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Verizon and Corporate Censorship

Revised September 28, 6:34 pm

Blogger Art Brodsky recaps the de-regulation history of the Federal Communications Commission. These FCC actions result in the current climate of corporate discretion to determine which groups are allowed access to certain media and what messages will be carried.

Verizon’s reversal of its ban on text messages by the prochoice organization NARAL is yet another incident in what will be an on-going test of the limits of free speech in a deregulated communications environment. It’s to Verizon’s credit that the corporation changed its ruling. But it’s a reminder to all that free speech is in peril when corporate values determine which messages can be sent.Corporations protect their self-interest and when controversial social messages put them at risk, as they perceive it, they backpedal. And if they don’t want to listen there is no appeal. We’re left with the goodwill and sensibilities of enlightened executive decision makers.
In fact, I believe audiences are more sophisticated than some corporate leaders assume. We distinguish between the message and the messenger. We know messages sent on a common carrier don’t reflect the corporate stance of the company. But the flip side of this conundrum is that opposing groups can threaten economic boycotts that bring bad publicity at least and economic harm at worst. My hunch is that sometimes the hassle doesn’t seem worth it and corporations are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
But, this discomfort aside, it’s essential to protect free speech. I think it’s unfortunate that deregulation has left us at the mercy of corporate policies. This puts on everyone the responsibility to be an advocate for free speech. It means inconsistent policies with no common foundation. And we’re at a disadvantage because we don’t have the resources to engage the challenges. We must rally public opinion and sometimes that works and sometimes not. So, we’re left with a diminished conversation and a corporation-ruled communications infrastructure that is most concerned about self protection and only secondarily concerned about our right to speak.

SCHIP, Sojourners & Bush

A letter about a meeting between President Bush and several religious leaders in Austin shortly after his election is featured on SOJOnet, the email newsletter of Sojourners. It’s a revealing account of the President’s desire early on to find ways to combat poverty through faith-based efforts. The threatened veto of SCHIP seems a 180-degree turn, as Jim Wallis of Sojourners points out. The Sojourners blog is here but it doesn’t contain the email letter. That is a subscription worth getting.

The Washington Post summarizes Senate reaction to the veto threat including strong comments against it by leading Republican Senators such as Sen. Orrin Hatch.

Reacting to the President’s claim the bill would subsidize families earning as much as $83,000, the Post reports on Hatch’s reaction as follows:

Hatch, who helped negotiate the compromise, said it is flatly untrue that the bill would cover children in households with incomes of as much as $83,000. A recent Urban Institute analysis found that 70 percent of the children who would gain or retain coverage under the Senate bill, which resembles the compromise, are in households with incomes below twice the poverty level, or $41,300 for a family of four.

“We’re talking about kids who basically don’t have coverage,” Hatch said. “I think the president’s had some pretty bad advice on this.”

Jena and Bloggers

The Jena protest grew straight from cyberspace, according to blogger Bob Morris at Politics in the Zeros. Morris says it was Black activists who picked up this story of injustice and carried it into national consciousness while white bloggers missed it. Probably the first, real world protest birthed on the Internet, he says.

Morris links to blogs that led the way. It’s worth checking out.

New Religious Media

An email from David Frumm, formerly religion reporter for the Detroit Free Press, says he’s leaving the Free Press to operate a new website, read the spirit. com, that will offer “creative ideas that have never been been attempted in religious media.”

Beyond this promise, what’s interesting is the assessment of this veteran reporter that we’re at the dawn of an opportune time for religious voices.

Frumm says the challenge is to find a voice. It’s no longer enough to write about religion, it’s necessary to tell stories that give voice. He also says there is tremendous untapped energy in traditional denominations. In a nod to the historical story of Luther’s posting 95 theses on a church door, Frumm’s creative colleagues posted their theses in the form of ten 21st century principles for religious publishing. They’re an interesting set of propositions.

I’ve been contending in this blog for quite a long time that there is a reserve of energy in the oldline, so-called mainline denominations that, if focused and freed, could bring renewal to the church and probably the society. Frumm doesn’t make quite that broad a claim, but the move into digital media coupled with the promise of doing new things in religious publishing moves in the right direction.

