Judgement and Grace in a Rubber Stamp

It’s difficult to comprehend all the political jousting about immigration policy. And even something as simple as people yearning to breathe free seems to be smothered in sound and fury. Sometimes it helps to hear a story from someone you can relate to…here is one by Rich Little.

I was detained by immigration at Miami airport. I was returning from a mission trip to Jamaica leading a group of 18 Harding University students. I had applied for my green card several months earlier and was unable to leave the States. If I left while my application was being processed (which took one year) my application would be canceled. I had to apply for a special exception to this rule called “advanced parole” (yes, the same word used for prisoners and detainees).

After expediting my advanced parole application with the help of U.S. Senator Hutchinson whose son attended Harding I felt confident in my ability to re-enter the US. 18 Harding students and Heather waited in the U.S. Citizens line while I lined up with the Foreign Nationals. I handed my Australian passport and advanced parole papers to the immigration officer. He looked at the papers and scanned my passport. He then reached under his desk and pushed a button. He took my passport and papers and placed them in a sealed envelope. I asked him if there was a problem. He said I needed to speak to a supervisor.

The supervisor arrived and escorted me to a separate room. He told me to take a seat. I was panicked because we had a one hour connection and I was the leader of a group of 18 students who had just been detained. I had no way to contact Heather. A man sat beside me. I asked him where he was from. “Antigua,” he said. He told me he didn’t have the correct visa. An immigration officer called him to the desk and told him he would have to return to Antigua unless he purchased a visa immediately. The visa cost $80. He didn’t have the money. I approached him and told him I had the money to give him. He refused it. I told him if he didn’t take it he would be returning to Antigua. He knew. He didn’t like the thought of someone else giving him money. He was escorted out and placed on a plane back to Antigua.

I was then called to the desk. 45 minutes had passed. I was hoping Heather and the group had gone to their gate and would leave without me. Rescheduling 19 people to fly together on the next flight would be virtually impossible. The immigration officer opened my envelope and asked me why I was entering the US. I wanted to say, “Because I live here!

Because U.S. Senator Hutchinson expedited my parole. Because all my papers are in order and I shouldn’t be in here!” I didn’t. I said, gently and calmly, afraid of being escorted out and placed on a plane to somewhere, “My wife and I live in Arkansas and I’m returning to my home and work.” He said, and I quote, “We don’t have to let you in, you know. But by the grace of the INS you have been allowed to re-enter.”

He took a rubber stamp and stamped my papers and passport and handed them back to me. I can’t tell you the feelings of loneliness that comes over someone in that situation. Alone. Unable to contact anyone. Unsure of the outcome. Feeling like a criminal. And my papers were in order! I ran through the airport and to the front of the security line to enter my departing terminal.

I discovered our flight had been delayed by thirty minutes. I approached the gate and everyone asked what happened. I simply said “paper work.” I boarded the plane and slumped down into my seat. I look out my window and saw a plane next to me wondering if my Antiguan friend was on there on his way back.

I am an immigrant. I am a wealthy, white, Christian, immigrant from a “safe” country who had access to power. Because I am a wealthy, white, Christian immigrant from a safe country who had access to power I can only begin to imagine how a non-Christian refugee family from Syria must feel when they learn that their application has now been denied.

I can only begin to imagine how the Iraqi businessman green card holder feels now sitting in a hotel room in Berlin unable to come home to the States to be with his children and wife.

There are many great evils in the world. Confronting these evils while crushing humanity in the wheels of despair has never achieved the greatness my new country has modeled. It breeds a harmful and inhumane result, the scars of which are born on the thousands and millions of innocents whose lives are damaged as a result.

There must be ways to confront evil while continuing to honor and protect and elevate the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.


Line ‘Em All Up

It’s a unique thing we do with our American Presidents. We roll out the red carpet and play Hail to the Chief while mocking them around the coffee pot and on Saturday Night Live. 

No other country does this so well. We glorify on the one hand and belittle on the other.

It gives our Presidents a cartoonish caricature…a surreal mix of reality and fantasy, the unreachable quality of royalty mixed with that of a sceptre-wielding buffoon.

