WORKERS OF THE WORLD UNITE: Reclaiming the Purpose of Labor Day

September 2, 2010

Labor Day meant something to them...what does it mean to you?

Monday is Labor Day.  It’s a day set aside for sun and surf, picnics and parties and plenty of burgers, brats and beer.  We gather with friends and family, fight the endless stream of holiday traffic and blow a final kiss good-bye to summer.  But how many of us give even a passing thought to the original purpose and meaning of Labor Day?  On Memorial Day we salute veterans, on Independence Day we hear patriotic music, on Thanksgiving we say prayers for our blessings and on Christmas we exchange gifts.  No matter how much any one of those holidays may stray from their original intent, there are always a few remaining traditions which continue to honor the grander purpose.  The same really can’t be said for Labor Day.  We all appreciate the break from work and a long weekend, but none of the frivolities we engage in on the first Monday of September do a thing to celebrate our brotherhood as workers or magnify the common dreams and struggles which unite us.

The very first Labor Day was celebrated in 1882 in New York City.  Congress officially made Labor Day a National Holiday in 1894, six days after the end of the Pullman Railroad Strike.  The Pullman Railroad Strike was a conflict over wage reductions and other exploitative treatment inflicted on members of the American Railway Union at the hands of the Pullman Palace Car Company.  The New York Times described the conflict as “a struggle between the greatest and most important labor organization and the entire railroad capital”, it involved some 250,000 workers in 27 states at its peak.  The strike launched labor organizer and activist Eugene Debs to national prominence.  Debs was a persistent agitator for the rights of all workers and made his life work to bring about the end of the inequality that exists between the ruling and working classes.  Of this conflict, Debs said, “Those who produce should have, but we know that those who produce the most–that is, those who work the hardest, and at the most difficult and menial tasks, have the least”.

It may be tempting and easy for us to dismiss this significant historical event as the relic of a past age.  We may think of it as merely the product of a time long gone during America’s early industrial beginnings.  After all, the workers have won, right?  American children no longer labor in sweatshops, we secured the eight-hour workday and the forty-hour work week, all workers must be paid a minimum wage…what have we got to complain about?  That was then and this is now.  But as the old adage quite adeptly puts it, “the more things change, the more they stay the same”.  Regardless of whatever concessions have been won over the years through the tireless efforts of true patriots like Eugene Debs, American workers still toil under the oppressive fist and watchful eye of a callous and profit-thirsty ruling class.

How many of you are out of work?  How many of you know someone who can’t find work?  How many have had their benefits cut, or have been asked to take furlough days, or have been asked to work extra hours without overtime compensation?  How many of you have not seen their wages increase in correlation to the actual cost-of-living?  We’ve been brainwashed as a population to believe that these are just the unlucky factors that we are forced to accept during troubling economic times.  We’re in a recession, everyone needs to suck it up, right?  That seems like a reasonable enough notion until you’re forced to reconcile it with the fact that the profits of Fortune 500 companies have already rebounded back to historical levels.  In 2009, the earnings of Fortune 500 companies were up 335% from just a year before.  The $391 billion that these companies earned in 2009 is the second largest amount in the 56 year history of the Fortune 500 list.  Exactly how much ‘sucking it up’ do you and I have to do before we’re allowed to ask for a raise?

Those obscene profits exist because you and I have been saddled with the burden.  We’re slowly being conditioned to believe that a 10% unemployment rate is just the new paradigm that our society is going to have to learn to accept.  “Recession” is merely an excuse by the top economic class to skin a few more hides off of the very workers that labor to produce the wealth they enjoy.  Sure, we’re not being forced to work 16 hour days in a textile factory making 25 cents per hour like they were in 1894, but the exploitation continues nonetheless.  The sacrifices that we make in the form of furlough days, salary cuts, and benefits reductions are fueling the profits of the largest corporations that run our country.  We sacrifice, they benefit.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.

So Monday’s Labor Day festivities will come and go without much of a thought from large swaths of our country’s workers.  For millions who are still out of work, Labor Day will be truly meaningless, just another Monday passing by in which they are bereft of the opportunity to provide for their family.  But the saddest part of this is not that another Labor Day will pass without recognition, it is the fact that deep undertones of anger and frustration exist within our culture but they are not being directed toward those who are the real cause of the pain.  The economic misfortune being felt by millions across this country is indeed causing great protest and stirring up deep feelings of resentment, but instead of that emotion being channeled into grand worker demonstrations and protests as it was in 1894, it’s being misplaced on various sideshows and other nefarious boogeymen.  Instead of blaming Wall Street, we blame minorities who did nothing more than seek to become homeowners.  Instead of lashing out against corporate crime and malfeasance, we cower over the impending crimes of dangerous terrorists.  Instead of questioning the ethics of a government run by lobbyists, we question our President’s birth certificate.

