Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Made out of love, to help each other win

I’ve been dying to repeat this somewhere. I was watching TV over the weekend—with a notebook and pen in my hand, because I was supposed to be writing something. I’ve watched a lot of VH1-Classic the last few weeks; it was recently added to our basic cable package, so it has novelty value, and I can really soak up some rock-music documentaries, or the odd re-broadcast of “The Wall” or “This Is Spinal Tap.”

Anyway, the documentary of the day was about soul music, and they devoted an hour to Motown. We learn that Berry Gordy founded the label out of frustration that white-owned labels wouldn’t serve his songs the way he wanted them served. Spotty distribution was causing his records to lag in sales, and Smokey Robinson suggested that Gordy may as well press records himself and market/distribute them to his liking, because hell, he was losing money anyway.

Motown’s very first record was a Top 5 hit, and the label was off and running. We hear several Motown performers telling us that in its heyday, Hitsville USA was active 24 hours a day, with a recording session going on in one part of the building, rehearsals in another, Holland-Dozier-Holland polishing a song in another. Members of the Motown stable would drop by and see how they could pitch in: twist a knob, shake a tambourine, suggest a rhyme, sing an ooh-baby-baby.

Duke Fakir, one of the original Four Tops, said that the Motown sound was “made out of love, to help each other win.” And that struck me as such a lovely phrase, practically a prayer, that I wrote it down in my procrastinator’s notebook.

Two days later, I’m still thinking about it, still struck by it, but I’m also thinking what a gloss that is on the Motown phenomenon. It wasn’t an Amish barn-raising, for cryin’ out loud, and even as a non-expert I’m certain there was plenty of drama going on at Hitsville. I mean, Berry Gordy and others at Motown had at least a corner of one eye trained on the cashbox. Artists were competing over who got the best songs from Holland-Dozier-Holland. Surely somebody from the Motown family, at some time, was really there for the party, the drink and the smoke and trying to get into somebody’s pants. Diana Ross was lording her status as big star and Berry Gordy’s girlfriend, and some people resented her. The documentary left all this out.

Also, I wonder how long Duke Fakir has been rehearsing that phrase.

On the other hand, petty shit goes on at least in the background of any communal human enterprise. I do believe Motown was a remarkable communal entity, marked by a high degree of trust and cooperation. There’s so often a cynical view and an idealistic view of the same thing. The glass is half-full or it’s half-empty.

"And then the blogger was hit by a truck." I have no conclusion to offer. I still like Duke Fakir’s phrase.

Monday, September 10, 2007

US Rep. Bob Etheridge (NC-02)

Bob Etheridge, Congressman from the 2nd District of North Carolina, made Open Left's list of "Bush Dogs," Democratic reps who consistently and frustratingly vote with the White House on Iraq. I'm not in his district, but let me take a stab at writing an Etheridge profile. I welcome comments or even competing evaluations of Etheridge. Let Matt Stoller know if you have an Etheridge profile.

From this spreadsheet linked at Open Left, analyzing the Bush Dog reps and districts, I see that NC-02 has a PVI of 03 (+R). Bush carried the district in 2004 with 56% of the vote. On the list of Bush Dog districts, NC-02 is roughly in the middle of the pack by most measures. By Bush's 2004 margin, it ranks 18th out of the 37 on this list. By PVI, it is the 14th most favorable district for Democrats out of 37.

In 2004, at the same time Bush was winning NC-02 with 56%, the Democrat Etheridge was winning with 62%. In 2006 he got a boost to 67%. (Again, this places Etheridge in the middle of the pack of Bush Dogs, most of whom performed 10% or more better than John Kerry did in their district.)

Etheridge's Progressive Punch score, which evaluates his voting record. is 77.58, ranking 10th on the Bush Dog list. He doesn't stand out as an especially egregious Bush Dog.

An important fact about the Second District is that it includes part of Fort Bragg, a major Army base. It's a rural district, home of Campbell University--Etheridge's alma mater, and a conservative Southern Baptist-affiliated institution. And it's home to a lot of people with connections to Fort Bragg or Pope Air Force Base. Etheridge is an Army veteran himself and serves on the Homeland Security committee, and "supporting the troops" is pretty imperative for his political survival. He has said some things critical of White House policy, but it's hard to imagine Etheridge voting to de-fund combat operations.

Etheridge's district borders that of Mike McIntyre, another Bush Dog. Etheridge has sometimes worked in tandem with Walter Jones, a GOP representative who has taken some pretty brave stands against Bush and his party.

I've heard Etheridge speak in person on one occasion, at the Wake County party convention in early 2006. Brad Miller is my rep, Etheridge reps another part of the county, and both of them spoke at this convention, in front of a pretty activist crowd. I didn't keep notes, but my memory is that Miller said some things that got the crowd fired up, about the Orwellian character of working in George Bush's Washington. Etheridge didn't inspire; he tut-tutted about the bad news from Iraq and ballooning deficits, or something. Those two guys exemplify the divide in the Democratic caucus.