But we want our President to be, well, Presidential, in the vein of, ask not what your country can do for you and fireside chats, however, twitter seems clipped and brassy, perhaps 140 characters shallow?

Hubris seems to be an occupational hazard of the presidency. If you were lacking in self-awareness when you took office, it’s clear that by the time you say goodbye to your staff that you are now more aware that the world revolves around you. It is, to be fair, a challenge to remain humble while listening to Hail to the Chief every time you enter a room.

Which gives me great pause to consider that President Trump, (if I had written that a year earlier, I would have typed LOL after Trump), enters the White House with infinitely more hubris than any predecessor, even without hearing as yet, Hail to the Chief.

But there are occasionally Presidents who seem earthy, more human. Lincoln, FDR, Truman, and now, for me, Obama. I haven’t always agreed with him, and I’ve even described him as arrogant at times, but I understand his humanity more deeply than Reagan, Carter, Johnson, Nixon…

Speaking of Nixon, I’m reminded of a song by James Taylor titled, “Line ‘em Up”, about the moment he left office, and about the hypocrisy and denial in the midst of hubris in that moment of goodbye:

I remember Richard Nixon back in ’74 and the final scene at the White House door

and the staff lined up to say good-bye, tiny tear in his shifty little eye,

he said, “nobody knows me, nobody understands.

These little people were good to me, oh I’m gonna shake some hands.”

Somebody line ’em up, line ’em all up, line ’em up, line ’em all up.

Eight years of Obama have gone by. Where have they gone? This morning I watched a clip of Obama saying goodbye to his staff and others. It wasn’t anything like that Nixon moment. It was classy and full of grace.

No, I didn’t always agree with President Obama, but I’m thankful for Barak and Michelle Obama, for their humanity, their passion, their grace.
You can tell they were loved. They were real. They defined grace and class. They were human.

Bona Fide Creative Plagiarist

Bernie Sanders is the grandfatherly hippie from a generation that is stealing Facebook from the young and dancing to the Beach Boys at 50 year high school reunions. Why does Bernie resonate with young voters? Perhaps grandparents are easier to relate to than parents, and are thought to be more “themselves”, more real, more authentic, than their career chasing money-jaded baby-boomer parents. This helps explain how the oldest man in the Presidential race appeals to the youngest voters.

Most of us long for the authentic, the real McCoy, the bona fide, just as we are repulsed by the deceitful, the veiled, the mala fide. In the movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Everett, after escaping prison, discovers that his wife is planning to marry another man, because according to his wife, Penny, he is not bona fide, and to accelerate the demise of his reign as paterfamilias, she tells the children their Daddy was hit by a train.

Ulysses Everett McGill:  Why are you tellin’ our gals that I was hit by a train?

Penny:  Lots of respectable people have been hit by trains. Judge Hoover over in Cookville was hit by a train. What was I gonna tell them, that you got sent to the penal farm and I divorced you from shame?

Ulysses Everett McGill:  Uh, I take your point. But it does put me in an awkward position, vis-à-vis my progeny.

Bona fide is not as easy as it sounds and is difficult to find in public figures who intentionally conceal their devils while displaying their angels. In another scene from the movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the wandering protagonists, Everett, Pete, and Delmar, stumbled upon an African-American guitar player by the name of Tommy Johnson, who explained to them what the Devil looks like.

Pete: I’ve always wondered, what’s the devil look like?

Ulysses Everett McGill: Well, there are all manner of lesser imps and demons, Pete, but the great Satan hisself is red and scaly with a bifurcated tail, and he carries a hay fork.

Tommy Johnson: Oh, no. No, sir. He’s white, as white as you folks, with empty eyes and a big hollow voice.

According to Tommy Johnson, Satan could be Rush Limbaugh, Michael Moore, or a Presidential Candidate.

Being true, original, authentic, or real, sounds easy enough, but it isn’t. My brother Greg once reminded me while I was complaining that I couldn’t find anything original to write, that everything has already been written, so don’t waste your breath trying to write something new. Just do it again, but say it in your own words.

