Saturday, May 31, 2008

E-mail to Penn InterVarsity, 5/31/08

The visual representation of an abstract concept! Ahhhh!

Subject: Summer Reading

Hello friends,

I write to you this afternoon from my porch in southeastern Pennsylvania. Thunderstorms from earlier have rolled away and it's fresh and cool and pretty out.

You may have heard us at various times in the previous year prattle on about the importance of community. You may not have quite understood what the big deal was. It seems a simple concept, and our emphasis on it may not seem very profound. After all, don't we all live in community? Our school is in the city, and most of us further live in communities within College Houses.

The truth is that while community is a really simple idea, when it functions it has profound power to transform those who live in it. Community is not just an agglomeration of people; it's what occurs when those people take on a collective identity and life together. In real sense they become part of one another and their web of interactions changes all who are involved.

"Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another." - Proverbs 27:17

That might sound a tad on the creepy side to you. I think twinges of creepiness come from examples we've seen where acquiring a collective identity has meant relinquishing an individual one. We've seen streams of Nazis marching in lockstep. Communist propaganda seems to advocate this relinquishment. And there's always the Borg Collective from Star Trek.

But the paradox of Christian community is that individuals lose none of their individuality in joining it. On the contrary, as we collectively acquire more of an identity together, our individual identities are actually enhanced. We become more ourselves.

This is the mystery that we are talking about when we encourage community. It's something that must be experienced to be fully understood, but take my word for it when I say it's a marvelous thing indeed.

"If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. " - 1 Corinthians 12:26-27
(Read all of 1 Corinthians 12:4-27 for all of the classical Biblical passage on community.)

I write this to all of you today to invite you into a facet of our community that you can participate in even over the summer. I'm of course talking about - blogging!

Blogging is something I'm passionate about. A group of blogs can provide many of the same functions as an in-person community, and in some cases they do an even better job.

Blogs can be incubators of discourse. They allow people to present ideas in a format often better thought out and more communicative than in-person discussion. Comments sections and other blogs allow people to respond and have conversation.

Posters and readers alike learn and develop ideas significantly faster than is often possible in person. The result? We learn more about who we are, who we'd like to be, and what we want to do in the world. Iron sharpens iron.

Now, our in-person community of InterVarsity also has a collection of blogs associated with some of its members. As is also evident when we come together in person, they display the wonderful variety in individual identity that God has given each of us.

As I said, these blogs provide a vibrant opportunity for growth in community even now over the summer. I've included a directory and short description of many of these blogs.

And if this is the sort of thing you're interested in, I encourage you to join in on the fun. Don't let any feeling that you don't have value to contribute stop you - as with our fellowship at large, I'm certain that is not the case.

"To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good." 1 Corinthians 12:7


[Note: Here's another e-mail that I could have made into a post but was just easier to leave as-is.]

Idiosyncrasies at Mealtime

I think signs of health in families are habits and traditions that would seem weird to outsiders. At dinnertime I was mildly embarrassed to observe:

Milk. 1% for Mom, skim for me, and whole for my stepdad.

Of course, you take the delicious with the embarrassing:

We make pizza.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Are We Products or Producers?

Politically speaking, Grandma sits on the left, Grandpa sits on the right,
and Aunt Lisa? Well, she's somewhere in between.

Jonathan has thoughts about the nature of the difference between liberal people and conservative people.* He says that conservatives will always take economic growth if it harms no one, while liberals might not want such growth if it led to more inequality.

Another way to look at the difference, hardly new but nonetheless on my mind lately, is in terms of agency. Put crudely, conservatives tend to believe that where a person ends up in life is principally a result of his or her choices, while liberals tend to believe that it is principally a result of his or her circumstances.

Put succinctly, according to liberals we are products of our environment, while according to conservatives we produce our environment.

For example, this past weekend my grandmother lamented that President Bush's policy in Iraq had killed many of our finest young men. In a separate conversation, my grandfather talked about how the Iraq war displayed for one of the first times in history a professional army - in other words, one in which all of the the soldiers have aspired to be there.

A conservative might counter my grandmother by saying that President Bush did not kill these men, but that they chose to enlist in the army fully knowing that they might die. The conservative might go farther by saying my grandmother dishonors the memory of these men by denying that they chose to lay down their lives - calling them victims rather than heroes.

A liberal might counter my grandfather by saying that the choice anyone makes to enlist in the armed forces is constrained by his or her circumstances. In particular, those of lower socioeconomic standing have far fewer alternatives to the military available to them. To many, the possibility of being killed in Iraq may still be lower risk than the next best alternative. Calling what these people face a "choice" may be misleading - sure, the liberal might say, they made the best with what they had to work with, but what they had to work with was not much to begin with.

Another issue in which this narrative plays out is human trafficking. If you are not familiar with the issue you can read this little introduction I wrote at the end of last year. It's basically another word for slavery, or at least that's what advocates say.

Where a lot of controversy comes in is what you actually consider forced labor, and here is where liberal and conservative voices say different things.

Are prostitutes victims of trafficking? Most conservatives would say that in most cases, they're not. The discussion is once again in the language of choice. As one conservative viewpoint puts it, "...women are, in fact, capable of deciding for themselves what they do with their bodies and their time." Far from slaves, they say, prostitutes are prostitutes because they choose to be prostitutes. What's more, conservatives would argue that saying all prostitutes are victims unable to change their situation and thus needing rescue is arrogant, culturally imperialistic, and even dehumanizing.

Liberals would again point to constraints on choice beyond the women's control. Says this handbook, prostitutes "...use their agency every day simply to survive. But their agency is severely limited by the conditions and context of their lives..." Liberals also point to common histories of abuse and the young age at which many enter prostitution as evidence that circumstances are largely deterministic in these women's lives.

