October 30, 2008

The Most Important Election In Our Lifetime... Or Is It?

Over the past several months, I can't count how many times I've read or heard people say that the 2008 election is "the most important election of our lifetime." The candidates from both campaigns keep saying it. The political pundits from both the right and the left keep saying it. Rock stars, religious leaders, bloggers and celebrities keep saying it. Journalists like Michael Tomasky of The Guardian were already saying it 10 months ago, before the Iowa caucus kicked off the primary season marathon. Even Joe Biden's 91-year-old mother has said that this is the biggest election of her lifetime. Who's going to argue with a 91-year-old woman? I guess it must be true. Or is it?

Whenever I hear someone utter these insistent words, I wonder whose "lifetime" they are actually talking about. Since the average life expectancy of an American male is 75 years, I am expecting to kick the bucket sometime around the 2056 campaign season, which means there are still about 12 more presidential elections remaining in my lifetime. Does this mean the race between Obama and McCain will overshadow all 12 of these future elections over the next 48 years? Is 2008 the last time we'll ever heard this phrase used? Although I would be tickled pink if this happened, I'm not expecting any of the candidates in 2012 to say, "This is the second most important election of our lifetime, so go out and vote, but keep your enthusiasm just a notch below what you had in 2008."

According to a clever article from The American Scholar, which offers some much needed historical perspective, the concept of "the most important election in our lifetime" has been used in just about every election in American history. It's an old trick that we all keep falling for, even older than negative TV ads with scary announcer voices predicting doom and gloom if you vote for the wrong guy. In a recent campaign speech on behalf of John McCain, Rudy Giuliani implored the crowd by saying, "Every four years, we are told that this presidential election is the most important election of our lifetime. This year -- 2008 -- is the most important." Pardon me Rudy, but did you just say that we should believe you this time on the basis that you were wrong last time? It sounds like you're basically saying, "I know that politicians like me have a tendency to cry 'wolf' every 4 years, but this year, it's REALLY the one and only year of the wolf! You've gotta believe me this time- truly, madly, deeply with sugar on top!"

In fairness, I would agree with those who say that the 2008 campaign season has been historic and unique in many ways, particularly the groundbreaking candidacies of Barack Obama, Sarah Palin and Obama's lengthy primary battle with Hillary Clinton that went down to the wire on the Democratic side. But "historic" is not the same as "more important than all the rest," as if we'll never have to decide anything significant after this year. The 2004 election was not very "historic" per se, but it was certainly very important, as the last four years have shown. I can't think of much at stake in the Obama vs. McCain showdown that was not at stake with Bush vs. Kerry in 2004, Bush/Gore in 2000 or even the Clinton/Dole landslide in 1996 for that matter. Some elections are more compelling or more controversial than others, but every presidential election is important. In that sense, this year is no different.

Apart from being dishonest, the problem with telling people that we only want them to vote this one special time, in this one special year, is that it sets up a false expectation for quick fixes to complex problems. When things don't instantly change on the morning after, people become cynics and armchair quarterbacks who complain and moan without ever taking another stand, that is, until the next campaign rolls around with an urgent call to protect the fate of the universe from imminent destruction. Perhaps this helps to explain America's low election turnout rates and the tendency to take our voting rights for granted. I wonder how many people watching the election around the world would love the privilege of American citizenship so they could vote in 2008.

For the sake of a healthy democracy, I would love it if more people voted across the board, even if they vote differently than I do. We're all better off when more people have a say in how things are being run by those who represent us, but we have to learn how to encourage people to vote without making it into a "once in a lifetime" thing. There are plenty of good reason to vote this year, but "you'll never have to do it again" shouldn't be one of them.