The great challenge I see for the mainline, at least at the level in which I work, is to break out of the traditional constraints and constrictions and experiment with new forms of mission and ministry. On the face of it this would seem to be obvious and easy to do. But it isn’t. It involves cultural change, and that kind of change comes only with the pang of birth, or the pain of urgent, emergent threat.

The threat is at hand. The challenge before the mainline is whether they can enter into the 21st century and bear the risk that comes with efforts to breakthrough the past and enter into whatever the future holds. And it means cultural change that will be hard to accept, I believe. It will require freeing up clergy and congregations to innovate, experiment and risk failure. But this is the only road to renewal.

Perhaps most important is finding a voice in the language of the street today. I don’t mean the common language so debased it’s become devoid of passion. The “f” word and the profane have lost all meaning with overuse. I mean language that communicates about sacredness in a society that knows only a secular vocabulary. It’s about finding a voice.

As Frumm notes, it took seventy years following the first use of movable type before Luther found his voice. Digital media are significantly different. They compress time and they are asymmetric. They’re everywhere and becoming available to almost everyone. How do you find a voice in the cacophony? There’s the challenge. Breaking through the clutter and using words that communicate.

That Frumm and his colleagues are moving in this direction in digital media is yet another example of the change that is already afoot. More power to them.

Free Access to New York Times

The New York Times has announced it will stop charging for access to its site at midnight Monday. What’s interesting about this is the Times’ claim it will generate more revenue from ad sales than from online subscriptions.

But even more revealing is the power of search engines to drive users to the site. The Times says users coming by way of search engines did not ante up fees for information. But they represent an opportunity and the hope is they will stay longer if the site is free. This will generate more page views which, in turn, will result in more revenue from advertising.

The Times joins CNN and the BBC providing free access after having attempted paid subscriptions for premium information. If it holds, this bodes well for access to information on the net.

Recently, I was searching for information on organizational management and discovered one article I wanted was behind the pay wall of three or four sites. I didn’t pay. I found what I needed from free sites and probably won’t go back to the fee-based sites. Fees are bad for Internet information providers in a couple of ways. Users who don’t have a critical need for information won’t pay for it, and those sites that charge are likely to find that fees turn people off. They don’t encourage subscriptions, they encourage defection.

The Internet, as the Cluetrain Manifesto made clear many years ago, runs on smart markets. They are formed and reacting to what corporations are doing. In this case, the Times has listened. This move will be watched to see of this free access delivers new revenue.

Citizenship or Religion: Which comes first?

When Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,” what exactly did he mean? Is it possible?
That’s the subject of a discussion on the blog of Stanley Fish in the New York Times, and it’s an on-going discussion in religious communities worldwide. But it’s especially vigorous in the United States. Dale at Theoblogical makes it a foundation of his theology and often cites theologian Stanley Hauerwas who states unequivocally that Christians are “citizens” of the kingdom of God first. This is because history is not human history, it is God’s history and humans are incorporated into God’s history, not the creators of it.

Fish’s entry point is a discussion about liberalism and secularism. He says they are the same and his rationale is that both require religion to take second place in the public arena if a society is to be tolerant, inclusive and democratic. But, he argues, committed religionists must believe the state should be shaped by their religious views and values. Religion is by definition the way we believe the world ought to be, and the way we believe we should act to shape it. Thus, we are presented with the dilemma of conflicting loyalties if we don’t respect the primacy of religion.

And, compromising on religious principles undermines their life-shaping importance. Thus, we live with a dilemma that cannot be resolved unless one side wins out over the other. Fish summarizes the argument by saying we find our way as we go along, compromising and struggling because that’s the only way we can get through.

This gets even more nettlesome when we talk about the primacy of community or individuals. The elevation of the individual to a privileged place in U.S. society has resulted in a cultural and philosophical shift away from community. Even our suburban lifestyles reflect the atomization of nuclear families and the demise of communities. Who in the suburbs sits on the front porch and talks with neighbors as they stroll by on the sidewalk returning from the corner grocery? The very thought is unreal, isn’t it? We sit on decks in back yards that separate us from neighbors and give us privacy. The fronts of suburban homes are for entering and closing out the world, not inviting it in.

All of this leads me to wonder if congregations can be communities that offer inclusivity and affirmation while also reinforcing religious values. If so, how does that community shape the world? If not, why do they exist?

I’ve been mulling this over because it’s clear to me that if the health of the people of the world is to improve and a measure of the suffering ended, it will require partnerships between governments, religious organizations, corporations, foundations and others. No one group can do it alone.