But Etheridge is folksy and likable. As a onetime farmer and member of the Agriculture Committee, he looks out for the farm lobby and agribusiness. As former NC state schools superintendent, he's strong on education. He's pretty good on the environment. He's pretty good on pocketbook issues, and he has good labor support. He has a good record on Latino issues, befitting a district with a lot of immigrants. He hedges a little on culture war issues like abortion and gun control. My basic sense of him is that he's a decent guy and a veteran politician who knows to a fare-thee-well how to survive as a Democrat in a conservative-leaning district.

I would venture to say that there's not much appetite in the state party for mounting a primary challenge against Etheridge. He climbed the ladder, from county to state then to federal office, and has plenty of allies in the state party. (Unlike John Edwards, incidentally.)

Like most Netroots people, I am dismayed by Democratic torpor on Iraq, by the existence and influence of the Bush Dog phenomenon. It's a long-term project to persuade the national party to tune out the Beltway insiders, actually listen to public opinion, and stop being neurotic about national security and the spectre of being perceived as soft. But in the shorter term, Etheridge's circumstances make him one of the Democrats least amenable to pressure on this front. At the same time, he is a good fit for his district, and throwing this bum out would probably result in a Republican bum taking his place.

Again, comments are welcome.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Notes on spirituality and health

I heard a talk today about spirituality and health, given by a clinical psychologist. The guy’s heart was in the right place, let me put it that way, and some people got into interesting discussions afterwards. So we’re groping toward a fruitful understanding of these issues and relationships.

I got a handle on one of the things that sometimes bugs me in these discussions: There’s a causation vs. correlation problem. Today’s speaker alluded to a finding that people who attend church regularly have a higher life expectancy than non-churchgoers. To me that says that (1) taking care of your health and (2) religious observance are two behaviors of a certain type of person—two manifestations of a syndrome. But it’s silly to believe that one caused the other. The implication of “Faith Heals” is believing that exposure to stained glass is like chemotherapy, or that prayers are like radioactive isotopes that bombard tumors. The last few months I have been making more of an effort at praying for people who are sick or in trouble. I would like to have some informed theological discussion of what that means—a theory or theories of how prayer is supposed to work. I think prayer is worthwhile, but I don't believe in faith healing.

I wrote once, paraphrasing another of these Spirituality & Health brown-bag lectures: “The best measure of religiosity is not fidelity but fluency. The specific content of any worldview, religious or not, is less significant than whether one can articulate it coherently.” I was reminded of that today when our psychologist quoted a study of responses to the 9/11 attacks, that showed people who attributed divine implications to the attacks (in other words, that the death and destruction were an insult to the respondent’s view of the sacred) were markedly more affected, more prone to depression and PTSD symptoms, and more likely to endorse extreme statements such as “We should hunt down Al Qaeda and kill them, their children, and their children’s children.” (The speaker was proud of coming up with this survey item, because of the Biblical echoes in the language.) The speaker’s thesis is that spirituality has health effects for good or for ill, that spiritual struggle can lead to measurable health setbacks. I have a problem with any framework that credits “spirituality” to a person who vows vengeance on his enemies. The definitions of spirituality and struggle need to be examined. Fluency is the key—a robust and mature spiritual framework that can absorb new experiences, even awful and unthinkable ones, with integrity. A healthy spirituality can stand up to doubt and struggle, the way a healthy marriage can survive “for better or for worse.”

Funny how different people interpret the words “spirituality” and “religion” differently. One woman in today’s audience, who shared that she was gay, put a negative spin on “religion” because it implied hateful authoritarian structures. In theological education I observe that people put a negative spin on “spirituality” as religion without any rigor, with all the demands and coherence drained out of it. Our speaker’s view (which I take seriously) is that you shouldn’t isolate either term, that every individual’s spirituality is informed by organized religion in American culture—e.g. that even if you’ve fled from the repressive church or mosque of your childhood, your identity is formed by it, just like a repressive father or mother.

The speaker commented that it was much easier to present to audiences of clergy, chaplains, or religious laypeople than to psychologists or journalists. The latter tend to be dismissive of religion as a legitimate subject of study. It occurs to me that in this field, HIS field, the most progress has been made in the hospice movement and palliative care. When confronted with end-of-life situations, caregivers abandon the measurement of “positive and negative health benefits” in favor of accepting the inevitable, making peace with family and community and self. Palliative care turns the whole medical mindset on its head. Acceptance, denial, and hope in the face of suffering—these are key elements in the intersection of spirituality and health.