The strong undercurrents of anger and resentment that exist throughout our society could be channeled into meaningful causes if we were able to see that we all share a common predicament.  But just as the powers that be convince us that sacrifice is a necessity, they also are skillful at obscuring from our eyes the ties that bind us together.  Our media and our culture give no credence to the lines that exist between classes, instead they convince us to focus on fabricated divisions such as the imaginary gap between Democrats and Republicans.  The growth of the tea-parties is a perfect example of this phenomenon.  These angry rubes are led to believe that they have more in common with billionaire CEO’s who share their anti-tax ethos than with the left-leaning Obama-voter who stands next to them in the unemployment line.  Millions of these tea-baggers, who are rightfully frustrated by the economic circumstances that are thrust upon them, are led like lemmings to the cliff by nincompoop mouthpieces like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.  They see their world crumbling and are made to think that the proper recipients of the blame are some gay men in California and some Muslims in New York who want a new community center.  Some zealots on the left aren’t much better.  They seek to position all right-leaning citizens as aberrant curiosities meant to be gawked at and mocked instead of seeking to bridge their ideological gaps with a common shared purpose.  They would rather defend a President who lied and sold them out for the interests of corporate donors than join the chorus of those who are justifiably leveling criticism his way.

Everywhere you look, a new and totally misplaced scapegoat takes the spot where a CEO or a Wall Street jackass should stand.  Illegal immigrants, welfare queens, abortion doctors, Hollywood actors, radio talk-show hosts, gays, Muslims, blacks, terrorists…everyone has someone to blame.  But no matter our race or religious beliefs, we all have something in common.  We are all members of the same class.  We are all part of the group that produces the goods and the services on which our society and the profits of ruling class depend.  We need to see past the fabricated issues of division that prevent us, the laboring class, from truly recognizing our full potential.  Our beef is not with each other, but with those who stand behind the curtains of power manipulating us and exploiting us to their heart’s content.  Eugene Debs understood this concept when he said, “While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal class, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free”.

On the surface, this may appear to be nothing more than silly idealism.  It would be easy for a well-employed, middle-aged person living in suburbia while making a comfortable 80K a year to look at a desperate Walmart employee scraping by on minimum wage and not recognize that person as a member of their same class.  But its not a question of how much you make, how many cars you have or how big your home may be, the question revolves around the level of control that you have over your own life.  That person making 80K a year could just as easily find themselves as another victim of downsizing, and depending on their levels of debt and savings, could very quickly find out what it’s like to be at the mercy of creditors and collectors.  It is not just the poor who are forced to face the harsh realities of oppression.  A consumer culture driven by easy credit and materialism has sunk their tentacles into all rungs of society.  Families that like to consider themselves as firmly middle-class can be just as close to the precipice of bankruptcy and despair as anyone else already struggling to get by.  It does not matter who you are, if there is a way for someone to make more money at your expense, you could be a victim too.

So our allegiances should not lie strictly with those to whom we can identify.  Our allegiances should transcend the boundaries of age and race and creed.  Our friends and allies are not merely those who make a similar salary or those who vote along the same political lines.  Our desire to categorize and stratify ourselves only serves to strengthen the chains that hold us down.  The decision-makers in Washington and on Wall Street and in the boardrooms want us to fight amongst ourselves.  They want their selfish and unsustainable actions to remain obscured from our eyes.  They want Labor Day to be just another day where you head out and spend more of your money on more of their junk.  They want your anger to continue to be directed anywhere but where it rightly belongs.

Labor Day in America needs to be redefined.  It should not just exist as an ‘extra day off’ on the first weekend in September.  The way we celebrate and commemorate Labor Day should be more significant than firing up the grill or dragging the family off to the beach.  Labor Day should be a day that reminds us of everything we have in common with the entire population of workers.  Just as we all feel compelled to act a little bit nicer on Christmas, we should all feel compelled on Labor Day to look past our differences and join as one to fight the injustices that we all experience.  Just as Independence Day ignites feelings of patriotism, Labor Day should ignite feelings of brotherhood and of renewal of purpose in a struggle against a mutual enemy.  The most dire problems our society faces are all class-related.  Poverty, foreclosures, unemployment, personal debt, illegal wars, imprisonment; these are all the consequences of a ruling class that has taken advantage of our inaction for far too long.  If we want to live in a just and civil society where those problems are a thing of the past, then we need to recapture the unified sense of purpose that propelled the epic labor struggles of the past.

