BY ROBIN MEYERS
Editor’s Note: This speech was given as the keynote address at the Oklahoma Democratic Party’s 2011 Carl Albert Awards Dinner, held May 13 at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.
I want to thank you for the privilege of addressing you at this important and difficult time for Democrats in the state of Oklahoma. I am a long suffering Democrat, but around here what other kind is there? I am also a minister, which really confuses people. Because in Oklahoma it is just assumed that one is either a Christian or one is a Democrat – but sure not both.
And yet the Bible has taught me more about why I am a Democrat than anything else. First, it teaches me the redemptive power of suffering, and second, I counted up the number of verses in the Bible that concern the poor and how we should treat them, and there are over 2,000. Then I counted up the references to homosexuality and there were six or seven [none of them uttered by Jesus, of course]. So I did the math and decided it’s biblical to be a Democrat. I mean, if one is going to take the Bible seriously and be obsessed about something, it’s better to be obsessed with helping the poor than with condemning gay people!
Besides that, I’m wondering how long it will be before the women in this country revolt over not be trusted – trusted with their own bodies and their own decisions. I’m married to a strong woman and have raised a strong daughter, and so of course I’m a Democrat. For their sake I’d rather not return to the good old days.
These are the best of times and the worst of times. The election of Barack Obama was, and will always be, one of the most remarkable achievements in the history of this country. It was glorious to feel excited and hopeful again, and then sobering to see what politics has become – a completely non-functional form of gridlock where the opposition party would rather kill a bill the country needs than allow the other party to get credit for it. And although politics has always been a dirty business, we have entered into a kind of political twilight zone where it is now possible to watch FOX news all day and be fed a steady diet of pure propaganda and outright lies for which there are apparently no consequences.
When I was a kid and told a lie, my mother washed my mouth out with soap. She did not give me my own radio talk show. Just a few weeks ago, during the effort by Republicans to eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood [which prevents far more abortions than it performs], Sen. John Kyl, R-AZ, stated that abortion is 90% of want Planned Parenthood does. After a little fact-checking, it turns out that it is only 3% – or just an 87% mistake, his staff issues perhaps the strangest statement in recent American politics. They excused him, saying that, “he did not mean to be speaking factually about the matter.”
Well, of course not, he’s just a U.S. senator.
I’ve had my differences with Hillary Clinton, but about one thing she was absolutely correct: there really is a vast right-wing conspiracy, and it deals in lies, and yet claims the mantle of family values and Christian morality. But Jesus said let your speech be a simple yes or no for all else comes from evil.
Now that the Oklahoma Democratic Party is in complete exile [biblically speaking], we are strangers in a strange land, one of your most important jobs in the days ahead is to be “fact-checkers.” Nothing is apparently stranger these days than the truth.
And while we’re at it, may I say that having been born in Oklahoma, and having lived here now for 25 years, I feel qualified to say that I continue to be deeply perplexed by something. Why do so many Oklahomans continue to believe that there is something endearing about ignorance? Ignorance is not endearing, it is dangerous.
Over the last 15 years I have watched this city transform itself, oddly enough by a continuously renewed sales tax with which we have collectively remodeled Oklahoma City. It is the elevation in quality of life that has begun to bring a smarter and more sophisticated work force to a place that is much more attractive to live in than it was when it was run by stupid people.
I was in the Greensboro, NC airport a few weeks ago after giving a lecture, and on CNN there was story about Oklahoma City, which they were calling “the miracle city.” A revitalized downtown, art and culture and an NBA franchise, low unemployment by comparison to other cities, and they did it, the commentator said with a special one-cent sales tax which they continue to renew because they see the benefits of public works. A thought: what a strangely Democratic idea!
So please, please, please let’s not mess it up by becoming both the miracle city and a national embarrassment at the same time. Let’s not use the legislative process to fight the culture wars, but to make life better for everyone. Let’s not scapegoat undocumented workers and let’s not pass ridiculous laws to protect us for the non-existent threat of Sharia law – when what you really mean to say is that Muslims are not welcome here. Not only is this mean, but again, dare I say it, it is un-Christian – for how we treat the stranger is the measure of how seriously we take the gospel.
I teach a course at Oklahoma City University called Critical Thinking, and in that course we learn that not all ways of thinking are equally sound. We spend a good deal of time talking in class about what are called logical fallacies – including a whole group of fallacies which fall under the category of Non sequitur, or Latin for “it does not follow.” In formal logic, this is an argument or group of arguments in which the conclusion does not follow from its premises. It’s most common usage is to describe a statement in which the premise and the conclusion are totally unrelated but which is used as if they were.
