Monday, August 20, 2007

Peace and Respect For Others

In an 1867 speech to the burgeoning Republic of Mexico, Benito Juarez, soon to be President, stated: "The people and government must respect the rights of everyone. Among individuals as among nations, peace means respect for the rights of others." How true that is, and how sad that respect for the rights of others seems so absent from our society today. For me, that's a source of constant culture clashes -- trying to reconcile myself with the world of today vs. the world I grew up in and often still wish it was.

People are so divided these days. They don't see shades of grey, just black and white, and you can't be both. You have to choose one or the other. Liberals malign Conservatives as bad people. Conservatives malign Liberals the same way. I rarely find it so simple to line things up. I am a Conservative, but in my younger days I leaned more Liberal. Where that leaves me today is somewhere in the middle. I embrace the biblical traditional values that seem to out of fashion these days. I still believe that living together outside of marriage is wrong, that divorce is tragic, that abortion is murder, and that lying is a character flaw. And there are many more. These make me an odd-ball, it would seem, from looking at the world around us.

How many people expect honesty from others? How many people are truly disappointed and upset when they don't receive it? How many practice it they way they want it to be practiced by others? Most people seem to prefer it for themselves from others, but not want to offer it from themselves to others. Living together outside of marriage and divorce have become the norm. Abortion seems to be the only one that still draws strong debate. Why?

In my opinion, there is less and less a sense of community and responsibility toward one another, and more of an every man for himself climate in this society today. And it is destructive to all of us. Maybe it's just that the most polarized people have the loudest voices or talk the most. Maybe the rest of the moderates, like me, are so shocked by what they see, they don't know what to say or where to begin to respond to it.

For example, I am Republican, but I favor gun control. I also favor more government care for the needy, funding for education, and fairer taxes for lower income vs. favored taxation for higher income. However, I am against gay marriage, and I am against abortion. But I do not believe in bombing abortion clinics or beating up gay people (nor discriminating against them in other ways). I also believe personal beliefs have a place in politics. That's why it matters a great deal to me what a candidate believes. And why I laugh when candidates campaign on their beliefs then deny that they will unduly influence their decisions in office. I say if you really believe something, it will always influence you. A man who claims belief in things and then fails to have that belief influence his decisions is a man with no integrity and nothing to offer (no to mention, confused about his own beliefs).

My own beliefs are complicated and have evolved over a long period of life experience, education, travel, etc. Being an adopted child, born of date rape, certainly influences my view on abortion, for example. Being well educated, influences my belief in the importance of education. My work with the poor around the world, influences my belief that taxes should not penalize those who can least afford to pay them, and that those with more wealth need to do more to help provide for those less fortunate. My belief in Christ influences my belief that violence and murder are not the way to defend your positions, and provide no high moral ground, but at the same time, I believe Sadaam Hussein needed to be removed from power and Al Quaeda needs to be fought like the enemy to all people it truly is.

Other people have had different experiences, such as my wife. And that's okay. We don't have to agree on everything, as long as I feel respected. And that's the rub. Too often, there is no respect these days for people of different beliefs. Maybe that's why the world feels like an unpeaceful place. Why hate seems more and more common, and public critiques of others seem more and more hateful and hurtful. People see no reason to mince words for those who embrace opinions they find completely abominable. The KKK and American Nazi party and others should welcome this change. They no longer seem so radical. They no longer have to feel outcast. Everyone else is speaking hateful things about people they disagree with, right?

The more I have thought about this the more I have become convicted that we have to get back toward the way things used to be if we are going to get back to a sense of peace in our society. Where there is no respect, there is no peaceful coexistence. And I don't know about you, but I like peace.

For what it's worth...

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Living in Fear v. Living in Faith

My wife, Bianca, lives in a world where everyone is suspect, where you cannot trust people, and where there's danger lurking around every corner. I live in a world where you should not trust everyone, caution is common sense, but one can live and move through most days without concern about being a victim of violence or crime, as long as you follow the first two rules. Yes, we live in the same house. Such is the nature of cross cultural relationships.

First of all, a little background might be helpful. My wife, Bianca, was born and raised in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, without a doubt one of the most violent cities on Earth. The latest statics I can find are from 2002 where the murder rate was 28.5 per 100,000, one of the highest in the world. Supposedly it is only rising. As a victim of Brazilian criminals myself, I can tell you that Rio is one place I do actually feel a sense of fear daily, when walking around. I have been concerned in places like Mexico and Ghana, about possible crime. After all, especially right now, Americans are targets. And I always expect that I am on someone's radar who might wish to do me harm, when I am in public places in other countries. But in Saint Louis, walking around, while I keep my eyes open, pay attention to my surroundings, limit the cash I carry, etc., I don't tend to be afraid. My car was broken into once in 7 years, and I left the back window cracked too wide. But my wife grew up in that world, where caution was a necessity. Yet she was not a victim of crime until we were robbed on the beach in 2005. And they did not rob her, just me.

