Saturday, November 18, 2017

On the necessity of our bastards

I have never been a fan of the gay, right-leaning columnist Andrew Sullivan, although I have read individual things he's written and agreed with him. This is one of them. It's a well-written, well-thought out, well-argued and ultimately disturbing examination of what it means to look past your own blinkers to seeing the timber in your own eye. I'm just as guilty, maybe even more so, as anyone else of counting myself on the right side of history (especially when I admit my liberalism is in some ways a distinct counter to William F. Buckley's definition of conservatism as "stand[ing] athwart history, yelling Stop").

Of course, it's possible to read Sullivan's column as his own attempt to place himself on the right side of history, since he made his name in the late 90s as a Clinton scold (having been himself, earlier, a Clinton advocate), and the whole both-siderisms of the 2010s leading to the current imbroglio of accusations, denouncements, Me Toos, apologies (and non-apologies) coming together in the wash to give us such an Interesting Time as the contemporary one. His essay was published the day after the accusation made against Al Franken but was obviously written before that, because he makes no mention of it, and it would have been an interesting spanner to throw in the work.

Be that as it may, even discounting every reason he gives for why he comes to the conclusion that he does--"No party, no cause, no struggle, however worthy, is ever free from evil. No earthly cause is entirely good. And to believe with absolute certainty that you are on 'the right side of history,' or on the right side of a battle between 'good and evil,' is a dangerous and seductive form of idolatry. It flatters yourself. And it will lead you inevitably to lose your moral bearings because soon, you will find yourself doing and justifying things that are evil solely because they advance the cause of the 'good.' These compromises can start as minor and forgivable trade-offs; but they compound over time"--his conclusion is nonetheless correct. Considering yourself on the right side of history is dangerous precisely because it's so seductive, and because, like evil itself, it's the easy way. 

This is why it troubles me. I hold Trump and Roy Moore in utter contempt for their actions and their allies' easy way of denying, attacking, and ignoring their accusers. I am a little more forgiving of Bill Clinton and Al Franken's misbehaviors because both have since owned up and apologized (in Clinton's case, after far too long a period, during which I found lots of reasons why it couldn't have happened; and in Franken's case, immediately). If I look at these cases objectively, am I any different than the worst of Trump's and Moore's attack dogs?

I don't know. That seems too big a question for me to answer, maybe for anyone to answer. There are certainly important differences, and in my mind those differences lend favor to the Democratic perpetrators. But maybe that's what it means to live in Interesting Times, to have events demand responses that are just too big to try to answer then. 

As if in response, Sullivan writes "No party is immune from evil; no tribe has a monopoly of good. If these bipartisan sex-abuse revelations can begin to undermine the tribalism that so poisons our public life, to reveal that beneath the tribes, we are all flawed and human, they may not only be a long-overdue turning point for women. They may be a watershed for all of us." He is right about that. But there is another consideration.

And that's this. A major difference between the Republican and the Democratic responses is that one side denies that the events happened and that the accusers are in it for the fame, for money, or out of pure evil. The other side admits (maybe a bit later than we'd like) that they did happen and that the accusers have told the truth. There have been well-intentioned calls for Franken to prove Democrats are the more responsible party by stepping down from his seat. The rub in that, of course, that there's no demand by the other side that their offending member step down (although there are some who note that Moore should step aside, mostly to avoid controversy tainting the election). 

The thing here is that this is a purity test, a Shibboleth, that only one Party is party to. Democrats and liberals held their candidates to a purity test last year which is partly why we're in the situation we're in. The opposing side, for all its bluster, for all its talk of American and family values, is not going to withdraw itself from power or influence. To whom might Democrats prove they are more responsible? To future historians? To themselves? Because it is not to the other side, and certainly not to anyone who is somehow undecided between these two parties. 

