Coffee with Clancy 5: A Way Out?

When we met this morning, Clancy apologized that this would be the last coffee for a while. He was being called overseas for a consulting assignment to advise the United Nations in efforts to stem the tide of dictatorships in former democracies in the West like Hungary, Turkey, and Poland.

I began the conversation asking, “Is there a way out of this mess?”

“That is the question, isn’t it? “Clancy responded, “I know that I may sound pessimistic at times and have painted a scary picture of what could happen, but it does not mean that it has to happen. If there is a solution, it must be political. An armed rebellion as some are predicting could trigger the end of our democracy. The decisive factor will be in the election results: can the Democrats hold off the radical Republicans in the hostile climate we are in? Since we last talked, I have become more hopeful about the mid term elections coming up in only a couple of months. Polls now show very close races, which could mean the Democrats might hang on to majorities in both houses.”

I chimed in,” A long shot, and if this happens, we will have the Supreme Court to thank with its 6-3 unpopular ruling against abortion along with a thank you to Trump for championing a bunch of weak candidates and nut cases. Another one of life’s ironies.”

Clancy continued, “If the Republicans win either or both Houses, it will be a different story and a grim one. I am not so sure about the long term. There are plusses and minuses, room for hope and room for despair. The American population is becoming more diverse as the minority populations increase. While we would hope that would result in more compassion and support for corrective action on race issues and economic disparities, I am aware it does not always work out that way. Nevertheless, I remain cautiously hopeful.”

“On the negative side,” he continued, “liberal or progressive policies might further energize the Right Wing extremists including armed militias and hate groups, leading to an armed rebellion that some are predicting. Ditto, if Trump gets indicted or convicted. It could become very messy. Also, politicizing the election process like counting votes by party operatives could also spell doom. Gerrymandering and dark money remain huge obstacles titling the scales toward Republicans. The 2024 election will be one of the most important in our lifetime. In the best of all worlds, we need to move back to center right and center left candidates and elect officials who are more pragmatic and want to get things done rather than cram their ideology down the voters throats or start a revolution. The stakes have never been higher.”

“So you are saying that the answer is nominating candidates on both sides who want to get things done?”

“I know,” Clancy sighed, “Wishful thinking; and  if we are looking for a silver bullet, we won’t find one. If I had to pick one thing that is most important, however, I would say it is presidential leadership. Exhibit A is Donald J. Trump. Trump may be a symptom, but he is also a cause. His outrageous and irresponsible behavior is responsible for aggravating the divisions in our country, energizing extremists, and taking our country down a dangerous path. A second Trump Administration would be a disaster and could mean the end of our democracy. The wannabees waiting in the wings for a Trump misstep, or a jail sentence might be as bad or worse. Most echo his tone, and most are smarter. What the Democrats need going forward is a charismatic, smart, center left, Democratic candidate for President of the United States, who can relate to all types of people. While I give Biden high marks on some things, and given the hand he has been dealt, consider him a good–but not great– president, charismatic he is not. Plus, he is too old for a second term. Hey, he was born in November 1942, making him about eight months younger than you. He will be in his early eighties in 2024. Please. I am in my early seventies and can’t imagine taking on a job like that at my age. Should anyone your age even be allowed to take on the presidency of the United States of America? Would this ever happen in corporate America?”

“Heavens no! From my own experience 80 feels different from being 70. We start to slow down, and frailties become more apparent. Several friends my age are dealing with serious health issues. Dementia is a challenge for some, and some are dying. But who would be the best person? If only Obama could run again. I love that guy!”

Clancy continued, “What Joe Biden should do is announce after the midterms that he will not run for a second term and let the sorting out process begin. There are a lot of good people out there, though I realize that it may not be all that easy, and it depends on whom the Republicans put up, especially whether it is Trump or a Trump wannabe.”

Clancy paused for a moment, sighed, and then continued, “I know that we are living in dangerous times, but I also have got to tell you this: I have faith in the American people. Basically, we are good people. Sure, there are bad apples and some with dangerous intentions, but they are in a minority. We have faced challenges before and come through them—the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Great Depression, two World Wars, the Cold War, the Kennedy and King assinations, Vietnam, segregation, and the period of Jim Crow. Look, we can survive the Trump Era. I know that this is a statement of faith rather than a fully researched fact, but I refuse to throw in the towel.”

“Well, I replied, “I will say this: I admire your unexpected but guarded optimism. We will know soon if you are right about the 2022 election.”

 We both were silent for a moment realizing how high the stakes are. I told Clancy that I want to believe he is right about the American people but also know that it means getting strong Democratic candidates to run for office and working hard to get them elected, and this will not be easy. Also, we need to level the playing field on economic disparity issues, continue the fight for racial equity and social justice, and make America a kinder and gentler place. And if we fail, things could turn very bad.

“Joe,” he said, “I never said it would be easy.”

 I sighed and gave Clancy a big hug. “Hope the assignment with the UN works out well,” I said.

Clancy smiled, gave a thumbs up sign, and headed off. I am not sure when I or if I will see him again.







Coffee with Clancy 4: Our Democracy At Risk

Clancy was late today and apologized as he rushed in to order his coffee and pastry returning to our usual outside table a few minutes later.

“Let’s begin with January 6th”, I said,” and the question is how close did we come to losing our democracy.”

Clancy looked me in the eye and replied, “A hair’s breadth.”

Clancy went on to say what we all know, that if Pence had given in and declared that Trump was the winner or sent the vote back to the swing state legislatures controlled by Republicans to decide, it would have made Trump the winner.  With the 6-3 majority of Republican justices in the Supreme Court, the call about whether this move would have been Constitutional or not could have gone either way.”

“Pretty scary,” I said.

“The thing is we do not know what would have happened. I have to praise the work by the House Select Committee as we continue to hear information that tells us that it was worse than we thought, but to realize that it could have come this close just shows us how fragile our democracy is and that we cannot take it for granted.”

“So, who were these people who stormed the Capitol?” I asked.

“Well,” Clancy answered. “Of the several thousand people who stormed the Capitol, so far almost 900 have been arrested and charged with insurrection. Over 350 have pleaded guilty, and there have already been a few—around 70– convictions, but this process is going to take a while. My guess is that rioters’ charged will number over a thousand before it is all over, and convictions or guilty pleas will number over 500, but who knows?”

As to the question as to who they were, Clancy smiled sheepishly and said, “Well, I knew you were going to ask this question, so I looked it up on Wikipedia, and here is what I found.”

He showed me his printout:

“The attackers included some of Trump’s longtime and most fervent supporters from across the United States. The mob included Republican Party officials, current and former state legislators and political donors, far-right militants, white supremacists, conservative evangelical Christians and participants of the “Save America” Rally. According to the FBI, dozens of people on its terrorist watchlist were in D.C. for pro-Trump events on the 6th, with the majority being “suspected white supremacists”. Some came heavily armed and some were convicted criminals, including a man who had been released from a Florida prison after serving a sentence for attempted murder. A Boogaloo follower said several groups under his command helped storm the Capitol, taking the opportunity to strike against the federal government.

Also present during the riot were parts of the Black Hebrew Israelites, the National Anarchist Movement, the Blue Lives Matter Movement, supporters of the America First Movement, the Stop the Steal Movement,  the Patriot Movement, remnants of the Tea Party Movement  the Traditionalist Worker Party, QAnon followers, the Three Percenters, the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, the Groyper Army; as well as  Holocaust deniers, among other far-right organizations and groups. Anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi groups (Nationalist Social Club) were at the event, although it is unknown to what extent.  Following the event, members of some groups detailed their actions and claimed they were the “beginning of the start of White Revolution in the United States.”

“Hey,” I exclaimed sarcastically, “Is this a great county or what!”

“Well, probably the majority were simply Trump supporters who came to DC because they thought that is what Trump wanted them to do. They got caught up in the excitement of the rally and followed the organizers to the Capitol after Trump directed them to. And as to these hate groups and organizers of the insurrection, they are just the tip of the iceberg. The Southern Poverty Law Center has been tracking domestic hate and terrorist groups for years. The number of such groups has tended to fluctuate between 750 and 1,000, and we are close to the 1,000 now. Note that the list includes groups the FBI is monitoring, and some are foreign terrorists. Domestic groups, however, now comprise most of the terrorist and hate groups.”

“Most seem like a bunch of whackos and nut cases, if you ask me.  What is wrong with these people?”

