Category Archives: Ethics

Taking a Knee

If I were to nominate a list of the greatest sportsmen of the television generation, off the top of my head, my list would have to include the following:

  • Pele
  • Larry Bird
  • “Sugar” Ray Leonard
  • Wayne Gretsky
  • Mark Fidrych
  • Usain Bolt

Obviously this is not a comprehensive list, but I can say with firm confidence that these particular men are individuals who enriched their own fields of competition, setting new examples for young athletes as to what they could aspire to be, while still keeping the whole question of what the purpose of their sport was in perspective.

That last criterion is perhaps the most important here to me: What is the fundamental purpose of sport as such?

Giving this matter some thought, I would contend that there are basically three aspects which give sports the social and economic value that they enjoy today: 1) In an era and culture which demands less physical exertion in order to accomplish “a day’s work” than ever before in human history, sports serve a purpose of keeping people in touch with their bodies, providing a game mentality to motivate individuals to keep their bodies in functional condition. 2) As Jonathan Haidt famously said in his first TED talk, “Sports is to war as pornography is to sex.” A profound insight actually; people vicariously go through the intense emotional experience of an all-out us vs. them battle, allowing them the satisfaction of having epic heroes for their own side and a sense of triumph in being part of a side that “kicked the other guys ass” each game day, (usually) without so many people having to die in the process of providing them with this primitive satisfaction. And then 3) sport is, at its core, merely a form of entertainment; a performance which is pleasant to watch as a means of distracting us from the stresses of everyday life. (Perhaps in that way too is analogous to pornography.)

So to be great in sport effectively requires that the athlete/performer in question plays the role well in terms of motivating others to be physically active, providing a sense of communal pride for the area represented in the performance, and above all has a sort of natural flare and charisma as an entertainer. All of the individuals mentioned above fulfilled those criteria in spades.

Of all of these, perhaps the most memorable for me, but the most obscure for those weren’t around in the United States in the late 70s, is Mark “the Bird” Fidrych. Baseball as a sport is essentially a series of duels between the pitchers and the batters, with everyone else basically standing around most of the time on their toes waiting to see how each duel will play out. Generally speaking, for those who cannot readily empathize with the experiences of those on both sides in this duel, in terms of entertainment value watching a baseball game ranks somewhere between watching bowling and watching paint dry. The only hope for the game becoming interesting is if there is someone particularly heroically talented and interesting to watch as either batter or pitcher. Arguably the most entertaining pitcher the game has ever seen was “the Bird”: a rookie in 1976 for the Detroit Tigers who was statistically the best pitcher of that year, who seriously boosted the morale of the city of Detroit during the time that it was losing its status as the automobile capital of the world. Not only could he throw the ball with incredible speed and accuracy, and not only was he a genius at spreading a feeling of comradery and good cheer to everyone else on his team, Fidrych just had his own funky style and charisma on the mound. Perhaps one reason that so many batters found his pitches so hard to hit was that they were always on the verge of cracking up laughing at this tall, gangly, quirky character with all of this bouncy, naturally curly blonde hair sticking out from under his cap.

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As the semi-tragic story goes, in his second season Fidrych suffered (quite seriously) from torn cartilage in his right shoulder and doctors never managed to put it back together entirely right thereafter. So with the money from his one great year of fame and fortune he set himself up with a family farm and a landscaping business, and he lived fairly comfortably as a contractor and part-time Detroit city celebrity for the next thirty-some years –– albeit always plagued with a little bit of “what if,” but keeping life in perspective and balance regardless… until one day in 2009 a heavy dump truck that he was trying to repair rolled over on top of him and killed him. Too early retired from sport, too early dead; but for one glorious year he rewrote the book on how baseball could and should be played.

So what sends me on this trip 40 years back down Nostalgia Lane? Obviously the current crises of the NFL. Two things in particular are calling the whole identity of this sports mega-industry into question: kneeling and brain injuries. Which of these you find most disturbing says a lot about your politics, and though I hate to say it, about your maturity as a human being.

This summer a study came out showing that 99% of the former professional American football players who donated their brains for scientific study post-mortem because of having experienced psychological problems later in life turned out to have major brain malfunctions caused by repeated head trauma. The latest case of this problem to be diagnosed, after this study was concluded, was Aaron Hernandez, former star player for the New England Patriots who committed suicide in prison this spring at the ripe old age of 27. One of the problems here, however, is that this medical diagnosis can only be reached through an autopsy after the player’s death.

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American football players have frequently been nicknamed “gladiators of the gridiron.”  That image is now coming back to haunt the sport. The original gladiators were elite slaves who fought to the death for their masters’ profit and prestige, and for the amusement of the bloodthirsty public. Some of the original Roman gladiators became fabulously rich, and were able to buy their freedom and live a life of relative luxury thereafter; but that doesn’t mean there was nothing wrong with the system from which they benefited. It doesn’t discount the immoral and nearly inhuman nature of “the games” themselves. So how closely does that compare with American football? How much of the thrill of the game involves watching massive levels of gratuitous violence, with little concern for how that can potentially destroy the lives of those on the ground attacking each other to providing such a spectacle?

Football of course is not the only sport with a long history of and reputation for violence. A couple of generations ago there were still laughs to be had from the joke that was already old at that point: “Last night I went to watch a street fight and an ice hockey game broke out!” Old hockey players could be identified by their multiply broken noses and extensive facial scarring. They too frequently died of the complicated after-effects of repeated brain injury. That has largely changed now. Part of it had to do with rule changes to require more safety equipment being required in play and stronger penalties against violent action on the ice. But perhaps more of it had to do with a new generation of players with a new, more skillfully refined style of play, in many regards pioneered by Wayne Gretsky.

What would it take to bring the equivalent sort of changes about in American football? Is there any hope of accomplishing this within the next generation? What should be done to protect the would-be gladiators in question in the meantime?

Then there is the matter of kneeling. This has become a trend around the league, started by now former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick. In the beginning of last year’s season Kaepernick –– a mixed race child by birth who was adopted and raised by a white family, first in the Mid-west and then on the West Coast –– felt that paying reverence to the playing of the “Star-spangled Banner” at the beginning of each game went against his moral convictions by tacitly approving of some profoundly dysfunctional elements of American culture, often involving atrocities committed by those wearing an American flag on their sleeve. Chief among these was the on-going problem unpunished police shootings of young black men on city streets around the country. Kaepernick started his protest by sitting down rather than standing as the music played. Later, after taking into account the perspective of a respected military veteran friend of his, he changed his approach to kneeling on one knee as it played. For those who were defensive about the white supremacist culture he was protesting against by doing so the effect was the same: making a symbolic public declaration at a sporting event that there is something wrong with the structure of American society is considered “shameful” and “traitorous,” and worst of all, disrespectful towards those being sent to die defending the United States’ right to police the Middle East.

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From New York Times

For what difference it makes, Kaepernick himself is currently unemployed. After the coach he began playing for San Francisco under, Jim Harbaugh, took a job at the University of Michigan, long before the whole national anthem protest thing started, Kaepernick started having more and more trouble working with the new 49er bosses, and his performance suffered because of it. This may or may not have had anything to do with his decision to become a vegan around that same time. Whatever the case, after last season he decided not to continue his career with San Francisco and became available as a free agent, but no team in the NFL was interested in hiring him for the current season. That might or might not count as paying the price for his political convictions.

Even so, the national anthem kneeling trend he started has caught on around the league. (As I am writing this a news flash pops up on my computer screen that the entire Dallas Cowboys team, arm-in-arm with the team owner, knelt together as the national anthem played at the beginning of their game Monday night.)

There is, of course, a long history of athletes, black athletes in particular, using their passing celebrity status to make what they hope will be lasting political points. Perhaps the most infamous of those was the black power solute given by black American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the awards ceremony of the 1968 Olympics, which not terribly surprisingly, has been pointed out and reconsidered by a number of significant news outlets this week. Those men too were deeply hated by defenders of white hegemony at the time, but eventually the heroism of their stand, and their willingness to suffer for it, came to be recognized around the world, and even by most non-white supremacists within the United States.

Within less than a week it has become almost cliché to ask, but I will ask anyway, is there any moral difference between Smith and Carlos’ protest gesture and Kaepernick’s? Or redirecting the same question back to my opening considerations here, does protesting in either of these ways take away from what sport is ultimately supposed to be or to do for people? Does it, in some fundamental way, mean that these men are not “doing their job right”? That, dear friends, depends on what you consider the core essence of “their job” to be.

I go back to my starting list of characteristics. When it comes to being an example and inspiration of being in touch with their own bodies and training themselves to accomplish great feats of strength, skill and endurance on the field of play, I don’t think anyone can claim that taking a symbolic stand on political issues takes away from any of that. If anything it might make kids of all skin colors and backgrounds aware of the possibility to use their athletic skill to get their chosen ideological or religious message across to a larger audience. That in turn could lead to better, stronger and more dedicated athletes in the future, who are both competing with each other and working together not only to score points within their respective leagues, but also to bring public attention to things that are important to them. As long as they are not promoting bigotry, violence or irresponsibly dangerous behavior in the process I don’t see any problem with that. There are far worse ways of doing politics.

When it comes to just putting on a good show, entertaining the audience not only with their strength and skill, but their basic charisma, some would find the protestors’ actions to be something that keeps them from being able to enjoy the show. I know people who cannot appreciate either the Dixie Chicks’ or Ted Nugent’s music, or Jane Fonda’s or Clint Eastwood’s acting performances, on account of not being able to separate the performance from the performers’ respective political perspectives. (To be honest with you, none of the four examples are generally within my entertainment taste, for entirely non-political reasons, but that’s beside the point.) This is something I would consider to be more justifiable to complain about in one respect, and something that would certainly justify not paying to watch the sports in question when offensively politically active athletes are performing there. I would even go so far as to consider boycotts of the performances of the athletes in question to be fully justifiable… as long as such a boycott is recognized as just another aspect of the same freedom of speech and expression that the protesting athletes themselves are exercising, and as long as the protests against their protests can be kept respectful of the human dignity of the performers in question. That principle is clearly lost on those who would use the anonymity of the Internet to send violent curses and death threats to those who protest against their chosen political orientation.

The hardest aspect to morally evaluate, however, is how athletes making gestures of protest before or after their competitions relates to their roles as surrogate warriors. If there are sad souls out there who have no greater joy in life than to share a feeling of vicarious pseudo-military conflict with their fellow fans (or in British, “supporters”) of a particular sports team, dropping their support for that team because some of the players happen to be publically opposed to their political views might not be an option.

To quote from Bill Shankly, the legendary Liverpool Football Club manager from yesteryear, regarding what the British call football, “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.” It is not hard to imagine many fans of American football, particularly from the “fly-over states” sharing his perspective regarding their own passionately followed sport. Thus it is not hard to see how they would feel violently conflicted over players on the teams they support, or on the opposing teams for that matter, making a symbolic statement against the political positions they hold, especially when their own political positions are based on assumptions of white hegemony and militaristic authoritarianism.

If these fans, who have indeed been paying the players’ salaries, expect the players in turn to provide them with a satisfyingly violent spectacle to help reinforce their militant world views, without having the audacity to challenge their political perspectives in the process, it is easy to see why they would feel outraged. It is also easy to see how a demagogue, who also happens to be the 45th president of the United States, would want to try to capitalize on their outrage. That doesn’t justify it in either case. The fact that the president referred to the primarily black protestors as “sons of bitches” and that he complained about the league’s limited efforts to limit violence and injury as already being too much in that same speech, speak volumes about the mentality he is operating on.

I happen to consider American football to be the perfect sport for Americans in general: It involves less overall endurance, more chess-like strategic planning and more moments of incredible adrenaline rush per competition than any other sport I have ever watched. On top of that it seems to be ideal for commercial television in terms of the natural breaks in the action that happen to provide easy places to insert advertising. It would be a shame to lose this sort of entertainment spectacle because of nothing being done about the risks and problems it entails in its current form. But to enable this sport to do less harm than good in the long run both of the issues raised here need to be dealt with.

First of all the rules of the sport need to be changed to reduce its similarity with the original gladiatorial combat of ancient Rome. Having men literally killing each other and tearing each other apart for the amusement of a live audience should not be morally acceptable, regardless of how good the ratings are. If changing the rules to reduce the extent to which bodies and minds are destroyed in the process of competition reduces the popularity and profitability of the sport, so be it. There should be a consensus, even in the United States, that moving away from actual “hunger games” here is just the right thing to do.

How could that be done? I am not educated enough in sports medicine to set myself up as a consultant on the matter, so anything I say here goes in the “for what it’s worth” category. That being said, a defeatist strategy of keeping things as they are to preserve ratings, regardless of the human cost, is not a morally acceptable option. Thus my first suggestion would be the requirement to use new concussion detection technology on the sidelines in all games at all competitive levels. This needs to be taken very seriously. Thus any player who receives a concussion in the course of play must be automatically placed on recovery leave and not allowed to play in competitions or to train for competition in ways that could increase brain damage for a set number of weeks. The penalty for concealing a concussion to avoid exclusion from play needs to be harsh enough to prevent that from happening as well. Furthermore, any player causing a concussion to any other player, even inadvertently, needs to be placed on suspension from competition for a roughly equivalent period of time to the recovery requirement for the victim. This set of rules needs to be enforced firmly enough to change the fundamental culture of the game so that the threat of destroying the bodies of the best players on the other team ceases to be a strategic goal within the sport. Beyond that the game situations in which the most serious injuries occur need to be carefully analyzed and as far as possible diffused through changes in rules, in consultation with specialized physicians, regarding the types of protective equipment needs to be worn, the starting positions for different play situations, and the types of blocks and tackles permitted.

Regarding the kneeling protests and the like, I suspect that the crisis will need to be overcome through fans growing up enough to no longer base their lives on their identification with their local team. In the end the players are not gladiators in the old sense of the word; nor are they warriors fighting for the honor and glory of their city-state. They are merely entertainers, using their own particular skills to provide a temporary distraction from the cares of this world. In the process of making a good show out of it they try to make it into a sort of fair form of competition as well, but in the end it is still just a game –– just another show. So if some of the players happen to offend you with their openness about their political views, you can actually walk away and find some other means of distracting yourself from your stresses in life; no harm done.

For those who need something more closely resembling the thrill of warfare in their lives to feel suitably stimulated, if on-line role playing games aren’t enough for you there are always things like paint ball, and then there are actual military services that you can join. If none of those options are suitable for you, find your own way of dealing with your violent fantasy world, or get some appropriate form of therapy for it.

Meanwhile, if the United States remains a free country, worth taking pride in (for those who underestimate the rest of the industrialized world), then athletes will maintain the right to peacefully protest injustices there that they are aware of; and athletes being free to do so is a basic prerequisite for any form of cultural greatness which might follow. Suck it up.

Beyond that, putting the two issues together, it might be best in the long run for Kaepernick, and outspoken American football stars like him, to find themselves excluded from football for the time being while both of these issues are getting sorted out within the league. Kaepernick has been known as one of the league’s most run-ready quarterbacks, meaning he has regularly put himself in more danger of getting seriously messed up while being tackled than the average quarterback. For now, if Kaepernick uses his fortune as wisely, as Mark Fidrych used his, he should be able to get by economically without playing ball for quite a while, giving him more opportunities meanwhile to use his fame as a means of standing up for those at other forms of risk than NFL players are. I’m not inclined to feel sorry for him yet; he’s got a long ways to go in catching up with other black athletes in terms of suffering for their stand on behalf of their own people. If he is sincere about this issue being bigger than football for him he has little to complain about in terms of how he has been treated at this point. That should leave him free to speak to the bigger issue of what he hoped to accomplish with his protest. If he uses this opportunity well I am more than willing to honor him for it.

In Europe the use of national anthems at sporting events is limited to that of the winning team or competitor being played at the end of the competition as prizes are being given out. No one puts their hands on their hearts, but everyone in the stadiums stands up for such occasions I have no problem with that. I’m inclined to try to follow protocol as much as possible under such circumstances. Attending many different churches as I do, I’m frequently confused about when I’m supposed to be sitting, standing or kneeling as part of the ceremony, but I follow along as best I can. But when someone breaks these trivial protocols to make a point, and it is a point worth making, I respect that.

If there’s a chance of reducing the power and acceptability of bigotry by kneeling at the “wrong time,” I am willing to do so. I hope others would be as well. I’ll leave it at that.

 

 

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Filed under Ethics, Politics, Pop culture, Racism, Religion, Solidarity, Warfare

Racism, Hegemony and Transition

Setting aside my more personal philosophical concerns for a moment, I need to address an issue which many of my American friends and acquaintances in particular are struggling with, and which many more are struggling to avoid dealing with: How do we define the term racism, and what needs to be done about the problem of racism today, particularly in the American context?