October 21, 2008

The Top 99 Reasons to Support Rail Transit for Honolulu

With less than 2 weeks to go before Election Day 2008, the presidential race has shifted much of Hawaii's attention away from the heated debate over Honolulu's proposed rail transit system. But hey, who can really blame anyone for being more interested in watching clips of Tina Fey impersonating Sarah Palin on SNL than having a discussion about trains, traffic and elevated roadways? Even so, the mayoral race between pro-rail incumbent Mufi Hannemann and anti-rail underdog Ann Kobayashi has been grabbing some recent headlines as the issue of rail transit has become the central issue at stake in this election. As an alternative to Hannemann's $3.7 billion, 20-mile rail system, Kobayashi unveiled her own plan last week, a $2.5 billion, 15-mile double-decker freeway for buses that she's calling the "Ez-Way." As a longtime rail supporter who is tired of endless bickering and feet-dragging that has delayed the project for decades, I am hoping (perhaps naively) this election will provide a decisive vote to settle this controversial issue once and for all. It's time to let the people decide.

If you haven't been following the recent developments in the battle over rail, you need to know that there will be a question on the ballot asking voters to select "yes" or "no" on the establishment of a steel-on-steel rail transit system (Charter Amendment #4). Unlike other confusing ballot measures, a vote of "yes" will actually mean yes to rail, whereas a vote of "no" will in fact mean no. Isn't democracy so much more fun when the whole yes/no thing is cleared up? If you are already determined to vote against Honolulu's rail project, I'm not expecting any of my "propaganda" to change your mind. However, if you are still undecided about whether to vote for or against rail, let me attempt to persuade you with a few of my reasons, well, 99 of them to be exact.

Why does Honolulu even need a rail system in the first place?
1. As it stands right now, Honolulu's traffic jams have been ranked among the worst in the country. It often takes 2 hours to travel 20 miles on the H-1 freeway.
2. The bottlenecks on the H-1 are projected to become 30% worse by 2030 if nothing is done.
3. The status quo of minor freeway adjustments is not working. Even rail opponents like Panos Prevedouros and Ann Kobayashi agree that something major must be done to address traffic congestion. Doing nothing is not an option.
4. The H-1 freeway has already exceeded its full capacity and will not be adequate for the projected population growth in West Oahu.

5. Currently, there is no viable alternative to cars and buses, which are both at the mercy of unpredictable traffic congestion, road work, accidents, weather conditions, fallen phone poles, rubbernecking, road rage and every other factor that slows down our roads.
6. Honolulu is city that is about 25 miles long and 3 miles wide. The geographic landscape (limited space along a narrow urban corridor) coupled with our high population density make Honolulu well-suited for a rail system.
7. Unlike Kobayashi's Ez-Way, which will create new traffic bottlenecks without taking any cars off the roads, rail will reduce traffic 11% by the year 2030.
8. Unlike the last-minute EZ-way proposal, the rail project has already been scrutinized, debated and approved by the Honolulu City Council and a panel of engineering experts.
9. According to a recent study, Hawaii has the highest cost of vehicle ownership in the nation, around $12,000 per year. People are looking more and more to public transportation as a cheaper way to get around.

How will Honolulu's rail system address our transportation problems?
10. Rail can carry passengers more efficiently than highways. Each train can carry more than 300 passengers - the equivalent of more than 200 cars or 6 lanes of highway.
11. A fully-elevated rail transit system will be able to move thousands of people per hour without taking away our limited highway and road space.
12. Once the full system is up and running, rail will provide about 88,000 passenger trips per day.
13. Rail will completely remove over 25,000 vehicles from the roadways each day.

14. Unlike cars and buses on the Ez-Way, rail cars on the transit line will travel completely unaffected by road congestion on the streets below. Even carpools and buses will have to exit off the elevated Ez-Way back onto surface streets at some point.
15. Unlike the Ez-Way, the 20-mile rail guideway will have 19 stops between Kapolei and Ala Moana Center. By contrast, the Ez-Way only covers the distance between Pearl City and Chinatown with just 4 or 5 entry and exit points.
16. Unlike the Ez-Way, fixed rail can accommodate shorter trips between any of the 19 transit stop and removes these people out of congestion.
17. Unlike the Ez-Way, rail will move people in both directions simultaneously.
18. Even those who don't ride rail will benefit because of reduced congestion on the roads. This includes our emergency responders as well as loved ones who might live on a different side of the island (presently or in the future).