Understanding that there is nothing new or original helps assuage my guilt because I confess to sometimes stealing stories. Sub-creation is what I do. I take what is already created and rewrite it…I’m a bona fide creative plagiarist.

Presidential candidates, like writers, are creative plagiarists. They take what is already created and rewrite it for good or evil. Politicians take the great Constitutional ideas of our forefathers, Jefferson, Washington, Lincoln, and sprinkle in the good sense of Martin Luther King, Jesus, and their favorite Supreme Court Justices, or they re-write the ideas of Machiavelli, Adam Smith, and Walt Disney, while stirring in some Scripture for good measure, “Anyone who refuses to work should not eat.” 2 Thessalonians 3:10, or, “All the people had everything in common, sharing their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.” Acts 2:42

presidential candidates 2016

To pick on Bernie Sanders as an example, he isn’t saying or proposing anything new. He’s been saying these things for many years. He simply stuck around long enough for an electoral cluster of young voters with no political memory to sprout like winter wheat in the greenhouse gases of polarizing politics. “He (Bernie Sanders) doesn’t seem to have ulterior motives,” said Alison Sanderlin, a 26 year old who works in a photo lab and believes the GOP message has fallen flat.

Today, our country’s youngest block of voters are searching for their own truth, their own verity, their own authentic voting souls. I remember a recent conversation with my son, Brandon, who is a 23 year old meteorologist from Norman, Oklahoma. We were watching television and had a brief political conversation. He asked me who I was voting for in the Presidential Election and I asked him the same question. I didn’t fully reveal my hand, but simply said, “Not Trump.” He said, “I’ll probably vote for Bernie Sanders.”

That was a revealing moment for me as a white middle-aged male with socially compassionate, fiscally conservative, and bureaucratically libertarian leanings. I’m not sure if that makes me liberal, conservative or whig, but I do sense the deep alienation that exists between the young in this country and the entrenched.

Exit polls in New Hampshire and Iowa confirm that Millennials from the age of 18-29 prefer Mr. Sanders by 84% to 16% over his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton. WSJ page A6 Tuesday February 16, 2016

So I’m wondering, among the candidates, who appears to be ulterior in their motivation? Or to say it backwards, who are the overt, the revealed, the fully disclosed? Hillary, Ted, Marco, Donald, Jeb, Bernie? In other words, are we able to discern underlying or private motives behind a candidacy? Isn’t politics in it’s very nature a blending of the overt and the covert, the hidden and the revealed, the undisclosed and the divulged? Are the Millennials saying that Donald Trump isn’t bona fide? How dare they! Perhaps the Donald sold his soul to the Devil like Tommy Johnson.

Ulysses Everett McGill: What’d the devil give you for your soul, Tommy (Donald)?

Tommy (the Donald) Johnson: Well, he taught me to play this here guitar real good and to evade the real question by ruthlessly attacking mealy-minded political opponents.

Delmar O’Donnell: Oh son, for that you sold your everlasting soul?

Tommy (the Donald) Johnson: Well, I wasn’t usin’ it.

John Della Volpe, who as director of polling at the Harvard Institute of Politics has been surveying millennials since 2000, says young voters generally seem less interested in politicians resumes than in their candor. “Young people are really less interested in past accomplishments and more interested in today and the future,” he says. “They look for candidates who are focusing emotion, talking about the moment, being authentic.” Janet Hook WSJ Tuesday February 16, 2016 Millennials Unsettle Race

Authenticity seems to be what my children, all three now in their mid-twenties, listen and respond to. Socrates would have called this verity. Policies and philosophies matter, but only if they are sustained by truth. The bona fide, the real, the authentic, is something to consider when you enter the polling place next November. Otherwise, you might discover that you’ve been hit by a train, like Ulysses Everett McGill, and placed in an awkward position, vis-à-vis your progeny. I’m not sure for whom I shall cast my vote. I’m just suggesting that we heed the words of Abraham Lincoln who said, “I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live by the light that I have.”