“You can blame it on a lot of factors—stress, financial insecurity, poor education, broken families, lost jobs, mental illness, broken relationships, old fashioned racism and antisemitism, bad luck, the sermons some hear in their politically-motivated, evangelical churches, or just hanging out with the wrong people. Who knows, maybe Covid has something to with it. Some of these people are, as you say, ‘nut cases,’ but certainly not everyone. To me, however, the number of hate groups and domestic terrorists are the canaries in the mine warning us that something is terribly wrong with our society. I have already talked about some of the societal and political causes, and there are surely a lot more.”

“Okay,” I replied, “We already know a lot and will learn more about the January 6th insurrection as the Select Committee continues its hearings in the fall. Let’s turn to ‘Stop the Steal’ and Trump’s claim of election fraud.”

“This, my friend, is the existential threat we now face. Here is what we know: there was no voting fraud. Period. In fact, this election has been called by many experts probably the fairest in history with the fewest mistakes. Trump’s claim that it was ‘stolen’ is the Big Lie. Yet we also know that   70 percent of all Republicans believe him.”

I could not help shaking my head and muttering, “Nut cases!”

“Not only that,” he continued, “Right Wing talk radio and TV celebrities like Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and their Fox News colleagues hammer  this lie in every day, which also resonates on social media. And it gets even worse. Over half the GOP primary winners say the 2020 election was rigged. Most Republican Congressmen and Senators remain silent. So, if all or most of your information comes from Fox News, conservative talk radio, your buddies who love Trump, the obsessed, right wing minister at your evangelical church, and the Republican candidate you voted for in the primary, you would believe it too, right? This is the big problem. We live in alternate universes. We are fundamentally divided as country.”

“So, this helps explain the January 6th insurrection. Most really believed Trump’s Big Lie. They felt it was their patriotic duty to be there. When he asked them to go to the Capitol, many followed his wishes. I must admit, if I were one of the people you just described, I probably would have at least been to the rally. I am too much of a wimp to storm the Capitol.”

Clancy continued “And the problem is that most of his followers have not changed their minds. If anything, they have become angrier and more radicalized because they think the government was wrong in arresting ‘innocent’, freedom loving Americans. They do not read the NY Times or the Washington Post. They do not watch CNN or MSNBC or the PBS News Hour. They do not talk to people with different opinions. They have not watched any of the hearings of the Select Committee on the January 6 Insurrection. Some have stated that the revolution has already started and believe the Trump followers will ultimately prevail. They will make America great again, whatever it takes, including armed insurrection.”

“Very scary,” I groaned.

“But what is even scarier is what is happening at the state level and the local levels. Republicans have out foxed and out performed the Democrats in grass roots organizing. In many red states and in some purple or swing states, energized Republicans have elected Trump supporters as Secretaries of State, who are responsible for overseeing the election process including vote counting. The Secretaries of State in key states like Georgia and several Midwestern swing states were the heroes of the 2020 elections resisting pressure from Trump and his followers to declare fraud where none existed. They are being replaced by extremists who are 2020 election deniers, some of whom have already boasted that under their watch no Democrats will be elected. Talk about the fox in the hen house! Other pro Trump people are being appointed to replace the neutral election oversight staff that were in place in 2020.”

“In other words.” I said, “Fraud did not happen in 2020, but it most likely will happen in future elections, in 2022 and certainly 2024 when more of the Trump extremists are in place. Plus, as I understand it, these states are also passing legislation making it much harder to vote, which is aimed at reducing turnout by minorities, who usually vote Democratic.”

“Correct,” Clancy replied, shaking his head in dismay. “And it is not just at the state level. Trumpers are winning school board elections and mayor and city council elections, which are becoming nationalized based not so much on local issues but your political identity. So, this is even actually a greater threat in my view—and more likely to happen– than an armed insurrection although that also could happen. The Democrats would be the ones crying foul, but Republicans would ignore them and say ‘we told you so. What is good for the goose is good for the gander.’ A huge crisis of confidence in free and fair elections would follow, and who knows where that will take us.”

“But you are speculating. This has not happened yet.” I protested. “Do you see any signs of hope or a way out of this?”

“That  will have to wait until next week.”











Coffee with Clancy 3: The Radicalization of the Republican Party

Clancy had promised at our last coffee that he would focus on the political side of the picture rather than the sociological and cultural side, which we had been talking about. I turned to him and said, “Ok, so how does politics enter into the picture of what  you described as the ‘Great Alienation’?”

Clancy put down his coffee and eagerly responded. “Well, as we have been discussing, Trump is more  a symptom, than a cause. We have talked about the reasons—lingering racism, the feeling of losing ground by so many in the white working class and others, how technology enables us to listen to only our side of the story and confirms our own biases. Trump has keen marketing instincts, saw an opportunity, and jumped in. But all this did not start with Trump. You have to go back a a long way.”

“Like how long?”

“Like the Civil War. Yes, the North won that war but within only a decade or so the South had clawed back with Jim Crow laws, and lynching was commonplace. Our country is still fighting the Civil War. It took almost 100 years to get rid of Jim Crow, but issues remain. Slavery was our national curse-and the vestiges of that national curse live on.”

I asked, “But the Republicans have been reformers in the past. They were the ones who were against slavery.  It was the party of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, for heaven’s sake.”

“Well, I am a political scientist and sociologist, not a historian, but the two parties have changed over time. Since Franklin Roosevelt, the parties have divided along the lines of liberal versus conservative. But here is the difference today: The Republican Party has been radicalized and no longer can be described as conservative. The “new” Republican Party is populist and has been able to capture a large part of what used to be the base of the Democratic Party. For this you can thank two people, Newt Gingrich and Carl Rove.”

“Well,” I commented,” I can remember both of those guys along with Lee Atwater, the guitar playing South Carolinian, who was behind George H W Bush’s plan to seal the deal with Southern voters who before Lyndon Johnson had been Democrats.”

Clancy shook his head in dismay  and continued, “Gingrich is the guy who realized that Republicans as ‘Mr. Nice Guy’ was not working, and something had to change. He had been a college professor, was smart, and saw the opportunity to steel the Democrats base in the South through a scorched earth, take no prisoners approach, starting with the disaffected, white Southerner. Remember when Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Johnson commented that this would be the last time the Democrats would win the South. He was right. That act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 for the first time made America truly a democracy for all people, not just white people, but it also created winners and losers. White voters in the South were the losers. Gingrich realized this and believed if they could be mobilized and motivated, bringing the disaffected Southerner into the Republican fold could change the political landscape. But he also knew that to accomplish this he had to turn up the heat and in his words, ‘get nasty.’ But it was not just white Southerners. This message resonated with a lot of people all over the U.S., not all of whom were from the white, working class.”

“And why Carl Rove?”

“Carl Rove was the political consultant who was able to convince the movers and shakers of the Republican Party around the time of the presidency of George W. Bush that courting the swing voters was less productive than turning out the base. To do that you had to throw them red meat. And that has been their approach for the last several elections. It took some time for the message to harden, but it has gotten more extreme over the years, peaking with Fox News daily diatribes and the Trump rallies and tweets. I am sad to say, it has worked.”

“Yes,” I responded, “And this antagonistic approach began when Republican talk radio was taking off with the likes of Rush Limbaugh, and Fox News television was just getting started. All this helped get the message across and radicalize and motivate the Republican base, right?”

“That is right, and I date 1994, the year Newt Gingrich got elected as Speaker of the House as the turning point. He had been in Congress as a representative from Georgia in a district near Atlanta since the late 1970s, but his election to a leadership role in 1994 changed the rhetoric and tone of the Republican Party.  That year the composition of the House changed to a Republican majority for the first time in decades. Some 52 seats changed from Democratic to Republican. Gingrich instilled a combative approach in the Republican Party, where hateful language and hyper-partisanship became commonplace, and where democratic norms were abandoned. Gingrich frequently questioned the patriotism of Democrats, called them corrupt, compared them to fascists, and accused them of wanting to destroy the United States. Gingrich also oversaw several major government shutdowns. All this is spelled out in a recent book by Dana Milbank, an op ed writer for the Washington Post, called The Destructionists. I highly recommend it.”

“What about the Tea Party?” I asked, “They seem to be big factor in all this.”

