Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Epidemic of Teen Christian Suicides

To the Editor:

There has been an alarming cluster of teen suicides centered around two local public high schools and connected to the Christian youth group “Young Life.” As The Gazette reported on February 24, 2017, Discovery Canyon Campus (DCC) recently suffered its sixth tragedy in thirteen months. The paper noted that “at least” three of the victims were involved with Young Life. Then on February 28, 2017, Scott Harrison reported two more suicides on KRDO’s website.  These tragedies involved a high school senior and a sixth grader who both were enrolled at The Classical Academy (TCA). For those keeping count, that’s three student suicides in our community in a span of two weeks. Mr. Harrison’s reporting added that “several of the students who died were active in Young Life.” A parent quoted in The Gazette article stated: “The Web is littered with Young Life suicides.” Finally, I have it on reliable authority that one of the recent TCA victims may have attended the funeral service for the most recent DCC victim where attendees heard a supposedly uplifting message about the victim “leaving the darkness and entering the light” or words to that general effect. Those words are chilling in the context of what appears to be a copycat suicide cult that is ensnaring even sixth graders (whose veins are not typically coursing with teenage angst).

What is going on at these two public schools? What are the local & state authorities and the school district doing to investigate and address this emergency? A suspicious curtain of secrecy seems to be descending around these events. As Mr. Harrison’s article stated, “few details [are] available.” This crisis must not be swept under the carpet. The public is entitled to answers. The local media must stay on this story.

It is an open secret in our community that TCA is a de facto Christian school operating under a public charter and receiving public funds. Like the ubiquitous Christian fish, which has been a symbol of Christianity as far back as the second century, the school’s official logo evokes the ancient cross-on-shield symbolism employed by soldiers of the Emperor Constantine as they marched on Rome. It was also a well-known symbol used by medieval Christian crusaders.  Do the staff and families at TCA see themselves as warriors for Christ?

Events that TCA would surely like to characterize as “ancient history” give the question renewed urgency.  In 2009 the school was embroiled in a scandal that, according to a May 2009 article in The Gazette, involved numerous parental complaints of an “insular community . . . where racism and religious intolerance were allowed to go unchecked.” An outside investigation led to a report to the Colorado Department of Education that cited the school for, among other things, a failure to take corrective action in responding to “a pattern of racial and religious discrimination.” Given that teen suicides often involve bullying against gays or other persecuted minorities, the media should be investigating whether TCA has put its scandalous past behind it.  The undeniable link to Young Life in so many of these recent suicides only heightens the concerns.

Even with the limited information released to the public, one must wonder if the problem is a toxic mix of both religious persecution and religious doctrine. Christianity teaches that death is an illusion – an artificial barrier between the darkness of this fallen world and the light & eternal bliss that await every devout believer in heaven. For any troubled teen suffering discrimination or persecution at a devoutly Christian institution, these beliefs offer a bleak invitation.

Our community should also worry about similar trends at the national level.  Betsy DeVos, the new Secretary of Education, has long been a vocal champion of using public funds to support Christian schools through vouchers and the charter school ruse under which schools like TCA operate. As troubling as these recent local events are in their own right, the prospect of any major move towards an even greater role for evangelical Christianity in what should be public-secular schools ought to be raising alarm bells.  The Colorado Springs Chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation calls on all responsible authorities to ensure that the wall of separation between church and state remains impregnable.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Letter to the Next Generation

January 20, 2017

Dear Bub & Liv Bear,

            I’ve been meaning to share my thoughts and feelings with you since the day after the election in November. I’m taking some time off on this cloudy & gloomy Friday afternoon – the day of the inauguration – to speak to you both from my heart about my hopes and fears for your futures in light of the worst thing that has happened to our country in a very long time.  (Yes, worse than 9-11).

This was not an ordinary election.  Before now, I would never in my life have gotten so worked up about something so ultimately unimportant as politics.  But I think time will prove that we are in world-historically different circumstances now.  Of course, I hope we will look back in a few years on Donald Trump’s election and have a good belly laugh at how goofy and paranoid your old man was.  In the meantime, I have these pretentions – as your overly bookish and aging father – that I can offer some parental guidance and wisdom for the years ahead.  I have no special claim to wisdom; just lessons learned from many mistakes made over a half century.