What kind of reliability and mobility will rail provide?
19. Even during rush hour, rail will transport people from Kapolei to Ala Moana Center in 39 minutes, sidewalk to sidewalk, or from Pearlridge Mall to downtown in 19 minutes. Cars on the Ez-Way won't be able to do this because it can take that long just to find a parking space!
20. Unlike buses, rail will be on time, every time. There is a major difference between a crowded rail car and a crowded freeway: reliable travel times. A full rail car in rush hour will still travel at about the same speed (unaffected by road conditions) as an empty one. The same cannot be said about cars and buses stuck in a gridlocked freeway bottleneck, construction detour, accident scene or Ez-Way off-ramp merging with local streets.
21. Since there will be only 3 minutes between rail vehicles during peak hours, riders won’t have to check the schedule to catch the next one.

22. Rail transit is a safer form of transportation than motor vehicles or buses due to a lower rate of injuries and fatalities.
23. Steel-on-steel is by far the safest, most dependable, widely-used and cost-effective type of rail technology on the market today.
24. Unlike the Ez-Way, the rail line has the future option of being extended to UH Manoa and Waikiki.

How will rail improve the quality of life on Oahu?
25. Less time spent in traffic will allow people to spend more time w
ith their families.
26. Rail will help to encourage the next generation of children and grandchildren to consider living and working in Hawaii.
27. Riding the rail will be an affordable form of transportation for those who don't own a car including low-income families, the elderly, college students and persons with disabilities.

28. Rail riders will have reduced stress from not having to fight traffic or find parking.
29. Rail riders will get an extra fitness benefit from walking to from transit stops each day.
30. Rail will have accessibility and assistance devices for elderly and disabled passengers.
31. As the number of elderly persons over age 65 in Hawaii doubles in the next 23 years, rail will help them to remain independent without having to own a car.
32. The level platforms at rail stations will make it convenient for the elderly and disabled to get on and off the train without difficulty.

33. The monthly transit pass will work system-wide for both bus and rail with free transfers between systems.
34. Each family in Honolulu that can live with one less household car will save an average of $935 per month or $11,215 annually according to the APTA. For those who drive less, rail will help them save on the cost of owning a vehicle such as gas, maintenance, insurance and parking (see #9).
35. Rail will make it easier for locals and tourists to visit cultural attractions, museums, concerts, shopping/dining areas, sporting events, graduations and leisure activities without having to worry about traffic or parking.
36. Employees and college students at HCC, LCC, HPU and UH-West Oahu will have easy access to their respective campuses via rail.
37. Rail will benefit future generations of Oahu residents islandwide, not just MY neighborhood, MY lifestyle and MY commute.

How will Honolulu's rail system be paid for?
38. Unlike the Ez-Way, the transit tax to pay for rail is already in effect. This tax, which has a 15-year lifespan from 2007 to 2022, is prevented by law from being used on anything besides rail.
39. Unlike the Ez-Way, there is a $1 billion contingency buffer already built in to the rail project’s budget. Essentially, the Ez-Way costs the same as rail, but with no way to pay for it.

40. Unlike the Ez-Way, Honolulu's rail project qualifies for federal funding from the FTA (Federal Transit Administration).
41. Unlike the Ez-Way, the rail project's detailed budget has met strict FTA regulations.

42. Unlike the Ez-Way, the rail project has already completed a comprehensive 120-page Alternatives Analysis which determined that rail was the most cost-effective option.
43. Unlike the Ez-Way,
rail has been guaranteed federal funding by the U.S. House Transportation Committee chairman Jim Oberstar, who has pledged $900 million for Honolulu's rail system saying "I'm going to make it happen because it's got to happen" adding that "it is essential to undertake this project."
44. Contrary to anti-rail speculation, the rail project will not raise anyone’s property tax or income tax.
45. Contrary to anti-rail speculation, it is short-sighted to make a judgment on the 15-year lifespan of the 0.5% GET increase based on the last few months of economic upheaval. Like all taxes, the amount obtained from the GET will fluctuate with the economy.
46. Even if the slumping economy does in fact lower total tax revenues over the 15-year period from 2007 to 2022, it could also lower construction costs since labor tends to cost less when business is slow. If needed, the contingency buffer (see #39) could also address this.

