I Can Say This Because He’s My Representative

I wonder how much of John Boehner’s righteous anger at the recently-passed health care bill is due to the fact that upon its being signed into law, there’s going to be an additional 10% tax on tanning salons. It’s not easy being orange, man.


Reader Request Week 2010 #1: Christianity and Me

All right, let’s get started with this year’s Reader Request Week, with a question from Adam, who asks:

I’ve been wondering what your beliefs are pertaining to God, the supernatural, etc.

From a few passages in “Old Man’s War” (which I love by the way… the whole series rocks!), some of the religious bits in “The Android’s Dream,” and some of your old movie reviews from the Old “Official Playstation Magazine” (i.e. the good one) I get the impression that you have more than a passing familiarity with Christianity. So I’m just wondering what your stance is and what your upbringing was because I’m nosy and curious.

Well, let’s see. I was baptized as a baby and when I was very young — that is, kindergarten age — I attended Sunday school because at the time I was living with an aunt who was religious; I still remember the copy of the Bible she gave me, and also my favorite Bible story, which was the one about Samson and Delilah. I liked it because it was full of action and adventure, and I remember imagining it as lots of Philistines lurking about, waiting to leap out at Samson whenever he was bound by thongs, or whatever. I also remember thinking that Samson must not have been very smart, because he kept telling Delilah ways to weaken him, and then didn’t make the connection when she would tie him up and then suddenly pow, Philistines everywhere. After the first couple of times, you would think he would have figured it out. But clearly when it came to Delilah, it wasn’t his brain Samson was thinking with.

Having said that, however, I don’t recall ever having a particularly strong religious impulse, and by the time I was eight years old I was sufficiently unconvinced of the existence of God that I decided not to join the Cub Scouts because the Boy Scout oath had mention of God in it, and I couldn’t in good conscience pledge my duty to someone I didn’t think existed. Around the same time I also stopped reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, because I learned I didn’t have to, thank you Jehovah’s Witnesses, and again I wasn’t down with the whole God thing (I still don’t recite the Pledge of Allegiance, but now it’s for other reasons as well, among them I think it’s poorly written for its purpose).

I don’t pretend that my thinking on the matter of God, religion and specifically Christianity was particularly complex when I was eight, but in the intervening thirty-two years I’ve had some opportunity to think about each in some detail, and all through that time I’ve been pretty consistent regarding belief. In a nutshell, I’m an agnostic, not of the “I’m waffling and don’t want to have to choose” sort, but of the “I don’t believe in the existence of God but there’s no way to know for certain, so as a matter of intellectual honesty I have to call myself agnostic” stripe. As regards Jesus, as I’ve noted here before I don’t personally doubt that Jesus existed, but as a natural extension of my agnosticism I don’t believe he was in any way divine. As regards religion, I don’t follow any in particular and as a general thought I tend to believe that religions often have admirable moral and philosophical goals but their essential qualities are contingent on the humans in them, and you know how humans are. This makes religions much like any other large organization involving humans.

I am not Christian, never have been, and at this point doubt I will be between now and death (and as a practical matter, also doubt that I will regret such a choice after my death, since I find it highly unlikely I’ll have means to be cognizant after that point). However, this doesn’t mean that I am ignorant of Christianity, either historically or the myriad ways it exhibits itself in the world today. I’ve read the Bible a number of times, of course, and have also read the writings of a number of religious writers from the time of early Christianity forward, and try to keep current with what’s going on in culture as it involves Christianity. Part of this is the side effect of having what’s known as a “good education” — thank you Webb School of California and the University of Chicago — but part of this is my own recognition that to understand other people, you want to understand what they believe. It’s also recognition that while I’m agnostic, the vast majority of my fellow citizens here in the US are at least nominally religious and of those who are, the vast majority are at least nominally Christian. It’s nice to be able to speak the language of the majority.

When people learn that I am agnostic, a fair number of them assume that I am antagonistic to the idea of religion, the religious impulse, or Christianity. I’m not. I know too many Christians and other religious folk who I love as people, respect as thinkers and admire as moral actors to insult them by dismissing such a foundational aspect of who they are. Nor am I presumptuous enough to assume that their religious beliefs do not inform the philosophical and moral choices they make. Finally, I know enough people whose lives I believe were saved — small “s” there — by putting religion (and in most cases Christianity specifically) into them that simply as a practical matter even if I thought there was something wrong with religion or Christianity in a general sense, I would be happy those people had it in their lives for their own sake.