For example: “If I buy this cell phone [premise], all people will love me” [conclusion]. Well, of course, it does not follow that a cell phone, no matter how cool it may be, will result in everyone suddenly loving me. They might even resent the fact that I thought that becoming popular was as easy as purchasing a product, and may now think of me as a materialist – or a jerk with a new cell phone! Whatever, but the logic is fundamentally flawed.
After living most of my adult life in Oklahoma, I am now convinced that we are not just the reddest of all states, we are also the Capitol of the United States of Non Sequitor. We are the Mecca of non sequitur. We are an unspoiled red-dirt paradise of non sequitur – and we should probably charge admission for those who want to come from far away to study the rare but potent species of “Americanus Non-sequitus” – those who worship fervently at the altar of: it does not follow.
I want to share 10 examples of the non-sequiturs that are destroying the state and the nation. Democrats and Republicans need to know them all.
Let’s begin with my favorite – non sequitur numero uno: It does not follow that all problems in life can be solved by the magic of the marketplace. I believe this is the simplest way to understand the difference between a Republican [who believes it, or pretends to], and a Democratic [who doesn’t]. Now, does this mean Democrats don’t believe in free enterprise or capitalism? Of course not. But despite what we are often accused of – being naïve – we are ones who know something about human nature, who are in fact not being naïve about the capacity of human beings to do evil in pursuit of material wealth.
Who can deny that free enterprise has given western democracies the highest standard of living in the world? But even the most ardent defender of free enterprise knows that without adequate regulations and without an appropriate social safety net, human beings will self-destruct in a downward spiral of anything goes so long as I get mine. The church used to call it greed, one of the seven deadly sins. When was the last time you heard a sermon on greed in your church?
Yet every cycle of American economic history proves the same thing – regulators always have to clean up the mess made after the reign of deregulators. Tax cuts will work only up to a point to stimulate the economy – after which they threaten to destroy it with an unsustainable level of disparity between the haves and the have-nots, not to mention unmanageable deficits.
The economic meltdown of two years ago which brought us to the precipice of a second Great Depression was the result of 30 years of supply side economic thinking that has run its course and has now run the country off the road and into the ditch. It does not follow that more money thrown at the top will trickle down. Most of it, as Ross Perot quipped, “stayed up there.”
After years of living by the mantra of the magic of the marketplace, the premise that the government is always the enemy, and regulations always stifle and never protect, the Republicans put roosters in charge of the henhouse, and everyone on Wall Street knew that nobody was minding the store. The grand larceny that we have all lived through was breathtaking in its scope, and the final insult was our government to subsidize criminal behavior with our tax dollars. “Too big to fail” and free enterprise are mutually exclusive concepts. Now we live in a world in which for the economic elites, profits are privatized and risks are socialized. If they win, they win. If they lose, you lose. That’s called cooperate socialism.
Non sequitur No. 2: It does not follow that the word liberal is evil. For one thing, no two people will define that word the same way, and throughout history, as a description of a governing philosophy it has changed meanings so many times as to be maddening. But it used to be one of our grandest words, and central to this remarkable experiment in liberal democracy, where rights and freedoms were liberally granted, and where students were educated in the liberal arts.
A word that means “open minded, tolerant of divergent opinions, and exceedingly generous,” among other things, has been turned into an all-purpose epithet in Oklahoma and much of the country.
When I first came to Mayflower church, way back in 1985 and Reagan was just beginning his second term, I told the search committee that I wanted to build a liberal Protestant church in Oklahoma City. An older woman pulled me aside after the interview and said, “I wish you wouldn’t use that word . . . you know, the one you used.” What word is that?” I said, pretending not to know. “You know . . . that word . . . the L-word.”
Having been raised to believe that it was a great word, I replied, “What word would you prefer that I use to describe your church?” And she said, without hesitation: “conservative.”
When President Obama speaks of a new relationship between government and the people, which is exactly what this crisis has given us the chance to forge, he speaks of a blend of classical constitutional and modern egalitarian liberalism. Governments and markets both have their place in a decent society, while people in covenant for what we used to call “the common good” have both rights and responsibilities. We should have both all the freedom we can handle and all the government we need. This is classic liberalism – the heart and soul of the Democratic Party.
Non sequitur No. 3: it does not follow that even if you are the world’s only superpower, all problems have a military solution. The United States is in the midst of a crisis with regard to its all-volunteer military force. During the rule of President Bush, the world was divided [as it is in his own Manichean mind], into forces of light and forces of darkness. There is only one way to win the battle over the evil-doers, you kick their evil-doing you-know-what until they suddenly turn into democracy-loving, family-values Republicans. You have to hurt them first, because “no pain, no gain.” Diplomacy and face-to-face conversation with the enemy is considered a form of capitulation and weakness.