So this Monday, while you’re out enjoying yourself, remember that this day off was secured for a reason.  Look past the colors and creeds and political affiliations of your fellow beach-goers and raise a glass to them and to the common predicament that you both share.  And if you look out on the water and see a huge yacht racing across the horizon, get everyone on the beach to raise a middle finger and reclaim Labor Day as your own.


PAGING DOCTOR SWEET TOOTH… Why is My Doctor Peddling Pop?

July 28, 2010

Whatever happened to "An Apple-A-Day"?

Would you be surprised if on your next visit to the doctor’s office, you received a recommendation to begin smoking?  Would you be taken aback if your doctor told you to forget conventional wisdom and skip exercise altogether?  Would you find it at all out of place if your doctor started encouraging you to begin recreational use of illegal drugs?

As champion of your personal health and well-being, you would never expect your doctor to do any of those things.  Doctors are supposed to lead us down the path of healthy choices, a path filled with plenty of exercise, a good nights’ sleep, some baby aspirin and the proverbial apple-a-day.  So why, oh why, upon my last visit to the doctor’s office, did I encounter not one, but two vending machines stuffed to capacity with a whole host of sugary surprises and greasy goodies?  These glass cases of indulgence sat right there in the waiting room patiently preying on every already-ill person to walk through the door.  This doctor’s office, this supposed bastion of health and wholesomeness, was openly peddling the absolute worst of the worst the culinary world has to offer.  I’m no MD, but isn’t there some kind of hippocratic oath that Doctors are supposed to take that would prevent them from committing such a transgression?

Unfortunately, my sugar-soliciting Doctor is not the only one who’s stirred my ire with their dietary trespasses.  My wife and mother and I recently made a visit to Mammoth Cave National Park. While waiting for our tour to begin, we had a few hours to burn and decided to embark on a bit of a hike.  It had been a while since breakfast, so we needed to recharge and refuel.  We were told about two dining options, there was a simple cafeteria and of course, for our eating pleasure, a vending machine.  So here we were, anxiously looking to ramble off into nature’s bounty, ready to tackle any and all obstacles, only to be offered nothing more than orange soda and doritos to power our expedition.  And the cafeteria wasn’t much better.  Sure it offered more than sweets and confections, but a menu full of ballpark rejects and nacho-cheese-drenched snacks is hardly the kind of high-energy fare which we required.

Clearly, neither Dr. Sweet Tooth nor Mammoth Snack National Park have a full understanding of what it is they are supposed to be promoting.  For the former, do they not understand that doctor’s offices should be places that exclusively encourage healthy choices?  And for the latter, what kind of message does it send to youngsters when you show them that nothing pairs better with nature’s splendor than an extra large dose of high-fructose corn syrup?  Now don’t get me wrong, when it comes to eating, I’m no saint.  The record will clearly show that when it comes to stats for candy bar consumption, I’ve always been among the league leaders.  But I’m not talking about the merits of soda pop or the rights of potato chip manufacturers, I’m talking about messages.  I’m talking about appropriateness.  I’m talking about the idea that when you live in a society that has the kind of health and eating problems we have in the United States, some institutions need to stand up and represent what’s right.

So who should take a stand as these beacons of health and nutrition?  Obviously, doctor’s offices and hospitals are no-brainers.  If we can’t get the medical professionals to embrace the principles of healthy eating then we should all look forward to the day when diabetes is simply a part of the American experience.  National Parks, State Parks, County Parks, City Parks and Township Parks should all comply too.  Any place that offers the public a chance to reconnect with nature shouldn’t offer food that contains no natural ingredients. Health clubs, gyms and YMCA’s should also join the junk-food-free club.  What’s the point of exercising if it’s immediately followed by an empty-calorie binge? And without question, all of this crap needs to be taken out of our schools.  Kids need to expand their minds, not their stomachs.

This is not a plea for the eradication of junk food from our national menu.  Cheetos and Snickers bars have their place.  We should be allowed to poison ourselves to our heart’s content.  This is a plea for there to remain in our world some places of refuge where the junk-food, fast-food and carbonated sugar-water industries are not allowed to intrude.  This is a plea for those places and institutions that have a role to play in our physical well-being to live up to their responsibilities.  The double standard needs to end.  A vending machine full of chips and candy bars in a doctors office should be just as appalling as a cigarette vending machine would be in its place.  Nachos and National Parks do not go hand-in-hand.  Americans are unhealthy enough already.  We don’t need mixed messages convincing consumers to make connections about food choices that couldn’t be further from the truth.  That vending machine in the doctor’s waiting room is sending an unwritten endorsement of junk-food as a healthy snack option.  We would never expect our doctor to give us a prescription for a drug that clogs our arteries, causes diabetes and makes us fatter, so why would it be okay to peddle food that does the same?