It has now been over 150 years since holding black people as slaves became illegal in the United States ––since those determined to hold onto those slaves lost a brutal war regarding the matter –– yet in many ways the US is still struggling to come to terms with that legacy of shame. For some it remains a matter of principle to keep believing that the federal government never should have taken away their right to own other human beings whom they considered to be their natural inferiors.  Thus they consider it a matter of justifiable civic pride to hold onto flags, monuments and other symbols of their struggle to keep blacks enslaved.

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For others the issue is a matter of ignoring the continuous efforts to keep darker skinned people in a position of fear and subservience, saying that since slavery has been over for so long black people should not be allowed to use the problems stemming from that institution as an excuse for the position they find themselves in; they should work harder, avoid drugs and violence more thoroughly, be more committed to family values and save money more carefully, and if they do that they can have the same opportunities as any white people have. It is rather difficult to determine to what extent the ignorance and assumptions of moral inferiority inherent in this argument are simply the result of poor education among those who hold such beliefs, and to what extent they are a matter of certain white people struggling to maintain the assumption that black people are naturally inferior and thus need to be kept in submission to their lighter skinned masters.

Others, it must be admitted don’t really care so much about the position of darker skinned people in society, but they wish to make a political football of the subject, trying to blame problems related to slavery on the other political party: either emphasizing or denying the extent to which the major parties swapped roles regarding the civil rights struggle between the presidencies of Woodrow Wilson and Ronald Reagan.  As tempting as it is to get distracted by proving historical points in this regard though, let me simply say that there are still manipulative con men in both parties trying to accuse the other of being racist purely as a cynical political tactic, but for poorer blacks there is little question in their mind as to which party they can expect to take an interest in their situation; and for whites who are resentful of government putting black people’s needs and interests ahead of their own, it is equally clear in their minds which party to turn to in order to try to correct this situation. Both may be mistaken in whom they have decided to trust in these matters, but the alliances which the parties have established in terms of racial interests are quite clear these days.

But this is largely a distraction from the main point I want to get to here: what will happen when white men are no longer in the position to say what sort of rules everyone else needs to live and play by? Such a day is fast approaching for the United States. It is more or less demographically certain that within the next generation, for the first time in the nation’s history, white people will make up less than half of the United States’ citizens. If something resembling a functional, honest democracy remains in place, that will mean that the various brown and black people of the country will have the possibility of bonding together and setting the rules that white people will have to live and play by. This has many white racists loading both their britches and their rifles.

This is where the word hegemony comes in. Originally an ancient Greek term for international domination, hegemony was largely re-defined by the work of Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist that died in prison for taking a stand against Mussolini. Gramsci was trying to find a way of describing what enabled Mussolini to convince people to follow his orders and support his regime, even though they were seriously screwing up their own lives in doing so. Basically Gramsci theorized that the secret behind Mussolini’s power, and many other such self-appointed dictators, was that he was able to make people believe that his authority was simply part of the natural order of things. So according to this understanding of the terms, if you can convince people that you are somehow naturally entitled to be in charge, and that things will work best for everyone involved if they would just settle down and do what you tell them to, then you are in a position of hegemony. Sound familiar?

In practice we find many examples of hegemony in our world today. One of the biggest challenges in doing charitable work in Africa, in fact, is to avoid reinforcing the hegemonic structures that have caused so many of that continent’s problems to begin with. Colonial racists spent centuries working on constructing a position of hegemony for themselves there, in many cases quite successfully. Consequently, though it isn’t part of the natural order of things that black people need white people to take care of them, tell them what to do and manage their economic structures for them, many Africans –– both black and white –– keep operating on an assumption that this would be the case. Part of the solution to this problem is simply to provide native Africans with the sort of education that has previously been available primarily just to white people; part of it is to help them overcome the scourge of tribal infighting which made them vulnerable to colonization to begin with; and part of it is to undo some of the remaining structural remnants of colonial governance intentionally designed to keep local people in helpless passive submission. But those actions involve cultural shifts which could take many generations to bring about. In the meantime we still need to take empathetic action to help those who are suffering in extreme poverty. We just have to do so without perpetuating the myth that the only way they can survive is with the help of white men –– easier said than done.

Back in America, meanwhile, the racial and cultural hegemony has its own implications, complexities and ugly aspects to be dealt with. Many southern white leaders in the mid-19th century, while trying to justifying themselves as slave-holders, theorized that God intended black men to be under the control of white men since the days of Noah, constructing a vast number of theological, anthropological, evolutionary and historical arguments to back up this claim. Losing the Civil War and the legal right to hold slaves did not eliminate their deep existential commitment to these arguments, and consequently many these arguments have been passed down through the 5 or 6 generations since slaves were set free. The core element of these arguments is an implicit belief that for a modern western society to continue to function in a stable and sustainable manner, white people need to be in charge, and the rules that everyone else as well needs to live by are those formulated by white people. Those who continue to believe in and perpetuate such a myth –– whether of white, black, mixed or other racial origin themselves –– are part of the American cultural problem of assumed white hegemony.

White hegemony has had a rather diverse history in the United States. In the time of the “founding fathers” it was quite explicitly part of the nation’s ideology. If you have any doubts about this look up the Supreme Court case of Johnson v. M’Intosh (1823): buying property from a native tribe doesn’t count as a legal transaction, because only white men could be party to binding legal contracts. In the time following the American Civil War there was a relatively brief period during which some former Confederate leaders recognized black people as partners in the process of democratic governance, but that was swiftly brought to an end in the 1890s by the infamous “Jim Crow” laws. Those who took part in mixed race political parties, including such as former generals William Mahone, James Longstreet and even P.G.T. Beauregard, were labelled as traitors to their race and as much as possible systematically forgotten. Blacks who could not be trusted to support “respectable” white leaders were systematically prevented from voting.

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Publicly murdering a black person or two every now and again helped keep them in a submissive mood. Beyond that, making sure that services for white people were kept separate from services for black people gave the former a certain sense of security and superiority over the next few generations. I won’t detail the extent of the racist crimes that extended from the Hayes presidency to the Truman era, but suffice to say, in those years there was never any question of black people being given equal rights and opportunities in American culture. It was only with desegregation rulings of the US Supreme Court in the 1950s, and the courageous civil rights protests of the 1960s, that black people’s rights to recognition as people, and the federal government’s responsibility to protect their rights as people, started to be taken seriously in US law.

Most southerners have gradually started to accept black people as teammates, co-workers and fellow citizens over the past couple of generations since then, but this has not been a smooth or painless process. For many the unspoken limit to their tolerance for their darker-skinned neighbors  has remained the principle of white hegemony: as long as black people are willing to abide by the basic rules set for everyone by the white people –– who need to remain in exclusive control of all mechanisms of legislation and administration in the nation –– then we can allow them to live and work in peace together with us. As long as things seemed to work smoothly on that basis many optimists even claimed that racism had ceased to be a problem in the United States… until that trouble-maker Obama came along.

Obama brought together the oratory flare of the black Protestant church tradition with the benefits he gained from a liberal white upbringing, an Ivy League education and an interracial late baby boomer’s sense of cool. This combination enabled him to win the hearts and minds of pretty much all black and brown people in the US, with a large enough minority of white people supporting him for him to handily become as the first non-white president of the nation. This sent a shock-wave through the racist community: it wasn’t so much that this dark-skinned president was initiating dangerous policies for the nation (though many would try to claim that this was the case), but he rather posed an existential threat to their basic belief that for things to operate properly in the nation white people need to remain in charge. All of a sudden the willingness of whites to peacefully coexist with their darker-skinned neighbors as long as they were willing to abide by basic white rules started to get a lot less clear. Coexisting under rules that a black man had helped put in place wasn’t something they were ready to sign off on!

Suffice to say the next US president succeeded in getting elected by bringing together all of those who shared these fears and resentments of the increasing status and influence of darker-skinned people in society, together with those who became economic losers because of automation that came with the IT revolution and because of increasingly internationalized trade. His core message was the dishonest claim that he could basically turn back the clock in terms of demographics, human rights and technology to a time when these formerly middle class whites’ incomes and positions in society were more secure. Probably few people were ignorant enough to believe this message at face value, but if this guy would push back against blacks, immigrants, global financial interests and “progress” in general, that would be close enough to satisfy the base he was building. From there having an opponent who was even easier for the heartland to hate than he was proved to be enough to put him this crooked rich boy from New York over the top in terms of the Electoral College vote.  Even so, it shocked many Americans, and pretty much all of the rest of the world, that an American national election could be won on the basis of such ugly sentiments and blatantly false claims. In the famous words of Apollo 13, “Houston, we have a problem!”

For all the international humiliation that this administration has brought on the United States in its first year, however, one thing remains clear: as long as the US maintains its current constitutional democratic structure, the reactionary defense of white hegemony which brought this president to power is destined to be defeated and eliminated over the course of the next generation. As hard as white Bible Belt Baptists, Amish, Mormons and other such groups try to encourage their women to have “quivers full” of kids, and as hard as they try to stop non-Europeans from being able to immigrate to America, within the next 40 years white people and self-identified Christians will make up less than half of the US population. The Obama presidency was merely the first shot across the white hegemonists’ bow, signaling the impending end of their era. The current crop of racists and reactionaries controlling the Republican Party now have to decide how they are going to deal with this.

I qualify this prediction, however, with an awareness that there are supporters of the current president who are so committed to the principle of white hegemony that they would rather destroy the American system of government than to allow white hegemony to come to an end. We have seen more and more of these people on the streets of America this summer, and as the likelihood of the current president being removed from office before the end of his first term increases, there is an ever increasing chance that his most blatantly racist and reactionary supporters will attempt to violently prevent the constitutional processes in question. So one of the serious questions to be asked is whether the US constitutional structure and civil society will be strong enough to hold these reactionaries in check. I hope and believe so, but I also hoped and believed that Americans would be intelligent enough not to elect the current president to begin with. Likewise in the early 1930s most people would have hoped and believed that such an advanced society as Germany would be able to prevent a violent reactionary racist group like the Nazis from winning an election and seizing power there. We’ll see what happens.

The main message for Americans today to recognize is that things will not remain the same, and they certainly will not go back to the way they were in the early 1950s. There will either be bloody chaos leading to the demise of the United States as a constitutional democracy and a global power, or their will be a tense yet peaceful transition out of white hegemony into a more genuinely multi-cultural and tolerant society. This latter alternative, however, will require that, rather than trying to unilaterally set all the rules which darker-skinned people must live by and beat them into submission to those rules, white Americans must, learn to listen more carefully and respectfully to the interests, concerns and yes, demands of non-whites. Preferably they should learn to do this sort of listening before they lose their majority status entirely. If there is one thing that the past decade has proven beyond doubt though, it is that a significant number of white Americans still have a lot to learn in that regard, and a high degree of resistance to the learning process. Even so, hope remains.

For other “developed” western countries the demographic shift is less inevitable, but the need to establish sincere and productive inter-ethnic dialogues is just as critical. Fortunately most countries can approach this new situation with a cleaner slate than the United States, but former colonial powers in particular still face some major challenges in learning to listen to their darker-skinned citizens. Yet I firmly believe that if this challenge is faced with sincere mutual respect and a desire to more sincerely live up to our ideals of respecting the value of every person as a person, there is good reason to hope for the best.

May God protect us from ourselves in any case.

 

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Filed under Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Racism, Social identity, Tolerance

What if the order had been reversed…

This is an exercise in fantasy, relating to something that is for many reasons entirely impossible, but still worth thinking about. What if Donald Trump had been elected as president two generations before Adolf Hitler had won the election that made him chancellor of Germany? How much more guilty of civil carelessness would the minority of the German public who considered Hitler to have been “the lesser evil” be? And to what extent could they all be accused of being morally bad people because of this electoral decision?

adolf_hitler_appointed
Of course both Trump and Hitler are products of their own times, and could not realistically have risen in other eras of history and still been the same persons. Two generations before Hitler no conspicuously rich second generation immigrant without political experience but with a rare skill for gaining media attention; based in New York and representing all the evils that city is famous for, but drawing his primary support from the south and the “heartland”; building a campaign around all the things that white men lived in existential fear of; could have realistically took the White House. Something like Trump could only happen in the 21st century. Likewise Hitler could only have risen to power at a time when Germany was failing in its recovery from a world war, and it is highly unlikely that there would be enough left in the aftermath of any future world war for yet another Hitler to rise to power in. Thus it seems impossible to imagine another Hitler arising after Trump. Most impossible though is the idea that the path of influence between them could have been reversed: Trump read Hitler’s speeches and was clearly influenced by them, but it is unimaginable that Hitler would have turned to someone like Trump for inspiration.

But regardless of the impossibility of it, as an exercise in civil conversation between (even tacit) Trump supporters and those who see the sort of disaster that Trump’s sort of politics could portend, let’s imagine what the discussion between a Hitler supporter and an intense Hitler critic in post-Depression Germany would have been like in the time after Hitler had won his major election but before he had properly risen to power… if they furthermore would have had the advantage of looking at Trump’s election in hindsight.

Given the completely unrealistic premise this is based on, I want to try to give both sides a fair and realistic hearing on this. So let’s say that this is an open discussion between Dietrich, an avowed Social Democrat and anti-Hitler campaigner, and Reinhold, an independent who had chosen to vote for the Nazis in the recent election. Let’s randomly say that this discussion would have taken place on March 10, 1933.

D: As much as I respect you as a person, Reinhold, I still find it hard to believe that you could vote for that hemorrhoid Hitler. How could you honestly do such a thing!? Don’t you see what kind of danger you are putting our country into?

R: Dietrich, Dietrich, first of all the election is over a week ago already. Whether you like it or not, Hitler won. Why don’t you just relax and give him a chance to sort things out and see if he can fix the sort of mess that your Social Democrats and the rest of the corrupt old guard have got us into?

D: Why don’t I?! First of all because all of the hate-mongering that Hitler used to wheedle his way into power, and all of those psychotic brown shirts he’s got working for him stand a good chance of destroying everything that we hold dear about our German heritage! He practically makes Donald Trump look reasonable for crying out loud!

R: Ha ha! Heinz’s Law. You lose.

D: What?

R: You know: “As a political discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Trump approaches 1.” It goes with the same premise that whoever mentions Trump first automatically loses the debate.

D: That’s a stupid, ad hoc rule and you know it!

R: Is it really? Come on! You guys on the left have been calling every semi-competent center-right leader since the Bismarck “another Trump”. Face it: that’s a losing tactic.

D: OK, I’ll concede two things here: First of all there have been other elitist, populist hate-mongers since Trump’s time concerning whom Trump’s name has been thrown around a bit too freely. Secondly I admit that, whatever Hitler’s flaws, when it comes down to it no one can be another Trump.

R: Good… so why do I feel like there’s a “but” coming here?

D: There certainly is! The similarities in their campaign styles alone were big enough where the German people should have been able to learn something from the Americans’ mistakes back then!

R: That’s just ridiculous. First of all Trump had no connection at all with the people he was manipulating into voting for him. He was a spoiled little rich boy, not a committed patriot like Hitler. Secondly there really wasn’t any major crisis in the American economy back then. Production and markets were functioning just fine. There was a structural change going on regarding the sort of work that would need to be done in the future, and there was a need for the government to play a more active role in the changeover, but it wasn’t anything like Germany is today. We’ve got a real crisis, not one made up by opportunists to discredit their opposition! Beyond that the Mexicans and Muslims that Trump laid out as the enemies of the people were not in any position of power in their society, or in the world at large. Hitler’s point regarding the Jews is far better grounded. All in all they’re nothing alike!

D:  OK, another point I can grant you: Hitler does seem to be more sincere than Trump was overall. He does seem to have some sort of moral convictions rather than being pure con-artist to the core. But (yes, of course another “but”) that hasn’t stopped him from continuously changing his message to tell people what they want to here and push their particular panic buttons. And furthermore if you take the kind of hatemongering that brought Trump to office and combine it with a sense of sincere dogmatism of conviction about the matter that may make him even more dangerous than Trump. And even though the target of Hitler’s hatred is more thoroughly rationalized, it’s still the same sort of nastiness against other people that Trump was selling. Those Brown Shirts are really in no way morally better than the “Alt-Right” folks who supported Trump.
Now I know that you’re not the sort of person who believes in attacking Jews just because they happen to be born Jewish. I’m not accusing you of being that particular kind of deplorable. What I’m saying is that you really should know better than saying with your vote that you find that sort of policy to be morally acceptable and politically supportable!