Whenever Democrats are reluctant to use military force except as a last resort, they are always being charged with being weak or guilty of appeasement. But most of the neo-cons who ran the State Department and the Pentagon in the run up to our disastrous war in Iraq and our never-ending and ultimately futile war in Afghanistan are what veterans call “chicken hawks” [men who have never seen combat and therefore do not have first-hand experience with the simple truth that war is hell], but who knew how to talk tough and make threats to send other people’s sons and daughters off to die.
As you know, war is outsourced now like everything else, and the coffins bearing our dead soldiers come home in the dead of night so that Americans will do the patriotic thing and keep on shopping, oblivious to the damage being done to countless families, both now and in years to come. In Oklahoma we place soldiers on a pedestal and refer to them as heroic warriors, but we are not nearly as careful about defining and defending a mission worthy of the ultimate sacrifice they are being asked to make. Those of us who opposed the war in Iraq from before it started were accused of not supporting our troops, but nothing could be further from the truth. It does not follow that opposing a war means opposing the troops [which is what we call in the logic business a false dichotomy].
In fact, it can mean exactly the opposite. All of us who lived through Vietnam know this bitter lesson. Blind acceptance of wars which should never have been fought in the first place costs us the precious and irreplaceable lives of our sons and daughters. You can support the troops by wanting to bring them home as soon as possible.
Non sequitur No. 4: it does not follow that talking about the value of education all the time will, by itself, lift Oklahoma out of the educational basement of the United States. If the Democrats are looking for an issue to put at the top of their political agenda, it should be this one. We have among the lowest paid teachers in the land, even as recent studies show that good teachers, and especially the occasional great teacher, makes more of a difference in the educational experience of a child than anything else.
One in four Oklahoma children now live in poverty [is that the much-heralded “Oklahoma spirit”?], and our dropout rate is shameful. We can either invest in our children now, or pay to lock them up later. And parents must do their jobs too, since I’ve witnessed in my lifetime some of the worst parenting on the planet. Forty percent of children born in Oklahoma last year were born out of wedlock, and 90,000 are being raised by grandparents. It does not follow that if you say nice things about children being the future, or gush warm and fuzzy sentiments about how cute they are that you have actually done anything to make their future better. If Democrats are looking for a good campaign slogan for the years ahead may I suggest this: building a world fit for children.
Between you and me, I think Democrats and progressives should challenge the Constitutionality of the ad valorem tax funding of public schools in the state, arguing that every child should receive an equal share of the pie, whether they live in Edmond or Gotebo – since the purpose of “common” education is to treat all children the same. The move to equalize all funding of public school should be called One Child, One Dollar, and if we must reduce administrative pay and shrink the bureaucracy, so be it – the kids should come first. And no school can call itself a school which doesn’t have an art teacher, and a music teacher, and a drama teacher, and a full range of offering in the arts. We are not just trying to raise workers in Oklahoma. We’re trying to raise human beings!
Non sequitur No. 5: it does not follow that single-payer national health care is socialized medicine. And so what if it is? Doesn’t a single sick human being also fall under the category, “too big to fail?” During the summer of our discontent over health insurance reform, people on Medicare [a single-payer national health insurance plan] actually condemned socialized medicine while demanding that the government not touch their government run health care!
We are told continually that we have the best health care system in the world, but fewer and fewer of us can access it, or afford it. What’s more, we are the only western industrialized nation left on earth that exposes all its citizens to personal bankruptcy because of illness and disease. It does not matter how carefully you have provided for your family, or how much you have saved. One serious illness requiring a long hospital stay can wipe out everything you have. Remember when Republicans were trying to scare people by talking about government “death panels.” Those are a present reality. Health Care is denied every day to maximize profits that results in the deaths of thousands of Americans. Forty-five thousand die every year because they have no insurance at all.
It does not follow that if you say again and again that you are pro-life, but allow a medical system as broken as ours to continue, where children die from an abscessed tooth, you are following the example of Jesus [who healed for free, by the way, which may have been one reason he was such a threat to the establishment]. Martin Luther King Jr. did not just have a dream about integration. He talked a lot about economic justice, and said once that “there is no greater injustice than inequality in health care.” And remember, all American have ever wanted is exactly what their elected representatives enjoy – single payer comprehensive health insurance.