So who else even wants rail besides Mayor Hannemann?
47. Recent polling shows that a clear 2-to-1 majority of all Oahu residents want rail, not just those living in West Oahu. For all of its vocal lobbying and media publicity, the "Stop Rail Now" petition could barely muster up 35,000 valid signatures (putting them well short of their goal of 44,525), even after hoodwinking some rail supporters to sign it on the basis of "letting the people decide."
48. A majority of the City Council supports rail.
49. A majority of the State legislature supports rail.
50. All 4 Hawaii members of U.S. Congress (Inouye, Akaka, Abercrombie & Hirono) support rail.

51. The federal government, even after the recent financial bailout, has continued to allocate money for new rail systems.
52. Steel-on-steel rail technology was selected by an independent panel of engineering experts assigned to evaluate Honolulu's proposed transit system.
53. Rail transit is supported by four former Hawaii State transportation directors, all of them civil engineers.
54. The editorial boards of both major Honolulu newspapers (Advertiser & Star Bulletin) has endorsed rail.
55. The
Oahu chapter of the Sierra Club has endorsed rail for Honolulu because of its environmental benefits.
56. The AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) has endorsed rail because of its benefits for the elderly.

57. Hawaii's labor unions strongly support rail because of the new construction jobs it creates.
58. This week, the rail project was endorsed by The Hawaii Business Roundtable, an organization comprising fifty chief executives from the state's largest businesses who collectively employ over 67,000 people.

But who cares if there are a lot of people who want this silly train. Shouldn't we still be very very afraid of risky-scary-evil-catastrophic-apocalyptic rail?
59. Contrary to anti-rail speculation, the rail cars will not eat your children or cause the sky to fall. Ask anyone whose ever ridden a rail system and lived to tell about it.
60. Regarding the issue of "risk", Ann Kobayashi's Ez-Way proposal has far more unanswered questions regarding cost, ridership, noise, mobility, funding sources, environmental impact, long-term sustainability and public support.

How will rail help Hawaii’s struggling economy?
61. The rail system's construction will create over 11,000 new jobs in Hawaii over 8 years.
62. The FTA’s New Starts program is expected to bring in $900 million of outside money into our local economy. (see #43)
63. According to the APTA (American Public Transportation Association),
every dollar taxpayers invest in public transportation generates 6 dollars or more in economic returns.
64. Transit-oriented development or TOD (the creation of shops, services, and housing in the vicinity of transit stations) will attract new investment and create even more jobs.
65. The jobs and businesses created by TOD will help fund state and city services.
66. The reduction of employee commute times and easing of parking pressures will benefit local businesses and their customers.

How does rail benefit the environment?
67. According to the U.S. Department of Energy,
rail consumes 37% less energy per passenger mile than single-occupant cars and trucks.
68. Rail will give people an incentive to drive less and ride public transportation more often, which generates 95% less carbon monoxide than personal vehicles per passenger mile traveled.
69. Rail will help to reduce our dependence on foreign oil since it can be powered by renewable energy such as H-power, wind, solar and biofuels.
70. Rail will cause less air, water and noise pollution than buses or the Ez-Way.

71. Rail will reduce automobile dependency will in turn reduce the need to build more environmentally unfriendly highways.
72. Contrary to anti-rail speculation, rail will not require HECO to build another power plant.
73. Rail will help make Honolulu a more pedestrian and bike-friendly city.

How do we know if people will ride the rail?
74. According to the FTA,
Honolulu already has the fourth-highest public transportation ridership-per-capita in the entire nation and it's still rising. Once people try rail for themselves, transit ridership will increase even further.
75. Even though the bus has an on-time rate of only 60%, there are still approximately 230,000 daily trips taken on Oahu's bus system. The bus system is filled to capacity during peak hours.

76. Both locally and nationwide, people are driving less and using public transportation more.
77. There is a financial incentive to ride rail in order to save on gas, parking and car maintenance expenses (see #9).
78. People will ride rail to avoid the stress and frustration of sitting in gridlock because unlike sitting in traffic, you can read, sleep, use your laptop or relax while riding the rail.

For those who don't ride the bus right now, why would they choose to ride rail?
79. Unlike buses, rail cars will always be on time since they don't have to fight through any traffic bottlenecks.

