Civility in the Neighborhood

Mr Rogers 1My mom and I went to see the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? about Fred Rogers and his children’s program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. I believe the creators wanted to give us inspiration and call us forth to remember what we learned from Mr. Rogers about treating every person with love and respect. It had the opposite effect as we watched protestors at his funeral object to his acceptance of the actor who played Mr. McFeely and happened to be gay. WTF? And the world hasn’t become more civil since then.

Fred Rogers chose to create a his show in a neighborhood. I believe as a Presbyterian minister he understood that we relate to people and show our love to people at the neighborhood level. He wanted to teach children how to love their neighbor by example, albeit in a make believe world. He modeled civility.

The neighborhood is where I try to find my balance in today’s crazy troll-filled world. I have only lived in my new neighborhood for 8 months and I already know more than 10 neighbors fairly well. We look out for one another. And I look out for the individuals experience homelessness that are passing through. From here I work to expand my influence to make the world a better place.

Mr Rogers 3The book Beautiful Souls by Eyal Press tells four main stories of people who are exemplars of four different types of resistance to immoral authority. The third example explores the role of conscience in refusing to go along with something that is immoral. The chapter opens with the kind of passive resistance that Henry David Thoreau is celebrated for–refusing to pay taxes to a government that allows slavery and invades Mexico. And points out, as did Hannah Arendt, that his conscience didn’t urge him to actively seek change. His was a resistance in retreat.

Whereas the hero of Chapter 3, Avner Wishnitzer, is a refusenik in the Israeli Defense Forces who pays a price for his resistance and ultimately became a founding member of Combatants for Peace. His conscience was pricked by seeing up close the suffering inflicted on Palestinians whose only crime was living on land that Israeli settlers wanted to occupy. He could no longer participate in the armed forces forced evictions of Palestinians and other actions in the occupied territories.

This is the hope that Fred Rogers has for humanity. If we see our neighbor, get to know our neighbor, our conscience will be pricked and we will do what is right by our neighbor. Maybe we will even go above and beyond like the Good Samaritan.

This is why I find the Walgreens story of the pharmacist who refused to fill a prescription for a drug that is sometimes used for aborting a fetus to honor his conscience. Yet in his zeal to not dirty his hands, he failed to be curious about his neighbor and evaluate what does loving his neighbor require in this instance. He might have found out that a husband was picking up the prescription for his wife who had miscarried her baby and was recovering at home. That her doctor prescribed the medicine so her body would expel all of the tissue that might become septic if not flushed. And even if then his conscience still nagged him, he could have asked another pharmacist to fill the order according to Walgreens’ policy.

Our neighborhood drugstore (in my case Rite Aid) offers the possibility of being able to discern what is love in this moment. But if you fail to see others as people with the same rights as you have, with the same God-endowed dignity as you, then you can slavishly follow a rule you’ve created to protect your conscience. Or you can exercise your moral imagination and see that there isn’t a black and white rule that should govern your behavior.

We can only hope that the generations that were reared watching Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood will be able to activate their imagination and see multiple perspectives and follow his example. Then whatever the Supreme Court or the President and his administration do, our neighborhoods will thrive until we can vote the people who hate into electoral oblivion.

The Great Unraveling

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“Unraveling” by Julie Pieper

This week I joined the reading group at the Sacramento Central Library. We are reading Moby Dick by Herman Melville. I have started this book many times but never finished. One of the participants made a reference to the ending and someone cried. “Don’t spoil it.” He reacted in disbelief. “Didn’t everyone have to read it in high school?” Nope, and in college I was assigned women’s literature and the Russians.

I’m so glad I didn’t read it until now because our book club is giving it a dimension I am certain would not have come up in any high school discussion. This may be the first postmodern novel as Melville challenges us to look at the whale from every perspective without judgement. In asking, “What is the whale?”, he’s also asking metaphysical questions:

  • Are whales sentient? Do they feel pain as we do? Can they seek revenge?
  • Is killing a whale for corsets and lamp oil a crime against nature?

Moby Dick has even more current day relevance as I read the New York Times Review of Books “National Delusions” by Hannah Rosin. Melville’s naming of the whaling ship the Pequod after an Indian tribe massacred by the Puritans is part of his overall critique of manifest destiny, capitalism and “civilization.” The myths we tell ourselves about that first Thanksgiving started the magical thinking that has culminated in the lying liars residing in the White House.