R: You seem to be equivocating on whether my voting for Hitler makes me a bad person or not. I guess I’ll just have to live with that. Our country is pretty seriously divided right now, not only from this rather nasty recent election, but from all of the ways that your Social Democrats have been screwing things up over the past 15 years. Of course Hitler was not my first choice, and of course I don’t believe in attacking all Jews for the evils that a small minority of them are doing. But given how screwed up things have become, for basic working people in particular, you can’t really say that leaving the old guard in place or letting Otto Wels and Ernst Thälmann turn this country into some sort of Marxist nightmare would have been viable solutions. Hitler was clearly the lesser evil here.
All that being said, whether you and your leftist friends like it or not, Hitler is now our chancellor. The people have spoken and your leftists lost. So now you really should give him a chance to see if he can follow through on his promises to make Germany great again. Or are you going to join all those putzes who promised to move to Switzerland if the Nazis won? (Good riddance if they do go!)

D: As you know, as was the case with Trump, Hitler and his cronies still got less than a majority of the popular vote. I won’t deny it though: I’m still stunned that they got as much as they did. I honestly thought and hoped that the German people were smarter and more civilized than that; you included. All I can say at this point is that if Hitler gets what he wants then moving to Switzerland could turn out to be an excellent decision.

R: Come on now, Diet! We still have a system of checks and balances in this country. Old man Hindenburg is still in place trying to insure some resemblance of sanity in the system. Hitler and his boys still need to convince the other 2/3 of the Reichstag to go along with it before they do anything too radical. Things can’t really get too bad. So for now let’s just come together as Germans and see what we can do to rebuild this great nation.

D: In many ways I hope you’re right. The scary part is that I’m sure that back in the day Trump supporters were saying the same thing right after he was elected…

beer-hall-2

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Guacamole substitute choices

 

green-dip

One night last week, as I was leaving from meeting with some old friends at a bar (while staying entirely sober myself, so as to drive legally) I realized that I didn’t have any milk at home for having with breakfast. As it happened there was a little convenience store of Finland’s K-Market chain just down the street from the bar, so I took a quick buzz over there to pick up a few basics.

By way of cultural background, Finland has two major domestic retailers for foodstuffs and basic household supplies: the K-shop chain and the S-shop chain. In many small towns you have just two competing grocery stores, one representing each conglomerate. In both of the shopping malls close to my apartment there is a section for groceries with a large S-chain supermarket (named Prisma) on one side of the main aisle and a large K-chain supermarket (named Citymarket) on the other side. Between them they don’t quite have a monopoly, but they pretty much dominate the market. For various historical reasons if I have to choose between the two I tend to go with S-shops, but I don’t religiously shop at either, and I don’t hold a “preferred customer card” for either as a matter of principle: When it comes to groceries I’m a registered independent.

In any case, as happens once in a while, I found myself in a little K-Market. I found the milk and sundries that I was looking for easily enough but when it came to addressing the munchies I had developed while sitting in the bar most of what I might have found tempting was either out of stock or way over-priced. That’s when I happened to notice a jar labelled in Finnish simply as “Green Dip Sauce”…

The style of the jar was of the sort which K-markets and S-markets, and all of their smaller competitors, use to sell different varieties of generic imitation Mexican chip dip. Such products tend to come in three basic varieties: tomato-based, cheese substitute-based and imitation avocado-based. In bigger shops you can also find the tomato variety at least in the further variations of mild, medium and hot, though those designations are very relative to the Finnish palate. In fact there’s nothing especially authentic or Mexican about any of them, but as something to dip cheap corn chips in to keep your mouth and fingers busy while studying, driving or watching TV, they sort of work… most of the time.

With that in mind this “Green Dip Sauce” sparked my curiosity. It was clear what it was imitating, but nowhere on the front label did it contain the words “Mexican”, “avocado” or “guacamole,” even with the qualifier of “-style”. As it was moderately priced as such things go, and as I had a pretty bad case of munchies to deal, with I went ahead and bought it anyway.

Let me further confess here that such things are something of a guilty pleasure for me –– though in fact I don’t feel all that guilty about them and I actually don’t get that much pleasure out of them. Even so, I know that they aren’t really “good for me” or all that sustainable as consumer choices. At best they help me procrastinate eating “real food” and perhaps reduce the amount of “real food” I need to consume as part of my daily routines. It’s sort of a “for what it’s worth” question, which for me isn’t that much.

Real guacamole, on the other hand, is a fine “real food” for me to indulge in every now and again. Real guacamole –– the sort “so authentic that Donald Trump would build a wall around it” as that Mexican restaurant in Norway advertises –– should be made up of about half avocado mass, with the rest of its composition being a combination of tomato, onion, dairy products and spices. As long as the things you dip in it or season with it are relatively healthy (i.e. not corn chips) guacamole can be a valuable part of a healthy, balanced diet. Once in a great while I take the trouble to mix up a batch of it for myself at home. You can also buy some pricier gourmet varieties of pre-mixed guacamole here, which are pretty close to authentic, but to be honest with you I’m rarely ready to dish out the premium price for such. If I was stricter about eating healthy I would avoid such guacamole substitutes entirely, but I yam what I yam.

Yet the dip that I picked up that evening wasn’t even overtly pretending to be guacamole. Later reading the fine print on the label and comparing it to that on a jar of “Tex Mex Guacamole” from the S-market, I found that whereas the latter had only 6% avocado, this “green dip sauce… containing peppers, onions, cheese and avocado” had an actual avocado percentage of 0.7! At that level my ex-girlfriend, who is mildly allergic to avocado, could probably eat it without having any adverse reactions whatsoever!

At that point I effectively realized, this product was like the Donald Trump of snack foods. Its artificial color came from a completely different side of the spectrum, but other than that, the more I thought about it the stronger the analogy seemed to be. I guess I need to unpack that for you.

The Donald has become one of two products for people to choose between within his particular product group. The fact that there aren’t more choices available is a significant problem unto itself. In both American politics and the Finnish grocery distribution system both of competing operators seem to show little concert for product quality, assuming (for the most part rightly) that consumers can’t really tell the difference between authentic ingredients and cheap by-products used as fillers. But things have now come to the point where the choice is between a product that pretends to be somewhat authentic (Hillary, or the S-markets’ “guacamole”) and a product that is honest enough not even to pretend to be authentic (Donald, or the K-markets’ “green dip sauce”).

What, in terms of this analogy, would the real “avocado” be? In short, the democratic ideal. Democracy is theoretically designed to prevent those who own the most stuff from using their advantage to determine how the less economically advantaged are going to live. When it comes to how the government is run and how the basic rules of society are determined, in theory the rich man’s interests are no more important than the poor man’s interests: everyone’s vote counts equally, and thus no aristocratic minority can tell the less advantaged majority how they are going to live. The concept of a republic in turn stipulates that no royalty or oligarchy ––traditional or newly self-appointed –– is entitled to dominance over their country’s government affairs. Regardless of which word you use, in theory the principle is the same: it is the interest of the majority, organized within constitutional principles of “justice for all”, that determines how a government is to be run.

Well, fairly obviously in the case of American politics these days, neither presidential candidate has much of that sort of “avocado” in them. Ms. Clinton has got richer and built a stronger personal power base through insider favoritism and using the status quo power structures to her personal advantage than any other “public servant” in living memory. No matter how you feel about the good and/or harm she has done during her political career, and how much personal remuneration you feel she is justly entitled to, I don’t think the way she has played the system to her own personal advantage can be denied. It takes far more faith in femininity, or in humanity in general, than I have to believe that she honestly stands for the good of the people above and beyond promoting her own prejudices and selfish interests. If the generic “guacamole” from S-Markets here contains approximately 6% actual avocado, I’d say that could be a fairly accurate estimation of how much authentic public interest Ms. Clinton contains in matters that don’t serve her own personal interests.

It’s easy to see why many would be so passionately opposed to such a person leading the nation that they would choose whatever candidate most powerfully embodies their resentments in this regard. So it should come as no surprise that so many have gravitated towards a candidate whose campaign has been based more on hate-mongering, alpha-male posturing and naked personal ambition than any potential world leader since World War II. (A close second to Trump by those standards would be his soul mate, Vladimir Putin, but that’s beside the point.) Thus the mentality that anything must be better than Clinton has led to her political rivals marketing of a product that contains less than a quarter the minuscule amount of authentic public interest that Ms. Clinton has!

Representing Trump as the “lesser evil” in this election is, to me, as absurd as buying “green dip sauce” because you believe that it is “healthier” and “less artificial” than the competing “guacamole”! There is little credible evidence that he contains more than the smallest possible trace amounts of the sort of public interest we should be looking for in a president. Those who would attribute such interest to him are demonstrating but one thing: Trump is more intelligent than they are.

However the bigger issue is for us to consider is how, in terms of this analogy, we might get the United States onto something which more closely resembles a healthy diet. Given the woeful state of American education in social sciences and basic thinking skills in particular, maybe the country deserves such a completely junk food choice –– though tragically the rest of the world will have to live with this choice as well. Is there something we can do about this?

Going back to matter of green dips, in taking care of my own health it would be better for me not to dip my chips in either of the artificial alternatives available. Neither one offers the health benefits of consuming the “good fats” contained in avocados. If people here were to stop buying both forms of commonly available guacamole substitute, the conglomerates might simply reach the conclusion that people don’t really care for avocado flavored things in general, and they might pull all products representing themselves as avocado-based off of their shelves. But like, so what? I might actually be healthier for it. Likewise when it comes to the choice before American voters, though there is a clear difference between the products, the still greater discrepancy is still between either candidate and the standards that we should ideally be holding our politicians to. In those terms voting for either of the given alternatives seems to do more to condone a system that gives us such pathetic choices than it does to claim responsibility for our health and our future. Maybe we need to refuse to vote for either.

But here the analogy starts to break down a bit. It is pretty much self-evident that we will be force fed one of these two artificial alternatives. Furthermore, if the major political parties see that people aren’t voting in elections the equivalent to “taking the product off the market” for them is not to stop wielding authority, but to stop even pretending to care about the will of the people; pursuing their naked power interests with even greater impunity. Dismissing all pretense that a nation is governed according to the will of its people is the exact recipe for a shift to overt Fascism. We really do not want to see the United States go there!

What if we, by analogy, show the conglomerates that we are willing to defy their power by buying higher quality products from other distributors? In other words what if we vote for third party candidates as a way of sending a message to the big two? Could that work? Perhaps, though this year I’m having my doubts. The closer you look, the harder it is to take either the Libertarian or Green Party candidates as anything resembling healthy alternatives. Yet even so, the more votes which are actually cast this year for those other than the two-party alternatives, the greater the chance is that one or both of these major parties will wake up enough to start adding more genuine public interest into their products. No, I don’t consider that chance to be particularly strong in any case, but perhaps it is worth trying at least.

Given the trace amounts of arsenic that Trump as a candidate has been recently shown to contain (figuratively speaking), in terms of boasting of practicing criminal sexual harassment, it seems more likely that we’ll be faced with Ms. Clinton as part of our political diet for the next few years, though I don’t want to underestimate the stupidity of my countrymen enough to dismiss the risk that Trump could still win. That leaves many of us with a difficult decision: Is it more important to make sure that, in spite of ignorant prejudices of many of our countrymen, a toxic candidate with no redeeming moral values does not inadvertently become president; or is it more important to send a message to the establishment parties that these sorts of candidates with their near complete lack of concern for people’s best interests and the good of the nation, are unacceptable to us as citizens? I don’t really have a good answer on that one.

All that being said, there are three public statements about the race by American jesters of different sorts that I particularly appreciate:

Scott Adams:
“Keep in mind that a big part of Trump’s persuasive genius is a complete disregard for facts and reality.”

Penn Jilette:
“There are two things that I always believed about modern politics:
1. Everyone who had ever run for major office was smarter than me.
2. There was no one worse than Hillary Clinton.
Both of those things have been disproven by Donald Trump.”

Andy Borowitz:
“Stopping Trump is a short-term solution. The long-term solution, and it will be more difficult, is fixing the educational system that has created so many people ignorant enough to vote for Trump.”

So, my dear American friends, please follow your conscience in voting next month, trying to do what you can to help the country, without being entirely stupid about it. And may God save us from what, largely through the influence of my fellow Evangelical Christians, the United States seems to have become.

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Post Script: The empty jar of “guacamole style” dip, containing just 3.7% avocado, that I had at home, which I used for comparison when I started writing this actually did not come from an S-market, but from the Lidl chain. For purpose of the operative analogy  here that would make it something like the Gary Johnson of guacamole substitutes. On more careful examination I found that the S-chain of grocery stores sells a generic product which claims to be actual guacamole, containing 6%  real (Peruvian) avocado according to its content specifications. I have now corrected the above text accordingly. I wish to formally apologize to any representatives of Prisma and/or associated business for exaggerating the artificiality of their product in the previous version of this article.

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Another Shooting Tragedy

I’ve got a number of half-finished essays that I’ve been writing since my little brush with death, but today I think it’s worth writing something fresh regarding the ten people who died in the senseless shooting incident in Oregon this week.

What deserves to be said here? I have to admit, in some way I sort of don’t want to know the details. Some crazy guy (it always has to be a guy, and to kill a bunch of strangers on purpose, without a commanding officer telling him to do so, we’d pretty much automatically label him as crazy) goes on a spree at a college of some sort. Of all those he gets bullets into he only manages to kill about half of them; maybe intentionally only killing those who identified themselves as Christians. One army veteran with a gun happened to be around, but his self-preservation instincts were strong enough to keep him from doing any stupid vigilante stuff with it. That thus screws up all the Second Amendment fundamentalists’ talking points, so “conservatives” need to find other fodder here. They turn to the fact that this particular crazy had a bug up his but about Christians, so they are thus able to make martyrs out of those who were senselessly gunned down. Meanwhile another former soldier, this one unarmed, but motivated with the intent of honoring his six-year-old son, rushes the crazy gunman, takes a few bullets himself, and somehow lives to tell about it.

So what are we supposed to think about all of this? Let me try to be brief for a change.

  1. Christians, especially West Coast style evangelicals, should not be proud of their ability to get people pissed off. Of course there is no justification for this shooting on religious grounds, but there is also no justification in taking pride in identification with the type of religious practice that prioritizes self-righteousness over social justice and sustainability, and which thereby has a tendency to drive those with weaker mental stability to start with over the edge. There isn’t really any justification for a martyr cult being built around this incident, and I would appreciate it if people I know would resist the temptation to participate in such.
  2. The most tragic element of a cliché shooting spree at an American educational institution is that it is such a cliché. We’ve seen this movie before, too many times. Talking points on both sides are strongly at risk of becoming self-parodies. From my perspective the worst of it is the Republican presidential candidates being in a race to trip over themselves in stressing how firmly opposed they are to common sense in limiting the civilian use of firearms in light of cases like this. But regardless, the victims here have become less important as people – victims of human tragedy – than as props within a repetitious argument over one of the more absurd aspects of the American political process. There is something about that that we need to be fundamentally disturbed by.
  3. On the other end of the issue, there is something disturbing about these particular 10 individuals who ended up dying last week getting more ink spilled in the international press than the thousands who have died from other preventable causes due to our collective political negligence. While the deaths of would-be martyrs are treated as abstractions rather than as tragic personal losses to the human family, at least they are somehow recognized. The hundreds who die in traffic accidents, for lack of proper health care, in drug-related street violence and through the business of routine remote warfare in the Middle East keep just getting swept under the rug. It’s hard to even suggest how we could keep these things in better perspective so that we don’t let these more “media-sexy” deaths distract us from other routine tragedies with far greater numbers of casualties involved. Maybe it’s good that cases like this no longer hold our attention.
  4. Once again the painfully ironic issue with a shooting at an educational institution in the United States is that it is the result of how utterly incompetent educational institutions in the United States have been in terms of teaching the basics of human rights theory. Only in the United States are people prone to think of the right to equip oneself to kill other people as a greater basic human right than education and/or health care for the general public. This gross blind spot is due to an essential failure in both curriculum planning and teaching practice in public education. This in turn is largely due to an obscene prioritization of military spending over education and social service spending as a matter of government policy since World War 2, and especially since the Reagan administration. It further adds to the irony of this tragedy that very few Americans understand the absurdity of this situation enough to be embarrassed about it.
  5. If there is something about this situation worth celebrating or commemorating, it is indeed the heroism of the single father, Chris Mintz, who took a number of bullets in an effort to make his world a safer place on his son’s sixth birthday. His son wasn’t in the room, but North Carolina native Mintz was in Oregon to begin with his on account of his son. He had begun the day by wishing his son a happy birthday, and after trying to block the shooters attacks on his college English class, his final words to the shooter before passing out were, “Today is my son’s birthday.” People really need to remember not just how brave this man was to risk his life for others, but how the thing he was willing to sacrifice his life for if necessary was the importance of fatherhood. Other fathers need to see how their children can and should be the most important thing in their lives. Other people should be more ready to respect the importance of this relationship to the men in question, even when the romance with the child’s mother doesn’t work. Fatherhood is different from motherhood, but just as important. This week’s tragic event should be taken as a reminder of that.