I had a friend who was a realtor and he was my realtor in two house purchases back on the rim. He had a tendency to bend if not break the rules, to go back on promises he had made that weren't written down, and to find all kinds of reasons for the buyer or seller, whichever he was representing, to receive better deals (and inflate his commission). In one instance, on the morning of our signing, he negotiated the buyer to pay upfront costs, and then had the gall to demand an extra few thousand added to the already negotiated cost. He had talked with us about doing this the day before, saying, "If it works, you're ahead. If it doesn't work, you're out nothing." The buyers, who had already sold their previous home and needed the new place, accepted the new negotiation. We looked like bastards. My realtor friend is a bastard. But he was my bastard. He worked on my behalf. Bill Clinton and Al Franken may be a lot of things, but if they are bastards they are our bastards, and if we are going to admit we are on the right side of history--and a lot of things, from abolition to desegregation to women's rights to gay rights to trans~ rights, are unambiguously on the right side of history--then we need to keep our bastards. It is, as Sullivan suggests, a slippery slope, but sometimes the future requires that you slide rather than march into it.  

Sunday, November 12, 2017


It's fitting I write this post now, the weekend we observe Veteran's Day and nearly a week after the incredible wins by members of the transgender community to important local and state offices.

I was driving between patients when I received an email that we had a new admission to hospice. Nothing struck as different until I saw both that she was nearing the active phase of dying (yes, there is such a thing and it is different from the state we are normally in), and that, while a cousin was her Power of Attorney for Health, there was otherwise no family involvement. It's true some people prefer to die alone but everyone should have the option of dying with someone who cares.

I had a conference call and another patient scheduled for the afternoon, but as the other chaplain covering that area was conducting a funeral, I offered to reschedule the patient. The hospital was 90 minutes from my area, so I listened to my call while driving; my other patient was eager to reschedule as she was feeling ill.

Over the course of the call I found the new admission was transgender, probably the reason for lack of family involvement, and was dying from pneumonia and was MRSA positive. This means gowning and gloves both for our protection and other patients. She was still in the ICU when I arrived and was unresponsive until I sat beside her and touched her arm, at which point she jolted awake. She was bony and angular and her clavicle stood out above her hospital gown.

I explained who I was, touching my ID so she could read if she couldn't understand. She motioned for a wipeboard near her. She couldn't speak any longer. She asked if I could speak up. I said of course. I asked if she was afraid and she didn't respond or look my way, so I asked if she'd like to hold my hand. In response she put her large bony hand in my gloved one, which I then covered with my other hand.

That was the only time I was to see her conscious. She drifted off to sleep a few minutes later and I held hands with her until she twitched hers away. A short while later the nurses came to move her to another room, outside the ICU, and she fidgeted several times in what seemed discomfort rather than pain. I made plans with my family fellow chaplain to relieve me at 9.

Imagine then my surprise when a small woman walked into the room room and said hello. She turned out to be a friend of the patient who was called by the cousin. She had driven from work in Stevens Point, about an hour west, to sit with her for the night. I got her up to speed, contacted the rest of my team, and headed home.

The next morning I called her friend, with whom I'd exchanged numbers, and found her friend had lived through the night. But she hadn't regained consciousness and wasn't likely to. I arranged to relieve her at 1. But when I arrived she had been replaced by another friend who had brought with her a local minister. He agreed to provide a memorial for her. I offered to continue to sit with her but they wanted to remain beside her another few hours.

I sat in the hallway and made phone calls and emails. Eventually they left for food and some rest. I sat holding my patient's hand. I had found things about her in the meantime, that she had been dishonorably discharged from the Navy, she had served during Desert Storm, and had prized the jacket she retained. She had been married and divorced twice, and had done something that put her beyond the love of her siblings and children. There would be no sudden appearance by family.

When I sat with her this last time I told her she was surrounded by people who love her enough to be with her. There might be an afterlife and there might not. But there was nothing she could have done to put her beyond the love of what she might join after her death, God, The Eternal, the universe, whatever it might be. She was as worthy of love as anyone.

Her friend and the pastor returned at six and I made ready to go. Before leaving I held her hands again and repeated her worthiness. She squirmed a little, perhaps saying goodbye. I left while they sang to her. A few hours later I received an email that she had died with her friend at her side.

This is why I do what I do.