80. Rail offers a smoother ride than buses.
81. Rail offers a quieter ride than buses.
82. Commuting times with rail will be faster than with buses only, which will attract new riders to public transportation (see #18).
83. Some will ride rail for environmental reasons (see #'s 67-73).

Why isn't the bus system enough to handle Honolulu's public transportation needs?
84. The president of Honolulu’s bus system strongly supports rail as a complement to the bus system.
85. Honolulu’s crowded streets do not have the capacity to accommodate a new influx of buses.
86. Adding more buses onto our congested roads will only make gridlock worse and cause even more bus delays. Without rail, traffic will worsen faster which will result in slower, more unpredictable commute times that will deter potential riders.
87. Elevated bus roadways, such as the EZ-way, cost more to build per mile than rail.
88. Elevated bus roadways take up 25% more room than rail guideways.

How much will it cost to operate and maintain this rail system?
89. Operating and maintenance costs, after subtracting fares, are estimated to be about $40 million per year, which is about 2 to 3% of the City's budget.
90. Unlike the EZ-way, which would not generate any revenue, the rail system will recoup some costs through transit fares.
91. Rail transit will cost 40% less to operate and maintain per passenger-mile than buses
92. Rail cars last longer than buses and steel wheels hold up much longer than rubber tires.
93. Rail requires fewer drivers per passenger and rail transit's modern electric-motor technology is more energy efficient than the diesel engines used in buses.

How will rail lead to more sustainable urban growth?
94. Transit-oriented development, because it uses space much more efficiently that car-oriented development, usually results in more face-to-face interaction with others as well as neighborhoods that allow small business, culture and the arts to thrive.
95. Rail will encourage people to live and do business near the transit stops. By contrast, no one wants to live adjacent to a freeway.
96. Rail will help to “keep the country, country” by focusing development away from agricultural and conservation lands including the North Shore and Windward Oahu. TOD will actually to preserve the beauty, history and culture of "Old Hawaii."
97. Rail will contribute to an improved infrastructure to support West O‘ahu’s growth.
98. Transit experts almost universally agree that car-oriented development leads to urban sprawl much faster than TOD, which helps to foster communities that promote more walking, biking and other transportation habits that are more sustainable in the long term.
99. Rail will not magically fix all of our problems, but i
t will be the centerpiece of an integrated multi-modal transportation plan, which includes TheBus, TheBoat, bike lanes, walking paths and, of course, roadways for those who will continue to use their private vehicles.

After over 40 years of public discussion on this issue, the possibility of rail has never been closer. Public support for rail transit in Hawaii has never been stronger. Studies have been done, debates have been held, polls have been taken, legislation has been passed, a transit tax is being collected and vigorous protests have been mounted again and again. Mud has been slung and names have been smeared. Politicians and citizen pundits alike have debated the issue ad nauseum on TV, radio, newspaper editorial pages, press releases, internet message boards and blogs like this one. Everyone with an opinion on rail has had a chance to express it. The public has had plenty of time to become informed and engaged on both sides of this issue.

Just about the only thing that has NOT been done yet is to put the issue to a decisive island-wide vote at the ballot box, which is exactly what will happen on November 4th, as it should be. All of the intense scrutiny, discussion, lobbying and debate are signs of a healthy democracy, but it's time to make a final decision that actually means something. The time for rail has come!

October 17, 2008

Book Review: The Bean Trees

Barbara Kingsolver’s first novel, The Bean Trees (1988), is a poignant and gripping story about belonging, motherhood and the creation of family in unexpected places. It all begins when Marietta Greer, the feisty protagonist and narrator, leaves her rural Kentucky town in search of a better life. She spends what little money she has on a rickety 1955 VW Beetle and heads west on her own, leaving everything behind, including her name. After the old rattletrap runs out of gas in Taylorville, Illinois, she becomes Taylor.