The rest I’ll leave up to each of you to ponder for yourselves. I just recommend that you do so in a spirit of thankfulness that for most of us life goes on this month.

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Filed under Death, Ethics, Human Rights

Homosexuality and African Ethics

I will be in a challenging position next week. Over the next few weeks I will once again be visiting Kenya, working on building cooperation with local churches there so that they can do their own work and fulfil their own spiritual calling better. This will inevitably involve extended discussions of the core ethical teachings of Christianity, and that in turn is rather likely to come back to the matter of toleration for and even full acceptance of homosexuality in (post-)Christian western cultures. My perspective is inevitably going to be very different from theirs, and I want to carefully consider how to approach the issue in a way that opens fresh perspectives for them without scandalizing them or frightening them away.

20150218_112840For some of my more secularized friends the phrase “fulfil their spiritual calling” may be rather scary sounding, so let me try to partially unpack what that means to me. I believe that the strongest teaching Jesus gave to his followers regarding the difference between those who are on God’s Kingdom’s side and those who are functionally in opposition to God’s Kingdom is in the end of Matthew chapter 25. (The connection between this teaching and the two parables which preface it is an interesting sermon unto itself, but we’ll leave that for another time.) In short, in the last 16 verses of this chapter — which is where Jesus comes the closest to talking about heaven and hell in the sort of terms that evangelicals and Catholics are most familiar with — the factors which distinguish those bound for heaven and those bound for hell are simply their efforts to care for those lacking food, drink, shelter, clothing, medical care and companionship. Nothing there about doctrinal purity; just a strict emphasis on showing God’s love to others in practical terms. That is what I believe churches in Africa in particular are spiritually called to do. Many of them do it quite well; others miss the mark by a considerable distance.

Meanwhile, for myself and other western Christians who take Jesus’ message seriously, finding partners who can help us help others is an extremely important part of following the Lord’s teaching. In the case of finding ways to help those in Africa with the six sorts of needs Jesus talks about, the options are essentially of four sorts: 1) supporting the work of local governments, 2) establishing or patronizing successful businesses there which work with responsible local partners (Fair Trade produce, etc.) 3) giving direct assistance by way of trustworthy secular non-governmental organizations, or 4) giving direct assistance by way of faith-based organizations (churches). Each of these approaches has its pros and cons, and all of them have their fair share of con-men involved. In simple terms though, those who are acting out of a sense of responsibility to a higher power do, on average, the most efficient work in terms of channeling the practical aid they receive to those who need it most. More human suffering is eliminated per dollar donated through church groups than through any of the other three channels.

But besides basic dishonesty and greed being found in churches as well, when it comes to the process of helping others, church leaders are also among the most poorly educated and most naïve of partners there at times. Also it is sometimes difficult for them to see a connection between providing practical aid and preaching the message of the Bible as they basically understand it. And like western Christians, African church leaders also have a tendency at times to believe that their prejudices and cultural traditions represent God’s will for mankind. Thus part of what I am trying to do on these African adventures is to build a sort of educational network to help keep church leaders there honest and responsible to each other, and to help them build a greater practical understanding of how the gospel message can be understood and applied in ways that make us more like the “sheep” than the “goats” in Matthew 25.

DSCF2920There are strict atheists who don’t believe that Christianity really does any humanitarian good, and there are Christians who believe that convincing as many as possible to swear allegiance to their brand of belief is more important than humanitarian work per se. I believe both are wrong, but I don’t want to take the bandwidth here to argue against those positions. If you disagree with my premises as stated above all I can say for now is that I wish you the best of luck in finding your own purpose in life elsewhere, and goodbye for now. Meanwhile, back to the challenge stated at the beginning: dealing with the questions of homosexual rights and gay marriage in the context of this mission.

Let me state a few things from the outset regarding this issue. First of all I happen to have friends –– good friends in fact –– on both sides of this issue, for whom the whole idea of calling their convictions into question even is highly offensive. Those on both sides are thus just going to have to bear with me; or otherwise walk off in disgust and stick to your respective safe social circles where no one contradicts your views on this highly polarized issue. Second, Kenya, and equatorial Africa in general, has a series of very different cultures than our own when it comes to sexuality, gender roles, family ties and social acceptability in all of these areas. Europeans have, over the past few centuries in particular, frequently tried to step in and “repair” Africans’ “primitive” social structures in these regards. Some of these interventions have been more justifiable than others. As it is, Kenyan culture and the ancient Jewish culture of the Bible are probably far closer to each other than either culture is to that of the modern west. This necessitates a certain caution and humility on the part of any and all of us who wish to try to help there in any sense. Third, this relates to profound questions regarding the basic essence and purpose of sexuality, and how that in turn relates to spirituality, in ways that I can barely scratch the surface of here and in ways that could be very difficult to speak about to essentially uneducated African churchmen. Then finally, and perhaps most importantly, I can easily anticipate critics of my ideas here from the conservative side saying that by raising questions about what these leaders are dogmatically motivated to fight against in the name of Christ, I could be seriously damaging their motivation and effectiveness as Christian leaders (and in the same regard some aggressive atheists might hope I will limit the effective spread of the Christian message in this sense).  To these people I say that, as powerful as hatred and dogmatic false certainty are as motivational tools, in the long run they do more harm than good, and the Christian message will go forward stronger and healthier without them. Your perspective may differ, but I’m sticking to my convictions on that one.

So let me start the actual discussion of the matter with a premise from my own personal philosophy: The most ultimately fulfilling forms of human pursuits are those which give us a sense of either confidence or connection or both. The most satisfied and fulfilled people are those who are convinced that they are good at what they do and that they are part of something bigger than themselves. The point of religion and/or spirituality –– including the “Kingdom of God” that Jesus came to proclaim and enact –– is to enable people to find these forms of satisfaction in life in deeper ways. If a person’s or a group’s faith isn’t working in these regards, then it isn’t working, period. But that being said, there are always difficulties involved in choosing what sorts of things to base our confidence on; and there are limits as to how deeply we can love which sorts of people without driving ourselves crazy, literally. Loving everyone, completely, would involve making all of their problems and conflicts in life part of my own life, and none of us have that sort of capacity. Thus religion provides us with standards by which we can have some idea of what to expect of ourselves, what we can justifiably feel proud of or confident about, what we can justifiably expect of others behavior-wise, and what sorts of abusive and destructive behaviors we should stand up against.

So there are good practical reasons for having doctrinal standards in general, and those of the Christian tradition have stood the test of time fairly well, but there are still good reasons to think critically about how important those standards have become to us as ends unto themselves, rather than as means enabling us to better love God completely and love our neighbors as we love ourselves. There are a number of good reasons to frame the question in these terms, but the simplest might be in terms of telling the story of King David.

David had a pretty adventurous life, in which he “bent the rules” on plenty of occasions. One particular occasion which stands out is in 1 Samuel chapters 21 and 22, where David is on the run from crazy King Saul. In making his get-away he stops off in the town of Nob to talk to the priest there and get supplies. David flat out lies to the priest, saying he is on an urgent secret mission for the king, and he then takes as basic food the bread which has already been ceremonially dedicated and set aside for only priests to eat. While he was there he also saw a character he didn’t particularly trust, a foreigner named Doeg, but he didn’t actually say anything about his suspicions or warn the priest that if he was caught helping him he could be in big trouble with Saul. And as it happened, this foreigner did go and tell Saul that the priest of Nob had been helping David. Saul went ape poop crazy about this, and when he wanted the priest and his extended family massacred in a revenge killing, and none of his regular soldiers were willing to do it, this same Doeg took care of the bloody deed for him. One kid from the priest’s family did manage to escape with his life though, and he ran to tell David about the matter. David basically told the kid, “It’s all my fault. I’m sorry. I’ll protect you.”

Skip forward to the Gospels. One of the tales which is told in each of the synoptic gospels is how Jesus responded when the Pharisees tried to bust him for breaking some of the more trivial rules regarding manual labor on the Sabbath day. Jesus and his disciples were picking heads of ripe grain, rolling them between their palms to get the kernels out, and snacking on them. From the Pharisee’s perspective this was clearly “work” that was forbidden on the Sabbath. Jesus’ response was to first of all remind them of the story from 1 Samuel 21: “David was not blamed for bending the rules; why should you condemn my friends and I for a far more trivial infraction?” (Mark 2:23-26, for one telling.)

032311_2057_REVIEWINGTH10But then going back to the Old Testament history of the matter, David was never actually condemned for this rather questionable move on his part, nor for the vast majority of his careless, selfish or bloodthirsty maneuvers during his life. In fact, when David’s descendants turn out to be a batch of first class idiots, over and over again we read that in spite of their misadventures, “for the sake of his servant David, the Lord was not willing to destroy Judah” (e.g. 2 Kings 8:9). And in particular there was only one event in his life for which David was morally censured by the Old Testament historians: “the case of Uriah the Hittite.” We’ll come back to that one. The point is that strict observation of the rules was not the thing that made David, or Jesus, so important. Loving God completely and caring for those around them continuously (or nearly continuously in David’s case) was what set their lives apart. The rest, from their perspectives, was details.

So how does this relate to the Bible’s, or Christianity’s, rules about sex? Touchy subject, but I sort of have to tackle it here. Basically it is recognized that sexual release is something that all healthy people want, perhaps even need, but that letting that go unrestrained can cause all sorts of problems. The spread of disease was not actually mentioned by the Biblical writers, but it is an obvious related issue. More important to the ancient Jews was the matter of keeping their bloodlines going. In essence sex, from the Old Testament legal perspective, was supposed to be used for that procreative purpose and that purpose alone. Stated briefly, that made a lot of sense for its time, but it doesn’t really work so well these days.

Going through this rather quickly, there are three essential problems with maintaining that procreation only standard for sex today:
1) It relates to a scientifically outdated perspective coming from Aristotle that there are complete “souls” contained in a man’s sperm, and that these souls need to be respected and only released in places where they can grow into complete human beings. We now know that sperm contains no complete patterns for people, making its sacredness as such more questionable.
2) Maximizing human populations is, for many reasons, not a particularly wise or even moral strategy these days: It leads to millions of children ending up in pain and suffering, and strains the resources of the environments in which these clans try to sustain themselves. And then,
3) There are many valuable things about sex as a bonding experience between the couple who share this experience with each other, whether or not they are hoping to make babies in the process, that religion would be foolish to belittle as such.

So with these things in mind, how should sex be regulated and restricted so as to enable the greatest benefit in terms of enabling people to feel good about themselves and connect with each other in positive ways; yet without spreading diseases, without abusively using each other’s bodies for otherwise meaningless sexual satisfaction, without making excessive numbers of babies who are doomed to suffer hunger and neglect, and especially without cheapening the meaning of sex as a way in which two people can become part of each other in the deepest sense?

To be honest, we really don’t have any new set of rules that perfectly answer all the complicated questions involved in balancing the harms and benefits of different aspects of human sexuality. In every society we still have problems of rape, STDs, children in crises from physical and emotional neglect, and couples in crises with issues of jealousy, possessiveness, sexual frustrations and unfaithfulness in their relationships. It would be perhaps a bit naïve to say that there was a time or place where people didn’t have these problems, but it would be even more naïve to believe that we are getting closer to ideal moral solutions to them. The main issue is that within churches and communities we need to remain honest regarding the challenges we are dealing with here, and we keep trying to share our “best practices” with each other when it comes to confronting these issues, without attacking those who fail to meet our standards for purity in the process. (One exception is that those whose sexual carelessness and cruelty seriously damages the lives of others –– rapists, child abusers, reckless sexual adventurers breaking promises to committed spouses, and the like –– thoroughly deserve to be condemned for these practices. These are not matters of lacking ritual purity; they are matters of selfish cruelty.)

All that being said, the perfect ideal which the vast majority of people have in mind regarding their sexuality –– which has been remarkably standard for the majority in most human cultures throughout human history –– is for each of us to be able to find some healthy partner of the opposite sex, who shares a desire for the two of you to share life with each other. This should theoretically involve completely satisfying each other’s sexual desires so neither feels a need to look elsewhere for such satisfaction, and in this process the two of you would parent a manageable number of children together, each of whom feels completely wanted and each of whom can aspire to someday having for him- or herself the same sort of wonderful relationship that you have with your spouse. Those are the primary aspects of our ideals for sex and marriage; the rest is details.

Sadly in real life things hardly ever work out that way, so in hundreds of little ways we need to work out how to deal with situations where key aspects of this ideal break down on us. What are we going to accept as “close enough” to be acknowledged as a socially acceptable pair bond, with an assumed private sexual practice involved? How do we regard those who have children outside of the context of a legally committed sexual relationship? What are acceptable grounds for dissolving such a bond between two people? Who will we allow to raise children that are not born into an ideally functioning family unit? In what ways can we allow these sorts of compromises without further weakening the standing of the generalized ideal within the society?

In practice these are issues that each couple, each church, each local community, each ethnic traditional culture, and each level of civil government needs to work out for itself. The bases for deciding which “non-ideal” practices are acceptable and which aren’t really isn’t something that God has carved in stone and given a simple, eternal blueprint for mankind. Those who are looking for simple, absolutely certain answers to moral questions, particularly regarding sexuality, face continuous disappointment in reading the Bible. What we do have there is a guiding pair of ideals –– to love God and to love each other –– and a complex, immanently human set of stories and guidelines for realizing those ideals. We need to acknowledge that our societal rules are very much a work in process in this regard.

Part of this challenge is for churches to work out their own systems for stabilizing family relationships within their community of faith. In doing this sometimes they need to set stricter standards than the rest of society regarding how close to their religious ideals for marriage a couple has to be before the church is willing to formally acknowledge their relationship as legitimate –– in other words, to marry them. It is part of freedom of religion in most countries that churches are allowed to make such decisions for themselves. If someone has been divorced and remarried five or six times, the church is not required to conduct a new wedding ceremony for them, or to acknowledge their remarriage as “accepted by God”. Likewise religious communities are not forced to ceremonially accept mixed marriages, where someone from their community chooses to take a spouse from outside of that community. Sometimes these decisions are made purely on the basis of prejudice, but often they are made in good faith as an attempt to keep their system for reinforcing family life as viable as possible.

So then we come to the question of what to do about that minority within our communities whose sexual attraction is primarily to those of the same sex. Can we somehow “cure” them so that they can fit in with the standard ideal for sexuality as a basis for, and restricted to, the process of building a family with someone of the opposite sex? Can we just require them to live without sex for their entire life and leave it at that? Should we consider this orientation to be a form of sexual irresponsibility on their part and punish them for having such desires? Frankly religious communities have tried all three of these approaches, and many imaginative combinations thereof, with rather problematic results: Some are “successfully cured”. Others are driven to suicide. And then we find a broad continuum of results in between these two extremes.

What has been historically changing over the course of my lifetime is that same-sex attraction is no longer treated as an illness by medical and social work professionals, and from there the process of accepting those who experience such attractions as “normal” members of western societies has been moving forward relatively rapidly. Now last week the United States as joined a number of other countries in which same-sex couples who wish to have their personally committed homosexual relationships legally recognized as marriages have the right to be married, and to have their marriages legally recognized as such wherever in the country they happen to go.

In different cultures –– particularly those where the “proper roles” of men and women are very much separated and distinguished from each other –– this sort of development creates an especially painful crisis: for a man to sexually “play the role of a woman,” or visa-versa, messes up their whole perspective on how life is supposed to work. For a society to fully accept such a private sexual practice as normal is just too mind-blowing for them. This seems to be particularly true in many parts of Africa.

To my African brothers and sisters who are particularly bothered by this issue I would like to stress the following:

  1. Churches are not being required to sacramentally accept homosexual marriages as unions “joined together by God”. Any given church can still choose whether it will see whether such unions are close enough to what family is intended to be to offer their blessing. What they cannot do is legally refuse to acknowledge these people as full members of the secular society, having the same legal rights based on commitment to each other that “traditional married couples” have. Churches are still allowed to preach against homosexuality as much as they are allowed to preach against divorce, but when it goes as far as encouraging attacks against those who are divorced or gay, that becomes a different matter, regarding which what was wrong before is still wrong now.
  2. In spite of what some evangelists or radical Muslims may try to tell you, recent natural disasters are not the result of people in those areas getting too free with their sex lives. That isn’t how God works. I have my own perspective on what motivates some people to preach those sorts of things, but that’s for another time.
  3. Gender roles are changing, and that really has nothing to do with homosexuality. It is still true that in many African villages that women still must eat separately from men, after they have finished serving the men. Such practices are not seen as “normal” in western society, even if they are quite in line with how things were done in Jesus’ time. Trying to prevent these things from changing, or trying to change them back to the way they were in the times of our forefathers, is really not going to do any good. The roles of women and the roles of men are getting closer to each other all the time as a function of education being available to both boys and girls, and modern technology that is used in the workplace being just as easily operable for men and women. Blaming homosexuals for the way these things are changing, and the uncertainty these changes may cause in family life, is certainly unjustified.
  4. Again I must stress that rather than reacting with hate against things we find sinful or distasteful, the emphasis of the Christian message needs to be on building our capacities to love God and each other. The balance here is that part of loving each other is preventing people from doing things to harm themselves and each other, and that would include matters related to sexuality. But whatever we may agree or disagree about in terms of the details of what constitutes “harm” here, we need to keep the premise of learning to better love God and each other in mind when addressing the issue.

