I’m grateful that I realized something very important while my parents were still alive. Their collection of memories, the telling and re-telling of stories – these were not foibles of old age. They were part of an effort to keep their memories intact, and to preserve a sense of self in an ever changing world.

Think about it. Over time everything that we hold dear, everything that is familiar, changes or goes away. We can find ourselves lonesome in a world of rapidly accelerating change, and if we live long enough we watch our friends and loved ones disappear on our way to becoming truly alone. (Our nursing homes are full of people who have nothing and no one familiar left in their lives.) Our senses begin to betray our understanding of the present as we lose the context of the familiar. Our memories of the past can become more real, and more comforting, than what we think we see around us.

My dad told stories and collected old tools. My mom kept quilts and photo albums. It was an effort to preserve the rich tapestry of their lives, to bring forward into the present a reckoning of the past. Their efforts carried a hope that the memory of the lives they lived might somehow survive into the future. They knew many years ago that I would not be giving them any grandchildren, so the stories and the treasured objects were a way to pass on their legacy. I intend to share some of those stories here.

If you are fortunate enough to have older people in your life, take whatever time is necessary to listen to them.  Their stories are more important than most of your desire-driven agenda. Like me, you may wake up one day to discover that someone you love has grown old, all of a sudden, when you weren’t looking, or when you were too busy to notice. Hindsight is not universally comforting. It can be like seeing the answers to a test that you can’t take over again. I hope I passed the test. Perhaps I’ll find out one day, when I’m an old man telling my own stories.

Religious Fervor Without the Religion

We usually avoid discussing religion here (in our newspaper column). I consider religion a personal matter, and there are many who are much more qualified to address it.

When it comes to Faith, however, we will speak. Faith is a golden thread that runs through all religious and spiritual beliefs. It is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen. Our lives are often defined by its presence, or its absence. It is odd that many will shy away from anything that references Faith, but be quite content with any number of opinions. We should know that Faith and Opinion are siblings.

I have a friend who considers himself an atheist and a secular humanist. He has faith that the inherent goodness of human beings will inevitably move us onward and upward. We debate from time to time our opinions about what is true and what is not.

Our discussions about what is true sometimes do not end well, but our conversation is usually more amicable when we discuss what is useful. My friend finds no usefulness at all in religion, and through the filters of his own experience he focuses on the bloodshed that throughout the ages has accompanied religion like a shadow. That bloodshed continues to this day.

My usual retort to his universal condemnation of religion is to point to the uncountable examples of individual sacrifice and devotion which have also accompanied religion and shined light into the shadows.

A particularly animated discussion we have results from my assertion that humankind needs Faith, and falling short of that still benefits from religion. My point being that we need a code of some kind as a framework for our decision-making process. We need values. We need a sense that there is something larger and more important than our individual appetites.

Even Science is still arguing whether such civilizing influences are innate or inborn or whether they must be taught. My friend thinks that they are innate and require only nurturing. His opinion is at odds with billions of people gathered under the banners of Christianity and Islam and all of their many divisions, who believe that we are born to a legacy of “Original Sin.”

You would hope that two religions which share so much of the same history and so many of the same beliefs would find it easier to locate their common interests, but history has shown this to be difficult, though we suspect that politics has had more to do with the animosity between the two belief systems than anything else.

By the same token, you would think that liberals and conservatives who share a nation, a history and a culture would also be able to get along better, but this is proving to be increasingly difficult. Again, we suspect politics, or more precisely, the power struggles that are being played out behind the political facade, but that is a discussion for another time.

My friend and I do agree on one thing, and that is how belief that is mutated by politics can result in behavior that is almost indistinguishable from religious fervor. And now, as my grandfather used to say, I’m going to “quit preaching and go to meddling.”

We will begin with the behavior of some of our conservative friends. For many years the right has condemned the lifestyles and personal choices of people who do not conform to their beliefs about what is true. Some have judged based on their own research or reading of Scripture, but if we are honest we will admit that most simply echo other people’s opinions, most often those delivered from such perceived positions of authority as a pulpit.

We become what we think and we think what we hear, and our thinking becomes a kind of faith often informed more by interpretation than by fact. The left has had legitimate grievances against those on the right who have set aside Christian principles of universal love and non-judgment in favor of dogmatic discrimination.

On the left, we have a gathering of people less informed by religious belief. This is certainly not true of everyone who gathers there, but few would argue against the observation that the left is more secular (and the right more religious), and statistics support that observation. But while the left often rejects a framework of values informed by religion (Christianity ), it can be hard to describe what, if anything, has replaced that framework.

Herein lies the problem as I see it. A kind of relativism has moved into the vacuum formed by the departure of religion, where “right and wrong” are at best a thing of cultural context and at worst a variable based upon personal appetites.

Humans don’t seem to find much success as independent agents responsible, and accountable, for our own actions. We have always sought after structure and guiding principle, and where none exist, we eventually invent them. What seems to guide many on the left right now is a mutant form of “tolerance.” On the surface, the values they champion are very similar to the core principles of Christianity: universal love and respect for individual rights.

Gathered under the banner are advocates of women’s rights, sexual freedom, racial justice – at a glance just about every group which has at one time or another felt the judgment of the religious right. But while the ideals of the left are sound (and not all that different than those of the right), there is a growing element of militancy in the thinking of some of the left’s more passionate devotees.

This militancy frames what should be simple differences of opinion that could be solved by our still functioning political process into a “fight’ against “injustice, racism, bigotry, misogyny.” There is a laundry list of grievances that must be “fought,” in the language of these devotees. And the extreme manifestation of this “fight” can be found in the numerous stories of conservative speakers violently attacked simply because they are conservative, and in the widespread use of violent language to describe those on the right.

It is a cruel irony that the left now hosts devotees who are ready to “fight” with an almost religious fervor, or a hatred that mimics tragic examples of national zeal. They view anyone guided by conservative or Christian principles – or anyone who disagrees with the left – as possessed by as many flaws as were attributed to any racial or ethnic slur ever made.

Such embers are always smoldering at the roots of every civilization. We will continue to discuss those who are intent on fanning those embers into flame.