“You are correct,” he replied. “While the seeds for Tea Party were sown much earlier as the tone of the party changed to hostility, anger, and self righteousness, the Tea Party did not become a major factor until 2010, the midterm election during Obama’s first term. In theory the Tea Party described itself as being for fiscal responsibility, low taxes and against federal social programs. They adopted the Gingrich approach of forcing  government shutdowns and voting against anything that the Democrats wanted to do even if the legislation would not have affected them. The message was to make Obama and the Democrats look bad and incompetent, and as you know, they were behind the efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, whatever it took.”

“Well,” I chimed in, “I surely remember those days, and frankly I thought racism was behind a lot of the rhetoric, and ‘fiscal responsibility’ was the cover  that they used.  They hated Obama. And the Tea Party was funded largely by the Koch Brothers and other Republican fat cats and right wing, so called think tanks, right?”

“Yes, and while they never were a whole lot of Congressional, formal members of the Tea Party—only around 60—they had a huge impact on the party, especially in terms of the in-your-face tone and refusal to vote for anything Democrats wanted to pass. They also voted as a block, so they had to be taken seriously. Now the Tea Party has sort of faded away since the entire Republican delegation on both sides of the aisle has adopted their aggressive posture. There essentially are no more moderates left. You can call Romney and Collins moderate, but they fall in line on almost every vote. The party has been totally radicalized. Look who you have sniffing out presidential opportunities in 2024—Cruz, Hawley, and DeSantis, all trying to out-Trump Trump.”

“But all this was going on during the George W Bush years; and despite his huge mistake on Iraq, he does not come across to  me as a radical or malcontent. I remember he campainged initially as a ‘compassionate conservative,’ and he did select some good people like Condelessa Rice and Colin Powell.”

Clancy nodded in agreement, commenting, “Well, as you know Nine-Eleven changed everything. I agree that W. was not a bad person or a product of the alienated Right, though his presidency was borderline disaster and he did not discourage the seething Right Wing hostility. But it was really the reaction to having an African American president that fueled the fires of hatred, and this  heated up in 2008 with the Obama Administration. Eight years later Trump saw the opening and jumped on it.”

“Well,” I remarked, “One of the great ironies in history is that brains behind the W. presidency was Dick Cheney, whom we liberals despised. Then in 2022 along comes his conservative daughter, Liz, who becomes Exhibit A in profiles in courage and is a star of the Select Committee investigating January 6. Go figure. Plus her father supports her!”

“Yes, and this should be a lesson that life is full of ironies, that you should never give up on anyone, and that redemption does happen, albeit not as often as we would like.” 

Clancy glanced at his watched and  noted that he had to leave for an appointment. “But before I leave,” he said, “Keep in mind that all the seething hostility, which became the Trump base, was moving from mainly under-the-radar to mainstream in 2016, the year Trump got elected.”

He paused for a moment and the with a serious tone, replied, “Joe, the situation is not all bad. Don’t give up hope. Remember that Hillary was a very controversial candidate and actually got more popular votes than Trump did. A less controversial candidate probably would have won. Biden swamped Trump in 2020 in both the popular vote and the electoral college, which is very biased toward the red states, as we all know. So, it is not all doom and gloom. Biden has managed to get some very important legislation passed. Some swing voters are put off by the Supreme Court’s ruling on abortion and the radical laws passed by red state legislatures. The House January 6 Commission investigation is continuing, Trump is being investigated by the FBI and the attorney general of Georgia, and he is being sued by numerous people and companies. It now looks like he held on to a lot of top secret papers at Mar-a-Lago, maybe even nuclear secrets, which he might have been thinking about selling to the highest bidder. Who knows? But at least it is getting the attention of swing voters. So, I believe it is not a given that the Republicans will take over both houses of Congress though still I realize  many pundits think that it is probable.”

“I agree. All is not lost, at least not yet. But you have to admit: It is a scary time. But isn’t the real issue here that democracy as we know it is at risk and that the times we are in are so divided, that the country could go to the dark side, and that we could lose our democratic system? What about January 6 and what that all means? And all the ‘Stop the Steal’ talk?”

“That, my friend, will be the subject of our next conversation.”




Coffee with Clancy 2: How We Got into This Mess

Clancy was already seated outside Starbucks at a table when I arrived, sipping his coffee and motioned for me to sit in the empty chair. I rushed in, got my coffee and returned. After the usual pleasantries, I got straight to the bottom line.

“Look,” I said to Clancy, “I get it. I get why many in the white working class are upset having lost their security and place in the world, and in many cases their income and benefits have gone down. I get it that many feel dissed and that this is partly our fault as ‘coastal elitists.’ I still do not understand why they landed on Trump as their savior, but I will put that aside for the moment. What I want to know is this: What are the underlying causes behind this troubled time we are in?”

“Funny you ask,” he replied, “I am just putting some finishing touches on a talk that I am preparing for a luncheon at the Cosmos Club next week.”

Clancy paused for a moment, wiped off his glasses and took a long sip from his Starbucks mug.

“Ok,” he said, smiling, “Are you ready to take notes?”

“Not exactly but go ahead anyway.”

“There are four reasons, some of which are interrelated.  First, the civil rights movement. The second is Jack Welch. Third is the collapse of labor unions, and perhaps most important, the fourth is technology and how it has affected transformed the way we live.”

I quickly jumped in, “The civil rights movement? How could that be?”

“You grew up in Nashville in the 1950s, right? All schools were segregated at that time. African Americans had to sit in the back of the bus and use separate bathrooms and all the rest. If you were a poor or working class, white person, you could admit that your life was far from perfect, but at least you had others you could look down on. Were it not for the civil rights movement it would have been more of the same. The civil rights movement was the beginning of a sea change, eventually electing an African American as President of the United States. Surely there is a long way still to go to achieve racial justice, but it is no longer so easy for white people to conclude they are part of a superior race. Make no mistake, however, racial hatred remains a huge issue and a major factor in motivating hate groups like the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, and many others supporting Trump. That is what all the fuss concerning CRT and ‘Black Lives Matter’ is about. Disaffected white people are fighting back. That is why if Trump or his wannabees win in 2022 and 2024, it could be a grim day for America. I should point out, also, that it was not only working class people who were and are racists but a lot of other white people at all income levels. Racism in America continues to be a national sickness.”

“Well, one of the things that I am most proud of in my life is playing a very small role in that effort. My senior year at Davidson College I led a march in Charlotte voicing support for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and Embry and I worked on the front lines of the movement in southwest Georgia in 1966.”

“Another reason,” he chuckled, “that you could be considered the enemy.”

“Ok, but what does Jack Welch have to do with it?”

“Jack Welch was head of General Electric for about 20 years starting in 1981 and was considered by many the greatest CEO in the country, some have said ‘of all time.’ He was responsible for making GE one of the most profitable companies in the world, constantly beating financial forecasts. He was revered throughout the business world. Obviously he did a lot of things right, but his business style was ruthless toward underperforming employees, firing the ‘least productive’ 10 percent of employees every year. He was known as ‘Neutron Jack,’ kill all the workers and leave the factories in place. Many other companies followed his lead, focusing mainly on increasing quarterly earnings and dismissing underperforming employees. Compensation for CEOs and high level managers skyrocketed while pay for the average worker stagnated or even diminished. The result was a huge cut in jobs, including well-paying jobs with benefits and huge disparities in income, which is partly responsible for the vast income gap today. The top one percent accounts for almost 20 percent of all household income.”

“But,” I said, “Surely it was not just Jack Welch. It was a lot of other CEOs too.”

“Of course, I just use ‘Neutron Jack’ as an example of a change in philosophy of putting shareholders ahead of employees and focusing almost exclusively on the bottom line. The social contract that existed in the U.S. between labor and management in the 1950s and 1960s which rewarded loyalty and treated workers as corporate ‘family’ was replaced by every man for himself and let the chips fall.”

“So what about labor unions?” I asked, “And why have they shrunk so much?”

“Well, it is remarkable how much they have shrunk and how irrelevant they have become in most industries. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, about 35% of the U.S. workforce were in labor unions, many of which were very powerful—both in achieving higher wages, more benefits and better retirement for their employees, and also, they were powerful politically. Now the percentage is only around three percent, and the most active and effective unions tend to be public sector unions. And keep in mind, unions took elections seriously, they got out their members to vote, and they voted for Democrats. That is not happening today. If the unions were still strong, we would not be in the mess we are in with the MAGA world.”

“How did this happen?”