Beyond that I’m not going to tell people what they have to believe on this matter. It is a very complicated and culturally relative thing, and it is not my job to tell them how to organize their societies in terms of gender roles. I will continue to preach the Twin Commandment of Love, and I will continue to do what I can to improve education equally for girls and boys, and to improve access to technological means of improving productivity there for both women and men, but I will leave it up to the people themselves to work out the implications of these things for family life. After all, it’s not as though I’ve proven that I have that whole business figured out for myself…

But I promised that I’d come back to the case of Uriah the Hittite. Perhaps you know the story already. One of David’s main commanders, who happened to be a foreigner in Israel, had a particularly hot wife named Bathsheba… But before going any further with the story (which you can read for yourself in 2 Samuel 11), let me toss in a speculative detail to the reading that might put it in a different light: what if Uriah was actually gay?

It is not unknown for attractive women to feel most comfortable with gay men, who are not so overwhelmed by their attractiveness and thus find it easier to talk to them as people. It is also not unknown for gay men of the ancient world to have taken wives for themselves as matters of keeping up “normal” social appearances. For a Hittite immigrant to ancient Israel and a convert to the religion of Israel, keeping up appearances would have been particularly important. Then we have the fact that Bathsheba was being a bit of an exhibitionist, washing nude on her roof below the castle, in the spring when the armies had gone off to fight but the king was known to have stayed home. She had just finished with her period, reminding her once again that her husband wasn’t about to get her pregnant any time soon, so…

6581240257_e1a86586cd_bDavid gets all excited, has her brought up to the castle, spends a night with her, accidentally gets her pregnant, and then has to figure out what to do about it. He does everything in his power to get Uriah down to the house and into bed with his wife soon enough so that he’d think the child was his, but none of it works. Even stoned drunk, with an engraved invitation from his commander and chief to go spend some conjugal time with the Mrs., Uriah feels more inclined to go be with the guys in the barracks. What does that tell you?

So then David does the one thing that, of all of the crazy things he had done in his life, God gets angry with him about: he has Uriah killed. He puts matters in the hands of Joab, a real Machiavellian sleaze if ever there was one. He lets Joab know, subtly, that Uriah should die in battle. They were in the process of starving out an enemy city, but Joab has a sudden change in strategy: he sends Uriah’s unit up against the main fortifications so as to rattle their defenses a bit. Strategically it was a bone-headed move, but Joab told the messenger, “If the king gets pissed about this just tell him, ‘Uriah died in the attack,’ and that should cool him off.” So it went. So God became displeased. Of all of David’s misadventures, that was the one where he actually intentionally betrayed someone loyal to him; someone who perhaps happened to be gay, with that playing a role in why the king had him killed.

The point: hating and attacking people because of their sexual inclinations is not something we can excuse as being in any way part of “God’s work”. Thus however you need to work out your system for making families stronger, scapegoating and attacking gays as a source of the problem is not an acceptable way of doing things. Chew on that for a bit.

Sorry for rambling on for so long!

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Filed under Ethics, Religion, Tolerance

Thinking of the Senior

There are many things in the news and in my personal intellectual explorations to be written about this week, but I have to set those aside for the moment to acknowledge today as Father’s Day in the United States and a few other countries. (Finland has its Father’s Day in November for some reason, but that’s beside the point; part of me is still very much American.) In fact with all the fuss here over Midsummer I would have forgotten this holiday entirely were it not for some touching posts by some of my Facebook friends.

I’ll leave aside the question of how being a father changed my own life and how it continues to be central to who I am, even though at this point my own sons are very much on their own and rarely in touch more than once or twice a month these days. I fully accept that, because at their ages I was even less in touch with my own father. What I want to say is something about how my relationship with my own father has laid the groundwork for who I have become, and the sort of credit and blame he deserves in that regard. I’m pretty much at peace with who I am, so I happen to think of it primarily as giving him the credit he deserves, but those who have a more critical perspective regarding me as a person might want to blame try to him for part of what I like about myself.

20150621_193037I write this sitting in the little camper trailer that I have as a working residence on the “job site” of the country place I bought this winter, with money from a small stock portfolio that my father transferred into my name sometime a while ago; I’m not exactly sure when. There were times when my sons were much younger when I really would have liked to start this sort of project, but for lack of money I was unable to, but such is life. The uniqueness of this current opportunity would have been lost had I been able to follow in my father’s footsteps too closely in that regard. Let me unpack that a bit for you.

I am in fact the last of my siblings to start reenacting one aspect of our unusual childhood that we all found particularly valuable: “The Farm”. The original farm, as far as we were concerned, was a place on the Massachusetts/Vermont border that Dad bought back when he was living and working as a business consultant in New York City –– back when he was in his early thirties and none of us kids had hit puberty yet. It was a small former dairy farm in a town called Heath, with a fair amount of open field space, a line of old apple trees across its wind-swept gentle ridge line out back, a classic New England stone fence along the north side of the property, a forested patch with lots of sugar maples running along its western border; and a house, a barn and a few odd out-buildings, each with their own serious structural challenges. We worked together, with a few odd hired helpers and experts, to repair and rebuild this place into an environment that we each in our own way found to be therapeutic.

The letting go of this place was a sort of emotionally complex experience for each of us, and we each in our own way tried to hold onto part of it, while at the same time “being honest with ourselves” about the whole matter: what we were each able to take away from the place emotionally, what aspects of the experience we could hope to recreate and build on later, and what limitations there were to the experience for each of us to try to overcome in our respective re-creations thereof. So here’s my current retrospective on that formative experience meant in my own life.

The word “heath”, for which the town was named, is not all that actively used in everyday speech anymore, but it basically refers to an area where the soil is poorer than that of the surrounding territory and where farming becomes a lot more difficult. Though strictly speaking not much of the town was composed of heathland in the strictest sense, the name was still appropriate. It was not a particularly highly prized area: no major national parks or tourist attractions close by to speak of; just relaxed farmlands where white people had got rid of the native Mohawk tribes centuries ago, and where they had been trying to eke out a modest living for themselves from the stony soil ever since. It was as generic as rural New England gets. Yet for our purposes that was perfect. It was a place to practice skills of simple self-sufficiency, to get nostalgic for simpler ways of life, and to have the space to find a sense of peace with oneself.

The Heath farm had its own collection of “interesting” neighbors. There was the family in the next house to the north who would very much have been “hillbillies” had they lived in the southern half of the Appalachian chain rather than its northern end. They lived a rather poor, simple life, killing whatever non-domesticated animals happened to wander through their fields for food, regardless of whether those creatures were “in season” or not. My brother brought his pet rabbit over to their house to get together with their rabbits for breeding purposes (successfully), and we got a second rabbit in exchange for the service, but that was about the extent of our interaction with them.

Across the street from them lived the manager of the Montgomery Ward’s catalog shop in the closest proper shopping district (thirty-some kilometers away). That fellow and his wife seemed to have a sort of dream of living simply but stylishly off the land, in harmony with nature, but in all sorts of little details it never seemed to work for them, particularly when it came to their animals. They had a set of very expensive bird hunting dogs that never really learned to hunt, in spite of their spending more on a state-of-the-art training collar than I’ve ever spent on a car in the years since. They also had a cow that they never really learned to milk. In fact the milking process turned into such a brutal daily a contest of wills between man and cow, driving the latter to panic and the former to frustrated hysterics, that they had to virtually give the beast away for the safety of all concerned. It was quite the show while it lasted though. This couple also happened to provide the strongest basic supply of neighborhood gossip for anyone who was interested in such. Even so, they were probably the neighbors on that road that Dad built the strongest friendship with.

Then sort of across the street from our place, a bit to the south, was this academic researcher of some sort, who I never actually got to talk to other than seeing him drive doing various errands with his old red tractor, yelling, “Hello neighbor!” to everyone whose path he crossed. He had a reputation for trying to borrow things a bit too freely, for taking other little liberties on other people’s property and for generally not fitting in with the local community. More than anything else, Dad seemed to be concerned about not being too closely compared with him.

The next piece of property south of there, on both sides of the road, belonged to the last working dairy farm in the area. Dad always appreciated this particular farmer’s work ethic, and they both clearly enjoyed chatting together about all things practical and agriculture-related. But on some level there were differences between their perspectives that mutual respect wasn’t going to cover. The farmer was part of one of the “original” families in the town, who all kept a certain emotional distance from the various “newcomers”, and beyond that he had his own private stresses in life. He had a batch of kids, none of whom were all that interested in following in his footsteps. Meanwhile no one ever seemed to see his wife, until one day the news came out that she had died, from liver failure as rumor had it. It wasn’t too long after that, when the last of his kids were ready to leave the nest, that the farmer sold off everything, pulled up stakes and left town, not looking back. But by that time we too were starting to emotionally let go of our connection with the area.

Looking back at that time it’s easy to conclude that the Heath farm was part of a particular era in Dad’s life that had was quite thoroughly over by the time he sold the place. Dad went through a string of marriages, each lasting pretty close to seven years, each involving its own challenges and “growth experiences” for him. The farm was pretty strongly tied to his second marriage, and by the time his third marriage came along for many reasons it was no longer a viable option to hang onto the place. We all sort of recognized and accepted that, but as I said, somewhere in our hearts we never let go of those experiences.

Perhaps somewhat ironically, it was through the career and investment decisions that Dad made during the course of his third marriage that he was able to give each of his children enough of an investment portfolio so that I have now been able to use part of that money to finance this sort of modest rural escape dream of my own. Thus in virtually every way this cottage project brings aspects of my relationship with my father to mind for me. It has almost all of the aspects that made the Heath farm so special for me at least –– things that I strongly speculate were important all to my siblings as well: simplicity for its own sake, understated natural beauty surrounding the place, interactions with neighbors with lots of “character”, and working to turn an essentially unwanted property into something beautiful and desirable. The only major aspect of the original model that is missing for me is being able to share it with my own children. But that has to do mostly with timing issues, for which I don’t really blame anyone, least of all my father.

The comparison and cause-and-effect relationship between my own experience of divorced-fatherhood and my father’s is a more complicated question. What I can say for sure is that he and I both made significant mistakes in our marital decisions, both in terms of who each of us married, when and why; and how each of us failed in our attempts to build and maintain those relationships thereafter. (My father’s current marriage appears to be going strong for him, hopefully on course to see him through the rest of his life now, so perhaps he’s learned more from his mistakes than I’ve learned from mine, but that is sort of beside the point here.) I can further state that my mistakes in these areas have been entirely different sorts than his mistakes, and I don’t see my mistakes as evidence that he screwed up in terms of being a bad role model for me. There are still many things about some of his mistakes that I do not understand, mostly because they have to do with things that were not talked about in front of children when I was a child, and which were not really any of my business anymore once I became an adult; but I don’t believe that such an understanding would have prevented me from making my own mistakes in marriage in particular.

The relevant issue is that the relative roles men and women in society and in marriage are still changing. Women have (largely justifiably) demanded greater respect for their contributions and capabilities, and that has effectively destroyed the traditional status quo of what men and women have felt culturally entitled to demand of each other. There are many cultures which are still resisting such changes, but such resistance seems largely doomed to failure. As much as they might try to deny it, the most culturally conservative branches of Christianity, medieval Islamic traditions, African tribal traditions, Chinese Confucian traditions and other such systems which seek to keep women “in their proper place” are continuously having to make new compromises as women’s rights become more widely recognized and accepted. Nor can we take any of their fights against such compromises to be “a bold moral stand” of any sort. Thus we are in a position where we still don’t know what new cultural norms will arise for regulating romantic relationships and marital mutual responsibility. So there is really no mystery to the matter of marriages continually breaking up more as traditional gender roles get shuffled around.

My father had his own reasons, which I only partially understand to this day, for choosing to set aside “traditional marital responsibility,” before that was particularly popular or respectable thing to do. I, on the other hand, tried to find personal security through dogmatic belief in traditional gender roles and moral codes, only to find that I could not depend on such standards to safeguard my future happiness or domestic tranquility. My father didn’t provide a “positive role model” in that regard, but I can’t imagine that it really would have mattered for me if he had; things had changed too much. Beyond that the hypotheticals run way too deep for me to even begin to sort them out.

What my father did offer to me was a role model of how to remain dignified and keep a sense of personal honor even when things don’t work the way you want them to, and even when your honor comes under the bitterest attacks. The farm in Heath was part of that. It was an exercise in looking for sustainable values in an ever changing world. That isn’t to say that Dad found them there, but he made my siblings and I part of his process of looking for them, in such a way that each of us in turn has continued looking for such values in ways we each started to develop for ourselves at the farm.

Part of that for me has been seeking out a balance between religious and non-religious aspects of my life; or perhaps I should say, a balance between trying to spiritually connect with other people and trying to spiritually connect with simple, less societally oriented aspects of the world around me. It’s sort of an Ecclesiastes 7 thing (particularly relating to verses 15-18), which could be taken as both an earlier and more profound variation on Aristotle’s idea of the “Golden Mean”.

And that in turn is a big part of what I am doing here at my little place in the Finnish countryside. That is also why I cannot help but think of my father extensively every time I come here. That is what makes it particularly appropriate for me to be spending America’s Father’s Day here on my own.

I’m not sure how far others can relate to what I’m saying here. I’m even less sure about how many might agree with my socio-ethical perspectives on these matters. These are just my own rambling thoughts about what my father –– the man I am named after –– means to me on this holiday. So here’s wishing you, David Robert Huisjen, Senior, the finest of days celebrating your paternal status; and here’s wishing fathers everywhere the sort of deep satisfaction that should go with knowing your importance in your children’s lives.

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Filed under Ethics, Happiness, Holidays, Individualism, Parenting, Philosophy, Respectability

Fresh Apologetic Challenges

The academic year has now drawn to a close. I’ve been accordingly occupied with a number of issues in relation to the finale season, and of course there have been other life transitions to distract me lately, but I’ve had plenty of philosophizing on my mind that I’ve been planning to write about. Let’s see if over the next week I can get caught up a bit here. Now I have no more excuses for not working some of these things through here.

One of the most important things from last month that I want to do some “thinking aloud” about here is what I was trying to say in the last university post-graduate seminar I attended this month. It was my turn to offer a critique of my colleague Lari’s presentation, and I don’t think I really did it justice. I also believe that the subject in question deserves to be discussed with a broader audience than in our little research group. Lari will be making other public presentations of his material, but I hope he doesn’t mind my spreading my take on it to the little collection of readers I have here.

The basic topic of Lari’s paper was the alternative strategies that Christians (and other theists) can use to counter the most recent variations on the Occam’s Razor argument: the claim that all god-concepts can be quite thoroughly explained in terms of the operations of a Hypersensitive Agency Detection Device, that no further explanation is necessary for them, and that they should therefore be dismissed as irrelevant.

As the argument goes, we humans are instinctively prone to attribute random occurrences to some sort of agent or intelligent being. Not only are we ready to assume that consciousness exists outside of ourselves; we are prone to see evidence of conscious activities in all sorts of places where, on closer examination, we can actually be relatively certain that they don’t exist: What looked like a monster posed to attack me from my closet was actually just a pile of dirty laundry. The noises coming from the attic are not ghosts, but old timbers contracting as they cool in the night air. No one stole my keys; I just misplaced them.

In terms of evolutionary theory, it is better for our imaginations to be hyperactive in this area than for them to be insufficiently active to identify potential enemies and allies.  As with a fire alarm at home or in a public building, it is better to have dozens of false alarms than to have the alarm system “not notice” one actual fire. Thus our mental programming, designed to detect other “agents” in our environments, tends to be a bit high strung, causing us to see intentionality and strategic thought in many things that we later realize were entirely random or accidental matters.  The question from there is, how well are we able to identify all of these “false positive readings” for things we take to be the activity of other minds after the fact; and if these tend to go undetected, might they essentially explain where all of our beliefs in a spirit world “out there” come from?