A chance encounter at a roadside diner in Oklahoma’s Cherokee Nation alters Taylor’s life forever. She is about to head back onto the highway when a distressed woman taps on her windshield and places a bundled infant into the passenger seat. Without fully realizing the implications of what is happening, Taylor agrees to take the woman’s dead sister’s child, a Cherokee toddler whose age is described as “somewhere between a baby and a person.” (p. 23) Since there is no paperwork documenting the child, no record of her name, age or parents, the only clues into her past are the extensive bruises that seem to indicate prior sexual and physical abuse. Taylor now finds herself facing the prospect of a complicated single motherhood without a job, housing, family or friends. She names the girl Turtle because of her strong grip, for “if a mud turtle bites you, it won’t let go till it thunders.” (p. 30)

Two flat tires later, Taylor and Turtle can travel no further than Tucson, Arizona, where they meet a kind woman named Mattie, the owner of ‘Jesus Is Lord Tires’ which doubles as a safe house for political refugees. Mattie gives Taylor a job in her the shop and also introduces her to Estevan and Esperanza, a couple fleeing from Guatemalan death squadrons as well as U.S. immigration authorities. It is in Tucson that Taylor begins to develop a network of social support systems while at the same time discovering she has much to offer others.

At the beginning of the story, Taylor wants to be freed from the confines of her small hometown. Among her female peers, she notices a propensity toward unwanted pregnancy and dependence on irresponsible men, two things that she desperately wants to avoid. Her motivation for leaving everything behind has more to do with getting away and becoming independent than searching for anything or anyone in particular. A huge shift occurs when Turtle enters into her life. All of a sudden, Taylor is confronted with the harsh realities of single motherhood, with the additional challenge of adopting an undocumented child of a different race. Over the course of the novel, she becomes more and more aware of her need to rely on others in a variety of areas including housing, employment, childcare, friendship, moral support.

None of the people Taylor meets along her journey are related to her biologically. Yet the support they provide and the extent of their interdependence are not unlike the functions performed in the traditional nuclear family concept. Taylor discovers that individualism and independence turn out to be ideals that must be tempered with collectivism and shared responsibility. In order to make ends meet, she and her rommate Lou Ann share living expenses and childcare duties. Their neighbor, Virgie Mae Parsons, helps to take care of a blind woman named Edna Poppy who in turn provides occasional childcare for Turtle. Taylor works at the tire shop owned by Mattie, who provides a sanctuary for Central American refugees including Estevan and Esperanza, who both end up playing indispensable roles in the story’s outcome.

I simply loved this book. The writing was evocative, the characters were complex and the themes were layered and nuanced. Although the book certainly has strong sociological, political and feminist undertones, you don’t have be a liberal, a social worker or an immigration activist to appreciate the beauty of the story. The Bean Trees is not driven by a narrow ideological agenda or cause. People from a variety of political viewpoints should be able to see their values reflected in its pages: responsibility, family, justice, advocacy, compassion and faith. The central character of Taylor is a heroine of universal appeal. She is free-spirited, self-aware, vulnerable and witty all at the same time. Her courage, determination, adaptability and sense of humor are all qualities I found inspirational and uplifting.

Kingsolver's cast of characters confirms my belief in social interconnectedness where a seemingly insignificant choice made by one person can have a ripple effect that indirectly enhances or threatens the well-being of another person or group of people in another part of the world. No one is an island and no one is truly “self-made.” An honest look at the human condition should reveal that people do not succeed in complete isolation from others. In contrast to the surrounding culture of individualism, competition and personal recognition, the world of Taylor and Turtle is a place where no one can “make it” purely on their own. When one member of the community rejoices, it is a victory for the whole group. When one member is suffering, the others are affected too. Mutuality and interdependence are what make the difference between thriving and just getting by.

At the same time, I think Kingsolver would agree with me that the need for community support does not negate the importance of personal responsibility and self-reliance. Taylor does not blame others for the challenges she faces, although she certainly experiences her share of adversity. She does not see herself as a victim nor does she expect a handout from anyone. Taylor takes responsibility for her choices and expects others, like Lou Ann, to do the same. When Lou Ann is coping with depression and hopelessness, for example, Taylor stands beside her as an empowering example of resilience and confidence.