“There are a lot of reasons including mismanagement, graft, and corruption in some unions. But the main factors boil down to three things, first, an aggressive anti-union posture in many companies beginning in the early 1980s and continuing today, second, more legislation in states for right to work and other anti-union laws, and third, and, I think, most important, the global economy and the relative ease of moving factories and jobs overseas. If unions appear to be a threat, management can threaten to close operations and move them to China or some other Asian or South American country, and many have done just that. Unions have no recourse.”

“Do you think that unions will come back and will they make a difference?

“I am not able to answer that question yet. I certainly hope so. We need strong, progressive unions. Let’s table it for discussion later.”

“So, what about technology?”

“Well, of course, this one is a no-brainer and has affected everything we do. First the impact on jobs.  Elevator operators, secretaries, bank tellers, and newspaper print setters have almost disappeared, along with countless other jobs, but on the other hand, new jobs are being created every day. The challenge is that many of the new jobs require retraining and often more skills, and our country does not have the infrastructure in place to provide the retraining and proper education. Also, it may require moving from a town or city to another location some distance away where the new jobs are being created. We are not doing a good job at that.”

Clancy scared off a hungry pigeon eating the crumbs from a  pastry under the  table and continued,”There is one other impact of technology that is responsible and that is television, more specifically cable television. Almost everybody has cable tv today allowing them to watch whatever they want to. There used to be only three and then four broadcast television channels–NBC, ABC, CBS and then Fox. We Americans all saw the same commentators every night, and all broadcast networks were generally middle of the road, mainstream. You could also throw PBS into the mix though the viewers were fewer. Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, David Brinkley, Chet Huntley, Robin McNeil, Tom Brokow–you know the names. While cable actually started in the late 1940s,  it was not until the 1980s  that it began to become mainstream. CNN premiered  in 1980. Fox News and MSNBC did not become live until 1994. Now people watch what they want to, and it is usually the news coverage they agree with. We do not see the news from the other side.”

“Well, I favor MSNBC,” I volunteered,” And do not think it is biased at all.”

Clancy laughed and then added, “Do not forget about Facebook, Twitter and all the social media. This is also relatively new. Facebook did not become live until 2004. I will tell you without  all the revolution in technology it would be a different story. Somebody like Trump could probably not get elected.”

“All of this is very interesting, and I think spot on, but I also think there is something you are missing.”


“I may be a bit naïve, but my image of the ‘old fashioned,’ blue collar worker is an Archie Bunker kind of guy that had a decent factory job, maybe in the industrial Midwest, who got paid a living wage, had decent benefits, good health care insurance and a generous, ‘defined benefit pension.’ His wife stayed home and kept house and raised the kids, and they lived in a modest home that they owned in a modest neighborhood. It might not have been fancy, but they could get by, maybe go out to a movie or a restaurant every week or so, and every few years they could take a beach vacation. They felt pretty good about their lives. Many of their children were able to get college degrees and jump to the middle class.

“Fast forward to the 21st Century and we find something different. Now to get by you need two incomes in a household. The stay-at-home mom is now working at Giant or Safeway or in some kind of service job. Pensions have been replaced by 401Ks, health care coverage is lower, and the factory worker is now working at a Home Depot or Target. Families are dealing with a lot more stress, trying to work, and at the same time to keep a family together, often without affordable day care for kids or affordable rents or housing prices. This added stress has been a factor in opioid addiction and deaths along with mental health issues leading to even more stress and unhappiness. For all these reasons, a lot of working class people are not happy campers. So are others who may have white collar jobs but also are struggling. I read the other day where almost two-thirds of the working population live paycheck to paycheck. This explains some of the anger and the need for something different. Along comes Donald Trump, recognizing the unhappiness in people’s lives and promises to shatter the old way of doing things and to punish the elitist snobs and arrogant uppity ups that have no clue as to how ‘ordinary people’ live.”

Clancy smiled and replied, “I think I will add a fifth reason.”

As we parted, he replied, “But if we are talking about the rise of Trump and Trumpism, it did not begin with the Donald. It began with the Newt. Next time we get together let’s talk about how the Republican populist rebellion began about 30 years ago led Newt Gingrich and  and his ‘contract with America’ and fueled by energy from the Tea Party. See you next week.”





Coffee with Clancy 1: State of the Nation

Note to readers: Here begins a new miniseries on the political issues of the day. Clancy is not a real person and any similarity between persons living or dead is strictly coincidental.

Now that the guru has departed, it is sadly time to return to the real world. But I have fabulous news! The guy who moved into his apartment is a retired political science/sociology professor at one of Washington’s most prestigious universities and a well known author and pundit on political issues. I met him at the bar on the lobby level of my apartment house, and we hit it off immediately. We agreed to talk over coffee at Starbucks the next day. I told him I would be sharing our conversations on my blog, which he agreed to if I did not use his last name so that he could speak more freely. Naturally I agreed to his request since he does not have a last name anyway, being a figment of my imagination.

Clancy is probably in his early 70s, balding, thin gray hair, a tad overweight with a wry smile and occasionally a twinkle in his eyes. After getting our coffee, we found a table outside on Connecticut Avenue looking out on the entrance to the National Zoo.

I started off the conversation, “Clancy, thanks so much for taking the time to chat. My first question is just how scared should we be that our country seems to be teetering toward authoritarianism?”

Clancy took a sip of his latte and replied, “Here is what we know: Following the trouncing of Liz Cheney in the Wyoming House race this week, Trump has now demonstrated that he has complete control of a Republican Party that has lost any resemblance to the Grand Old Party of yore. It is now a populist party anchored in part by the white, alienated working class and funded by superrich supporters who are aligned with Trump’s agenda and style. Traditional Republicans in the House and the Senate, except for Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, have cowardly thrown in the towel and become sycophants, afraid that they will be ‘primaried out’ if they speak up. It is a critical time for our country.”

I interrupted, “But what I really want to know is what do his white, working class supporters see in this guy? When he was president, he did nothing to help create jobs, expand health care benefits, increase the minimum wage, or provide more family support with expanded child day care or improved education. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth and has lived the life of Riley his entire life. He has treated workers unfairly and is anti-union. The CFO of his company just copped a plea on something like a dozen criminal charges related to the Trump organization. I do not know how many homes he has but read today that his Versailles palace in Mar-a-Lago has something like 59 bedrooms and 33 bathrooms. He is a self-absorbed narcissist who cares only about himself. What is going on? Why would working class people be attracted to somebody like him?”

Clancy paused for a second and responded,” I think part of what is going on is this: ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend.’”

“But why is the enemy the ‘coastal elite’ and others who are liberals and progressives? Why does there appear to be so much anger toward people who are well educated, have professional jobs, and are financially secure? You know, people like us. Why is there so much anger toward people who support such things as increasing the minimum wage, making health care more affordable, providing child day care, increasing tax credits for the working poor, raising taxes on the rich, providing income support and affordable housing, and trying to make the country more egalitarian? These are the programs that benefit the working class.”

“I think there are two main reasons,” He answered. “The first is that our country is quickly transitioning from being white dominated country to a multiracial one. Many in the white working class believe that this has come largely at their expense and that the government programs have mainly benefited ‘the class below them,’ especially Blacks, Latinos, other people of color and non-European immigrants. Part of what is driving this is old fashioned tribalism, which in the U.S. unfortunately also means old fashioned racism. The vestiges of slavery—our great national sin—live on. Clawing back after the Civil War in the South ushered in the Jim Crow era. It is happening again. This time around it is Custer’s Last Stand: Fight to the finish.

“The other reason, I think, has to do with us progressives and liberals who have turned up our noses at the white working class. Yes, Democrats are partly responsible. Whether intentional or not, we have given the impression that we look down on these ‘ignorant, prejudiced, Trump supporters.’ They feel we have dissed them, and I think they are right.”

I chimed in, “Well, I know that I am prejudiced toward Trump supporters. If I had a child or a close relative who was a Trump supporter, I do not know what I would do. I do not have any friends who I know are Trump supporters. I do not know how a Trump supporter could ever be a friend. I can’t imagine even knowing anyone who participated in the January 6 insurrection. Hillary was right. They are deplorables.”

“So, you admit that you are as responsible for this mess as much as anyone else?”

“I guess so.”

“Yes, he sighed, “But you are hardly unique. Almost everyone I know thinks pretty much like you do, and I suppose that is the problem, isn’t it? We have divided ourselves into two tribes. Do you feel superior to all of the white working class?”