In its most aggressive form, this argument asserts that the most common intuitive reasons people have for believing in God all come back to dependence on their ability to detect “agency” –– the results of conscious actions committed by others –– in the world around us; an ability which is inherently flawed. Therefore, since spiritual beliefs are easily explained away as the products of the buggy “agency detection devices” that are programmed into each of us, it is most rational to reject all spiritual beliefs out of hand.

Lari’s argues, quite fluently, that in broad terms there are two strategies for committed theists to use in countering this sort of argument: We can either claim that we have entirely separate –– and more “respectable” –– reasons for our beliefs in various spiritual entities and phenomena, or we can claim that our agency detection device programming is not as faulty as its critics are prone to believe. The former style of argument he refers to as an internalist-evidentialist strategy; the latter, an externalist-reliablist strategy –– as good of names as any. From there he contends that both strategies can be useful, but whereas the evidentialist strategy makes it easier to construct reasonable sounding counter arguments, the reliablist strategy while more difficult to defend, may provide a more useful tool in terms of defending the faith of the average active church member, given the number of believers whose faith really is based on a combination of traditions they have been socialized into and the function of their agency detection devices.

As far as he goes with that, I have little argument with Lari’s analysis. My problem is with the way in which these arguments attempt to address epistemological questions in abstraction from their ethical implications. I categorically reject the idea that we can search for some ultimate truth about the existence of God separately from practical questions of how we should live and what the purpose of our lives should be. The whole issue of “respectability” within epistemology as an end unto itself –– as a holy calling regarding which philosophy takes on the role of a priesthood of sorts –– is effectively a continuation of the Hegelian tradition, and I firmly believe that Kierkegaard’s critique of this tradition makes a legitimate point, especially when it comes to questions of what it means to believe in God.

There are two particularly famous Kierkegaard quotes that sum up the issue rather succinctly:

“If Hegel had written the whole of his logic and then said, in the preface or some other place, that it was merely an experiment in thought… then he would certainly have been the greatest thinker who had ever lived. As it is, he is merely comic.” (Journals, 1844)

And then,

“What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act. What matters is to find a purpose… to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die.” (Journals, 1835. Emphasis added.)

Kierkegaard’s primary critique of Hegel concerned the old German’s lack of basic humility in his epistemological perspective. Acknowledging our fallibility is a very necessary starting point in these matters. There are two challenging aspects of the philosophical search for truth that we, as humans, are never going to overcome: our finitude and our biased personal perspectives. Any honest philosophical inquiry needs to keep these limitations in mind throughout the process; not claiming to have found infinity within oneself, nor to have found a level of truth that isn’t based on what we can discover within our human limitations. Those who turn to either philosophy or religion as a means of trying to escape life’s uncertainties and ambiguities fundamentally miss this point.

If, however, we set somewhat more modest goals for ourselves of determining what truths are worth acting on, and what sorts of actions are justified on such bases, both philosophy and religion can provide useful guidelines for choosing a course of action. (Many will disagree with me about the usefulness of either. For some of them philosophy might provide a useful framework for discussing the matter at least. For the rest, c’est la vie if they disagree.)

jack and jillTo follow on Lari’s choice of hypothetical character names, let me illustrate this with a story of Jill and Jack: This couple first met at a student gathering one fine spring day, and over the subsequent weeks they began dating. This took some courage for Jill in particular, as she was just getting over the rather bitter ending of a previous dysfunctional romance with Joe. Jack, however, showed himself to be a kind, respectful, funny, intelligent and seemingly emotionally mature sort of guy, so in spite of her wounds and fears Jill decided to keep seeing him. Then one night Jill had an especially vivid dream, in which she saw herself and Jack as an old couple snuggling together on a porch swing as their grandchildren arrived for a weekend visit. Jill believed that this dream was somehow prophetic; that she and Jack were just meant to be together.

When she told Jack about this dream though he seemed a bit skeptical, and perhaps a bit intimidated even, as though his new girlfriend might have a few screws looser than he had first realized. Nevertheless he deeply appreciated her otherwise quick wit, her sweet smile, her gentle affectionate nature, and her overall sense of style, so he too wanted to keep the relationship going. Some months later an occasion arose where Jack thought it would be appropriate to take Jill to meet his family. Jack’s parents were immediately smitten with Jill, and made every effort to make her feel completely at home with them. Jack’s mother, June, in particular wanted to get in some one-on-one time with this sweet thing her son had brought home, so she asked Jill to come help in the kitchen. While the two ladies were in there alone together, June suddenly became rather confused mid-sentence and then collapsed on the floor. Jill instantly reacted to the situation with complete composure, kneeling down next to the older woman and trying to revive her. June soon came back to consciousness and apologized, making excuses of being overly excited and not having eaten properly that day, but Jill could see that things were not entirely right. She immediately yelled for Jack to come in and told him, “I believe your mother is having a stroke. We need to get her to the hospital right away!” As it turned out, Jill’s diagnosis was entirely correct, and getting June into immediate treatment prevented any major damage from resulting from the incident. She was thus able to make a quick and complete recovery. Jill’s rapid and well-informed reaction had saved her from suffering paralysis and loss of speech, and may have even saved her life.

Jack’s gratitude to Jill for saving his mother in this way seriously intensified his feelings for her and his commitment to her. Two months later he asked her to marry him. She enthusiastically agreed.

Now the question is, was it wise for these two to believe that they had found a true love that was just meant to be?

In Jill’s case her original decision to entrust herself to Jack was based on a naïve belief in the power of dreams. To try to defend the general validity of seeking guidance from one’s dreams is a rather difficult and problematic matter to say at the least. This can be associated with all manner of superstitions that can ultimately cause all sorts of problems in one’s life, to say nothing of the relational conflicts that could arise if Jack wouldn’t happen to share such beliefs with her. On the other hand though Jill’s dream might still be seen by a non-believer in the magical power of such things as a subconscious indication of how much healing Jack had succeeded in bringing about in her life. Thus even if there was nothing prophetic about it, the dream could be taken as a sign that he really was good for her. Her epistemological premise for believing in the value of the relationship may well have been flawed, but it is possible that the conclusion which it brought her to could have been the right one, and perhaps even “true” in a practical sense.

Jack’s more careful and skeptical consideration of the value of their relationship may be easier to rationally defend on some levels. It was not dependent on any magical concepts or superstitious beliefs as such. To the less romantically inclined he could justify his decision to marry Jill on the basis of the significant practical value of having her around, as seen in the way she saved his mother. Did that prove beyond doubt that Jill was the ideal woman for him and that they were destined to live “happily ever after”? In itself of course not. Telling that story to Joe would by no means be enough to convince him that he had made a mistake in letting Jill go. But even so, this experience, taken together with Jack’s other reasons for appreciating Jill, provided him with as good a rational justification for making a romantic commitment as people can really expect to find these days.

None of this excludes the possibility that within a few years Jack and Jill would end up driving each other crazy and getting divorced. If that were to happen inevitably both of them would have to reconsider the thought processes that led them to believe in their relationship to begin with. If either were naïve enough to believe that their reasons for choosing each other were matters of absolute rational certainty, a marital crisis could end up shaking their personal existential foundations in really horrible ways. But even in that case we wouldn’t have enough information to say that marriage was a mistake for them. One or the other might well have made later mistakes to screw up what otherwise would have been a beautiful thing for both of them. Whatever the case their epistemological premises for believing that they belonged together were not the best determinant of the validity of the proposition, nor a particularly strong indicator one way or the other regarding the strength of their future marriage.  (There’s also a lot to be said these days for people daring to love each other in spite of all of the risks involved, but that’s another essay.)

So how does this relate to the question of our grounds for believing in God? One aspect of the matter is that neither an externalist-reliablist strategy nor an internalist-evidentialist strategy –– neither “a sense of God’s presence” nor attempts to prove His existence on the basis of historical events and the like –– is entirely foolproof. Our means of knowing by way of such means are always going to be flawed, and we need to acknowledge that.  But more importantly, we need to acknowledge that faith can have significant value even when it doesn’t have an epistemologically “respectable” basis.  A lot really depends on what you do with that faith.

Let’s go back to Jack and Jill. One significant risk for their relationship would be if Jill would somehow start expecting Jack to live up to all of her wildest dreams –– daydreams and night dreams. Getting angry at him for not living up to such an impossible standard would be a certain recipe for disaster in their relationship. Just as bad would be if Jack were to start seeing preserving their families’ health as one of Jill’s essential roles in the relationship, thus (perhaps secretly) feeling bitter against her whenever a family member would get seriously ill. Those aren’t the sort of things that their decision to join their lives together should have been based on, but then again many couples have married based on similarly irrational expectations. If, however, based on their differing epistemological premises, they were able to form a mature, caring, supportive commitment to each other’s happiness, the inherent flaws of their respective epistemological processes need not become an issue.

Likewise when it comes to faith, magical expectations and false certainties can do all sorts of damage. Thus I believe that addressing these practical concerns may in fact be more important than justifying the foundations for one’s faith.

In Lari’s seminar paper he mentioned an old quote from a particular Finnish “Christian Democrat” politician that he and I both happen to be acquainted with. Some years ago this fellow made a public statement to the effect that God had caused a particular volcanic eruption in Iceland as a way of getting Europeans’ attention. This sort of rhetoric rang true with enough people here were this guy has now been elected as a member of parliament here! I would pretty much expect such foolishness in the United States, but not in Finland. I know this fellow to be fairly well-meaning and relatively harmless character overall, but the idea that he might seriously believe that his job is now to try to pass laws to keep Finns from doing “sinful” things so that God doesn’t cause natural disasters… is more than a little disturbing to me.

The question is not one of whether this politician is epistemologically justified in believing in God, but whether he is justified in politically attacking what he sees as the sinfulness of others on that basis. Or perhaps that question needs to be expanded a bit: Does he feel called to fight against things like greed, hate-mongering, lack of caring for the poor, and the destruction of the environment, because of the ways in which such sins can be seen to have a destructive impact on the lives of others; or is he more interested in keeping too many people from enjoying the wrong sorts of sex as a means of magically preventing earthquakes and volcanoes and such? From there comes the question of what sort of justifications various sorts of believers would have in voting for (or against) a political party characterized by such positions.

By Kierkegaard’s standards these would more important questions to consider than that of whether or not, in the abstract, one is justified in believing in God. At the very least I am convinced that abstract arguments regarding justifications for believing in God have little value without their ethical implications being taken into consideration.  From there I’m prone to see the internalist-evidentialist vs. externalist-reliablist discussion as a matter of relatively minor concern.

But then again, if some academic theologians are able to get grants to study such things I wish them all the best with their endeavors. 🙂

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Hating Islam vs. hating Catholicism

I’ve decided to tread the fine line regarding my fast on expressing hate here. There has been an abundance of hate speech going around on my social media news feeds this month, and it’s been hard not to respond to the intellectual and moral inferiority of much of it. But that would involve expressing how little respect I have for certain individuals’ intellectual and moral capacities, which I have promised to spend some time not doing. Even so, perhaps I can permit myself to address the issue of hatred for a particular group of people in a more constructive manner. The hated group in question is of course Muslims.

CatholicMuslimOn the issue of relating to Islam I am pleased to have people pissed at me on both sides. I have Muslim friends –– genuine friends –– who are offended that I do not consider some aspects of their faith to stand up well to intellectual and moral scrutiny, to the extent that I would not remotely consider converting to it at this point in life. I also have Islamophobic friends –– again, genuine friends –– who deny the legitimacy of the very word “Islamophobic”, saying that Islam is a force of evil that all rational people should have a fear of. For them it is offensive that I am willing to give the vast majority of the world’s Muslims credit for pursuing a life of peace, at harmony with the highest powers and principles in the universe.

In any case, from this DMZ-walking perspective on the issue, I found Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s recent interview with the Huffington Post, promoting her new book, Heretic, to be particularly interesting.

This author and thinker has become infamous as something of a patron saint among secular islamophobes, so the mere mention of her name will have some people closing this blog right here with a quick curse on me, and others tingling with excitement that I might join them in their prejudices; sad on both accounts.

All I can say is that I merely wish to give credit where credit is due for her suggestion that Muslims can (unlike her) remain Muslims, subscribe to the five pillars of Islam, and pursue what is best and most uplifting about their faith, even while calling for its modernization in five key areas:
1. Allowing critical analysis and interpretation of the Qur’an and the life of the prophet Muhammed.
2. Prioritizing the present life over concepts of the after-life.
3. No longer giving religious law precedence over secular civil law.
4. Ceasing to take mandatory commands as the basis for morality and civil order.
5. Ending calls to arms and killing others in the name of defending faith.

Another thing I found interesting about the interview was how, as a lady 7 years younger than myself, Hirsi Ali kept referring to herself as a representative of an older generation, but that’s sort of beside the point here. Her main point is that by accepting these sorts of challenges to their traditional orthodoxies, the other major monotheistic religions have become in many respects much stronger and better able to respond to the challenges of modernity; and in terms of its impact on world culture, it would be by far the best thing for all concerned if Islam would go through the same sort of internal revolution of self-reevaluation. On this I largely agree with her.

The counter-arguments to this position fall into two basic categories: a) The evil powers that be within Islam will never allow these sorts of reevaluations to happen, or b) If these sorts of changes would occur among the followers of Muhammed, the change would be so profound that they would no longer be justified in calling themselves Muslims.

The first is a matter of speculation regarding the future that is rather fruitless to argue about at any length. Suffice to say, there are certainly Iranian ayatollahs and ISIS supporters, among others, who wish to do all in their power to prevent any such reforms from taking root with their religion, but they probably won’t get the historical final word on the subject. We’ll see.

Regarding the second point, I am of the understanding that, first of all, we outsiders can’t really try to tell Muslims what their faith should mean to them and where its limits should be drawn, but then beyond that they’re not particularly keen on letting other Muslims draw those lines for them either. There isn’t any Pope of Islam, and as bitterly as Muslims may disagree with each other on all sorts of theological and moral issues, hardly any of them take it upon themselves to determine which other Muslims are to be recipients of Allah’s mercy in the after-life and which are doomed to damnation. In theory that sort of open attitude should make reform that much easier to bring about, though in practice it looks inevitable that any steps forward on Hirsi Ali’s five points will only come as the fruit of bitter and bloody struggles.

Needless to say, the time when Christianity went through its equivalent major struggle was nearly 500 years ago already. It may not justifiable to refer to Hirsi Ali as a potential Muslim Martin Luther, but she could end up playing the role of something like a Muslim Erasmus: eloquently pointing out some of the problems in the way the faith is being practiced so that other, less intellectual radicals who are more deeply involved in the religious system might become motivated to bring about changes from within. Yet it should be acknowledged that whether or not such reform happens, the resisters to reform are likely to remain in the majority, and the protesting, reforming minority will continue to be branded by the majority as “heretics” for many generations to come.

This brings us to the question of how we relate to those closer to home who identify with ideologies which famously resist reform. In the Christian case, up until the time of my birth at least, that primarily meant those evil Catholics. Without having to  go back as far as Martin Luther and his polemics against the popes of his age as the world’s biggest pimps, we can see all sorts of ways in which, over the past couple of centuries, hatred against Catholics has been a major factor in world politics in general and in US politics in particular. Nor did the Vatican do itself any favors by holding to a hard line against officially recognizing members of any other churches as fellow Christians until only about 50 years ago. When it comes right down to it, the matters that Hirsi Ali wishes to see reformed within Islam are the very things which radical Protestants have pushed to bring into the Christian theological debate for centuries already, and which many Catholics (and now more conservative Protestants) have been at best hesitant to accept.

Considering “sacred scriptures” to be human documents, subject to human perspectives and limitations in their attempt to reveal the divine, has been a difficult matter for many Christians to accept. Beyond that, as with Muslims, there has been the tendency among Catholics authorities to consider the traditional understandings of what God expects of us from within their official framework also to be beyond question. Daring to ask, “Has God really said…” remains valid grounds, among the most traditional monotheists of both persuasions, to burn someone as a heretic, at least figuratively if not literally.

Likewise focusing on the after-life at the expense of responsible living in our present, material lives is hardly an exclusively Islamic problem. Catholic preaching about possibilities of earning extra rewards in heaven, and avoiding extra sufferings in purgatory –– abuses that Luther railed against in is 95 Theses –– has remained a staple of their (and again, many conservative Protestants’) populist message, frequently at the expense of teaching people to love their neighbor and to act as peacemakers.

The question of the relationship between religious law and civil law in turn was the primary emphasis of Pope Pius IX’s “Syllabus of Errors” in which he condemned anything that gave the Church less official authority in the lives of its members, including public education, civil marriage, civil divorce, separation of church and state, and priests’ liability to civil prosecution. The implications of Shariah law are actually quite mild by comparison. The same document goes a long way in promoting the sort of thinking which Hirsi Ali wishes to challenge see eliminated from reformed Islam in terms of “Ending the practice of ‘commanding right, forbidding wrong’”.