Non sequitur No. 6: it does not follow that if you hate homosexuals they will disappear from the planet. Thanks to the ranting of [state] Rep. Sally Kern [R-Oklahoma City], who called homosexuals the biggest threat facing America, most dangerous than terrorists and radical Islam, and who has identified the mysterious “gay agenda” [which like the threat to marriage that same sex marriage constitutes no one can find or describe], we continue to send people to the Oklahoma House of Representatives who do really, really embarrassing and foolish things.
Dear Democrats and Progressives. Do not, I repeat, do NOT allow Republicans to use homosexuality as a wedge issue any longer. We do not all have to be of one mind about this issue to know that discrimination is wrong, it is un-American, and it appeals to the Karl Rove school of politics – the disastrous policy of divide and conquer. Our gay and lesbian sisters and brothers are not freaks of nature; they are a constituent of creation. They are our sons and daughters, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, brothers and sisters, and nothing could be more un-Christian than to use them as scapegoats for personal or political gain.
Recently, I heard a member of the Christian Right give the same tired argument against the full inclusion of gays into the life of our nation or the full sacramental hospitality of the church. He said, “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” Whereupon I stood to ask a follow-up question: I said, “So who made Steve?”
Non sequitur No. 7: it does not follow that if you lock up more people and throw away the key we will become a safer, more law-abiding nation. Cognitive Linguist George Lakoff should be required reading for all Democrats, because he has properly identified the ways in which Republicans and Democrats see the world differently, and therefore hardly understand one another, much less know how to talk to one another.
Republican ideology is built on what Lakoff calls Strict Father Model. He is the moral leader of the family and is to be obeyed. The family needs a strict father because there is evil in the world from which he must protect the family. The family needs a strict father because it’s a dog-eat-dog world and he must win the battle every day to support the family. You need a strict father because kids are born bad, and will only know right from wrong if they are punished strictly and painfully when they do wrong – that will give them an incentive to do right and avoid punishment the next time.
That is how children build internal discipline, which is needed to do right and not wrong. With that discipline, they can enter the market and become self-reliant and prosperous. As mature, self-disciplined self-reliant adults, they can go off on their own, start their own families, and become strict fathers in their own households, without any meddling by their own fathers or anyone else – including the government. This is why conservatism is concerned with authority, with obedience, with discipline, and with punishment.
Oklahoma fails its young people on so many levels, and then gets tough with them when they get into trouble. Punishment, incarceration, and surveillance represent the new face of governance. Oklahoma is fourth in the per capita lockup of men, first in the nation for locking up women. We are second only to Nebraska in the number of children in custody.
Democrats and progressives, on the other hand, are described by Lakoff as embracing the Nurturant Parent Model. We see life as the business of the nurturing children by two parents, with equal responsibilities. They are to be nurtured so that they can grow up to nurture others. This involves learning to be empathic, responsible for oneself and others, and having the strength to carry out those responsibilities. This is not indulgence, which is to think only of oneself, but the opposite. Discipline is positive, not punitive, and restitution is preferred over punishment. If you do something wrong, do something right to make up for it. The job of parents is protection and empowerment of their children, and a dedication to community life, where people care about and take care of each other.
I don’t need to tell you what you already know: the Strict Father model has dominated American politics since Ronald Reagan, and has been helped along by draconian laws that fill private prisons, which need clients just like a hotel needs customers, we have become the incarceration capitol of the world. That system has failed, and we have the opportunity to say it loud and clear. Not every kid needs a good whipping. Some of them just need a good mentor.
Non sequitur No. 8: it does not follow that if we had more guns we would be safer. The National Rifle Association has succeeded in perpetrating one of the grandest fallacies in American life: an armed citizenry makes a safe society. By quoting only the second half of the Second Amendment, and forgetting that the premise, if you will, was predicated upon the need for a well-regulated militia before we had civilian law enforcement and standing armies, we have replaced the worship of God with the worship of Guns.
Now the police are out-gunned by the criminals, and statistics prove repeatedly that if you have a gun in your home, you are 42 times more likely to use it against someone you love, or to kill yourself, or to have it taken from you in a break-in and used against you than you are to use it successfully to defend yourself – all that “make my day” rhetoric not-withstanding.
Republicans allowed the assault weapons ban to expire, and yet even after the shooting in Tucson we couldn’t even get a ban on high-capacity bullet clips which allow for mass carnage and are easier to get than a driver’s license. Democrats also cower before the NRA. I’m not a hunter but this much I know: nobody needs a machine gun to go hunting, and the most impeccable logic offered in this matter came from Sarah Brady, who asked, “If more guns would make us safer, wouldn’t America already be the safest nation on earth?”
