Tag Archives: Chris Christie

Ode to Hubris

One-hundred-five years ago today, one of modernity’s great achievements sank alone in the icy waters of the chilled North Atlantic. While the ultimate cause of Titanic’s demise may have been an iceberg, the proximate cause was surely much more common. Human arrogance, we’re reminded daily, never learns its lesson. Despite what elected officials tell us, arrogance at the top will always lead according to its surfeit of self-confidence. After all, there are no icebergs this far south so late in the year. It seems that we’ll never forget Titanic and the hundreds of needless deaths, but somehow we’re not very good at transferring the lesson to other media. Let me give just a small example.

Yesterday I was in New York City. My family came during the day to celebrate my wife’s birthday. One of the benefits of New Jersey Transit is that after 7 p.m. on a Friday, a monthly bus pass also works on the train. I can meet up with my family after work and we can ride home in comfort instead of taking the bus, such as I usually do. We didn’t know that at 3:30 that afternoon a train had broken down in one of the limited number of tunnels under the Hudson. (Governor Chris Christie had famously stopped work on another set of tunnels to ease the commute.) About twelve-hundred passengers sat for an amazing three hours with no lights, air conditioning, or announcements. No trains could make it into New York’s Penn Station. When we arrived, oblivious, just before 7 p.m. there were people pouring out of the station. Coats and clothing were strewn all over the steps, as if the homeless had been raptured. The police told my wife and daughter not to go down. A few minutes later they said, “Definitely no shots were fired.” When we got to the platform all the monitors read about half-past five. Discarded clothing was everywhere. It was only when we finally got on a train that we learned that in the anxious terminal where crowds were restless, Amtrak police had tazed a man. People thought shots had been fired, and panicked. The video taken by those in the station shows people running, dropping clothes, luggage, and shoes in their haste to flee. Just after this, we’d arrived.

Titanic, it seems to me, is about building something so massive that it can’t be controlled. Human arrogance is like that. This week we heard about United Airlines security beating up a passenger to make room for company employees who needed to be on an oversold flight. Just a couple weeks back another New Jersey Transit train derailed in Penn Station, disrupting for days the insane commute some of us undertake daily. Who’s the captain of this ship? Oh. But we don’t have to worry. There are no icebergs this far south this late in the year.

Headliners

I sometimes wish I was a journalist. Just this past week a couple of people questioned my journalistic skills for an opinion piece I wrote for Religion Dispatches. I’m fully capable of professional research, but who has the time? Still, being a journalist might be fun. Thinking up clever headlines would be challenging day after day, but nevertheless, it might be enjoyable. Editors who lay the articles next to each other on the page must have a sense of irony. This past week in the New Jersey Star Ledger the central headline read “Killer tightens its grip on N.J.” The column to the right began “Christie to mingle with the uber-rich.” Having lived in New Jersey under Christie’s entire reign, I’m no fan. I’ve despised bullies since I was a kid, and rich bullies are worse than the working class variety. New Jersey certainly seems no better off to me. Now he wants to be President.

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The real headline, however, about the killer in New Jersey is not yet another prison-break story. It deals with heroin overdose deaths. According to the article, per 100,000 people in the U.S. 2.6 deaths are from heroin overdose. In New Jersey the figure is 8.3. New Jersey, as the most densely populated state (1200 people per square mile, I once read) has its share of problems. Most of us like to pretend that drugs are somebody else’s issue, but I’ve known addicts and they are not evil. When life offers you unrelenting recession after recession and all attempts to better yourself run up against the 1 percent, frustration is inevitable. Even earning a doctorate will only lead to jobless misery. What more can you do than get an education? Heroin is dangerously addictive and it makes the user feel great, I’m told. Society doesn’t offer many other options. At least in Rome they had bread and circuses.

He who would be President, however, can’t be concerned about that. The uber-rich must be fed. And fed. And fed. Those whose ambition to high public office is naked power would be foolish to ignore their fellow plutocrats. Down here on the streets, things look a little dicier. Although I think I understand why many turn to chemical relief, I’ve never been tempted by drugs myself. One of the reasons I turned to religion was the prevalence of drug use in the town where I grew up. There seemed to be no future in substance abuse. I may not have chosen the most promising of ways to move ahead either, in retrospect. Now I find myself living with a governor who represents all that’s wrong with government. And if you’re going to die of drug-related despair, it seems like his particular state is the place it’s most likely to happen. Long live the king!

Bridge over Troubled Waters

“Let not many of you,” wrote the wise James, in a widely ignored admonition, “become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.” The same could be said for politicians. Lord Acton, seconding James, noted “power corrupts,” and yet who is not drawn to its flame? The news has been awash in a flood over the George Washington Bridge scandal, something I could not appreciate until I joined the ranks of the myriads of commuters to Manhattan. The evidence is pretty clear that Chris Christie’s top staff (ahem) purposefully closed lanes on the George Washington Bridge to retaliate against Fort Lee mayor Mark Sokolich’s refusing to dance when the pipers piped for Christie’s reelection. I didn’t vote for Christie, and now I wonder if that is why my New Jersey Transit bus often comes so late that I’ve taken to calling it the Jesus Bus, since I never know when it might come again. Ah, the rush of power that encourages the grinding of the boot heel into the face of the smaller opponent. Could anything be more human?