Have you witnessed any inappropriate junk-food promotion?  Is there someplace you know that should be offering raisins rather than Reeses Pieces?  Please share any experiences you’ve seen for yourself.  And special points for anyone who was bold enough to complain.


SHORELINE SORROW: Why we’ll never understand the Gulf Coast’s pain

July 14, 2010

Beautiful Lake Michigan. Here's hoping BP stays far, far away.

Sympathy and empathy are not the same.  They’re often used interchangeably as synonyms, but that is incorrect.  When we sympathize, we’re able to recognize someone’s pain or suffering and we feel a strong desire to alleviate it.  We see a person’s problems and we have an emotional and supportive reaction towards them.  But to empathize, we need to go one step further.  Empathy requires true understanding.  It requires us to have once gone through the same struggle ourselves.  It’s the difference between caring for a friend with cancer and commiserating with that same friend because you’ve gone through chemotherapy yourself and you know what it’s like.  Anyone with a heart can sympathize, empathy requires a higher level of connectivity.

It’s important to be conscious of this difference.  I think everyone should remember that just because you can recognize the pain and suffering of others, and just because you may have feelings of pity for them, it does not mean that you can really understand the depth of their despair or the magnitude of their struggle.  I was reminded of this idea when I was thinking about the tragedy of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  It’s certainly not hard to have incredible levels of sympathy when we see pictures of oil soaked wildlife,  when we contemplate the death of 11 workers or when we witness the devastation to a beautiful seaside environment.  But unless we’ve gone through a similar tragedy, or unless we’re former residents of this region, we can’t truly understand just how horrific of an event this actually has become.  This doesn’t mean that our sympathetic feelings aren’t sincere, it only means that the enormity of the effect that this will have on the lives of millions is not entirely within our grasp.

My own inability to truly comprehend the significance of this event dawned on me on a recent trip to Lake Michigan.  We all have our own places and destinations with which we have a special bond.  The pristine beaches and clear waters of Michigan’s Western Coast are sacred places for me.  The feelings of rejuvenation and fulfillment that I get every time I visit these shores are feelings that can’t be replicated anywhere else.  Lake Michigan provides for me a reminder of nostalgic memories, offers a destination for unlimited fun and relaxation and serves as a source for spiritual reflection and deliberation.  I’ve been many places in my 33 years on this planet, but none inspire the reverence I feel quite like the fresh waters of Lake Michigan.

It was during my last trip to the beach that I began pondering what it would be like if the oil spill disaster had happened here instead of in the Gulf.  My stomach sank as I imagined tar-balled beaches, dead fish and oil-drenched seagulls.  I pictured idyllic towns like Grand Haven swarmed with corporate lawyers, visiting politicians and hired goons in haz-mat suits.  My mind conjured up visions of roadblocks, toxic warning signs and a national press clamoring for their next story.  I was horrified as I began to visualize just what an irrevocable transformation it would represent.  It’s not a stretch to say that if it had happened here, this place that I consider sacred would be ruined for the remainder of my years.

This idea of total and complete destruction isn’t given nearly the attention it deserves.  The Gulf Coast is a sacred and special location for millions of Americans.  We’ve heard endless stories about the loss of livelihood for fishermen.  We know all about the looming collapse of tourism.  We’re totally familiar with the concept of a ravaged ecosystem.  But do we realize that when we talk about the oil spill the full breadth of the disaster is greater than merely just the sum of the parts?  A shrimp boat captain may be losing thousands as his ship sits idle in port, but what’s the value of the loss he feels when the beach where he proposed to his wife is now covered with tar?  A restaurant owner may be forced to close her doors, but is it not a greater tragedy that her children will never learn to swim in the same waters that she did so many years before?  Costs and losses of income can be measured and assigned a value, but the desecration of memories and the evisceration of an environment cannot.

When I imagined the oil spill corrupting my sacred place, the emotions inside of me ranged from deep sorrow to seething anger and encompassed every point in between.  And this was only my imagination.  What’s truly being felt by those who are there?  No news story, no magazine article, no presidential visit, no blog post could ever hope to capture the full range of emotion that must be boiling inside of everyone that was personally affected by this disaster.  If this happened here, any and every reaction I could conjure would seem to be completely rational.  My mind could justify violence as easily as it could justify depression.  The people of the Gulf Coast have had something precious taken away from them.  How can we possibly fathom what that loss might mean?  Anyone with a soul is moved by the plight of everyone affected, but the way the images of oil-soaked pelicans affect you and I can’t compare to the unrest and sorrow that is plaguing those who witness it first-hand.  We have to try to go beyond merely feeling sorry.  We need to picture ourselves in their place to begin to comprehend the gravity of the situation.  For them, it is not just an environmental disaster, it’s a complete corruption of their world and an utter destruction of what they possibly hold most dear.