My background is growing up in a small town of 45,000 people in Kansas, where we all pretty much knew everyone else. Street crime and petty theft were not common experiences of anyone I knew. Violence was a rarity in the local paper. It was a quiet place to grow up. (Too quiet, if you ask my wife, who finds small towns very boring.) But since I left Kansas, I have lived in one city after another: Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Kansas City, and Saint Louis. Since I am 38, and I left home at 18, that means over half my life, I have lived in cities. In that time, I have been a victim of crime maybe 4 times. Identity theft, lost/stolen cell phone, car broken into twice. Outside the U.S., I have been a victim twice: pickpocket in Ghana and robbed in Brazil.

From this explanation, it is not obvious that Bianca should feel more afraid of crime than me. Though I am 13 years older than her, I have been a victim of more crimes. Yet I feel safer. Part of the reason, I suppose is my inherent desire to believe in the goodness of people. I used to live constantly expecting the best until someone proved me wrong. As our culture has changed, I have had to greatly revise such expectations. They have been tested many times. But nonetheless, I still believe most people are inherently good and not out to get me. Bianca tends to think the opposite. She doesn't trust anyone. Not even me. Although, I am working on that part.

In any case, the reason seems to be more of the cultural and environmental realities in which we grew up and learned how to face the world. For someone of Bianca's background, with people being shot at in public, killed and robbed regularly, and a general sense of lack of law and order, she grew up to be very cautious and apprehensive. Certain situations, especially, trigger natural instincts of self-protection, which I don't have, because I have a different background. For someone like me, crime was a rarity. Most people were nice, friendly, and generally not prone to harming me. So I felt safe, and tend to regard people as safe until I have reason not to. This does not mean I walk around in a foolish, dilusional daze. It just means that I start out with a more trusting attitude.

To me, I tend to live in faith in people, generally, while Bianca lives in fear. It's not that she's constantly quaking in her boots. It's more of a general expectation that people have to earn trust. They don't start out with any vested in them. This cultural clash is something that happens a lot between small town and big city dwellers, and it happens a lot between Americans and those of other cultures. In any case, it's an interesting (I think) example of how culture effects our outlook on the world -- culture clash in action.

For what it's worth...

Monday, August 13, 2007

Do You Remember...?

Do you remember the days when people who worked hard were rewarded to it?

Do you remember the days when integrity was regarded as a positive quality?

Do you remember the days when people were honest and decent to each other just because it was right, not to gain something?

What happened?

Sometimes I wonder. I remember, and sometimes I think I am the only person trying to live that way. Every once in a while I meet someone who reminds me that that's not true, but yet I wish it wasn't every once in a while. I wish it was more often.

Sometimes that's why I don't blog. The blogosphere, the internet in general, can be so depressing. So many scams, liars, people being cruel and hiding behind the anonymity it provides. It seems to so often bring out the worst in people. Did I mention popups or viruses or hackers?

These behaviors used to be the exception. Now, more and more, they seem like the rule. Why is that? I think it's a decline in our culture. I think it's a loss of our values. And with it, I think it's a loss of what made us great -- our national identity. We still try and ride the high horse like we did in the old days, only the moral foundation is no longer there. No wonder other nations mock us and hold us in contempt. No wonder we have lost our standing in the world. Who are we to look up to these days?

I guess this is a depressing post. It isn't meant to be. It is meant to be a reminder, and a challenge. If anyone else misses those days, we can only bring them back by living them out ourselves, one person at a time. It starts with each individual. Only by example can we lead.

For what it's worth...

Friday, August 10, 2007

Our Changing Culture

Bernie Miklasz' column yesterday in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch titled "Baseball Is Selling Its Soul Alongside Bonds Mementos" really struck me. The whole steriods-baseball-Bonds controversy has really been bothering me ever since it appeared a few years back. It's a sad statement really on the state of affairs in our culture.

I was just thinking driving to work about how I saw Barry Bonds play years ago. Giants v. Dodgers. My friend had gone to high school with Bonds. And I was a Dodgers fan. So we argued about who was better. Bonds or various others. I was still a George Brett fan, having grown up in KC and been in awe of Brett's 80s hitting streak, etc. It was amazing how a man could so consistently hit like that. I remember starting to feel the same way about Mark Maguire years later here in St. Louis. And Sammy Sosa was there too -- wow, two at one time. But then the word came out about steriods. Just a trickle at first.

There had always been rumors, of course, but this was starting to seem more substantial. And Maguire and others testified to Congress that they had never used them. Only, one could just look at the way Maguire had physically ballooned up over five or six years and suspect that maybe the rumors were true. Maybe his denials were not. And in Bonds' case, the evidence is even more disturbing. So why am I so ho-hum about a guy who has hit 757 home runs? It should be a monumental achievement. But somehow, it just seems so tainted. Bonds was, beyond a doubt, an admirable athlete when I saw him in Los Angeles in the early 90s. But somehow the thought that he and Maguire and Sosa and others accomplished what they did by artificial means just leaves one to wonder if there are any truly amazing athletes out there. A George Brett? A Nolan Ryan? A Hank Aaron?