Perhaps, in this world of infinite possibilities, Christie knew nothing of what his top aides were doing. The culture in New Jersey, however, as those of us who live here know, has been cast in the very large shadow of bullying. We spend taxpayer’s money to teach our children not to bully while our politicians give the lie to the teaching we purchase. “How the mighty are fallen,” lamented King David. But even he had his Bathsheba scandal. And many on the right claim their politics derive through their commitment to his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson, if I count correctly. Let not many of you become politicians.

Manhattan is an island with limited access. The Lincoln Tunnel and the Holland Tunnel are for the troglodyte crowd, while the George Washington Bridge is the busiest bridge in the world. “He could have called,” the old evangelical hymn goes, “ten-thousand angels.” That’s roughly a forty-to-one ratio for New Jersey commuters to New York to angels. Somewhere along the line, the populace became the unwitting plaything of politicians. Stop a hundred-thousand people from getting to work? It’s just an arbitrary number. Never mind that trust used to be part of the social contract. As a citizen who spends approximately three hours a day on a bus, or waiting for one, I have to wonder whose best interest is in the mind of our elected officials. Yes, James, had I listened to you this might have all turned out very differently indeed.

Photo credit: Fly Navy from Wiki Commons.

Photo credit: Fly Navy from Wiki Commons.

Voting Vicissitudes

“Remember, remember, the fifth of November, the Gunpowder Treason and plot. I know of no reason, why the Gunpowder Treason, should ever be forgot.” Election day fell on November fifth, and as I watched V for Vendetta again, I was reminded how true it rings. Religious leadership takes over government, the common person becomes an enemy of the state, and criticism is treason. Tea, anyone? I’ve always had a soft spot for dystopias, but the world of V is entirely too plausible at times. I have watched rational people transformed by fear and the certainty of religious dogma into those who will do what they are told without question. The movie always gives me a profound hope that the human spirit is larger than the powers that be. V can also stand for Vote.

I cast my ballot knowing that a vote against a governor who enjoys the bully image was indeed close to a lost cause. People are enamored of power. In my deepest Jedi dreams, however, I know that the most powerful moment in Star Wars is when Obi Wan turns off his light saber to allow himself to be struck down. There is a power, one upon which entire religions are premised, in the self-sacrificial act. It’s not that I have anything against Parliament; I saw it just this past year and enjoyed the experience in a way that Guy Fawkes could perhaps not have appreciated. As Evey says, “this country needs more than a building right now. It needs hope.” I guess we can hold on another four years. V can also stand for five.

“He’s a deeply religious man and a member of the conservative party. He has completely single-minded convictions and has no regard for the political process. Eventually, his party launches a special project in the name of ‘national security’.” So V tells Finch concerning a dictator who could be wearing any number of political masks in our world. We hand power over to those who encourage our fears rather than those who inspire our imagination. Camelot died in 1963. It is not so difficult to imagine a world so much better than the one we’ve constructed, but plutocracy does prevail when people do not take the implications of their religion seriously. When we only glance at the surface, the deeper message gets lost in the mythology of it all. November fifth is a myth that still has the potential to change the world. If we would allow it.

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Thar She Blows

Any survey of “armpits of America” will laughingly include New Jersey. Having lived here for nearly seven years now, I know the apocrine insults are undeserved—I actually knew that before moving here. New Jersey has the highest per capita Ph.D. concentration in the nation. It also has the highest number of college graduates, and, for what it’s worth, the highest per capita income. These first two points come especially to the fore regarding New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s recent speech, made in Boston—a city with some small higher education affiliations itself. Propping up his creds for a presidential run, Christie said, “I think that we have some folks that believe that our job is to be college professors. Now college professors are fine, I guess. You know, college professors basically spout out ideas that nobody ever does anything about. [Rim shot!] For our ideas to matter, we have to win because, if we don’t win, we don’t govern.” (This according to the New Jersey Star-Ledger.)

The United States, for many years now, has been falling behind in education because we won’t fund it adequately. I’m no jingoist, but I do believe that the principles upon which this country were founded were inspired. To thrive, we must be smart. Education has been the key to our improvement over the decades, and as the focus has shifted from education to capital, the hull has begun to leak. I know that I have felt it. With dismay I’ve watched as colleges and universities have hoisted the November Charlie and no vessel has come to their aid. Departments are jettisoned and we are still taking on water. And the governor of “the education state” guesses that “college professors are fine” but completely irrelevant. This man for president in 2016?