Where is your sacred place?  Would you be moved to tears if that place was forever spoiled by the folly and hubris of others?  Could you put into words or convey to a stranger the entire span of emotions you would feel?  And most importantly, could you assign a monetary value to what has been taken away?  We’re supposed to be impressed that BP agreed to set aside $20 billion to cover their liabilities, but in my eyes, that amount doesn’t come close to fulfilling the emotional and spiritual debt they owe.  No amount of money can replace dreams.  Memories, wonder and inspiration can’t be bought.  A cool ocean breeze, a dazzling sunset and the scent of the salt air are priceless commodities.  All of those things have been taken away from every single man, woman and child who either grew up or currently lives near the Gulf Coast.

As I strolled on the beach that day, I found myself feeling ashamed that I hadn’t put the oil spill into this context before.  My sacred place remains unspoiled.  I am free to walk with white sand between my toes while the warm sun glows all around me.  The absence of this freedom, the theft and destruction of the place that serves as such a mental refuge for me, would be a life-altering experience.  Up to that point, I had certainly felt my fair share of sympathy for all the people who have been affected, but I never understood just how awful it could be.  I am not equipped with the experience and knowledge necessary to truly empathize with their situation.  My special corner of the world has yet to be significantly touched by those same hands of greed and consumption.  I have a new appreciation for the pain that’s been thrust upon them.  We should all be entitled to relish and enjoy the beauty of our natural surroundings.  That coastline and those waters do not belong to BP and they do not belong to the government.  They belong to the swimmers, fishermen and sunbathers that have occupied them for years.  Their destruction, is nothing short of a crime.

Somewhere in Louisiana or Mississippi, there’s a child who’s sitting inside on a beautiful summer day.  Under different circumstances, that child might be building sandcastles, playing in the surf or doing any number of activities that would serve as the starting point of a special bond between him and the shore.  He’s just one of thousands that are missing out on a new and exciting connection to the natural world.  The next time I’m at Lake Michigan, the next time I’m relishing in past memories and reaffirming my bond, I’ll pause to remember their struggle.  I’ll pray for the wisdom to understand their loss and pray that I never have to experience the same.


The Unquenchable Appetite for MORE

July 7, 2010

There’s an old adage that  implores us to “never hit a man when he’s down”.  The moneyed interests that run this country think that old adage is for fools.  From where you and I might stand, things are looking rather bleak economically.  The unemployment rate continues to hover near 10%, State and Local Governments face disastrous budget shortfalls and a solution to the foreclosure crisis has yet to be found.  In the adage, we, the working public are most certainly in the role of the man who is down.  And even though now might seem like a good time for a helping hand, brace yourselves, because the oligarchs are winding up for one swift kick to the teeth.

If you pay attention to the news, I’m sure you’ve heard at least one story about the importance of addressing the federal deficit. The time for financial stimulus, health-care reform and bailouts has come and gone, and now it’s time for a little bit of belt-tightening.  This sounds reasonable enough at first blush.  We like to think of our national and global economic situation in the same terms that most would think of their household economic situation.  Times are tough?  Then it’s time to cutback on dining out, it’s time to shut off the cable or it’s time to cancel that summer vacation.  Unfortunately, comparing the economic policies of nations with the economic policies of households is wrong.  The methods you use to balance your checkbook have nothing to do with the methods used for addressing our country’s financial situation. But this is not what the powers that be want you to believe.  They want you to believe that the only thing to do right now is to cutback…and you had better believe that they aren’t the ones who plan to be participating in any sort of sacrifice.  That will be up to you and me.  The proverbial ‘man who is down’.

The plan to convince us all of the need for belt-tightening has been charged to President Obama’s recently formed “National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform”. One of the Commission’s stated purposes’ is to “propose recommendations that meaningfully improve the long-run fiscal outlook, including changes to address the growth of entitlement spending.” For those not versed in the linguistic styling of Washington bureaucrats, that quite simply means “finding ways to CUT Social Security and Medicare.” That’s right, cut the most popular, successful, efficient and possibly two most important programs in our country.  Wall St. gets its bailout, there’s endless money for endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, insurance and pharmaceutical companies receive sweet deals during health reform and the Bush tax cuts for the ultra-rich that are set to expire, might just stick around. Apparently, there’s money for all of that, but everyone out there skating by on Social Security and Medicare are just going to have to ‘suck it up’.