Religion requires commitment and understanding of what you believe, however, and specifically as regards Christianity, I expect a lot of people who follow that path, and I get angry with those people who purport to be Christian and yet as far as I can see don’t seem to understand much about Christ. I’ve summed this up before by noting that I think Christianity is a fine religion and I wish more Christians practiced it. That sentiment is something to which I continue to hold. If you say you are Christian, and you make that aspect of your life part of your public persona, then I feel just fine pointing out when and where I feel you are failing Christ, the beliefs He taught and His expectations of those who follow Him. Moreover, I feel just fine lecturing Christians about Christ, since I know rather a lot about Him and His teachings; I’ve found in my experience a really excellent way to piss off one of these alleged Christians is make it obvious to him that you know your Bible back and forth and better than he does.

I expect Christianity and the religious impulse in general to continue into the future, which is why I don’t shy away from putting either and both into my books. Moreover, I think it’s worth it to do so with some complexity. There is a group called the “Colonial Mennonites” in The Last Colony not just because they provided me with a convenient excuse to ship non-advanced farm equipment to the Roanoke colony, but also because I wanted to show a group of Christians positively affecting the world around them and also living up to the religious and moral principals they set for themselves. I think the scene in which I have Hiram Yoder confronted by the “werewolves” works — to the extent it does work — because Yoder is called upon to live his beliefs in the most difficult circumstances imaginable. His actions, informed by his love of Christ, are powerful. At the very least, they were meant to be.

This doesn’t necessarily mean I feel that I have to show religion or the religious impulse in a uniformly positive or uncritical way in my work — please see The God Engines for confirmation — but I don’t think it’s a bad thing to do so, either, when it’s appropriate for the book or story. This is a reflection of my own belief that in the real world, the religious impulse can show itself in as many ways as there are people who have those impulses as part of their lives. God (or the gods) may or may not be a reflection of who we are as humans, but how we choose to acknowledge them and act up on that faith most certainly is. And again: You know how people are.

So that’s where I am with religion, Christianity and me.


Health Care Passage Thoughts

Borrowed from Talking Points Memo

Because the passage of one of the most significant bills in history should not go unnoted here:

I’ve been silent here about the health care issue since this entry on January 20, primarily because I didn’t have a thing to add to it, in particular this portion:

…contrary to apparently popular opinion, health care isn’t quite dead yet. Now the real interesting thing is to see what the Democrats do next — whether they curl up in a legislative ball, moaning softly, and let their health care initiative die, or whether they double down, locate their gonads and find a way to get it done (there are several ways this can be accomplished).

From a purely strategic point of view, I’m not sure why they don’t just ram the thing through the House as is, fiddle with it a bit during reconciliation and get to Obama to sign it. To put it bluntly, the Democrats will look better by flipping the GOP the bird and then using the ten months until the 2010 election to get voters back on their side than showing to the voters that despite a large majority in both houses, they collapse like a flan in the cupboard at the first setback. We’ll see what happens now, and I suspect what happens in the next week or so will make a significant impact on what happens in November.

And, well. It took the Democrats several weeks longer to find their gonads than I thought it should have, but then again I thought the health care process should have been accomplished several months ago to begin with, back when they had 60 senators. But the Democrats have an apparent structural problem, which is that when they have everything going their way, a lot of them feel that means they should immediately go another way. It took losing their senate supermajority and the GOP overwhelming the public discourse on the health care process to get enough Democrats in line, with many I suspect motivated by the simple fear that what the GOP would do to them if health care passed was less painful than what would the GOP would do to them if it failed.

Basically, I find what passes for Democratic legislative strategy absolutely appalling. Decades from now, when they make the ponderous Oscar-bait movie about the struggle for health care (with Jaden Smith as Obama and two-time Academy Award winner Snooki as Speaker Pelosi), it will make for exciting twists and turns in the plot, but out here in the real world, you shouldn’t have to let your organization get the crap beat out of it in order to motivate those in it to do the thing everybody knows it wants to get done. What the Democrats have managed to do with health care isn’t a Pyrrhic victory — I’ll get to that in a moment — but it surely was taking the long way around: over the river, through the woods, down into the landfill, into the abattoir, across a field of rabid, angry badgers. Next time, guys, make it easier on yourselves.