Meanwhile, yesterday, the unexpectedly happy news was announced that President Obama will be visiting my daughter’s university next week. Binghamton University is frequently overlooked by the monied special interests paid to the Harvards and Princetons of the green-lined ivies. It is, however, frequently cited as a “public ivy” for its quality education at state-school prices. Obama’s visit is for precisely that reason: good education can be affordable. Chris Christie went on to say, “For our ideas to matter we have to win because, if we don’t win, we don’t govern. And if we don’t govern, all we do is shout into the wind.” And if we don’t win we gather up our marbles and go home. Yes, I was a child once, too. And I grew up. Higher education does matter—far more than some politicians’ bluster would indicate. Do you agree, Dr. Einstein? I’m sorry, governor, I can’t hear you over the wind flapping the sails.

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Blame it on the Rain

I’ve been on the losing side of my share of elections (although it feels like far more than my share), but I’m amazed at the character of the GOP that has come through these last few days. The quote that keeps running through my mind comes from The Dark Knight when the Joker says to the Chechen that if they cut him up and fed him to his hounds, “then we’ll see how loyal a hungry dog really is.” Blame has been flying thick and fast, but one thing I don’t hear any Tea Partiers suggesting is that Hurricane Sandy was sent by God to seal the election for Obama. Hurricane Katrina may have been sent by God to wipe out the sinners in New Orleans, but when Sandy gave a chance for Obama to show his true colors, it was just a freak storm. I’ve never been a fan of Chris Christie, New Jersey’s bully governor. During Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath, however, I was very impressed how he handled the situation. He showed a rare side full of compassion for those who were suffering. He vowed to help President Obama make things right again. When the storm of the election was over, however, Christie’s own party verbally crucified him for doing the right thing. Does this not show us just what white privilege spawns?

Turning back the clock is an exercise best left for post-apocalyptic scenarios of rebuilding society and the occasional spring or fall weekend. As our world makes progress—and yes, it is slowly making it—we must constantly reassess the situation. The ethics of the 1950s favored white men, the mores were blithely uninformed that an entire world exists outside this strange isolationism that could only be broken when Communists threatened our way of life. We are over half-a-century beyond that: the Berlin Wall has fallen, the Cuban missiles are gone, and those seeking to move to America are by and large the tired, the poor, and those yearning to breathe free. Not all of them are “white.” Not all of them are male. They are, like the rest of us, human beings.

I have never wished want or deprivation on anyone. I know what moderate want feel like (I lost an entire day of my college education searching for three dollars that fell out of my pocket, wondering how I would make it through the week without it). I have spent several years of my life tip-toeing around unemployment, and sometimes falling into that crevasse for a year or two at a time. Each time I claw my way out I earnestly wish that no one would ever have to face that. A political party that puts such a strong emphasis on giving up all the good we’ve managed to obtain, and cries about health care that doesn’t even approach the humane, universal care available in just about every other “first world” nation, is a party in need of serious, prolonged soul-searching. On this day when we honor veterans who, despite personal differences, stood side-by-side for the good of their country, perhaps those attacking their own might in days of privilege spend a few moments in serious thought.

Blame it on the rain…

Two Swords

One of the more interesting situations to emerge from Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath was the celebration of Halloween. I know that I’ve already lost some readers right there since Halloween is a disputed holiday. Often Halloween is maligned as “Satanic,” a claim that is absolutely untrue. It may have some paganism in its roots, but then, so do most religious events and ideas. Halloween is a Christianization of various folk customs, frequently Celtic in origin, on a night when the protective wall between the living and the dead was believed to be especially thin. As adults grew more sophisticated and scientifically informed, the holiday lingered as a children’s fun day with dress-up and pranking, both normal childhood ways of playing. This neutered holiday has proved to be commercially viable as well, now supporting September-October Halloween stores at a density of about a dozen per square mile. Its success is rivaled only by Christmas.

In light (or perhaps dark) of the devastation of Sandy, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie canceled Halloween. We heard the news on our battery-operated radio, sitting in the dark. While this was one of those rare times when I think Christie was motivated by the concern of both poor and rich, I did ponder the implications of a government canceling a holiday. All Hallows’ Eve is the night before All Saints’ Day. “Hallows” is simply another—less used but more evocative—word for “Saints.” While largely secular in its present guise, Halloween is a religious holiday. My mind went back to the doctrine of Two Swords that I learned about many years ago. Originating in the papal bull Unam Sanctum, very early in the fourteenth century, the doctrine teaches that in spiritual matters the church holds the sword while in temporal matters the state holds its own sword. Who has the right to cancel a holiday?

Of course, Chris Christie has his own ways of issuing bull, but his real concern was that conditions were too dangerous for trick-or-treating. Indeed they were. On a short walk, I saw power cables dangling like electrified cobwebs on just about every block, snaking along the ground. Branches were still falling from trees. Curfews (many still in effect) were widespread. Not a good night for masked strangers to show up at your door. But as in the case of the Grinch leaning out over Whoville after he’d stolen all the trappings, Halloween came, it came just the same. What we saw on Halloween was people helping one another. No tricks (for the most part, although among the first to recover were businesses who recorded new ads to broadcast on the radio before the wind even stopped blowing), just good natured mortals helping one another, protecting others from the grim reaper. To borrow a line from Charles Schultz, “That’s what Halloween’s all about, Charlie Brown.”

Will the real Halloween raise its hand?