There’s two problems with this theory;  first, millions of American’s already living on the edge of poverty and despair will be shoved a little closer to the precipice, and second, reforming or cutting entitlement programs is an ineffective and wrong-headed strategy for trimming the federal deficit.  An explanation of this second point can be found in the testimony of economist James K. Galbraith when he appeared before Obama’s Fiscal Commission on June 30, 2010:

http://www.newdeal20.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/deficitcommissionrv.pdf

Professor Galbraith’s testimony essentially explains that entitlement programs like Social Security are transfer programs that function on a ‘money-in-money-out’ basis and are consequently irrelevant to deficit economics.  He goes on to highlight the true cause of the deficit (the financial downturn) and to explain that the call for deficit reduction is a political one, not one being demanded by the markets.  His testimony should be read in full by anyone with even a passing interest in this topic.

What all this illustrates is just the latest chapter in the ongoing class war being waged upon millions of Americans by wealthy who have, as the title of this post describes, “An Unquenchable Appetite for MORE”.  Entitlement programs represent to them an unearned handout to those who have demonstrated neither the talent or the willingness to succeed in life.  In their eyes, Social Security isn’t a necessary safety net or a means by which we show that societies who thrive are the ones that support and take care of the least of those among them.  To them, Social Security is a wasteful enterprise that encourages slothful behavior and rewards inadequacy.  But on top of that callous sentiment, entitlement programs represent to them a huge untapped resource of money that they ache to get their hands on.  That’s what the failed ‘privatization’ scheme of George W. Bush tried to accomplish.  It was not a benevolent new way to restructure a popular program; it was a money grab.  The powers that be wanted our Social Security funds to be invested on Wall St.  All of the talk about deficits and insolvency are nothing more than lies created to move money that is currently in the hands of the public trust into the hands of bankers and financiers who want to start laying it out on the craps table in a new effort to further line their already fat pockets.

The whole situation reminds me of the scene in “It’s A Wonderful Life” where George Bailey gets the opportunity to give Mr. Potter an earful about his greedy ways. George says, “I know very well what you’re talking about…you’re talking about something you can’t get your fingers on…and it’s galling you!”  The fact that Social Security and Medicare still exist today is galling the financial elites.  It galls them that they don’t control it and it galls them that people in worse situations than they actually get to enjoy the spoils of it.  It doesn’t matter that there is a Democrat in the White House, either.  This ‘Fiscal Commission’ represents just the latest attempt by the oligarchs to put an end to something that’s been galling them for roughly eighty years.

You don’t have to look far to see the results of the economic recession.  Even if your life has found a way to carry on relatively unscathed, you undoubtedly know of someone else who hasn’t been so lucky.  All of us are merely scheming to find a way to persevere.  But while we’re fighting for our lives, the rich and powerful are scheming for new ways to squeeze out a few more drops.  So the next time you hear a politician or a banker on TV talking about the necessity of trimming the deficit, just remember that they don’t have the slightest pause when it comes to hitting a man when he’s down.


Inspiration Consternation: Why Can’t Churches Play Better Music?

June 30, 2010

"Raise your hands if you think this music is awful."

Music and inspiration make a wonderful pair.  Almost all of the music that I own serves some sort of emotional and inspirational purpose.  Music can either shape my disposition, or a musical selection can be made in order to fit the current disposition of the moment.  Regardless of what sort of mental state I’m in, I have some piece of music that will enhance it.

It’s this emotional relationship with music that has caused me to become so completely frustrated with what passes for music at church.  If there’s one place music should arise to it’s fullest potential, it’s at church.  Church is an environment where people are ripe for some expressive stimulation.  Attending a church service is an opportunity to indulge in the simple beauties and truths of our existence.  It is a place where forgiveness is requested, kindness and charity are honored and the splendor of our human gifts are celebrated.  Music is one of those gifts.  Much like unconditional love, music is a means by which people can experience the presence of God.  It is a language that can’t be explained, but yet everyone seems to understand.  So why do churches get it so wrong?

Worship, the portion of a church service devoted to singing and giving praise, is usually something that leaves me feeling rather empty.  My mind wanders, my eyes roam through the crowd and I can’t wait for permission to sit back down.  Lest I be dismissed as simply a critic, let me point out that I’m someone who counts ‘Amazing Grace’ as one of their favorite songs and has yet to hear a presentation of the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ that didn’t leave me rubbing small pools of water out of the corner of my eye.  When I say that worship services leave me empty, believe me when I tell you I’m someone who would much rather be fulfilled.