That said, the Democrats were magnificently fortunate that, as incompetent as they are, they are ever-so-slightly less incompetent than the GOP, which by any realistic standard has been handed one of the largest legislative defeats in decades. The GOP was not simply opposed to health care, it was opposed to it in shrill, angry, apocalyptic terms, and saw it  not as legislation, or in terms of whether or not health care reform was needed or desirable for Americans, but purely as political strategy, in terms of whether or not it could kneecap Obama and bring itself back into the majority. As such there was no real political or moral philosophy to the GOP’s action, it was all short-term tactics, i.e., take an idea a majority of people like (health care reform), lie about its particulars long enough and in a dramatic enough fashion to lower the popularity of the idea, and then bellow in angry tones about how the president and the Democrats are ignoring the will of the people. Then publicly align the party with the loudest and most ignorant segment of your supporters, who are in part loud because you’ve encouraged them to scream, and ignorant because you and your allies in the media have been feeding them bad information. Whip it all up until health care becomes the single most important issue for both political parties — an all-in, must win, absolutely cannot lose issue.

It’s a fine plan — unless you’re on the losing side, which the GOP now is. And while the folks in the GOP will be happy to tell you that they are going to ride this baby into majorities come November, they have a very simple problem in that now they’re running not against a bill, but a law, some of the benefits of which will immediately come into play, and which removed from overheated nonsensical rhetoric are almost certainly going to be popular. In the first year of the bill being signed into law, insurance companies will be barred from dropping people when they get sick. Do GOPers want to come out being for insurers dropping people when they need their health insurance the most? The new law will let parents keep their kids on their insurance until their kids are 26, keeping a large number of otherwise uninsured young adults covered. Do GOPers want to run on depriving millions of young Americans that health care coverage? In this economy? Seniors will get a rebate when they fall into that prescription drug “donut hole,” and the law will eventually eliminate that hole entirely. Do GOPers think it’ll be smart to tell seniors that closing the “donut hole” is a bad thing?

So this is the GOP’s problem going forward: people love to hate “socialism” in the abstract, but they love their benefits once they have them, and now the GOP will have to go from saving people from “socialism” to taking away benefits, and that’s a hard row to hoe. I don’t credit the Democrats with a surfeit of brains when it comes to tactics, but if the GOP really wants to run on repealing health care law this year or in 2012, even the Democrats can manage to point out to millions of voters that this means letting insurers drop you or your children from their rolls and making it harder for seniors to buy the prescription drugs they need to survive. Yes, yes: who’s killing grandma now?

There’s another problem for the GOP. While I think it’s likely the Democrats will lose seats this election cycle (as often happens to the party of the president — any president — in mid-term elections), I think the idea that the GOP is going to retake either the House or Senate (or both) is optimistic at best, and the idea that they would be able to retake both with the majorities needed to overcome a presidential veto is the sort of magical thinking that usually indicates either profound chemical imbalances in the brain or really excellent hashish. So Americans will have two and a half years to get used to their new-found health care rights and benefits, most of which in the real world are perfectly sensible, beneficial things, before we all get to vote on who is going to be the next president. Now, perhaps Obama will be voted out of office and perhaps he won’t, but if whomever is the GOP candidate in 2012 plans on running on repealing the health care laws, well, you know. Good luck with that. I’m sure Obama would be delighted for them to try.

And yes, what about Obama? Well, all he did was manage to do something no other president has managed to do, a thing upon which other presidencies have foundered, against opposition that was total, persistent and fanatical. I wish he had managed to do it sooner and with less damage to his standing, and that his own inexperience and aloofness had not been a proximate cause to its delay, which it was. I wish his allies in the legislature had not been appallingly disorganized; I wish his opponents in the legislature were more interested in the good of the people they represent than in playing tactical games. What’s gotten passed isn’t 100% of what I would have wanted to have passed, not just for what’s in it but also for what’s not.

But in the end, it got done. We have health care reform. We have it because Obama decided that it was going to get done, one way or another, and that it was worth risking his presidency over — and worth risking Democratic control of the House and Senate as well. Like the GOP, he went all in, but unlike the GOP, he didn’t do it just for tactical advantage or for short term advantage of power and party; he did it because when all and said and done I think he really does believe that health care reform is to the benefit of the American people, and that it in itself was more important than just being president for as long as Constitutionally possible.

To be clear, and contrary to GOP thinking, I think this is the act that will make him a two-termer, the poor bastard. But even if by some chance he’s one-and-done, I think he can say he did the thing he came to Washington to do, and that he did something that was the right thing to do. As it happens, I agree with him; I think it makes moral, philosophical and economic sense for as many Americans as possible to have access to regular, competent health care. It was a reason I voted for him, and in itself is worth my vote for him.

Mind you, there is more I expect from him before he leaves office, whether that’s in 2013 or 2017. The fact he got this done — despite everything — gives me confidence that he’ll get those things done too.

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