Non sequitur No. 9: it does not follow that capital punishment deters crime, provides closure for victim’s families, and costs less that life in prison without parole. These are the top three reasons given why the state has argued that it should kill people for killing people. The only problem is that not one reputable study exists to prove that any of these things are true. To the contrary, states with capital punishment have higher crime rates, victim’s families report little in the way of closure after they witness the execution of the perpetrator, and it is cheaper to keep someone in prison until they die that to execute a person on death row.
I do believe there are some people who are so dangerous that they must be kept in prison and never released. But I believe that the state loses its moral authority when it kills another human being as a form of punishment. The world is not made right. The scales of justice are not balanced. There is simply one more family with an empty chair at the table.
As for quoting “an eye for an eye,” that passage is not only notoriously misunderstood, but it has a companion passage in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus of Nazareth directly cites it for reinterpretation, saying, “Your have heard it said an eye for an eye, but I say to you, turn the other cheek” . . . do not return evil for evil . . . the cycle of violence must be broken.
Finally, my favorite non sequitur of all, which is why I have saved it until the end of this Decalogue [the tenth non-sequitur]: it does not follow that if more people would just accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior, the world would necessarily be a safer, happier, healthier place.
This must sound strange, coming from a minister, but Christianity, as it is commonly understood today is a set of beliefs meant to get you into heaven rather than a way of life committed to peace and justice in this world. Lots of people are trying to get us into heaven, but precious few are trying to bring heaven down to earth. Christianity has all but abandoned this world in favor of reserving spots in another one, and nothing could be stranger to Jesus.
Since it is a belief system and not a way of life that imitates the radical nonconformity and compassion of Jesus, we are not only not made better by conventional Christianity, but often we are made worse. Often our view of God is simply a projection of our own desire for vengeance and control. Instead of unconditional love, we preach and teach a God that sanctifies violence as the ultimate Strict Father.
Oh we do love Jesus around here. But if he came back we’d crucify him again – too soft on crime; too tolerate of diversity; too committed to helping the poor instead of blaming them for being poor.
In my 25 years as a minister, I have come to believe that fundamentalism is the enemy of the future, and Oklahoma is saturated by Christian fundamentalists. It’s my way or the highway. It’s my god or no god. It’s turn or burn, baby. And that means that I am chosen and everyone else is an infidel. That way of thinking has fueled the darkest chapters in human history, from the crusades to the inquisition, to the Holocaust.
In Oklahoma we have allowed the Republican Party to claim that it’s the party of Jesus. Shame on us. Ours is the party of inclusion and compassion, of justice and reform, of multiculturalism and diversity. Ours is the party that gave the world the eight-hour workday and the weekend, Social Security, the minimum wage, the G.I. Bill of Rights, the Marshall Plan, NATO, the Peace Corps, Medicare and Medicaid, Operation Head Start, Women’s Rights, Civil Rights, and now Gay Rights, clean water and clean air, the first man on the moon, work place safety and compensation, unemployment compensation, rural electrification, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the federal student loan program, the Securities and Exchange Act, family and medical leave, the school lunch program, the motor voter act, more police on the streets, and the last balanced budget at the end of a presidential term!
So don’t tell me that you can either to be a Democrat or a Christian but you can’t be both. I shudder to think of this country without the accomplishments of the Democratic Party.
So just remember this: we don’t ever have to agree on everything. But we call all agree on this: life is too short to live by illusions and our country is too precious to be governed by idiots. Our kids matter too much to give them anything less than the best we can give them. Our faith is too important to be left to charlatans, and people are more important than corporations. In fact, despite the recent disastrous Supreme Court ruling, corporations are not actually people, and therefore do not actually have first amendment rights.
Guess what, Oklahoma, you can believe in God and in evolution. You can support soldiers but question wars. You can be kind and gentle and patient and forgiving – for that should be the true Oklahoma spirit – or you can just be mean.
If the odds seem long, and the road seems steep, just remember that as the minority, we are in good company. The great cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead said once: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
And don’t forget – don’t ever forget – what we accomplished in the last election. Standing in line to vote early on that historic day in early November 2008, I met an elderly black woman who had her eyes on the prize. She said to me, “Robin, Rosa Parks sat down so that Martin Luther King Jr. could walk. Martin walked so that Obama could run. Obama ran so that our children could fly.”
God bless you all . . . and God bless the United States of America!
– Dr. Robin R. Meyers is senior minister of Mayflower UCC Church in Oklahoma City and professor of rhetoric in the philosophy department at Oklahoman City University. He is the author of six books, most recently, Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.