In Rosin’s review of Kurt Anderson’s 500-year history of the United States, Fantasyland, she writes: “Reading a great revisionist history of America is a bookish way to feel what it’s like to be born again. Suddenly past, present and future are connected by a visible thread. Stray details and aberrations start to make sense. You feel ashamed, but also enlightened, because at least you have the named the sin: You belong to a nation of blood thirsty colonizers (Howard Zinn), or anti-intellectuals (Richard Hofstadter) or, in Kurt Anderson’s latest opus, a people who have committed themselves over the last half century to florid, collective delusion.”

Those Puritans who massacred the Pequod are the same who vowed to hang any Quaker or Catholic who landed on their shores (and did). But we remember them as peacefully breaking bread with their Indians saviors and seeking freedom of religion. The long list of conspiracy theorists, survivalists, cults, and more that followed are part of an long American tradition. It’s not what you do, it is what your publicist says you do.

Apparently at the end of Fantasyland, Anderson tries to redraw a boundary: “You’re entitled to your own opinions and your own fantasies, but not your own facts–especially if your fantastical facts hurt people.” This may not be sufficient to save us. Rosin asks if anyone has anything more powerful, like a story powerful enough to call us back from our collective delusion.

Perhaps nature, who we’ve been at war with also since the beginning of our country, will have the last word. The Koch Brothers have purchased the Republican Parties fealty on “no such thing as climate change” but the recent forest fires and mega-storms really don’t care what the party plank is. Hurricane Harvey is real. In the end if reality doesn’t wake us up from our collective dream, then maybe we don’t deserve to survive.

Is there a “Right Size” for Cooperation?

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Libraries, like this massive one in Copenhagen, are a sign of a healthy, collaborative society.

While I’ve been in Europe I am following what is happening nationally in the USA via Vox news, the Atlantic and New Yorker social media, and FiveThirtyEight and other podcasts. They are bearing witness to extreme democratic dysfunction. Clowns appointed as judges, bills written in secret, a President tweeting his id. Meanwhile in Denmark and other Scandinavian countries they are quietly inventing ways to turn household waste into energy without pollution and cooperating with one another to ensure everyone has enough.

I mention this to my friend UK Sarah on our walks and she says what she said in New Zealand, “Yes, but how many people are there?” Denmark has 5.5 million, New Zealand 4.5 million. It is a bit of a conversation ender. However, this morning I woke up wondering if those who predicted the USA would break into regions were in fact prescient. Perhaps democracy works best on a small scale. Not the scale of the town hall meeting alone, which frankly I’ve experienced as both a tyranny of petty-crats and a glorious thing. Maybe something on the scale of a region like the Pacific Coast states. We share a coastline and I-5.  In Denmark, they maintain their social democracy, in part, through a strong consensus on what Danishness is and is not. The Pacific Coast states share a pioneering history, plus an orientation to the Pacific and a majority of the populations are post-modern. It would be easy to also include Hawaii, and harder to include Alaska.

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Public Transportation is another sign of collaboration. (Waterloo Station in London)

I remember in the 80s there were a number of intellectuals writing articles about the demise of California. One that sticks in my memory compared it to ancient Alexandria and proposed that with so many languages spoken in the schools and so much conflict over the environment and resources that surely the ship of democracy will sink. Actually, thanks to the creative and technology economies, California is thriving in many ways that many parts of the USA are not.

Another intellectual recently argued that the way forward in the USA will be led by our great cities. The Pacific Coast states have many excellent cities, but they are only sustained by the agricultural production and the watersheds of the associated rural places around them. So while there may be much innovation in cities for many things, a city cannot live behind a wall. Their survival depends on a dense network of connection to the outside world.

Do we need a federal government? Or a European Union? This is the open question that I am faced with in the U.K. and reading news from home. The righty-right leaning Republicans have been arguing the federal government is too expensive, too large, too meddlesome for many years. By electing an unqualified person to the chief executive they are perhaps forcing the question on the rest of the electorate. They may not like the answer that the collective comes up with.

#MarchforScience: Why I March

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Mom and I marched in Sacramento on Earth Day 2017

These remarks were prepared for a panel presentation at St John’s Lutheran Church on Earth Sunday April 23, 2017.

I am trained as a political scientist and work in California water policy on the big questions of how to keep water flowing to 40 million people and 7.9 million acres of irrigated farmland whilst sustaining native threatened and endangered species.