But, if we draw aside into our enclaves and battle with each other over different values we weaken our capacity for change. And if we claim that government’s role is limited while individuals are primary, we make a strong claim about community.

Of course we compromise. But some of us compromise on some issues that others cannot abide. And the struggle continues. As Fish, I don’t have a good answer for this dilemma. I suppose we must agree to disagree. compromise where we can, and holding fast where we can’t. We’ve not seen good examples of this in recent years among some religious leaders who won’t or can’t compromise.

But I do know that the challenges we face globally require us to see others as neighbors in a global community. And they require us to recognize that our private enclaves are not immune to the infections, contagions and sufferings experienced by far too many of us in the human community. West Nile has come to suburban Nashville, for example. Like it or not, we are connected. And that reality is a call to action.

Jesus also said to heal the sick, relieve the suffering, comfort the grieving and free the oppressed. How to do this at scale is the question. It may be the work of Caesar and the religious community. If we can agree, we might make a difference. If not, we may as well sit on the deck and watch the world pass us by.

Visit Reflecting…

I’ve started a blog that contains reflections on small things, those things that make life wondrous, mysterious and beautiful, and that are not quite appropriate here on Perspectives. For example, today we witnessed the emergence of a Black Swallowtail butterfly that we’ve been nurturing for the past several weeks. It was a sight to behold.We watched six caterpillars go into the chrysalis stage yesterday, last night and today. If all goes well in a couple of weeks they will emerge with the same quiet but spectacular beauty.No sooner had our beautiful swallowtail had lifted off  than an egg-bearing female landed on the parsley and deposited several eggs. The cycle of life continues.At last count we’ve got forty caterpillars in various stages of development. To see our latest addition to the world, check out the photos on Reflecting.

Do You Have A Life List?

Do you have a life list? Earl, of television’s My Name is Earl, has a list. So does Ellen DeGeneres and Beyonce, and apparently millions of others as well. According to an article in the NY Times this morning, life lists are becoming the tool busy people are using to give order to their lives and move toward goals they might not otherwise accomplish.

The website asks visitors to “Discover what’s important, make it happen, share your progress. Find your 43 things..” It offers to help you complete the task. Given the demands on our time, the stresses that most of us feel, and the tendency of a lot of U.S. citizens to be workaholics, making a list of the important things we’d like to do before we die is probably a good idea.

Making a list is a variation on an older method I’ve used, first as a skeptic because I’m not much into visualization exercises, but later with appreciation. The list not only brings focus, it raises to consciousness important thoughts, wishes and desires that get buried in the mix of our everyday activities.

I was out of a job, facing the prospect of no reliable income and needing to move quickly to set a new direction. I sought out a career counseling service that specialized in developing career plans and one step was to collect articles of interest. We were also required to interview people in fields that attracted us, the idea being that these efforts would identify subjects we had passion for, and it was good research for skills needed in the marketplace. It also made it possible to network with people. However, the most unpalatable task for me was the requirement to visualize an enjoyable project or activity we’d like to do in the next five years and write about it. But this became the most valuable exercise of all.

I think it was unpalatable because it seemed a bit “airy fairy.” I was without a steady job, I didn’t have time to dream. I needed practical, concrete steps to get myself employed. But, the visualizing turned out to be a practical, concrete foundation for action, much to my surprise. I visualized sitting in a room overlooking Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and writing. I also visualized producing a documentary on street children in Brazil. I had no clue about how to make these things happen, and truth to tell, didn’t even know where the image about writing In Addis came from. It was pure daydream. But I had heard about ancient stone churches in northern Ethiopia carved from rock deep in the ground, and I had filed that interest way down in my subconscious where it lay undisturbed for many years.

What emerged was my desire to produce documentaries with an interest in people in the developing world. Because I had been doing film, video and photography, plus writing, this wasn’t new. But it seemed highly unlikely to me at this low time in my life, when I needed to get on the stick and support a family, that producing documentaries in Ethiopia and Brazil would put food on the table. Never the less, I began to make contacts and met a few people who shared this interest. Over the course of the next several months, some of them pretty bleak and discouraging, these contacts led to others and I found supporters who were willing to help find funds for a documentary on the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Later, I met with some mothers from Brazil visiting New York and heard their stories about street children being murdered by vigilantes. They wanted the story told, but had no money and no prospects. Neither did I.