Donald Trump’s surprise victory left me with such a profound sense of depression and disorientation that I was unable to look at a newspaper or my Twitter feed for several days. (I have found it impossible, again today, to look at the news; I cannot bear the sight of that man’s self-satisfied face or the sound of his inarticulate voice.)  For days after the election, I would walk into grocery stores and coffee shops, scan the crowds, and wonder who among my fellow countrymen could have been so foolish and reckless to cast a vote for that transparently fraudulent and ostentatiously unqualified bully.  I even found myself welling up with loathing for anyone who could have fallen for such an obvious con-man.  I wanted to punch the smug smiles of people wearing Trump tee-shirts emblazoned with that inane slogan.  I’m not proud of that; and I can say that these ugly feelings have passed. Yet I still find it difficult to understand anyone who could have been so clueless as to miss (or ignore) the obvious danger represented by this repulsive and over-rated primate.  I find it is the understanding part that is the hardest.  It still seems like a nightmare we should be waking up from.

I say all of this as someone who – I guarantee you – despises Clintonism more than anyone you know or will ever meet.  Think of the person you’ve heard attacking the Clintons the most during the election season, assign a very big number to that person’s animosity, and then square (or cube) that number.  That would be your Dad.  And unlike so many people who just opposed Mrs. Clinton for being on the other team, for wearing the wrong color shirt so to speak, I’ve actually read the books.  They tell a very ugly story.  She and her husband epitomize our corrupt establishment.  I would go so far as to say they are evil people.  They are at the very least common criminals. (As is Trump.)  In fact, I reserve my greatest anger for the corrupt Democratic Party establishment that picked Hillary Clinton.  (Their excuses for why she lost – the FBI!, Putin!, Wikileaks!, racism! – show they have learned nothing.)  But alas it turns out Cooked Hillary was the only thing standing between Donald Trump and the world’s most powerful office.  I really, really, wish it could have been otherwise. But those were the choices vomited up by the electoral process this time around.  In the end, the choice was an absolute no-brainer for all thinking adults.  How could 63 million people have been so easily conned?

And so I am really worried about the world you kids will be coming to adulthood in.  As of today, the American Presidency is in the hands of an egotistical clown.  A cartoon character.  A man who mocked a reporter’s physical disability on camera.  A man who suggested “2nd amendment people” should assassinate Hillary if she won – then lied about it (he was on video!).  A man who bragged on tape about sexually assaulting women and who admitted to intentionally walking in on the dressing rooms of beauty contestants less than half his age.  A man who cheated thousands of people out of their savings with a phony university selling bogus “get rich quick” schemes and who achieved his own wealth and celebrity though sleaze, corner-cutting, and ruthless, sharp-elbowed business dealings.  A man who has been endorsed by the KKK (and who failed to categorically disavow that support).  A man who provably lied hundreds of times during the election and who refuses to observe the most basic norms of decency & civility.  A man with obvious (and disturbing) impulse control problems.  A man who could barely string two intelligent sentences together in the debates.  A failed (!) casino owner who lost a billion dollars one year operating a business whose customers are addicted to flushing away their children’s college funds. A thin-skinned bully who tweets insults to his critics at 3 a.m.  A narcissist. A sexist.  A racist. A boor.  Perhaps worst of all, he gives every impression of being someone who has not read a book in his entire adult life.  (Possible exception: celebrity kiss-and-tell memoirs.) He has no business being anywhere near the White House or the nuclear codes.  And yet, here we are.

Of course, Donald Trump is just one man – even if he is now, as of today, the world’s most powerful and dangerous clown.  I’m sorry to say it, but in many ways he is a perfect mirror held up to contemporary American society.  Loud. Showy. Vulgar. Garish. Arrogant. Celebrity obsessed. Television obsessed.  Ignorant. Attention span of a gnat.  Militantly anti-intellectual. Anti-science. Instant gratification seeking. Frighteningly unaware of his limitations.  We really are living in Trump Nation.  Indeed, we were Trump Nation long before November 8th.  And so in some respects, our democracy has produced the leader we deserve.  James Howard Kunstler used to be fond of saying: “we are a wicked people that deserves to be punished.”  Jim, I give you Donald John Trump.  Roost, allow me to introduce chickens.