The water policy discussions I have been a part of are gaining in sophistication and specialization. Policy makers are relying on science more and more; demanding real time data to make decisions about daily water operations. This is driven in large part by environmental regulation: the California Environmental Protection Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act, to name a few.

As a result, there is a growing gap between the voting public’s understanding of the issues and the amount of technical information used to decide if water will be released from, say Shasta reservoir, or pumped at Tracy and so forth. This is eroding trust in decision-making processes and is part of the larger story of distrust of experts and anti-intellectualism in the US today.

Political scientists study power: for example, how it is held and exercised, and how tradeoffs are brokered. The story of the state of California can be told in the story of water rights, land use battles entwined with water, and battles for control of water. Whether water is absent in drought or over abundant in floods, Californians have debated water policy for its entire modern existence.

In the first half of the 20th century, civil engineers were the heroes of the story as they built the reservoirs, canals and pumping plants of the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project, plus the flood control structures of levees and bypasses. That generation’s gifts have allowed us to rapidly grow economically with both cheap hydroelectric power and relatively cheap and abundant water.

In the second half of the 20th century the chemists and the ecologists began to play a more prominent role in the story. We demanded better water quality, and sewage treatment, and we became aware of the damage we were doing to the environment by disrupting natural ecosystems–95% of the floodplain is gone; almost as much of the wetlands and vernal pools are gone.

In my work I am always looking for more information to better understand the challenges and to look for solutions to the conflicts that continually arise over water. I look to knowledge gained through science. I also look to what I call “native wisdom” from people who have worked or lived on the land for much longer—in some instances before we developed the water systems we have today. Wisdom can come in many forms.

Humility is invaluable especially humbly acknowledging what we do not know whether it is in the field of science or while reading my Bible. I also appreciate the times when the Holy Spirit inspired actions or ideas in my work.

When I became a Christian in the 1970s, the evangelical Presbyterian Church I attended was full of engineers and doctors. Over time, as the church became more and more certain or rigid about faith matters, I felt increasingly alienated. I thought then and now that since God gave me an intellect, it is my vocation to use it in ways that make the world in better alignment with the way God calls us to live and with reverence for God’s creation.

Scientists and persons of faith need not be mutually exclusive—listening to debates amongst scientists about salmon habitat has convinced me that there is as much faith in action amongst scientists arguing their theories as there is among theologians.

And in my experience there isn’t a conflict between the stories in the Bible and the truths that social science and physical science discover, because I do not always interpret God’s wisdom in the Bible literally nor do I swallow whole every hypotheses posed by scientists.

I have learned there are many ways to understanding reality and much mystery remains. This is true if you are trying to understand the mind of God, human behavior or determine the needs of Delta Smelt.

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One sign read “GOP, Science Doesn’t Care What You Believe”

My friend and retired science teacher Michael Bickford recently posted this on his Facebook page: “All humans are qualified to be scientists! Many people misunderstand what science is. It’s a way of defining, knowing and understanding truth. We use the truth (facts) in turn, like a tool, to determine the nature of reality and then, individually and collectively through communication, the meaning and direction of our lives together.”

Michael is a self-proclaimed atheist. And he is as hostile to the Church as some evangelicals are to science. In fact he wrote: “(Science is) under attack by those with alternatives systems of defining the truth.” In my experience it need not be a battle. While we may not seek the truth with the same methods, we are all truth seekers.

For the person of faith I would ask: why must God have created the earth in a literal 6 days for creation to be divinely awesome and amazing? And for the scientist who may be an atheist or agnostic, why is it threatening to leave room in the equation for the divine?

First Surreal Weekend of Many

hasan-minhajOn night 8 of the new administration, I met my friend Petrea for dinner and then we went to the Mondavi Center at UC Davis for Hasan Minhaj’s comedy show. He is from Davis, California so he selected these two shows–one for general audience and one for students–to film “Homecoming King” for Netflix. He also lived out the best high school revenge story since  Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion. Davis, a place that prides itself on its tolerance and liberalism, dished out plenty of bigotry along the way. Add some humor about growing up with immigrant parents and a beautifully constructed series of story arcs and it adds up to a great show. The audience laughed raucously and at other times you could have heard a pin drop.

The next day I started reading about the President’s Muslim Ban and other assorted travel restrictions. I watched along with the nation as people rushed to airports in support of Muslims and against the ban. Lawyers of all stripes came to the actual aid of travellers like medical professionals responding to a medical emergency on a plane. It was all heartening and fundamentally discouraging because our country is on a very dangerous path. There is no room to be smug about any of it.