“No, no!” I responded. “ I admit that everyone who is a Trump supporter is not racist. In fact, I do have some experience in this area. Embry and I lived in a low income, white, working class neighborhood in 1970, which I have written about in Hard Living on Clay Street. We got to know our neighbors very well and respected them and became friends. Some were fighting demons with alcohol addiction and mental illness, and many were struggling financially and psychologically, but essentially, they were good people and were dealing with the same issues of human relationships, economic security, and meaning in life that many in our country are dealing with.”

Clancy interrupted, “So you think the people you wrote about would be Trump supporters today if they were still alive?”

“Probably, and that is why I am so confused. The people I wrote about were not “deplorables,” They were not “bad people.” And from that experience I think I can understand their sense of alienation. Yet here we are—demonizing and dehumanizing one another. Not a pretty picture.”

“Yes,” he replied. My historian friends tell me that the times right now are eerily like the times preceding the Civil War where we have divided ourselves into two opposing camps with little room for compromise, making amends, or trying to understand the other side.”

“What are we going to do about this mess? How are we going to get out of it?”

“The fear now is that it may be too late. Many fear that if Trump is indicted or convicted, that this will be the spark that ignites the fire of revolution.”

“Yes,” I replied, “But it is not just Trump. DeSantis, Cruz, and Hawley are waiting in the wings. Sarah Palin is back. Marjorie Taylor Greene has entered the fray, all waiting for Trump to stumble and to grab the mantle. None of these people, like Trump, have a philosophy of governance or legislative programs. They are opportunists, just like Trump, seeing a vacuum and opportunity and waiting to take advantage of it….”

I paused and then looked him straight in the eye. “So, should we be scared?”

“Yes, we should be scared. What Trump and his wannabees have in common is a thirst for power and contempt for democracy. Human nature being what it is, there is an appetite for non-democratic governments ruled by strongmen. Many great countries have fallen into the trap of worshipping a powerful ruler—Germany, Italy, Spain, Russia, China, and many others. Remember democracy is a new idea. Before the American experiment monarchies and dictatorships were the only options.”

“Is our day in the sun coming to an end? Is democracy on the ropes?”

“We can talk more about that next time we get together and more about what I think is behind the ‘Great Alienation’ as I call it.”






What I Forgot to Ask the Guru

The guru is gone, off to India to tend to the responsibilities he has there. I am hoping that some day he will return but for now will trudge onward in my feeble effort to understand the world.

There is one question, however, which we did not get a chance to discuss, which was this: Are there “other factors” besides faith, which affect religious belief and/or religious affiliation? For example, sociological or cultural factors.

The answer, of course, is yes. Were it not for these “other factors,” I could well be an evangelical, Southern Baptist. Consider this true story (also described in Civil Rights Journey):

I grew up in a proper and conservative family in Nashville. My father was a banker, and his father was in his day the president of two banks, including one that failed in the Great Depression. My mother was a loving, stay-at-home mom, who was active in all sorts of civic things like the Junior League and a thrift shop, which she had organized as a charity. We belonged to a country club and lived in Belle Meade, a close-in suburb where most of Nashville’s elites lived. Most important, my family was deeply involved in Christ Episcopal Church in downtown Nashville, now Christ Church Cathedral. When I was growing up, my father was Senior Warden (Episcopal church talk for “chairman of the board”), and my mother was head of the Women of the Church, not only for Christ Church but for the entire Diocese of Tennessee.

The Billy Graham Crusade came to Nashville in the late spring of 1952 when I was 10 years old. Enormous planning went into these crusades, and lay leaders of all denominations were engaged by the Graham Crusade and expected to support the event, an effort which included both of my parents. Attendance at the Nashville Billy Graham Crucade was a command performance for my parents and for me. I asked if could bring along my best friend, Walter Wilson, who lived in a big white house at the bottom of the street we lived on, and they agreed. The revival was held in the giant Vanderbilt football stadium, which had thousands of seats, which on the evening of the revival were jam packed. For their role in promoting the event among Episcopalians, my parents were given VIP seats at the 50-yard line about a third of the way up.

Being a 10-year-old, the last thing I wanted to do was sit with my parents, so I convinced them to allow me and Walter to sit where we wanted to. We climbed the steep stadium stairs all the way up to the top row where a few empty seats were available and where we had a spectacular view of the extravaganza– the choirs, the bands, bright colors, banners with crosses– and could feel the excitement in the stands. There were a couple of warmup speeches or mini sermons, a few more vibrant hymns by the choir, and then the great evangelist appeared on stage to the roar of the crowd, louder than anything I had heard in Vanderbilt Stadium except maybe the rare time when Vanderbilt scored a touchdown against the University of Tennessee. For two 10-year-old kids, it was a sensation.

Billy Graham did not disappoint. For me that was not hard  because I knew very little about Billy Graham and had not given the event much thought ahead of time. But his message of sin and forgiveness and redemption captivated me, and I could tell it also captivated my friend, Walter. When the call came to come down to the podium on the field to be saved and born again, hundreds and hundreds of people were leaving their seats to go down to the field. I could feel my heart pounding. I looked at Walter. He looked at me. We nodded to each other. Down we went.

As we approached the VIP section where my parents were sitting, out of the corner of my eye I glimpsed my mother and realized that she saw Walter and me, headed for Billy Graham to be saved and born again. She had a look of horror on her face. I was surprised, but we continued our descent until we reached the row where my parents were seated when a strong arm reached out and dragged me into an empty seat. It was my father. Walter looked puzzled but followed me and sat down. In a stage whisper, which was overheard by everyone sitting near us, my mother scolded me, “What do you think you are doing? You can’t go down there! You are an Episcopalian, for goodness’ sake! They are Baptists!

There was lots of murmuring. Several people shouted, “let them go, let them go!” Someone else shouted, “Shame, shame! Jesus saves!” Another, “Satan.” Others just groaned.

My mother later explained that I was already a Christian, attended church and Sunday school every Sunday, was the leader of my preteen Sunday school group, and all that would come of this if I had gone down to the field was that they would have tried to make me into a Baptist, who she insisted were “just different” from us Episcopalians. I apologized to Walter, who said not to worry since he was a Southern Baptist already and had been born again twice.

But I still occasionally ask myself the question, what would have happened if I had gone down there, and how might it have altered my life’s journey,

The other true story is from the 1990s. It also involves a Southern Baptist.

Embry had seen a photo of her cousins on the cover of a National Geographic magazine featuring an article on old time “camp meetings,” which caused her to reach out to them. They invited us to join them for a few days at one of the oldest camp meetings in the country predating the Civil War–the Salem Camp Meeting in Covington, Georgia. A camp meeting is essentially a week-long revival and family reunion. I had never been to a camp meeting before and was fascinated by the experience. Camp meetings usually happen toward the end of the summer or early fall of  each year where extended families gather for a week of worship, music, and socializing. The large campground in Covington included a few tents but mainly consisted of hundreds of ancient, makeshift tin and wooden huts, which gave the feel of a huge summer camp. Multiple generation families sat around campfires, chatted, told stories, visited old friends, sang spirituals, and played gentle music on guitars. It was a genuine, spiritual atmosphere.

The highlight of the Covington tent camp experience was listening to sermons from guest preachers, and each year a preacher is selected to give two or three sermons a day for several days in a large, outdoor pavilion accommodating several hundred people. This year the preacher was a Southern Baptist minister from South Carolina. He was young, handsome, and charismatic. In those days there was some leeway in the Southern Baptist Church regarding theology and matters of faith. A few Southern Baptist ministers even described themselves as liberals or progressives. This guy was obviously one of those rare birds. I was both amazed and impressed. As a somewhat skeptical graduate of Union Seminary–and an Episcopalian! — I found myself agreeing with most of what he said. I also was impressed that he seemed to be well received by a Southern and, I would assume, conservative tent camp congregation.

Then came his final sermon, where he abruptly changed course. This is the way his sermon went:

“Well, you have been listening to me all week talk about matters of faith, and I’ll bet that you believe that I would say that there is really not that much difference between the various Protestant denominations. We are all Christians.”

Most people nodded.

“Well,” he continued, “I am here to tell you that there is a huge difference, and don’t let anyone tell you anything different.”

I thought, “Uh oh, here it comes. The fundamentalism is in him after all.” 

Puzzled looks appeared on many faces in the congregation along with a few murmurs.