My greatest hope – I’m not totally without hope, kids – is that Donald Trump’s presidency will be a wake-up call to a population that has been somnolent for far too long – too busy sitting on our sofas with our eyeballs glued to reality TV and gladiatorial sports.  Heaven knows I’ve wasted too many brain cells and unrecoverable hours in this way.  Maybe there is some kind of mad logic at work in all of this surreal craziness. I would pray for that, if I were inclined to initiate conversations with imaginary friends.

Speaking of reasons for hope:  I went to a memorial service last night for Murray Ross who died rather suddenly on January 3rd.  He was Nana’s age.  A thousand people showed up.  Forty years ago, Murray founded the TheatreWorks program at UCCS out of nothing.  It has grown into one of the most celebrated and successful small-city theatre groups in the entire country.  Listening to all the speakers and family members, I was so inspired by this man’s life and accomplishments. Murray directed hundreds of productions over the years – the classics, Shakespeare, contemporary plays, etc.  Several speakers testified to his insistence that every actor understand every word of every line in every play.  This, of course, required an even greater level of understanding and engagement with the text on Murray’s part.  In other words, the man spent his life immersed in the very best of what the greatest artists have had to say about our common humanity.  His great project was to spread Truth, Beauty, Understanding, and Compassion to his fellow man.  He touched tens of thousands of lives for the better with humility, grace and charm.  He was also a brilliant writer, a woodworker, a chef, a wine connoisseur, a professor of English and a beloved father and husband who stayed married to the same woman for forty years. 

I had a tough time sleeping last night.  I was dwelling endlessly on the stark difference between what Murray Ross stood for and what the new American President represents.  One of these men will be studied and written about for centuries to come – if civilization survives that long.  The other will be forgotten after his grandchildren have died.  (Ninety-nine percent of humanity is forgotten after their grandchildren are gone.)  It is unfortunately the way of things that Donald Trump – the bully, the fraud, the narcissist – is in the former camp while Murray Ross is in the latter.

I left the service last night reinvigorated and inspired to live each day more fully.  If we stay focused on the good we can do in our own lives and try not to worry too much about the noise and spectacle that the next four years is certain to bring, we can live Murray Ross’ example of a true “bon vivant” [roughly: “good liver of life”].

And yet, I’m writing because there seems to be so much that can go catastrophically wrong “out there” as you kids move into your 20s and 30s.  I know how paranoid and apocalyptic that sounds.  But most of the big moving pieces are unambiguously ominous. Debt levels – personal, corporate, and governmental – are crushing and totally unsustainable.  (This is the price of organizing society around the principle of getting something-for-nothing which is our national religion; and you thought it was Christianity?)  An economic crash is coming – the only question is when.  The planet is warming in very dangerous (and probably irreversible) ways.  About half the population is in denial about it.  Demographically, western secular populations are getting older and smaller while the populations of religiously fanatical countries are exploding. Too many of us are fat, lazy, tattoo’d, body-pierced, entitled, addicted, uncurious, and dumbed-down almost beyond any hope of recovery.  Largely as a result of that last sentence, our democratic institutions are in crisis (as this recent election proves beyond any doubt).  The Middle East is in chaos – thanks to a war-of-choice started to satiate our addiction to oil and our stubborn refusal to live simpler, more Thoreauvian, less car-dependent lives. The resulting flood of refugees is tearing Europe apart and weakening its commitments to liberalism and tolerance.  To top it off, instead of finding common ground with a secular, modern, Western country like Russia to stem the tide of medieval religious fanaticism, we seem bent on starting a new Cold War with a nuclear superpower for reasons that just confound and exasperate me. 