Kingsolver does not allow her readers to settle for simplistic explanations of complex situations. Many of her character defy labels and stereotypes. Taylor’s young single motherhood was not the result of irresponsible sexual behavior; it was her choice to accept the baby as it was given to her. Lou Ann's abusive husband, Angel, is not a psychotic villain, but an ordinary man struggling to get back on his feet after a debilitating accident. Mattie, a the woman who owns ‘Jesus Is Lord Tires,’ is not a fundamentalist fanatic, but a devoted advocate for human rights in the sanctuary movement. As undocumented immigrants, Estevan and Esperanza are not delinquents or threats to society; they are sophisticated agents of reconciliation and empowerment.

One of my favorite moments in the novel is when Estevan is describing the difference between heaven and hell. He tells a story of people who live in a world of starvation where all the spoons are so long that no one can feed himself or herself. In this world, the spoon handles are the length of mops. Anyone can reach their long spoon into the large pot of stew that God has made, but no one can lift the spoon to their lips. Hell is a place where everyone is constantly arguing and fighting while they die of starvation. In heaven, there is still the same large pot of stew and the same long spoons. The only difference is that the people are content and well fed because they have learned to feed each other. My soul resonates deeply with this type of others-centered inclusiveness.

If there is a single lesson I learned from reading The Bean Trees, it is that human beings, adults and children, are complex creatures. In order to help people, we must first understand the depth of their stories. As a social worker, I have a responsibility to listen and attend to the many ways in which glimpses of those stories are revealed. Labels like “immigrant”, “minority” and “unwed mother” might be necessary at a macro level, but they don’t do justice to the multitude of intricacies that describe a particular individual or the community of support systems to which they belong.

October 9, 2008

On justice and truth

"If there is no truth, there is no injustice." - Norman Geras

Now that I am 7 weeks into the MSW program at UH, I have a clear sense that field of social work is deeply concerned with social justice. This includes justice for marginalized groups like ethnic minorities, women, the elderly and those with disabilities just to name a few. Like all of the students and faculty I've met in the program so far, the concepts of diversity, empowerment and equal opportunity are values that I deeply believe in. In that sense, I am right where I belong: among people that want to see social change resulting in less discrimination and more cultural awareness, less stereotyping and more understanding, less scapegoating and more dialogue.

At the same time, it's suddenly strange to be completely removed from the surroundings of my conservative evangelical upbringing. Detached from this environment, I'm finding that I'm not as politically "liberal" as I once thought fancied myself. It's much more fun to play around with liberal/progressive/missional ideas when you can experiment safely within the theological boundaries of traditional Christian orthodoxy. I used to think that voting for pro-choice candidates and supporting hospital visitation rights for homosexual partners was the definition of "liberal" and I thought this made me some sort of evangelical rebel. In the social work profession, however, these are stale and commonplace opinions that don't impress anyone.

Over here (or "over there" depending on how you look at it), voting for Democrats and bashing organized religion are just par for the course. It's not enough to seek social change where it is needed; you almost have to deny that there are any areas where change is not needed, as if change for the sake of change were the guiding principle. It's not enough to explore the gray areas where abortion could sometimes be permissible; you have to decry any suggestion that it's ever NOT permissible or even a gray area to begin with. It's not enough just to acknowledge the historic injustices carried out in the name of religion, you also have to check your faith at the door, as if it will do nothing but hinder your efforts to make the world a better place. It's not enough to consider all points of view to determine what works best; you have to deny that a best way even exists. In the past, I'd heard what I thought were rumors and tall tales about the mythical netherworld where words like "faith," "truth" and "morality" were frowned-upon or taboo, but I never seriously considered engaging the cold reality of such places.

It would be unfair and irresponsible to lump an entire profession of 500,000+ people under a single label or stereotype, but I've noticed a general tendency that can be indifferent and sometimes hostile to the Christian faith. Many of my church friends would probably be shocked or offended by my class discussions, while the majority of my classmates would likely be genuinely outraged by the teachings of my church. I have no doubt that plenty of Christians are employed as social workers and I've met at least 3 other students in the program who would, like me, identify themselves that as evangelical Christians. However, there remains very little overlap between the evangelical political spectrum and the political framework of the social work academy. I am either a right-wing social worker or a left-wing evangelical. If church sometimes brings out my liberal side that looks for gray areas, social work school has brought out my conservative side that searches for black and white.