 With a sheepish grin  and a twinkle in his eye, he continued, “So here are the differences and pay attention because they are important, very important: I am a Southern Baptist and proud of it. A Southern Baptist is a Christian who has been washed.”

People in the congregation nodded.

“Are there any Methodists in the congregation?”

Many nodded, and some raised their hands.

“A Methodist is a Baptist who can read.”

A few chuckles.


More hands went up.

“A Presbyterian is a Methodist who has gone to college.”

More chuckles.

“And an Episcopalian is a Presbyterian whose investments turned out all right!”

The pavilion exploded in laughter.

So, yes, readers, there are real differences between the Protestant denominations and between the various pathways in the religious quest for ultimate meaning and reality.

And don’t let anyone tell you anything different.



Guru Stories (Chapter 5): Religion and Faith

As I knocked on Akash’s door, I was pleased that he greeted me with “my friend” rather than “Mr. Howell.” I could tell that he seemed a bit preoccupied. When we sat down for the usual tea, he delivered the bad news: This would be our last meeting. He was being called back to India because of an emergency and was unsure when or if he would return. He managed a faint smile and said, “So, my friend, if there is anything more you wish to know, now is the time to ask.”

“Ok,” I answered,” Here goes: What is your religion anyway?”

“I am first and foremost a guru, and most gurus do not have a formal religious affiliation. I grew up as a Hindu, explored both Buddhism and Zen Buddhism and then the Abrahamic religions. That is why I know so much about the Bible. You could call me a universalist I suppose, but I have no affiliation with the Unitarian Universalist Church.”

“Well, I have to say that you are indeed a very wise person, and I find that I agree with much of what you said.”

“I am pleased to hear that but also understand that you not only are a Christian but also are one of a diminishing number of people who attend church regularly. In addition, from my research I have learned that you have a Master of Divinity degree from a famous seminary and at one point were in line to become an Episcopal priest. Is this correct?”

“I am afraid that it is.”

“And yet you and I agree on many things. You know that I am not a Christian. I am curious as to why you seem to be so dedicated to your neighborhood Episcopal church since you do not sound like an orthodox Christian to me.”

“Well, this is a long story but two quick points. First, it is often said that Episcopalians check their hat at the door when entering church, not their brain. While there is still a lot of baggage that goes along with being an Episcopalian, there also is some wiggle room about what you believe. Second, being part of a caring, religious community is important, and, frankly, I would admit being part of a caring community is probably the main motivating factor. Besides, Embry sings in the choir, and that is very important to her. At times I must confess, however, I question if it is worth the effort. For years I have not said the creeds that are in the prayer book.”

“So what else resonates with you about our discussions?”

“I especially was impressed with your comments about Jesus and that from your viewpoint he was truly a Holy Man who embodied what you call ‘the Great Spirit.’ I had never thought of it that way exactly, but it surely resonates with me. The anthropomorphisms found in Christian, religious language as God being a “he” and Jesus being his “son” have never made much sense to me.   Also, I am impressed with your comment that trying to take the mystery out of religion often is not only counterproductive but misses the point. The human condition is such that we do not and will not have all the answers. You point out that through prayer and meditation, humans can connect with the Great Spirit and that the purpose of all religions is to make sense out of the world and connect to a deeper reality that is elusive but real. What also resonates, however, is that there is validity in all religions and that there are many pathways to seeking, as you say, the Great Spirit.”

“Well, that surely should get you into trouble with a whole lot of churches. They haven’t tried to throw you out yet?”

“Well, as a matter of fact, one person told  me that there was no place for heretics like me in the church and that I should leave. When I did not leave, he did.”

I  continued, “But why  did you not talk about  the dark side of religion and religious organizations? What about the terrible things Christians did in the Crusades, the millions of Catholic and Protestant deaths in the Thirty Year’s War, the Witch Hunts in New England, Al Qaeda, the Taliban, the ‘Christians’ who are outspoken Trump supporters, and stormed the Capitol and bought into ‘Stop the Steal’? The Ku Klux Klan says it it is a Christian organization. I could name many more.”

“Yes, this is true, and it is troubling. Do you remember the conversation about evil spirits in the world? I would put these into that category, but the evil spirit phenomenon remains a mystery. Also, human nature is fragile and easily corrupted. It also illustrates that  simply saying you are a Christian or a Muslim or Buddhist is not enough to make you one. As you Christians say, only God knows that. But I must admit, I too find this baffling but sadly true.

“Now I want to change the subject. And ask about your seminary experience? How did that affect you?”

“Well, it was mixed. Union Theological Seminary in New York City was at the time nondenominational (It is now ‘interfaith’!), which had a rigorous academic program (The great theologians Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr taught there but had departed by the time I arrived in 1964.) and a strong emphasis on social justice, especially the Civil Rights Movement, which is what really appealed to me and many of my classmates. No one I knew there ended up pursuing a career in the ministry. Embry and I spent the summer of 1966 working on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement in southwest Georgia with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the most radical civil rights group at the time. It was an experience of a lifetime.

“My involvement in ‘the Movement,’ however, got me into trouble with my bishop, who was the head of the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee. He was a feisty, old-school guy who thought that Episcopal priests had more business being in the pulpit and at the altar than marching against racism. I actually liked the guy and appreciated his honesty, but we parted ways before I graduated. I remain grateful to him to this day. Given my heretical theology and struggle with doubt and belief, it would have been a rocky road. After graduating from Union, I got a master’s in city planning from UNC Chapel Hill, which I parlayed into a career assisting developers and nonprofits build affordable housing and seniors housing. Embry got a master’s in bio statistics, which led to several health policy research jobs, and we settled in Washington in 1972 where we raised our two kids and have lived ever since. I could never have asked for more. As you pointed out, I have been blessed. So that is my life in a nutshell.”

“Thank you for sharing. Before we part ways, however, I have a question for you regarding what seems to be happening in America. I see that church attendance in mainline Protestant churches has been declining for some time and that many younger people have opted out. There is a new category of ‘nones’ referring to people who in surveys say they do not have a religion and a growing number who say they are ‘spiritual but not religious.’ At the same time, Evangelical churches while growing also have in many instances been radicalized politically with a large number thinking that your former president, Donald Trump, is the new Jesus Christ. What on earth is going on?”

“I am somewhat confused myself but think that part of this has to do with the social class and racial divisions in the U.S., which are very serious and account for some of this behavior. I also think that the established mainline denominations–and also Catholics (where immigrants have slowed the decline) –are partly themselves to blame for this situation. They are seen by many younger, more progressive people as not taking a stronger stand on social issues or doing as much as they should to address the pain and suffering that is happening in our country and the world. In a word they are seen as irrelevant. There are also divisions in these denominations regarding social issues like marriage equality, sexuality, and abortion. Plus—and this gets back to the conversation we have been having—taking a hardline position on belief and faith is a turnoff for many people in what is now a secular and questioning world.

“I will concede, however, that this is not always the case. Last week I was talking with an old friend, who has had a very successful ministry as a ‘High Church’ or ‘Anglo Catholic’ Episcopal priest. When I told him that the Episcopal Church would be  better off ditching the creeds, he laughed, gave me a big hug, and exclaimed that he could not disagree with me more. He pointed out that his Anglo Catholic church  in New York City was thriving as are similar churches where there is incense, chanting, and the use of traditional liturgy. On the contrary, he pointed out that declining church attendance was having a  bigger impact on  those churches with watered down liturgy, loosey-goosey beliefs, and in some  parishes that were little more than social clubs. If the church did not stand for something and take orthodox belief seriously, he pointed out, why bother? But he concluded his remarks with this comment:’ Joe Howell, the language in the Nicene says we, not I. In other words, it is not necessarily what you believe but what the church has believed over the years.’ I interpreted that as giving people like me some wiggle room.”

The guru responded, “Well, I am glad you think you have some wiggle room. You surely need it. But while I have  said “one destination, many pathways,”  you also have to be careful. First, the destination needs to be legitimate, that is, an honest search for the spiritual. And, second, you have got to realize that some pathways may lead you in the wrong direction, some to a dead end, and others over a cliff.”

I answered , “Yeah, and I think I could name a bunch of those right here in the U.S. where the pathways they have chosen have taken them over a cliff.  I also agree with the idea of  ‘different strokes for different folks’ and admit there are no easy answers.  That is why I have been especially interested in your world view and your beliefs. I believe that there should be more room in traditional Christian churches  for questioning and doubt as long as the focus on spirituality remains, and the Christian message of love your neighbor, helping the poor and less fortunate,  and working for social justice do not get lost in the shuffle. But, hey, what do I know?”