Finally we have the matter of religious leaders in both traditions declaring either “crusades” or “jihads” (very much equivalent terms) against those whom they label as “evil”. Even though this practice effectively reduces their affirmation of the ideal of being instruments of God’s peace to nothing more than the grossest hypocrisy, Catholic leaders have been more than a little hesitant to renounce the practice entirely, and to condemn their predecessors’ practices in this regard.

Am I saying all of this to revive a hatred for Catholicism among Protestants? God forbid! My point is that even though there are what I see as significant intellectual and moral failings within official Catholic doctrinal positions –– which are not only historical embarrassments, but issues relevant to contemporary morality and world peace as well –– I am not really even tempted to see Catholics as inherently morally inferior people. Most people, it seems, got over that issue when JFK was elected as president. The last stalwarts to cling to such a prejudice were probably the Protestant Ulstermen of Northern Ireland, and now even they seem to have outgrown it. So why then do so many people think that Muslims should be held as morally suspect for their lack of will to reform the tenants of their faith?

Let me summarize this matter as clearly as I can: I strongly believe in the value of religious faith to motivate people to do good, to see themselves as inherently interconnected with others, to find purpose in their earthly existence, and to enable them to forgive themselves in spite of all their experiences of failure in life. At the same time I recognize the risky tendencies within many (all?) religious traditions to validate tribal prejudices, to use blind dogmatism as an antidote to life’s uncertainties, to manufacture a sense of self-righteousness among their believers, and to hatefully attack others on these bases. I personally maintain a continuous crusade, or jihad, against these evils within my own life and within my own faith as much as God grants me the strength to do so.

On these bases I see all people of faith –– and most of those who currently lack a sense of faith –– as living with the same struggles in terms of their everyday moral practice. Some are more self-aware about it than others, but it’s not my position to issue final grades for them in this respect. Thus I wish to evaluate people as neighbors and fellow citizens of the world, not based on the extent to which the dogmas they subscribe to are compatible with the dogmas I subscribe to, but based on how they personally prioritize between their purposeful interconnection with others and their more dogmatic tribalistic impulses.

Yes, that includes Muslims. Yes, there are particularly disturbing aspects of the dogmas they officially subscribe to, just as there are with Catholic dogmas. Yes, I would like to see those dogmas reformed so that they are more conducive to achieving the sort of goals that Kareem Abdul Jabar outlined in his column this winter: “people wanting to live humble, moral lives that create a harmonious community and promote tolerance and friendship.” I do believe that the kind of reforms that Ayaan Hirsi Ali suggests would better enable Muslims to live that way. I also believe that more thoroughly accepting those kind of reform principles would help Catholics to more thoroughly live that way. But I don’t consider these reforms to be a prerequisite for any Muslims or Catholics, or Protestant fundamentalists, or secular humanists even, in gaining my friendship and respect.

If people from each of these tribes can better learn to respect the others then, so much the better.

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Filed under Ethics, Religion, Respectability, Tolerance

Politics Without Hate

It’s been a challenging week to keep the promise I made to myself in my last entry here, especially when it comes to my interactions with Americans. It’s only a year and a half before they elect a new president, and for various reasons all of the advance campaigning I’ve been seeing on line seems to be based on trying to scare people away from “the other” guy, or gal.

Meanwhile in Britain there’s a general election heating up, reflecting their on-going struggle in trying to become a genuine European multi-party democracy rather than a traditional two party state based on pre-industrial societal dynamics. No one there seems to like the two party system much, but getting properly beyond it doesn’t look like it will be happening any time soon. And in an effort to get out of a need for coalition building and to get back to simple dominant party ruling dynamics, the conservative prime minister took Easter as a time for posturing regarding the traditional “Christian identity” of the U.K. It was extremely difficult for me to resist the urge to lecture on line about everything that is wrong with that idea, but I’m glad I did resist the urge.

As it happens though, there is also a Finnish parliamentary election going on this month –– the first since I have acquired Finnish citizenship. I’ve always been active in the discussions of such matters here, but now I finally get to vote myself in a national election.

ennakkoaanestaminen-vaalit-eduskuntavaalit-vaalimainonta-vaalijuliste

For a long time as a permanent resident here I’ve been eligible to vote in municipal elections, which I have done with a fair amount of diligence, though hardly ever successfully in terms of getting my candidate of choice elected. In the last two city council elections I voted for different friends of mine who happened to be running on the Green Party ticket. Neither made it. In fact is somewhat of an inside joke among my colleagues at work that my candidate received a total of three votes in the precinct I voted in, and I can know for sure exactly who the other two were. Even so, I took part.

Elections here also have their own entertainment value. All of the special purpose billboards full of slogans and candidates’ mug shots, and all of the posters tacked to telephone poles and sheds and farm equipment by the roadsides, are the ripest field possible for new comedy material. Some jokes about such things become part of the shorthand of coffee shop conversation. Others become one-off giggles such as the truck driver speaking to a call-in radio show about which parties and which provinces seem to have the ugliest candidates on their posters this time around. To me this time one of the funniest things to notice is how Jussi Saramo –– a neo-Marxist candidate for my district who some of my11073554_10153190797429645_7993621622386281772_n more liberal friends are supporting, who is advertisingd6c7603472c8e98660515c7c8f682c9a_5 quite heavily on Facebook these days –– is a dead ringer for Ryan Dobson –– a second generation would-be provocateur for the US Religious Right. It’s little ironies like that which keep the smile on my face…

Like most European countries, politics here are not a simple, binary process of the old party of the business owners vs. the old party of the manual laborers. With less than a hundred years of independence under its belt, Finland has largely overcome the traditional divisions of management vs. labor, Swedish-speaking vs. Finnish-speaking, Marxist sympathizing vs. Anti-Marxist reactionary politics, and for the most part even urban concerns vs. rural concerns. As I wrote earlier, Finland is now in an unsettled interregnum period between major political eras. No one is really sure who or what will replace the Nokia cell phone production and design operations as the dominant economic motor and political interest factor in national politics. People are clearly a little nervous about that, but so far they have not been panicking and running to extreme new “answers” to the current dilemma. That is probably a good thing. That is the running theme of the current election season.

The center-right party which is currently leading the coalition in power has been suggesting that, with the collapse of the Nokia revenues to keep the generous social welfare system going, a new round of belt-tightening is in order. They would rather do that than put new taxes on those who have most benefitted from the Nokia era, which could conceivably scare them away to tax havens further south, where international venture capitalists are known to hide their resources from their respective governments. The belt-tightening idea has limited support here, however, because human rights as the basic task of government is quite thoroughly understood and respected here. For Finns human rights are not an excuse for invading other countries, but in theory at least an operational guiding principle for all levels of government. Supporters of all mainstream parties seem to fundamentally agree that freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from fear of attack and freedom from extreme poverty –– ideas picked up from FDR and company when as a nation Finland was still going through puberty –– are the primary responsibilities of any government. Beyond that there is a strong public consensus that education is not only a basic human right, but a strategic priority for building a sustainable national future.

The functional challenge is in finding ways to get people to work together to enable these rights to be better realized. The center-right National Coalition Party is talking about supporting these same goals and priorities, using “encouraging private sector job creation” as the means of getting there, but the public isn’t really buying it. And in fact they are unlikely to be able to bring about the sort of “business friendly” adjustments they would like to see introduced. They can speak in vague terms of a need for austerity and lower taxes, but in terms of actually cutting services and/or taxes there is little they can get away with. Cutting public support for those in seriously disadvantaged positions and especially reducing investment in education systems are largely out of the question as far as the electorate here is concerned. So it seems that all they can really do this time around is to make people nervous with their cutback talk. In spite of their efforts at responsible and intelligent management over the past few years then, they are more than likely to lose power this time around.

Altogether there are somewhere between 10 and 15 other parties on the ballot, where winners are chosen in proportion to the number of votes each party receives over a broad geographical area. (Gerrymandering is a very foreign concept here.) Among these parties there are some distinctly reactionary, single issue oriented and hate-mongering fringe groups. Some are out to reduce the number of foreigners or foreign influences in Finland. Some are obsessed with preventing various industrial “bad guys” from having their way with natural resources and the local labor forces. Some are out to prevent what they see as “moral decay” in a vague, broad, religious tradition-based way. Many of these sorts of groups will probably come to have a seat or two in the parliament, where they will play a role in making other politicians lives a little more difficult, without really doing much damage overall. In between there is a pretty broad mainstream, wearing all sorts of different labels.

I was somewhat surprised when I started playing with the on-line “candidate matching” data-base games that news organizations here have set up. After asking about everything from potential NATO membership to educational spending, to opposition to marriage equality, to areas for tax increases the “election machine” offered me a list of candidates whose public positions and campaign promises are closest to my own preferences. The surprising thing was that the party platforms for pretty much all of the mainstream parties –– from center-right to nominally neo-Marxist to the Greens –– were over 70 % agreed with the personal preferences I typed in. That says something rather positive about the political atmosphere here, in spite of all the current challenges and uncertainties.

This broad political agreement leans towards an understanding that there is no going back to any sort of “good old days” or to the moral standards of some earlier “greatest generation”; the only way we can move from here is forward, even if we don’t know what that means in practice. A few things that this future direction has to emphasize though are education, diligence and mutual trust: Whatever new hope there will be for Finland’s economy, it will not be based on doing things cheaper than they can be done in warmer climates closer to main international trade routes. The only way to be economically competitive up here is to continuously be thinking of new, more efficient, less traditional and more interesting ways of doing things. This requires taking education at all levels seriously. It also means being ready to work hard and work together with others to achieve the goals we set for ourselves. That can’t be based on complaining about how lazy or greedy or careless the next guy is; it has to be based on believing that he wants many of the same things I do, and if we work together in a smart way we can improve our odds of realizing those personal goals. Building this sort of trust must be at the core of the new political and business culture if anything positive is to come from either.

Whatever the other flaws in the structure of the system here, it has the advantage of having to vote for someone you believe in, because there’s not any way to use your vote to prevent an offensive candidate who happens to be popular among local idiots from getting in. Voting your hatred for alternative candidates just doesn’t work in this system, and I believe the political system here is healthier for it.

So with all that in background I’ll go ahead and give you who reasons for endorsing my own candidate of choice for this year: Tommi Läntinen.Tommi LŠntinen 1

Tommi is an aging Finnish rocker whom politicians have been trying to recruit as a minor vote magnet for their parties for as long as I’ve lived in Finland. For some years he stepped out of the spotlight, living abroad with his wife and son as she pursued her own international career. When they returned to Finland Tommi’s son then ended up in the international school where I teach. I thus got to know Tommi from parent-teacher conferences as one of the most personable, helpful, cooperative and positively oriented parents I have ever had to deal with. There was never anything awkward or intimidating about his minor celebrity status; it was just part of the glue that ended up bonding the kids in his son’s class and their parents into an exceptionally mutually supportive unit. Those are the skills Tommi most wants to take into the parliament. Those are the reasons I believe he could be an excellent MP.

Beyond trying to play a role in improving the atmosphere in the parliament in terms of communication, cooperation and creative positive thinking in general, Tommi has taken on the personal issue of improving mental health services for young people in particular. The stress of remaining internationally competitive, together with all of the traditional factors which have historically tended to make Finland a rather melancholy nation, are taking a toll on young people here in a number of measurable ways. Doing more to make sure that, regardless of how tight things get economically, these young people get the support that they need in order to move forward in life, is something that I completely agree is a worthy goal in politics.

Tommi’s choice of the Social Democrats as a party to run with is neither a motivational factor nor a problem for me in supporting him. The SDs are another mainstream group with a long history of contributing to public affairs management in mostly competent ways. They’ve had their fair share of scandals, but they also have had their fair share of exemplary statesmen over the years. For the last decade or so they’ve been sliding down the popularity scale, largely because for all their years in power they never really initiated any recognizable positive changes in society. They are identified as the party of status quo, particularly in terms of protecting the status quo for blue collar unions, though that actually ceased to be a particularly important topic in political discourse here soon after the Soviet Union collapsed.

If I was looking for substantive changes in the system I might find this a disappointing choice. But I’m not actually looking for substantial changes in the system. I’m looking for representatives with a positive attitude towards the future, who are not prone to panic reactions in the difficult times we may have coming. I’m looking for competent management of basic structures that keep protecting human rights and encouraging cooperation. For those things the SDs are pretty much as good as any, probably. For those things I trust Tommi more than any of the others I’ve seen on the local billboards.

This is the sort of style I’d like to see politics done in. What do you think? Could it ever be made to work this way in English-speaking countries? I’d like to hope that maybe someday, but… life goes on.

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My Post-Lenten Fast

This year I’ve let tradition slip a bit. In most recent years I have given some nominal observance to the season of Lent, but this year, with its various distractions, I didn’t really manage to give it much thought.

It’s never been a particularly critical matter for me; my Lenten fasts have always been something relatively trivial. I have lots of little guilty indulgences that I know that I would be healthier to give up every now and again. Nothing particularly big, but little things that I know I really don’t –– or really shouldn’t –– need. In recent years these have included coffee, red meat, computer games and television.

This Lent on Ash Wednesday I was off teaching a seminar in Kenya. I was fighting with a cough that was trying to eliminate my voice. I was dealing with little running expenses that were sending my credit card more and more into the red. I was trying to evaluate the extent to which the language barrier was limiting my audience’s perception of what we were talking about, and I was contemplating the potential lasting value of that program. With all that in mind, somehow I didn’t stop to think of guilty little habits I could be giving up.

Lent is now winding down for the year already, and I almost feel like I’ve missed something by not missing anything. But I’ve made a decision that, starting next week, after Lent, there is something in particular that I will live without for 40 days: all resemblances of hate-mongering.

As a researcher into politics, as an active participant in social media and as a school teacher there are many aspects of my everyday life where I am tempted, if not required, to think less of other people, and to make my negative opinions about them known to the general public. From there it is a very short slide into the phenomenon of considering such people worthy of hatred, and trying to convince others to hate these people with me. In some ways, I have to admit, I get a certain amount of pleasure out of being rather good at this.

I do try to temper my attacks on others. I try to make a point of not labelling large groups of people as inherently hate-worthy because of the various circumstances they were born into, and most of what I attack is people’s tendencies to attack others. I justify most of the bile I allow myself to spill as moves to defend the innocent who are being attacked, or as moves to limit the abuse of demagogic power by others. Consequently one reoccurring theme in my attack writings is political conservatism, especially hitting on the sort of conservatives which work overtime to justify their prejudices against people of particular ethnic backgrounds, professional positions (against school teachers in particular), and sexual orientations; which holds a tacit belief that freedom of religion and conscience should in practice only apply to those who are “close enough” to their own (“Judeo-Christian”) beliefs; which operate on the assumption that if someone is poor it is because they must be lazy, and it would be harmful to their motivation to assume that they have any natural right to the basics of life. I admit, I have little patience for such a political orientation, and I tend to do what is in my power to discourage those who are capable of self-critical thinking from holding such positions. Frequently, however, those who are most dogmatic in their conservatism lack any capacity for self-critical thinking, and thus I frequently feel compelled to point out that they are simply stupid.

But this, I must admit, is something of a guilty pleasure. I know that taking part in battles of wit with those who are unarmed for such combat is a cruel and disrespectful thing for me to do, even when I tell myself that I am doing it for the sake of others. In many ways such polemic exercises run the same risks as American foreign policy in the Middle East over the past few decades: pouring resources into attacking “bad guys” leads to an ever increasing level of hostility, and frequently to the very resources which aggressors have dumped in being re-directed to attack those who supplied them. It also relates to my everyday experience as a teacher: just because I am capable of shouting down a seriously distracted and disruptive group of students doesn’t mean that I should do so. Rarely is matching volume with volume a wise thing to do. Likewise, rarely is matching hatred with hatred a wise thing to do.

I’m not swearing off all political polemics for life, but as with coffee and television in my previous Lenten fasts, as useful as they can be at times, there’s a lot to be said for showing myself that I can go without; and in choosing to do so for a designated period of time as a gesture of worship.

For this exercise I’m designating for myself the period from Easter to Ascension Day: another 40 day stretch after Lent, and for this purpose a particularly appropriate one. This is the time of year when Christians are supposed to remember the contact Jesus had with his followers after he defeated the power of death. The Gospels tell of how he ate food, displayed his wounds and in other ways showed himself to be a physical being, but how he didn’t seem to be subject to basic laws of physics any more, mysteriously disappearing and reappearing, going through walls and all that. Finally, after keeping them guessing with a month and a half of such stunts, Jesus gathered a bunch of his followers together and let them watch as he levitated off of this planet, promising to come back later. So using this as a time to step outside of my natural reactionary and hate-prone tendencies towards those I disagree with, with hopes of a better world to come, seems more than appropriate.