So I filed that away and set about putting together the documentary on Ethiopia. The funding developed and we were in production for nearly two years. I found myself sitting in an apartment overlooking Addis writing a treatment, and later a script. The daydream became a reality. (Actually, because the government of Ethiopia was a cruel, tightly controlled Marxist machine, working in Ethiopia was a nightmare but that misses the point).

As this was wrapping up I received a call to talk with a church group interested in telling the story of seven street boys who were massacred in a “safe house” in a suburb of Sao Paulo. It was a horrible story. A nighwatchman hired to protect the kids was bribed into letting gunmen enter a social service center that gave the kids a safe room to sleep in and they were murdered in their sleep.

We worked out a research trip and I went to Brazil, stayed with the street workers and kids for two weeks and began to get a handle on how to approach a documentary on the tragedy of these children. Funding was arranged and within a few months I returned and produced the documentary.

I think the value of the list, or visualization, is to bring focus and specificity to inner yearnings that get submerged in the rush of daily living. If we draw aside and let these inner yearnings rise to the surface they become important and more attainable. I suspect they must be realistic. I had more contacts who shared my interests than I recognized in my depressed, panicked state, so my submerged documentary ideas were more attainable than I thought. Visualizing had made them more than mere figments of imagination. Research gave me necessary background. Networking made the contacts required. It’s an interesting rode to empowerment and fulfillment.

So, airy fairy or not, I suspect list making is a good thing. I’m stopping this essay now. I think I need to start making a list.

Out Of Body–We are More Than We Can Understand

“Don’t believe everything you hear and only half of what you see.” Those lyrics from a country song in another era ring true to the the out of body experiments reported yesterday.

Scientists successfully induced out of body experiences in which people responded to touch one part of the body as if it were applied to another area which they were seeing through 3D goggles. This induced state of consciousness mirrors reports of out of body experiences by people who have gone through traumatic episodes, according to the scientists conducting the experiments.

What intrigues me is the assessment of one scientist about reality and our perception of it. The experiences “call into question the axiom that everything you are is anchored in your body,” said Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, of the U.C. San Diego Center for Brain and Cognition.

But if we are not anchored in our physical bodies and our perceptions can be altered to such a degree through relatively simple optical illusions, then our conscious ordering of “reality” is certainly open to considerable question. We can’t believe everything we hear, only half of what we see, and who knows how much of what we feel. How many times have I heard, “perception is reality,” to explain away a dubious act otherwise open to question. Well, maybe perception isn’t reality. Or maybe reality isn’t limited to what we can see, hear, feel or think. Or maybe the Matrix is all there is after all. But, how can we ever know…for sure?

I know some will draw deep theological meaning from these experiments and maybe that’s important. But this morning it’s not where I want to go with these reports. So, I’m refraining from heading down that path and just contemplating what might be, or not.

Uninsured Children

Every 47 seconds a child is born in the United States uninsured, according to the Children’s Defense Fund. At this moment nine million children are not covered by Medicaid or the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. Most live in families with two working parents. It’s a national disgrace that 11.6% of all children in the United States are not provided adequate health care. One of the richest nations in the world cannot find the resources to care for its children but can manage to pump $200 million a day into war, at a rate of $100,000 per minute.

Having lost the debate on SCHIP renewal and expansion in the legislature, the current administration is putting into place requirements that make it difficult if not impossible for states to meet in order to qualify for funds. This will limit the availability of funds to cover uninsured children. A good backgrounder on the issue is available at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities website. Information is also available at the Urban Institute website.

From the perspective of Christian teaching, this is a fundamental issue for several reasons but two stand out. First is the clear statement by Jesus in Matthew 18:5 that when we receive and care for children it is as if we are receiving and caring for Jesus himself. But there is a second important teaching that cuts through all the Christian sacred texts and that is the call to serve. The Christian gospels carry a steady call to live a life of diakonia, or service. Jesus’ teaching about receiving children is related to protecting the innocent and serving their needs. I don’t see any exceptions in this teaching–no small print that says you care only for those whose family income is at the poverty line and not those parents in a family of four who earn 200 per cent above poverty level.

There’s just this simple statement: Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

Here are some ways to take action:

Children’s Defense Fund

General Board of Church and Society of The United Methodist Church