As I expressed in an earlier blog post, the worldview and motivation that drives my involvement in the social work vocation is my understanding of the Christian faith, which is built upon the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. What matters for the Christian is defined by what matters to God. Christ has set the example for us to follow. As I see it, social work is an important part of the greater Kingdom work of bringing heaven to earth. Charity, though necessary, cannot be an adequate substitute for justice. It is hypocrisy to sing worship songs on Sunday, only to leave the sanctuary and ignore the systemic inequalities that benefit the privileged at the expense of the poor and oppressed. As the prophet Amos cried on behalf of God, "Take away from Me the noise of your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." (Amos 5:23-24, NASB)

As a Christian, I am comfortable with the vocabulary of faith and the concept of moral truth. Domestic violence is not just behaviorally destructive, it is morally wrong. Racism and sexism are not just politically incorrect; they are offenses against God. Child labor in sweatshops is not just disturbing and horrifying, it is immoral, sinful and just plain wrong. This is very obvious to me.

I doubt that my secularist classmates and professors would mind me condemning these injustices in such strong moral terms, but the social work literature I've read so far (not unlike the writing of some postmodern Christians) seems to have a love-hate relationship with truth and certainty. Social work is absolutely certain that genocide, sexual abuse and environmental degradation are wrong, but they adamantly refrain from making any judgments on whether sexual fidelity in marriage is preferable to adultery or whether a two-parent household is more ideal for child development than a single-parent family. Caring for orphans, widows and battered women is a biblical mandate, to be sure, but it should not let us off the hook when it comes to promoting responsible parenting and healthy relationships.

Which brings me back to the moral and spiritual components of injustice. The exploitation of children through sweatshop labor is wrong not only because it assaults human dignity and violates ethical business practices, but also because those children have been fearfully and wonderfully created by God. They bear His image. They each have a soul. Their lives are sacred. They are loved their Creator and are beautiful in His sight. When they are abused and discarded, it is a moral issue of eternal significance. If anyone cares about these kinds of systemic injustices that are enabled by corruption, backroom political alliances, trade agreements and the unrestricted free market, it should be Christians. If we take Matthew 25 seriously, the "least of these" must be treated with the same awareness and respect that we reserve for the Almighty Christ.

"If there is no truth, there is no injustice."

The concept of justice hinges on truth. I first discovered Norman Geras' quote on the web page of Paul Adams, my faculty advisor. Dr. Adams lists this as one of his favorite quotes and it is quickly becoming one of mine as well. It's baffling to me how social work, a discipline whose core values are all about promoting social justice, fairness and the empowerment of oppressed groups, has such a frosty relationship with the idea of truth. I'll admit that as a lifelong churchgoer, I've sometimes witnessed a one-size-fits-all approach applied too broadly in areas that should be left subjective to the complexities of life. I understand the dangers of religious fundamentalism, of "other-izing" and denigrating those of dissenting viewpoints. Too often, the language of absolute truth has been misused and abused by the church.

But how do I know this is wrong? Because of truth! How can I even say that child abuse and neglect must be prevented in the first place? Because of truth! How can say with any authority that torture and genocide must be stopped? Because of truth! If there is no truth, who's to say that the weak should be defended or the oppressed lifted up? If there is no truth, on what basis can we argue that peacemaking through diplomatic dialogue is preferable to pre-emptive war and aggressive militarization?

As Martin Luther King famously said, "the arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice." The basis of such justice is the concept of truth. King could not have spoken truth to power if he had allowed for racism and segregation to be right for some but wrong for others. His speeches consistently described injustice in moral and biblical terms. Those who have historically fought for the abolition of slavery, labor rights, women's rights and civil rights (many of them people of deep Christian faith) were not following some sort of vague and nebulous secular altruism. They spoke out because they were morally compelled to do so. The spiritual foundations of these movements are exactly what fueled the pursuit what is fair, just, honorable and true. If we shut out faith and truth from the conversation, we have lost one of our most powerful weapons in the fight against injustice. If there is no truth, there is no injustice.

It is my prayer that my own pursuit of justice will always be in service to the Way, the Truth and the Life.