But it’s hard to be fulfilled when what you are presented is so mediocre.  Today’s religious music is an empty, mechanical regurgitation of the worst kind of pop music characteristics.  It’s thoughtless, repetitive and completely lacking in any kind of artistic integrity.  Contemporary christian music is loaded with cliched religious language and the type of imagery that would leave middle-school composition teachers shaking their heads in disbelief if their students were ever found guilty of the same linguistic trespasses.  Lyrics like “open the eyes of my heart”;  “you are God, that’s just the way it is” and “you lift us up on wings like eagles” are just three examples of the kind of lazy, uninspired writing you’ll find.  But it’s more than just poorly conceived metaphors.  It’s the generic stylings that persist throughout almost every incarnation of contemporary christian music that make it so disappointing.  Every song seems to be a mirror image of the one before.  I imagine the creative process for christian artists and record producers consists of throwing words like ‘holy’, ‘worthy’, ‘lamb’, ‘awesome’ and ‘Jesus’ into a hat and blindly picking out some kind of combination.  The lyrics are like a Bible-themed mad-lib that just gets filled out over and over again with new superlatives to describe God.  Did you refer to God as ‘awesome’ last time?  Well, just exchange it with ‘mighty’ and PRESTO!  You’ve got a new record!

Shoddy writing alone is not enough to ruin a song.  There are plenty of pop songs over the years that feature horrible lyrics that have still managed to find a soft spot in my heart.  A great hook and an infectious melody can go a long way to make a listener forget just how ridiculous the words may be.  Unfortunately, great hooks and infectious melodies are two terms that will never be used to describe most modern christian music.  Take the corniness of Air Supply, the rock sensibilities of Matchbox 20, the artistic depth of someone like Miley Cyrus, strip away any remnants of originality, throw it all in a blender and you’ll have every contemporary christian song ever written.  They all seem to include the same poignant, guitar-strumming openings, a crescendo to a proud and bubbly refrain and an over-indulgent breakdown rising back up to a triumphant, timpani-and-cymbal-filled conclusion.  The music consistently seeks to hit the exact same emotional levers without ever breaking new ground or challenging the listener to try something new.  Each song is canned and pre-packaged and contains all the excitement and intrigue as a bag of rice cakes.

So if today’s christian music is such a travesty, then what are the alternatives?  What can provide the type of inspiration and spiritual fulfillment that people are looking for from a church service?  Conveniently enough, the easiest solution is a musty book with a tattered spine found right on the back of almost all church pews.  Hymnals are filled with some of the most wonderfully poetic and brilliant pieces of music American culture has ever produced.  But these treasures are mostly ignored by modern churches.  In an effort to appear young, hip and relevant to modern society, churches have tossed aside their heritage and sacrificed quality in an attempt to construct an image.  This is troubling not only because their new music is so bad, but also because attempting to tailor your image to the prevailing winds of popular culture is the providence of corporations and marketers, not religious institutions.  Churches should be a place where traditions are embraced, not discarded for commercial purposes.

Arguments like this are usually just dismissed as the nostalgic ravings of the elderly and those who refuse to adapt to an ever-changing society.  I would insert here that I am only 33, hardly the standard age of someone who longs for the ‘olden days’.  But I believe that it is not just me and a handful of little old ladies that experience this dissatisfaction.  I see evidence to the contrary at nearly every church service I attend.  Church music directors will often times include an old standard in the list of songs to be sung.  Nestled in between a couple of contemporary, christian-pop ballads there might be an appearance of an old classic like “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” or “It Is Well With My Soul”.  When this occurs you’ll notice a distinct difference not only in the attitudes and responsiveness of the church members, but also in the volume of the congregation’s singing.  One could easily claim that this is merely a result of familiarity with the material, but it is my contention that it is quite simply because they’re just better songs.  When modern christian music is played the congregation becomes listless and despondent.  When the chords of a beautiful classic begins, people immediately become more engaged.  Certainly, there are exceptions, every church has members who embrace modern music with unmatched zeal.  Their arms are raised, their heads are tilted back and the predictable, repetitive words are sung out with vigor.  But as a whole, the anecdotal evidence I’ve witness over the years seems to support my side.

