Promises Not Kept? What Happened To “A Man’s Word Is His Bond”?

I was flipping through some newspaper-or-other on line, and began following the Doonesbury cartoons that many papers have chosen to not print. The version of them I found was in the LA Times. Down in the corner was a small article re: my alma mater, Cal State University, Los Angeles.

Actually the article was about most schools in the Cal State system and how the were going to close off enrollment until the knew what the budget looked like for the state in general and the state’s education system specifically. I thought to myself, “What a waste! Such a great system gutted.” In 1981 or 1982, I moved back to California because I had run out of money and I missed my family and I was trying to figure out what to do with my life/time. My parents explained that, if I was an in-state student, college was really cheap out there. After I arrived, I discovered just how cheap it was. Pasadena City College, where I first went, cost next to nothing. I think I paid $300 per semester, plus books, or something like it. There I met my friend Ron Bottitta, a few girls I was chasing, and many more people — including a substitute in my “dummy physics” class who was from the Jet Propulsion Laboratories.

Later, I went to Cal State Los Angeles, where I began to understand the complexities of the human mind — including that of a friend of mine, Margo Moten (now Margo Walker). Vernon Kiker — a brilliant, if slightly strange man — taught about the biology of the mind and experimental psychology. The school also had an incredible food court. I used to be able to get a huge taco-salad-in-a-bowl for dinner there and be stuffed all night. At the time, I think I paid $2500 per year (yes, twenty-five hundred dollars) or maybe it was per semester. In any case, I could afford it. As I graduated in 1984 and moved to seminary, I thought to myself , “no one can ever say to me that they lived in California and couldn’t afford school”. If you didn’t go, it was because you didn’t want to or simply weren’t smart enough. When I asked my parents about this, I understood. California considers it an investment in their future. That many students raised the bar for everyone and gave the state all kinds of smart people to work in their industries or whatever. Silicon Valley was just a dream to some people at the time. Sure enough, though, when the time came to create all those jobs up north, there were people who knew how to design and build these things.

Shortly thereafter, the federal government started making loans and grants harder to get and the state government there began raising fees and at some point, people could say that they lived in California and couldn’t afford school. Whatever promise the State of California made to its citizens — implied or planned — it no longer chooses to keep.

Meanwhile, in New Hampshire in the next few days, they vote about taking away the rights of same-sex couples to get married in New Hampshire, after the state already decided to allow for gay folks to get married there years ago. They did this in California (most notably in San Francisco) a few years ago and — simply as a matter of how — I could not grasp the concept. I was once told that “words are like toothpaste. You can’t put them back in once they’re out”. I still believe that.

Remember how all of this started with Doonesbury? Well, the abortion right that Doonesbury talked about is also one of those things that is slowly losing round. In 1972, Roe v. Wade said that women had the right to choose their healthcare options regarding abortion. Since the 1980’s (and maybe before), people have been taking shots at that decision. While I am not “pro-abortion”, I am “pro-choice”, I don’t understand how we once thought women had brains and enough intelligence to make decisions about their own bodies, and now we think they don’t.

I know that education, gay rights, and abortion are all “liberal” ideas, but still, how do you take away rights once they have been given? The San Francisco case is a perfect example. The mayor decided (or maybe the state’s attorney general) that it was unconstitutional to keep adult homosexuals from having the same rights as adult heterosexuals when it came to money, taxes, property, etc. When he did it, the “cat was out of the bag” and folks ran to get married before the state “took it back” somehow. Sure enough, some period later, the California Supreme Court took up the issue and decided the mayor or whoever wasn’t able to make that decision, but there were now hundreds of people who were –according to state documents — married. Now what? I believe the marriages remained legal, but no new ones were granted for awhile.

Forgetting whether or not there are religious claims made about it or not, regardless of what people think or feel about the idea, how do you put the genie back in the bottle? You don’t. Whatever progress was made that gained people’s trust or won their hearts and minds, still is true. It took hundreds of years for slaves to be freed. The gay rights movement was actually really quick in getting its agenda heard. Women’s right to vote took forever in America. The right to make choices about when they’d get pregnant took less time, but in any case the case was made and it was found to be true. Since each of these decisions, black folks have gotten to prove themselves as members of Congress, heads of the UN, and now president of the US. Can we really say they don’t deserve the right to vote once they’ve proven they can lead? Since women had the right to vote, we have women of all stripes — conservative, moderate, and certainly liberal — come forward and lead in all kinds of places. Can we now say that women can’t make decisions? If — in the bizarrest of all worlds — Sarah Palin actually became President, could she or any of us make the claim that women aren’t smart enough to make decisions as basic as ones about their bodies? After Hillary Clinton can we really say that women can’t handle big political decisions? No, we can’t. After gay couples have gotten married, some successfully and some not, can we still say they can’t have relationships? Not without denying what we know — that gay folks fall in love, can handle marriage as well as heterosexuals, and regardless of what we thought before, can raise kids and do so very well.

I am not saying that people don’t have the right to disagree with policies. Not at all. One of my favorite slogans of all time is “if you don’t like abortions, don’t have one!”. This rule applies to all kinds of things. If you don’t like gay marriage, don’t marry someone of the same gender. If you don’t like inter-racial marriage, don’t marry someone of a different race. It’s all very simple, it seems to me.

But back to promises… My wife and kids and I got to see Danl Malloy, our governor, speak about his plan to revamp education because he wants to offer an educated workforce to prospective companies in the state. Remember what I said about California? The truth of that idea is still there and Connecticut would like to join the bandwagon, albeit a few years late. At the meeting, though, there were a lot of people from the Teachers Unions in the audience. They brought up a good point. Their point? We promised these teachers things like pensions and tenure and such. If I had worked all my life, being dragged forward with the promise that I’d be able to retire comfortably or not have to worry about my job, I’d be really upset that the promise suddenly turned out to be lies.

In the 80’s when the market crashed and all those seniors found out that their retirement plans had been thrown out the window by some scandal in the financial markets, many spent all their lives being promised, “if you do the right thing for us, we’ll do the right thing for you”. It turns out that only one half of that bargain was kept. Did Bernie Madoff ever give back all that money? If he did, I haven’t heard it. Ill-gotten gains remain while deserved gains are taken away. This is not the way things should be. We all know it and so many of us are demoralized. Madoff and his clan of ne’er-do-wells should be made to give the money back so that promises made are promises kept.

This is not to say that changes don’t have to be made — an education costs way too much these days — but there must be a way to start a new era where people with old promises have their promises kept if we can’t keep up with them for some reason. Laws and licenses change all the time, with “grandfather clauses” and such. I get that. But if we simply don’t want to keep our promises, it seems to me that the answer is “too bad”. Any parent worth their salt knows that you should never make a promise that you don’t intend to keep. There’s a reason for that. If you want your kids to trust you, they have to be able … to trust you. Your word must be your bond.

Now, this article is called “A Man’s Word is His Bond”. This is one of those things that is what it is right now. I assume that women have some form of the saying, but I don’t know. What I do know is that men used to have moral codes and one of the things we used to say is “a man’s word is his bond”. A handshake was good enough to cement a contract in the old days. The magic wasn’t in the handshake itself, it’s power was the meaning behind it — the understanding, the covenant, the shared belief in telling the truth. If those days have left is, we need to get them back. If they haven’t, we need to make sure we don’t give them up. We have come too far already to give up proof that we can be humans at our best.

Peace,

John

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