On the new public square Facebook, my Christian friends posted scriptures in support of welcoming the stranger and memes about Jesus, Mary and Joseph as refugees. Beneath all of this is the tension between those who believe we are all interconnected and those who want to separate themselves; between those who love the other and themselves and those who fear the other; between people who welcome the stranger and those who slam the gate shut. And yet by dividing people in this way I succumb to practicing the same otherness that I condemn. It is hard and not so black and white.

I recently read If the Oceans Were Ink by Carla Power. It was recommended reading to learn more about the Quran and the Muslim faith. The author was raised agnostic by a father who was fascinated by all things Islam. She had the opportunity to spend a year getting to know a renowned Muslim teacher much more intimately. Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi is a Cambridge professor and influential teacher. She opens up Islam for the westerner in an unprecedented way.

I discovered layers of prejudice in my own thinking that jarred me. My eyes were opened to the beauty and mystery of another faith. A faith that is the cousin to Christianity and Judaism. After years of seeing cartoonish portrayals of Islam in the media, it is at times challenging to open myself to seeing this faith in a new way.

I also realized that fundamental Christianity is wanting to impose a Christian version of Sharia law on our nation. And Christian people have misplaced their faith in God with faith in nationalism. It has helped me reaffirm my belief in separation of church and state, both for nonbelievers and for believers of all faiths.

I do not know where this Muslim Ban is headed. Today a judge has overturned the order and the administration is appealing. I just ask that if you fear Muslims that you take a moment and learn more about their faith from a sympathetic author. We share a lot of values and we share some pillars of the faith, such as Abraham. Other faiths could learn a lot about their prayer disciplines.

Most of all, the most extreme elements of Islam are as representative of their faith as Westboro Baptist Church is of Christianity. Not. And if you do not like the mix of politics and religion in Pakistan and Afghanistan, well it won’t be better if it “Christian nationalism” and our democracy. As Tony Compolo has said, “Mixing religion and politics is like mixing ice cream and manure. It doesn’t do much to the manure but it sure does ruin the ice cream.”

Lose Your Illusions; Save Your Life

Brilliant piece by Palmer Parker on the On Being website is a must read.

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Parker Palmer

“When a friend says, “I’m so disillusioned!” about this or that, why do we say, “I’m so sorry! How can I help?” We ought to say, “Congratulations! You’ve just lost an illusion! That means you’ve moved that much closer to reality, the only place where it’s safe to stand!”

P.S. Also worth a listen: Krista Tippett’s interview with EJ Dionne and David Brooks. (available on On Being podcast or the website)

Fix or Fight?

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Fritz Durst, Board chair of Reclamation District 108, gives opening remarks at Wallace Weir

At the celebration of the construction of the new Wallace Weir, Fritz Durst called everyone to join the assembled collaborators to fix problems instead of fighting. People often refer to California “water wars” and as a result many problems remain intractable. The Northern California Water Agency and its members have been working hard to find ways to solve problems, sometimes at risk to their own interests. This project is one of over 49 identified to improve the chances for endangered salmon to return in the Sacramento River Salmon Recovery Program. They are joined by other stakeholders including local, regional and state agencies.

I have been working in the Yolo Bypass on behalf of Metropolitan Water Agency of SoCal to try to find common ground with a diverse group of stakeholders. We are seeking solutions that will allow endangered salmon fish to benefit from the floodplain in the winter whilst limiting the impact to the other land uses already in place, that is flood control, farms, waterfowl habitat and terrestrial species habitat.

It has taken a few years, but at last  we all agreed to move ahead with the fish passage projects. The Wallace Weir is one of the first to be constructed. Its purpose is to keep returning salmon from migrating up the Colusa Basin Drain where they are then lost and cannot spawn in the upper reaches of the Sacramento River. The weir has traditionally been installed each year to allow farmers above to pump water from the Ridge Cut. Then it is removed at the end of the irrigation season. This new structure will serve to control the water and catch up fish to be rescued by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. A definite fix.

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I had the good fortune to also hear Lynn Twist, author of The Soul of Money, speak several times at What If? Conference and at St John’s Lutheran Church the day before the Wallace Weir event. She had similar advice. We can take a stand or take a position. Most people take a position, adopt a point of view ,and look to argue and fight over it. If we take a stand, say for equality as Martin Luther King Jr. did, then we must be willing to look at many perspectives and find solutions.  Fix not fight.