“Well, you know more now than when we started our conversation when you were in dire need of an exorcist. As I say, the Great Spirit works in mysterious ways. I will miss you, my friend. Don’t throw in the towel.”

“Safe travels. I hope you will return.”






Guru Stories (Chapter 4): Miracles

Today, Akash met me with a wide grin and firm handshake.

“Finally, a happy topic!”

“Well, I replied, “Why not start with whether or not you believe in miracles?”

His eyes twinkled as he exclaimed, “As you Americans say, ‘Are you kidding me?’ Of course, I believe in miracles! That we are sitting here in my apartment discussing important topics about the meaning of life is a miracle. That I am alive is a miracle. That you are alive is a miracle. That this small gem of a planet brimming with life is the most extraordinary miracle of all. What are the odds? As we discussed before, we now have a pretty good idea of how old the universe is, how big it is, and how vast it is. If the planet Earth does not fall into the category of a miracle, I do not know what does.

“ You think we are it? That the Great Spirit got all this started 13.8 billion years ago, and all the life that came out of it was one lonely, blue planet? Of course not. But given the vastness of it all and the distance between planets, between solar systems, between stars and between galaxies, it is pretty remarkable.  We will never know what else is out there, but the fact that we are here is  a miracle, and we should not ever forget this. We should be grateful for this and offer thanks every single day.”

“Well, I understand that though a lot of scientists would disagree.”

“Those scientists who would disagree know little about spiritual matters. They may all now agree on the Big Bang but will never be able to explain the why of it. Of course, never will gurus like me, but at least we gurus acknowledge the profound mystery of it all.

“But what about ordinary day-to-day ‘miracles’ that people think happen? You hear stuff like this all the time: ‘It was a miracle I passed that test. It was a miracle that our team won. It was a miracle that I got the dream job.’ Is there anything to that? The use of the word ‘miracle’ is often substituted for ‘luck.’ Do you think the Great Spirit gets involved in such apparently trivial day-to-day affairs?”

“My friend,  What do you think? Do you think the Great Spirit has been responsible for miracles in your life?”

“Yes, no question. Absolutely.”

“So do most people if they are honest. Give me an example of a miracle that you have experienced.”

“Well, I will give you a recent one. A few weeks ago, Embry and I had taken three immigrant kids ages 10-12 to a play and I made a serious mistake when driving them home in making a left turn onto a busy highway when a car going about twice the speed limit suddenly appeared over a hill, roaring towards us, and swerved to miss us by inches. We could all have been killed, but what haunts me most is that I would have been responsible for what happened to those three kids, who are all adored by their struggling parents whose main hope in life is to provide a better life for their children. If I had survived and those children hadn’t, I could never live with myself. The same would hold true if Embry had been killed. It was a miracle!”

“Sounds like a miracle in my book too.”

“Well, I have many more examples, but you could also substitute ‘luck’ for ‘miracle.’ I do that myself all the time.”

“Who knows? Maybe they are the same thing. I recall someone once observing that a coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.”

“But then again, that raises the question of why miracles happen for some and not for others. Innocent people are killed in car crashes every day.”

“My friend, for this question I have no answer, but I must remind you that life itself is a miracle. Do not forget this and offer thanks to the Great Spirit or ‘God’ or whatever you choose to call the ultimate reality. Do this every day.”

“See you next week. I want to know more about your religion.”








Guru Stories (Chapter 3): End of Life Questions

After we had sat down and we  had a sip of tea, Akash cleared his throat and said, “Why do you want me to talk about death, Mr. Howell?”

“Well, I replied, “I know it sounds gruesome, but do you have any idea what it is like to be on a covid-infested cruise ship where the crew is throwing dead bodies over the transom into the ocean, and death is on every doorstep?”

“Oh, my goodness,” he replied, “Was it that bad?”

“Well, no, but it could have been, and had I not tested negative for covid at 4:50 PM on the last day of the cruise, I would have been transferred at daybreak to a so called ‘covid hotel,’ and what do you think the odds are that anyone would have survived that? Anyway, it was my experience with covid that brought us together. I was looking for an exorcist and couldn’t find one, but I found you instead, and that was even better. I am so grateful.”

“And I observe, Mr. Howell, also that you are no spring chick. Could that also be behind your question about death?”

“That is true. I turned 80 about four months ago, and every day I am reminded that the 80s are different from the 70s. Thankfully, I think I am now past the covid near-death ordeal, but there is much that I could do a few years ago that I can’t do now—like walk as fast or as long as I used to, go up or down steps without holding onto a banister, or remember my own name. About a third of my classmates in high school and college have passed away. We know that we 80-plus-year-olds are next in line.”

“You should consider yourself fortunate and be grateful. You have lived a long, fulfilling life and have been blessed with a strong marriage, children whom you are close to and proud of, grandchildren you adore, a satisfying career, great friends, a loving extended family, and reasonably good health. Others are not so fortunate. Many others.”

“You are right, Akash. Forgive me. Indeed, I have been blessed.”

“First, for someone like you who has already beaten the odds, death is not to be feared. Can you imagine living another 30 or 40 years as your body and mind deteriorate?  All life comes to an end, not just human life. It is perhaps life’s most unfathomable mystery and will remain so. Your concern should be that when your number comes up, you are spared suffering and pain. Second, the “value” of death which is often overlooked is that it puts a period at the end of the long paragraph of one’s life. The race is over. You have crossed the finish line. Suffering ends. What has happened will be history and will stand on its own merits for better or worse. You are now free from having to keep running as fast as you can, and from having to keep fighting demons and dragons. At last, you can rest. Here is where the Eastern religions have influenced me. The sadness is for those left behind who will miss you, but their time will come too. The tragedy comes when one’s life has been cut short or when one’s life path has been cruel and rocky.”

“But what about an afterlife? What about heaven or for that matter hell? Do you believe in an afterlife where we will be united with what you call The Great Spirit?”

“This remains a mystery, but in any event whatever life there is will be so unlike the lives we live now on the planet Earth, that the question is irrelevant. Our advanced telescopes have now identified billions of stars and galaxies, but so far have not seen anything that could be described as heaven. The same for hell though supposedly that is somewhere under the Earth’s surface, and we know that is not possible. The point is, language comes up short, and you can’t take human’s feeble attempt to explain the unexplainable literally. My recommendation is don’t sweat it. What will happen will happen. It is out of your control.”

“Thank you. This is reassuring.”

“And remember, we are not talking just about the planet Earth. The Great Spirit is the creator and sustainer of the universe. If there were a “heaven”, who knows what you would find there?

“There is also something else to keep in mind. The idea of a heaven and a hell is an effort by us humans to make sense out of the world around us, which is full of suffering and pain. Life does not seem fair. The rationale behind the dichotomy of heaven and hell has to do with ultimate justice or I should say, human’s longing for ultimate justice. This goes back to our discussion last week about evil. There are bad people in the world. Many appear to get away literally with murder and never have to pay for it. Others have done terrible things yet seem to have lived happy lives often accumulating lots of wealth. When we humans observe this, many of us are outraged. It is not right. They should have to pay for their evil deeds. The idea of a hell addresses this dilemma. Ok, they may have gotten away with doing terrible things while they were alive, but they will spend eternity burning in hell. Ultimately justice will prevail. Nice idea but wishful thinking.”

“Yeah, serves ‘em right, I say! Too bad it is not true.”

“The other side of the coin are the lives of good and decent people who were dealt very bad hands and lived very difficult and sad lives. I am thinking of those who grew up in dysfunctional families, those living most of their lives in poverty, those with serious mental illness or incurable illnesses, and those who were never able to find a place in the world and never felt loved. The list is long. The troubles and sorrows of everyday people and everyday life are what disturb me the most. The hardest thing to take about living on this planet is that life is not fair, and human suffering is ubiquitous. But that is the planet we live on. The idea of a heaven is that ultimately those who have suffered will be rewarded and will have a place reserved for them.”

“It would be great if it were true. But I think about the Great Spirit. Does the Great Spirit enter the picture for those suffering? Surely the Great Spirit must be there for them. Maybe this eases the pain.”