One need to look no further than in the words from these hymns and gospel classics to realize what makes them so timeless…

“Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine…oh, what a foretaste of glory divine;
Heir of salvation, purchase of God.  Born of his spirit, washed in his blood.”–Blessed Assurance

“Jesus, the name that calms our fears, that bids our sorrows cease;
Tis music in the sinner’s ears, tis life and health and peace.”–O, For A Thousand Tongues

“Teach me some melodious sonnet, sung by flaming tongues above;
Praise the mount I’m fixed upon it, Mount of they redeeming blood.”–Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing

“I’ve got a mansion, just over the hilltop.  In that bright land where, we’ll never grow old;
And someday yonder, we’ll never more wander, but walk the streets that are purest gold.”–Mansion On the Hilltop

“Just a closer walk with thee, grant it Jesus, is my plea;
Daily walking close to thee, let it be, dear Lord, let it be.”–Just a Closer Walk With Thee

This is only a snapshot of the type of imagery and simple linguistic elegance that is the staple of this genre of music.  The words written here and in countless other hymns have more in common with classic American poetry than they do with the words written by christian artists today.  As a culture, we’re losing our mastery of language.  A dumbed-down pop culture and a society conditioned for the brevity of emails and text messages are the result of a people who have squandered their affinity for the potential beauty of the written word.  Have you ever read a speech by Abraham Lincoln?  If we had a president who could competently speak and write in that fashion today, he’d leave most of his audience scratching their heads in bewilderment.  The same is true for music, especially religious music.  The lyrics of today and the lyrics of yesterday aren’t even on the same playing field.  It’s like comparing the Jonas Brothers to the Beatles.  Old hymnals are a treasure trove of the kind of poetic and beautiful lyrics that are impossible to find today.

Christian and Gospel music used to be something that was very much intertwined with pop culture.  Today, christian music wants to have an important role in the popular zeitgeist, but it is usually on the outside looking in.  The christian music industry is always a step behind because instead of trying to forge their own unique and creative direction, they’re merely trying to grab on to the latest fad and then sanitize it for the religious community.  Spiritual songs were once a staple of average American life.  They were sung by the most popular artists and were universally known.  The same cannot be said of christian music today.  It is a widely marginalized and often disregarded portion of the culture in which we live.  Now you may want to lament this fact as proof of the secularization of our society and the abandonment of our once-highly-held religious traditions and I might be inclined to agree with you.  But there has to be a portion of this transformation that can be directly blamed on the quality of the product as well.  Good music can transcend cultural biases.  If modern christian music is stuck on the periphery, it’s simply because it has an inadequate level of artistic and inspirational quality that would allow it to resonate with the consuming public.

Elvis Presley was once the most influential and popular artist in the country.  He was a trend-setter who pushed boundaries and transformed our societal rules about music, entertainment and sexuality.  But at the same time, he also recorded, released and performed tons of religious material.  There is no way that an artist of his stature in today’s world would try to do the same.  A couple of recent christian artists, including Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant have managed to achieve some modest level of mainstream success by taking their pop stylings and removing the religious bent.  But their christian-themed material never crossed over with them, because there was simply no mainstream market for it.  It’s impossible to imagine an artist today being a popular draw in both the Top 40 world and in the contemporary christian world at the same time.  Even with Top 40 music being as bad as it is, general audiences are just not prepared to stomach something so bereft of quality as modern christian music.  Sure, you might witness a superstar such as Faith Hill or Beyonce sing a religious song at some kind of special event, but I promise you that song will be a beautiful gospel standard and not a contemporary christian pop selection.

I attend church to be inspired.  Very often, I listen to music for the exact same reason.  I get angry with myself when I find that I’m spending my time during worship doing nothing but bemoaning and critiquing the music that is pushed upon me.  But what choice do I have?  I can’t pretend to be inspired by something I find so comical and ridiculous.  Modern christian music actually pushes me away from the spiritual and mental state that I should be feeling while at church.  It achieves the exact opposite of its desired effect.  When done correctly, the beauty of a worship service can be even more inspirational and transformative than the sermon or Bible study that follow.  It is my desire to find a church service that truly understands this concept.  I seek a church that does not sacrifice quality for the sake modern packaging.  Music of all genres is constantly evolving and I don’t pretend to expect religious music to neglect that evolution.  What I do expect is a simple understanding of what makes music classic and transcendent.  People still listen to Beethoven for a reason.  People still listen to Led Zeppelin for a reason.  That music has proven over time to have the power to resonate within the soul of the listener.  Traditional gospel music has also proven to hold that same resonance.  It’s timelessness and simple elegance are intertwined in the very fabric christian spirituality.  The poetic eloquence of the Apostle Paul is borne from the same place as the poetic eloquence of famed hymn author Fanny J. Crosby.  Humans strive through language and song to explain the mystery of human existence and capture the essence of God.  Some words and some songs have shown themselves over time to be more effective at accomplishing this task.  I long for a church and worship service that puts those words and songs at the forefront of their spiritual celebration.  I long to be inspired.

“When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun;
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we first begun.”–Amazing Grace