Civilizations rise and civilizations fall.  There are no exceptions.  I see no reason why the American-dominated post-WWII global order should escape the fate of all other civilizations in history.  Our working classes and our ruling classes are of an altogether different (i.e. worse) character than those who weathered the Great Depression and the Civil War.  And the bigger they are, the harder they fall.  You kids are going to be starting careers and raising families during difficult and unstable times.  If you want a glimpse of how things could look when / if basic services become unreliable (or unavailable), watch the news footage from New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  Then put 300 million guns into the hands of uneducated people jacked up on Jesus and right-wing ideology.

History will record, I fear, that the election of Donald Trump was just the final catalyzing event of The Great Unravelling.  In a decade or two, I think your children will be cursing my generation and the generations before mine for our greed and short-sightedness.  I suppose there is some cruel irony (and even some dark humor) in the fact that Donald Trump will take 100% of the blame for the mendacity and cowardice of his predecessors: the Clintons, the Bushes, the Obamas, and all their various clones and sycophants in the media and other transmitters of conventional wisdom. 

Here’s our situation: A statistically tiny number of angry white people in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have put your futures in the hands of a man with the temperament and attention span of an eight-year-old boy on amphetamines at a moment of history calling for calm & sober judgment.  His cabinet appointees – to a person – are either clueless, openly antagonistic to the agencies they will be leading, or religious whack-jobs.  Some are all three.  It is all utterly unprecedented. Fasten your seat belts, kids.

Even when Donald Trump is right about something – for a broken clock is right twice a day – he is right for the wrong reasons or because of questionable motives.  He is correct that the United States and Russia should be improving relations and working together to fight the barbaric & illiberal Parties of Allah (as well as cooperating on a host of other fronts and issues).  But his position seems driven by his own craven self-interests, and possibly, by his having put himself in the position of being subject to blackmail.  Just think of it: one man’s sick fetishes could turn the tide of history.

And so we witness the spectacle of otherwise sane and intelligent people, including many writers and thinkers I admire, falling over themselves to discredit Trump’s only sensible policy for the sole motive of slaying the Kraken.  The man is so vile & repulsive that smart people are driving themselves into a frenzy – favoring policies that could risk a shooting war with the planet’s only other nuclear superpower – just to avoid having to agree with Cheeto Head on anything.  This sort of thing keeps me awake at night.

How to live in such times? First, realize that other generations in other places have lived through dark and difficult times.  As bad as things could get, someone, somewhere, has had it worse.  Yet in all of these times and places, people of good will and cheery dispositions have managed to find Truth, Beauty, Understanding and Compassion.  And Love.  When the Goths and Visigoths were sacking the Roman Empire, Latin-speakers still laughed.  A cold drink of water still tasted refreshing on a hot summer day.  Flowers still bloomed and birds still greeted the sun with their exuberant music.  It takes very little, from the standpoint of creature comforts, to experience joy in this life.  And we tend to remember the good times.  Things will be no different if The Great Unravelling I fear comes to pass.

Now we come to the part where your Dad presumes to impart Wisdom (note: I have violated almost all of these many times):

Avoid chasing the superficial. Desire fewer material things. Simplify. Find what you love to do and do it. Get really good at a few truly useful things. Accumulate memories, not stuff. Never stop learning, questioning or doubting.  Demand evidence.  Change your minds when the evidence proves you wrong.  Be suspicious of the fickle passions of the mob.  Take the long view of things – past and future.  Leave everything the way you found it or better. Take care of yourselves. “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”[1] Gorge yourselves on art, literature, music and life instead. Get enough sleep. Eschew all poisons. Exercise your bodies and your minds. Dress as though you respect yourself and others. Read. Especially, read. Conserve. Save ten percent. Resist any urges to use profanity.  Get out of doors. See the world.  Help other people whenever you can. Try to see the best in everyone.  That will sometimes be tough.  Love family unconditionally and everyone else according to their desserts.  Choose your life’s soulmate very carefully and only after you have achieved self-sufficiency.  Do not love your enemies.  They mean to kill you.  Respecting their humanity and treating them with justice will be sufficient. Forgive those who trespass against you – if they genuinely seek your forgiveness.  Live every day as if it could be your last.  One day, it will.

Love, Dad

[1] Sage advice from Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food.