“That is an important point. Thank you for bringing it up. Yes, for me the Great Spirit is real as it is for others, but sadly not for everyone. We humans reach out to the Great Spirit through prayer and meditation. This is true throughout the world. It is true for all expressions of religion and faith traditions. Try to convince those who have experienced the Great Spirit that it is not real and only a figment of their imagination, and they will ignore you. They know what for them is real, and you can’t convince them otherwise.

“This seems to be especially true for poor people, and for those who have suffered, who are more open to the Great Spirit. I think about the Bible that is at the center of the Christian faith tradition. Jesus, the Holy Man, that Christians believe embodied the Great Spirit, focused His ministry on the poor. You may be surprised that I know so much about your religion, but I have read much of your Bible as well as holy texts from other faith traditions. The Gospel of Matthew comes to mind:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness,

for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the sons of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

I also recall reading in the same gospel that “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!”

To me, a non Christian,  l find these words of  great comfort. Of course, whether there is life after death or a heaven or hell will always remain a mystery. A mystery, that is, until we die and then we will find out.”

“Next week, let’s talk about miracles.”

“You are on.”











The Guru Stories (Chapter 2): Evil

A brief update: while I have not been able to locate an exorcist, I am pleased to report that after five weeks of suffering, Covid appears to have wearied or simply gotten bored with making my life miserable and seems to have moved on to attack some other poor victim. The only downside is that I remain in a state of near total exhaustion, which I hope will pass soon. I am taking it day by day and do not intend to bore you with this again.

But the (fictitious) Guru Stories will continue.


Here is the great news: I have found Akash! Actually, we bumped into each other in the hallway as I was going down to pick up the mail. It turns out the empty apartment that I had knocked on was on a different floor, unit 232 instead of 332 where he lives, so I was able to schedule another meeting, which happened yesterday.

He was as gracious as he was at our first meeting, offering tea and some sumptuous cookies. He suggested we set some ground rules since his schedule is quite busy—no more than one hour and only one subject at a time, and no more than one session a week. I insisted that we work out some financial arrangement, which he said we could discuss at some later time.

I jumped in with my question of the day: how do you explain evil in the world? I was not just thinking of Trump but also of all the terrible things you read about every day in the newspaper.

I noticed a slight grimace as he paused for a moment, took a long sip of tea, and then looked me straight in the eye.

“Mr. Howell, you don’t waste any time, do you? Next to the question of ultimate reality, which as we discussed last week as ‘The Great Spirit,’ which many also call ‘God,’ this is a tough one. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do bad things happen at all? Why would The Great Spirit create a universe with pain and suffering built in? What is that all about?

“Keep in mind the main point I tried to get across last week that there is so much we do not understand and never will understand about our small planet and the universe. Mystery is part of wisdom; and when we think we have it all figured out, we are back to square one. We have to accept that.

“Now since we met, I have done a little research about you.”

“Fabulous,” I replied, “You are reading my blog!”

“I am sorry to disappoint you, but I do not do the internet thing, but I have my sources, which, of course, will remain confidential. But about the nature of evil, I learned that you and your wife, Embry, lost your first child, just before her first birthday due to a heart defect. I also know that the evangelical, fundamentalist Baptist chaplain assigned to you at the hospital told you that it was God’s will and you just had to accept it, a comment which you vehemently disagreed with, and you threatened to throw him out of the room.”

“This is all true,” I responded wondering how he could possibly know this, “but once he got the message, he changed his tune and did an admirable job listening. I even apologized to him before the ordeal was over.”

“Yes, but certainly that experience affected you and Embry and caused you to ask the question, why. Of course, there was a medical explanation, but in terms of the big picture the why question is important, and, frankly, I am glad you brought it up though it is one of the most difficult questions to answer. It is also universal. Most human beings on this planet have had to deal with tragedy, due to no fault of their own. It is part of the human experience.

“Let’s begin with the statement that is found in many religions—especially the Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: that God is all powerful and all good. I am not a Christian or a Muslim or a Jew, but even if I were, I would reject this premise. If you will excuse me, I will speak of ‘The Great Spirit’ rather than ‘God’ as I believe this better suits the discussion. The Great Spirit is not all powerful and all good. Period. If this were the case, the Holocaust would never have happened, millions would have not died under Mao, and the gulags would not have happened in Russia. Putin would not be doing the terrible things he is doing in Ukraine. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. (Ok, I will humor you, Donald Trump never would have been elected President of the United States.) The point is terrible things happen all the time. And these disasters were not all caused by flawed humans. What about natural disasters? Why would an all powerful deity cause floods, fires, and earthquakes hurting innocent people? And while we are at it, what is this covid nightmare all about?”

“These are the reasons I asked the question in the first place.”

“So here is your answer. We know the planet Earth is about 4.5 billion years old and that early forms of life began to appear about 3.5 billion years ago followed by more advanced forms of life through the evolutionary process. We know that dinosaurs and reptiles ruled the planet for over 165 million years before they were wiped out by a huge meteor about 65 million years ago. Then along came mammals and ultimately humans—homo sapiens– which first appeared only about 200,000 years ago.  We are the new kids on the block. Good heavens, we only invented writing about six thousand years ago! We humans are part of the animal kingdom and have many of the characteristics of other animals—self-preservation, conflict with competitors, survival instincts. These characteristics that have  served us well also have a dark side. We fight if we feel threatened or cornered.  That is part of all life on the planet.”

“Yes, but don’t most Christians and for that matter other people of various faiths think that we are fundamentally different from the animal kingdom?”

“Yes, and they are wrong. It is only a matter of degree, not kind. Anyone who has owned a loving dog or cat understands this. And as far as natural disasters go, all that is part of the formation and sustainability of life on this wonderous planet.”

“So, it sounds like your view is akin to the clockmaker theory of Deism. The Great Spirit set it all up with the Big Bang and then has taken a hands-off position, letting what happens happen.”

“Yes, but there is a difference. While The Great Spirit got it all started, in the great scheme of things The Great Spirit is accessible to us humans. We humans have a spiritual side. We are hard wired. We want to understand and know the answers. Holy people in history have had stronger connections with The Great Spirit than most ordinary people; but for all humans, glimpses of the Divine are accessible though sadly rare. But that is just the way it is, so you might as well get used to it. What makes Jesus special in my view is that he was able to connect with The Great Spirit in ways that no other humans have been able to and embodied The Great Spirit.”

“Sounds to me like you might be a closet Christian.”

“Not so fast, I see value in many religions. Besides most Christians churches would throw me out in a heartbeat for my heretical beliefs.”

“But what about evil? You really have never answered that question.”

“First, I have to ask you what you mean by ‘evil’? If you are talking about really bad things happening, that can be explained by the nature of the world—and I suspect—the  universe we live in. Flawed human nature and the forces of nature.  Or are you talking about a separate force in opposition to The Great Spirit? As you know, “the Devil” is viewed by many religions, especially Christianity, as a real force to be reckoned with, an evil opponent of The Great Spirit.”

“I am not sure. Maybe both.”

“Well, while this falls in the category of mystery, I have to grant you this: At times it surely does seem that a force is at work that is powerful and, yes, evil. There are so many examples of good people turning bad—the Germans under Hitler, the Spaniards under Franco, the Italians under Mussolini, the Russians under Stalin, the Chinese during the Cultural Revolution, the Japanese in Manchuria, the Cambodians under Pol Pot, and these are all recent examples. (Should I put your former President Trump and his ardent followers on this list?) From my research I have learned that you and Embry have traveled to all these countries and many more. I am sure you will agree that the people in these countries that you visited whose parents were caught up in massive evil actions in the 1940s and 1950s and 60s today do not seem like evil people. Yet they allowed the unthinkable to occur in their countries and communities as if they were taken over by a mysterious evil force. And I also know that you grew up in the South in the era of Jim Crow. What did you do about that? The nice middle and upper class Nashvillians you admired for years just accepted Jim Crow as a fact of life. And, of course, slavery proceeded that. No people and no country are off the list.”

 “How do you explain good people allowing these evil actions to happen?”

“My answer may surprise you, but we humans are weak as a species though we do have our heroes and saints. I also have to say that yes, the nature of evil seems to transcend our ability to explain it in purely psychological, “natural,” or scientific terms. And if there is a Great Spirit, as I believe there is, there surely appears to be an Evil Spirit also at work, but how or why this happens remains a mystery. Perhaps we can pursue this at another time.”

“I see that our time is up. Thank you, Akash, my Guru friend. Next week I would like you to talk about death.”

“Oh, my goodness! Ok, see you then.”