Maybe we can never go back to the days when there weren't such questions. Maybe that's just the way things has changed. And maybe our society is so capital driven and warped that baseball has sold out. An event like this does bring press attention and sell memoribilia. And so they get richer. Maybe that is all they care about. Integrity seems overrated these days, doesn't it? But it sure is sad to think about. Maybe Barry Bonds deserves to lose his reputation. And then again, maybe enough people don't care how he did it -- just that he did -- that it will never matter in history books.

Perhaps it started with Bill Clinton's claim that he didn't have sex because he defined it differently. Or that the word "is" could be misinterpreted. He seemed to convince a lot of people that morality and integrity in leadership are not important, even from the leader of the free world whose influence stretches far and wide. It continued in many other instances since, and is perpetuated by Hollywood-types who argue that anything they do in the name of art is sacred. Who argue that they have no responsibility to screen themselves or worry about who might be watching. It's pervasive in our culture today: the attitude that personal freedom is more important than personal responsibility. The idea that it's more important that I have total freedom to do whatever I want, than it is that other people live with the freedom to not be offended or see what I do. This argument seems patently ridiculous to me. And it's led to a climate of irresponsibility. I have seen people take their kids to R-rated movies. I have seen people give their kids alcohol. All in the name of this attitude.

It's not the same world I grew up in, for sure. Somehow, I can't help feeling we've really lost something. And maybe we will never recover it.

For what it's worth...

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Our Superiority Complex,2933,292670,00.html,9171,1651502,00.html

I haven't written here in a while. Mostly because I have been caught up in my own culture clash of sorts. I married my Brazilian fiancee April 14th. No, we don't clash that much. But the cultural differences do keep life interesting. Certain recent events, however, brought to mind something I've been thinking about for a long time.

When you write about culture like this, you get a lot of nasty critiques. I have been slammed for talking about issues with plumbing and things in countries like Ghana or Mexico. Some of these critics were Americans. They think it makes the country sound like Third World. I've got news for you -- it is Third World. Although these days, people from those countries prefer the term "developing world" so I will at least cede them that point. But it's funny to me when Americans get so defensive about another culture. After all, Americans more than anyone are pompous about our own Superiority. We so often take comfort and pride in our own successes, even if its unspoken. And even if we think we don't look down on other countries for their "developing" problems, somehow inside I suspect we all feel a bit smug and pleased that our own nation doesn't have the same issues.

That's why it's interesting to me to see what's happened in New York City this week, and in Minneapolis as well with the Interstate bridge. Whether you have ever been there or not, native New Yorker or not, New York is without a doubt a proud achievement of our country. It is one of the world's great cities, and, as such, a big icon for our nation and our culture. Think of the influence it has -- in the arts, in journalism, television, infrastructure... Two of the leading current Presidential candidates are from New York and there are rumors that a third might throw his hat into the ring, too!

When I travel around the world, people always know New York, even if they don't know Saint Louis or other cities. They know the "big apple." And they know America takes pride in her. So here we are, all superior and proud, and New York is looking a lot like the developing world this week. Subways and airports delayed for hours by flooding. Infrastructure torn up by heavy winds and a tornado. Ok, so the tornado is a natural disaster which can't be helped, but what about the flooding?

Saint Louis has similar problems when we get heavy rain. A few years ago, flooding submerged major portions of downtown. There are still neighborhoods that flood when we get more than a few inches of rain. And Highway 64-40 is like driving on a lake every time we get rain of more than a few minutes. In El Paso, flooding left people stranded on a major interstate last Fall and it is happening again this year with the rains. They have neighborhoods and intersections which regularly flood. Standing in El Paso, you can look across and see the differences in infrastructure with Juarez, Mexico just across the way. And it can make you feel proud or perhaps a bit superior. But if we are so superior, why can't our infrastructure stand up to a little water? How can heavy runs shut down major interstates, flood entire neighborhoods and shut down public transportation?

And then there're our bridges. A report in Time magazine (linked above) reports that we are in big trouble all over the country, because governments have not spent money on maintenance, instead prefering shinier, more high profile new projects. And the results are a collapsed bridge in Minneapolis, several deaths, and many other infrastructure problems every year which are less catastrophic but, given the right circumstances (what if bad infrastructure prevented your escape from a terrorist attack, for one) could be just as problematic.

You might argue that infrastructure withstands many and most situations but extreme ones can always arise beyond its capacity. You might argue that engineers are always working to make improvements and find new ways to prevent such problems. All of that is well and good. But I would argue that we're not as different from these "developing" places as we'd like to think we are, especially in such moments, and it does us a lot of good to be in that situation. All of us need to be humbled from time to time. And I think being reminded that even our own developed nation is not above problems is a good equalizer.

Maybe we can be less cocky when we go to places that seem to have less to brag about. Maybe we won't feel like we have it so much better. This would do international relations a lot of good. And it would promote better understanding. Because any time we focus on commonalities and see ourselves as more alike than different, deepened understanding and better communication can always result. When we approach things from the angle of feeling superior, that's when we create barriers and distance that separate us from others.

It's certainly something to think about. For what it's worth...