Naturally, these different viewpoints give rise to drastically different opinions on how best to address the problem, if you even acknowledge that there is a problem. For one, statistics like the ones thrown out in my article vary widely depending on what you consider trafficking, and policy discussion is heavily influenced by such statistics.

Within policy discussion, conservatives accuse liberals of trying to give an old problem (prostitution) a new name (trafficking) to push through legislation that they would not be able to if they used the old name.

As for the old problem, conservatives might note that prostitution is called "the world's oldest profession" for a reason. It may be lamentable or even deplorable, but it must be called the problem of human nature that it is. They would emphasize that attempts to work against it must be realistic, and branding it something that it is not is counterproductive.

Liberals would say that the age of a problem is a poor excuse for not addressing it. If human trafficking is a new name (the term originated around the 1990's), working against it is no less urgent. They would return to what they view as the root problem: the constraint of prostitutes' choice by circumstances beyond their control, almost the definition of slavery. Liberals would say conservative ideas of choice and prostitution vanish in the face of the experience of actual prostitutes. If prostitution were understood for what it is, they say, it would be possible to work significantly against it and help millions of oppressed women and children.

Such debate is by no means limited to discussions of prostitution. Very similar discussion surrounds other issues within trafficking, most prominently migrant labor. People in poor families often leave home for work elsewhere. This work often requires illegally crossing borders and often takes place in deplorable conditions. Are these people trafficked, even slaves? See above for the gist of the debate.

So there you have it. A great deal of the difference between liberals and conservatives can often be understood in terms of how much control people have in what they do.

Even so, such differences need not keep us from loving one another. After all, my grandparents have been happily married for 53 years. The rest of us should be able to get along.

*One thing I really dislike about the terms "liberal" and "conservative" as nouns is that, particularly in the case of the former, they are often used to dehumanize. It's easier to belittle your opponents (and their arguments) if you overlook their humanity, but there are fairer and more productive ways to have discourse.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Mexican-American Love

My housemates have a way of interacting with one another that I've enjoyed witnessing through the year. Here's an example:
Carlos: Mayra, I could just stay with Sprint and pretty much get a new phone for free.

Vero: Get the one that Vero has.

: ..and get the one that Vero has.

Going to miss these guys.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

A Dog Named Bear


Marley & Me this will not be, but my dog was put down today and I thought I'd share some memories:

  • We got Bear when I was about 11 because my sister and my dad wanted a dog. Someone from my mom's work was looking to get rid of him; they had a new baby and thus no more need for him. They assured us that he was well trained, and he sat and shook hands, so we took him.

    Let's just say Bear's dalmatian half (the other half is black lab) immediately made itself known. For instance, despite being neutered, he displayed unmistakably male appetite with his blanket. That wasn't so bad, but when he tried to do the same thing with my sister's seven-year-old friends, we had more of a problem.

  • More than once, Bear succeeded through barking in diverting us from the kitchen long enough to help himself to our food. Nor were covering, elevation, or a combination of the two enough to keep him from delighting in our garbage.

  • In second grade, my sister was friends with twin girls whom we couldn't stand. Whenever they came over the noise was unbearable, and Dad and I would retreat to the backyard. One time when their father came to pick them up, Bear burst through with his front legs the glass panes in our front door . I'm not sure the twins came over again.

  • My dad loved Bear. In fact, every now and then he would inadvertently call me his name. He always felt terrible, and I might have given him a hard time, but I knew it didn't mean anything.

  • I'm skeptical that Bear felt pain. Whether a baseball to the head or a dashboard to the face, he never seemed to notice anything hit him.

    That includes the car accidents. A big Buick rolled down our street at about 25 miles per hour right into poor Bear. He ran off for three hours, but returned wagging his tail and happy.

    Another time a large black van hit him going about 40. Two broken legs, a fractured cranium, and a dislocated hip resulted. My parents decided to save him by acquiring $3,500 in credit card debt.

    He was basically fine. That was around Halloween, so we said the shuttlecock-shaped thing he wore to keep him from chewing on his cast was an astronaut costume. Thereafter my uncles affectionately called him "Dented Dog."

  • He would chase after our chickens for fun, but never attack them. Rodents weren't so lucky.

    The cats bossed him around.

  • Rather than walking him when I got home from school, I used to just let him loose. Apparently there was a female dog down the street that Bear was quite fond of. We discovered this when our neighbor visited on my Dad a large garbage bag. "Girl Scout Cookies?" he asked. Nope. Just poop that Bear had left as a display of affection on their lawn. (You'd think we could have talked before it got to that point.)

  • Bear probably pooped in the house over a hundred times. He knew it made us mad, so he hid it, which caused particular problems on the couple of occasions when he pooped in someone's bed.

  • I remember once when Bear dove down a nearly vertical hillside in pursuit of a hapless groundhog. Seizing it in his jaws, he shook it violently for a few seconds before casually discarding it. With dried blood streaked on his coat, he looked particularly pleased.
All I can say is, now that's a dog.

Why did we love this dog? He ate our food, soiled our house, barked frequently for no reason, required lots of attention, and brought expensive vet bills. On paper he was almost an unqualified detriment to our lives.

Yet all of these recollections are quite fond for me, and I'll bet that despite being freed from spending her lunch hour coming home to walk him, my mom will miss him not a little.

The fact is, he brought color to our lives. Somehow cleaning up after him, walking him, and feeding him, while when taken individually were merely chores, collectively they form part of a relationship with an animal. There's something wonderful about such a creature, so like a person and yet fantastically different.

These things of which I've written are a priceless part of my childhood. Far from being regrettable, they are a badge of uniqueness that I show you with pride.

This was my dog. And as his life was part of mine, so he is part of me.

Bear, Sam, Uncle Rob, with guest appearance by Pennsylvania.