So let me publicly pledge here that from Easter Sunday until Ascension Day I will not be publishing anything to tell people how ignorant, stupid, immoral, dangerous or otherwise hate-worthy any particular individuals or groups of people are. If I can find ways to talk about positive goals for politics, NGO work and faith-based initiatives I will freely do so, but for this time I set the limit on myself that these statements must be absent of any critique of competitors or of those who presumably have had a role in causing the problems being addressed. I’m asking all of my readers to pay careful attention to what I write about over this period, and keep me honest on this. I don’t deny that this will be difficult, but with God’s help I believe it is possible.

I would like to challenge as many of my friends and acquaintances here as possible to try to keep the same type of fast for yourselves this spring. I believe it could have a very beneficial cleansing effect on many of us. This is in part a selfish request from me: I know that I will be seeing plenty of hateful messages going around during this time, mostly ignorant people attacking others they know little about. As anyone who knows me can testify, not being able to say anything back to refute those sorts of ignorant allegations against anonymous others is something which goes against my basic nature! But I pledge to keep my fast regardless; so I kindly ask of those of you who are prone to post such attack posts –– for your own sake as well as mine –– could you please see if you can try to refrain from doing so until after Ascension Day (May 14, 2015). I would deeply appreciate it. But as with the other types of Lenten fasts that I have kept in years past, this is not something that I can pressure anyone else into.

The most common groups for “liberals” to attack would be Bible-belt evangelical Christians, fossil fuel companies, “too big to fail” banks and all sorts of traditional “whites only” groups. “Conservatives,” on the other hand, seem to find it hard not to attack Muslims, non-theists, sexual minorities, inner city dwellers, people who are sexually active outside of marriage, those associate with abortion services, and those who prioritize environmental over economic concerns. For both I’m asking, regardless of how stupid, morally deprived, greedy, lazy, careless, psychopathic or otherwise bad you happen to consider any such people to be, would you please join me, just for 40 days, in not talking at all about why you believe they deserve to be hated.

Just see if you can do it!

You can go back to preying as usual afterwards.

Meanwhile, peace be with you.

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Filed under Ethics, Holidays, Politics, Religion

Charlie and the Martyr Factory

Like most people in the western world, prior to this past week I had never heard of the publication Charlie Hebdo. Had someone shown it to me last month I probably would have thought of it as nothing more than a further example of poor taste in European humor; one low water mark among many. This week, however, the name became synonymous with martyrdom for freedom of speech; of the pen being more fearsome than the sub-machine gun. Given my occupational disease as a philosophy teacher of over-analyzing everything, I can’t help but think there must be a lesson in there somewhere. Let’s see if I can tease one out.

The word martyr is more than a little overused these days, especially in relation to (both sides of) conflicts involving Muslims. Some emotionally disturbed individuals who have been brainwashed into believing that they are worth more dead than alive have made a cliché out of strapping all kinds of explosives to their bodies and attempting to end the lives of as many “infidels” or “bad guys” as possible together with their own. Others have made a point of made a point of attacking those loosely defined as “the enemy” in seemingly senseless, reactionary ways, which actually serve an important strategic purpose of drawing irate counter-attacks from the enemy, which in turn kill a fair number of innocent women, children and everyday workers going about their business. These “collateral damage” victims then can be elevated to the status of “martyrs” as well, as a means of recruiting new fighters to the reactionary cause. Others set out to establish as strong a media presence for themselves with their hatemongering towards the other side as possible, so that if they have the fortune (good or bad being a question of perspective) to get killed for their stated views, their voices will be all the more amplified.

In this sort of cynical economy of martyrdom, it is frankly rather amazing that some Muslim activists still don’t get it. The global political arena being what it is, making martyrs of those who critique your position is the worst possible sort of strategic blunder one can make. Killing off those who mock you and try to make you look stupid only reinforces the message that you deserve such mockery and derision. If your primary strategic asset is a store of “martyrs” that you can use as means of recruiting new hot-blooded reactionaries –– who in turn can quickly destroy themselves and become new “martyrs” for the cause, enabling you to recruit still more young militants –– the last thing you want to do is make martyrs out of your opponents. It is thus merely a matter of common sense that, tasteless as some of the cartoons in question may have been, “responsible voices” throughout the Muslim world have joined the western media consensus in crying out against this past week’s killings in Paris. Then the fact that the attackers also took the life of a honorable Muslim French police officer in the process of martyring cartoonists and publishers just adds insult to injury.

Martyrs don’t have to be perfect people. Some of the most iconic martyrs of the last generation have been deeply flawed individuals in many aspects of their personal lives and their strategic judgment. The core issue, however, is that they stood for something that their enemies found deeply threatening, and they refused to back off on the matter even though they knew some people might try to kill them for it. On this basis ideological opponents can no longer belittle the significance of the deaths of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Stephen Biko, Anna Politkovskaya or even the Kennedy brothers by pointing out their human failings; the best they can do is try to co-opt and pervert the essence of what these heroic people stood for and were willing to die for.

Suicide cases are more ambiguous. It was harder to make a case for considering Bobby Sands and the other IRA gunmen who starved themselves to death in British prisons in the 1980s worthy of the title of “martyr”. Those who have burned themselves to death in public as a means of making their various political points have perhaps been more effective in terms of their deaths bringing others into the fight. Suicide bombers… well, their primary effectiveness is in terms of making their enemies afraid of their insanity rather than inspiring respect for their dignity and courage among their comrades. It takes a pretty desperate or confused mind to call that martyrdom. Sadly there seem to be quite a few such desperate and confused minds out there.

But if there’s a point to all this it’s that people can more readily relate to the victims than to the aggressors, and if you want to win the battle for hearts and minds, you can’t do that by trying to violently stomp out the opposition. The best you can hope to accomplish with any form of violent action is to prevent violent aggressors on the other side from attacking innocent parties, particularly those who actually have nothing to do with the feud you’re involved in.

The process of struggling for control, especially of hearts and minds, involves a certain inherent moral hierarchy: It begins with important ideas, moving on from there to media dissemination, civil activism, (democratically determined) government policy, and from there possibly to violent action. Each layer in this structure can lead to the activation of the next one up. The ultimate strength and legitimacy of actions on any layer here depends entirely on the level of support they have from the layers immediately below them (with what should properly underlie important ideas being a separate essay topic unto itself). Whenever an action from a higher level is used to combat an opponent’s action from a lower level in this hierarch, the higher level action effectively morally discredits itself in the process. This is how martyrs are made. This is what wise operators will try to avoid. Let me try to unpack this step by step.

political influence levelsIf you come across an idea that you don’t like –– that is influencing people to do things you see as harmful or destructive –– the first thing to do is to confront that idea on the level of ideas, with a better opposing idea: you need to prove the opposing idea wrong. If you try to counter the idea with a weaker idea, and if you try to make up the difference by just shouting louder than the other guy, you may get more people to hear you in the short-term, but in the long term you discredit yourself and your cause by doing so.

Of course any idea needs to be heard to have an impact on society, for better or for worse. If the other side is trying to drown you out with their volume, sometimes it becomes necessary to find ways of raising your own volume or visibility to counter that. Fighting media tactics with media tactics is thus a morally acceptable practice, as long as you don’t surrender the integrity of your ideas in the process (which, sadly, most politicians seem to do). What you don’t want to do beyond that though is to use mob tactics against their media. The term for fighting against an idea by mobilizing an emotional mob against it is demagoguery. This is what Kierkegaard accused his opponents of doing. This is part of why today we remember Kierkegaard’s name, but not the names of his opponents.

That does not mean that mass participation in the implementation of ideas is to be forbidden. The contest between groups of supporters of different ideas as groups is not demagoguery, it’s democracy.  Democratic coalitions should most certainly be allowed to challenge each other’s positions, and in the process they should be fully entitled to organize, campaign, protest and vote on behalf of the ideas they collectively believe in. For one group to use their position of political advantage and (temporary) authority to officially prevent opposing viewpoints from being fairly represented is a practice commonly referred to as tyranny. It was (theoretically) in opposition to just these sorts of abuses that the United States of America determined to rid themselves of English imperial rule some 240 years ago.

From here we come to the case of tensions arising between different self-determinant and self-governing peoples. When the legitimate autonomy of both sides is mutually recognized, and negotiations –– sometimes particularly intense negotiations –– are carried out on this basis, we are not talking about tyranny, but rather diplomacy. Sadly however, diplomacy has historically remained a rather abstract concept in international politics when it is not backed up with a certain amount of military preparedness and capacity for violent reaction on each side. When this military capacity becomes too one-sided, and when the dominant side in question uses its dominance to disregard the other side’s interests, this is properly known imperialism, a phenomenon closely related to the disease of colonialism. The historical abuses carried out in this regard by competing European nations with all of their colonies in Africa, Asia and the Americas are quite universally acknowledged by most educated people these days as having been in many respects morally inexcusable; but that does not necessarily imply that would-be imperial powers in our own time have learned anything from the moral mistakes of their predecessors.

Then we come to the word terrorism. These days this term is broadly used in reference to any group which does not represent a recognized national government, but which still attempts to use violent means of achieving their political interests. Given the way that some warring parties refuse to recognize those they are fighting against as having a moral right to fight back, the term is frequently over-used, and the difference between “terrorists” and “freedom fighters” tends to get very fuzzy at best. When Nelson Mandela can be officially labeled as a terrorist and without the term being used in reference to Augusto Pinochet, its moral significance obviously becomes rather questionable. Regardless of what we call them though, we can say for sure that those who use violent means to try to frighten others into submission stand on morally shaky ground. When a group uses its capacity for violence as a substitute for developing stronger ideas and building communal solidarity around them, moral justification is no longer a bona fide possibility for them.

The process of seeking out valid justifications for violence –– be they religious, ideological, utilitarian or in any other sort –– is more than I want to explore here today. Suffice to say, the number of violent actions which we see around us in the world today that might have some sort of valid moral justification is tiny at best, and as many intelligent Muslims have already joined western commentators in pointing out, the attack against Charlie Hebdo certainly doesn’t qualify as justifiable.

Hopefully intelligent leaders on all sides will take this stupid tragedy as a signal that it’s time to start de-escalating these cycles of violence –– regardless of how emotionally satisfying the feel to certain sorts of conservatives, and regardless of how profitable they are to certain American businesses. I’m not holding my breath waiting for current conflict leaders to take such de-escalating action, but I can still hope.

Meanwhile I can’t imagine that I would be important enough where any radical extremist would consider killing me to be worth their trouble, but regardless of my trivial status I hereby stand in solidarity with all of the “martyrs” whose ideas have been considered so threatening that the various powers that be have decided to be violently silence them. Though I write my own ideas pretty much entirely by keyboard (and I generally use pens only for marking up my students’ texts and my research source materials), I hold this pen aloft to say, long live the power of ideas, and shame on all those who attempt to silence them by demagogic, tyrannical or violent means!

20150111_213743All honor to those who, regardless of their other short-comings, have dared to stand up for their own ideas, however crazy or tasteless those ideas may be. All honor to those who dare to think in exciting new ways, and to those who dare to challenge their ideas on an intellectual level, in a spirit of mutual respect. All honor to those who abide by the principle that the way to challenge faulty ideas is simply with better ideas; those who believe that if violence has any legitimate use at all it is to be found in the restrained exercise of such to prevent greater and more random violence from befalling the innocent.

Long live the principles that Charlie has come to stand for. Now can we please take some steps towards shutting down this martyr factory?!

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Filed under Death, Ethics, Freedom, Human Rights, News, Politics, Pop culture

Whiteness and Good Will

One of the most satisfying types of compliments I have received over the course of my life have been when people from very different backgrounds from mine either mistake me for or claim me for one of their own. This has phenomenon taken a few different forms over the years, ranging from a drunk boss saying of me at a party during my teenage teetotaling years, “David’s the sort of guy that when you’re talking to him stone drunk it’s easy to forget that he’s sober,” to Muslim friends who have told me, “You’re really a Muslim; you just haven’t realized it yet.”

When it comes to my actual ethnic identity though, people rarely guess it. Those who do not know me by name can usually (though not always) guess that I come from somewhere in the US, but that I am somehow not a “typical American.” That’s usually about as far as it goes. Rarely do they come anywhere close to guessing that I am a Michigander from entirely Dutch ancestry, or that my grandparents were all staunch Calvinists. At best, if this comes up after some hours of conversation, those who casually hear of my background and who are familiar with this sort of sub-cultural heritage might say, “OK, I can see that.” But to most my background remains somewhat of an enigma, and I am generally happy to have it that way.

There are, however, three aspects of my identity which are obvious to everyone at first glance these days, and which appear to be rather inescapable for me: I am a white, middle-aged man. It would be rather difficult to keep someone from noticing any of the three: no one with functional eyes could possibly mistake me for being young, feminine or of non-European ancestry. Of course this leads to a certain number of stereotypes, both positive and negative.

jackMost of these stereotypes, I admit, work to my advantage. It’s been a long time since any security guard, policeman or customs official has randomly followed me around, searched me or questioned me about anything suspicious. I also receive a certain amount of preferential service at shops, libraries, swimming halls, etc. just because I happen to look like a white, middle aged man. But these stereotypes often feed into a certain resentment of my perceived advantages as well. Frequently it is assumed that, as someone with social liberal sympathies, I should be using my advantages better to help those without such advantages. At times I feel like Robin Williams’ character in the movie Jack, or Tom Hanks’ character in Big: having the appearance of a middle aged man entitles me to certain things that my peers may be jealous of at times, intimidated by at times, and anxious to take some advantage of at times. All the while this world of appearance-based privilege feels more than a little unnatural to me. Yet even so I have to admit that, relatively speaking, it does work to my advantage.

rs_634x1024-141231114734-634-gilmore-girl-Edward-Herrmann.ls.123114Among the tributes to Edward Herrmann, the actor who played Richard on The Gilmore Girls, who died rather unexpectedly on New Year’s Eve, there have been collections of his best quotes in that role floating around on line over the past few days. One that is both poignant and disturbing at this point in history is where he says to a pair of bothersome policemen, “Look, it’s getting late, so either shoot us or go away.” Feeling like I might be able to get away with saying something like that to an unfamiliar police officer myself is as close as I come to a sense of white privilege: Whereas I could probably get away with such wise-assery with little more than a rebuke, recent history has shown that that sort of comment could easily get some of my darker skinned friends killed. I get that. I’m not entirely comfortable with the sort of injustice this implies. I’m not entirely comfortable with the paradoxically conflicted position this puts me in.

Economically I am in a rather awkward position as well. If you take the gross global production per year and divide it by the number of people in the world, my income comes quite close to the resulting global average. That means that while I am functionally as poor as they let people here in the Nordic countries get, in a world where the median income is just under 100 € per month, compared to most I am, admittedly, obscenely rich.

This is something that I’ve been thinking about lately, especially over the turn of the year. In recent weeks I’ve faced some attacks from people politically to my left (for a change), accusing me of not being appropriately embarrassed about my whiteness and my masculinity in particular. I also happen to be quite committed to the heterosexual and Protestant Christian aspects of my identity, which for some just makes matters worse. I’m not quite sure what, if anything, I should do about that. I make a point of not acting “entitled” to any advantages which my unearned status gives me. I always try take a stand against those who unjustly abuse others because they happen to be different than I am in any of these regards, whether this be in person on social media. But in spite of acknowledging many prejudices and resulting injustices as “real things”, I am not ashamed of what I am in terms of my masculinity, my age, my heterosexuality, my Christianity or my whiteness; and I find it rather tasteless and absurd when some people imply that I should be.

The particular paradox that I am faced with in practice, however, is not dealing with the hatred of those who can’t resist the urge to hate (and there are plenty of such people on both sides of all “difference” questions), but rather the challenge of how, from where I sit, to go about trying to make the world better in these regards. As I see it there are three primary approaches possible to righting historical wrongs of these sorts. All of these approaches can be necessary under given circumstances, but none of them is without its own inherent risks and fundamental flaws. These approaches would be: 1) revolutionary reversal of dominance patterns, 2) voluntary aid programs and 3) educational assistance initiatives.

There are certainly times when revolutions of various sorts are the only way to overcome particular patterns of abuse. If one group of people is using their accrued power to systematically deprived another group of basic human value, essentially treating them as inferior animals, sometimes the only solution to the problem is to forcibly remove the dominant group from power. The most obvious positive example of this within my lifetime has been the overthrowing of Apartheid governance in South Africa. Yet how far the post-Apartheid governments of South Africa should have gone in stripping that country’s white elite of their traditional power and privilege compared to what they actually did about the matter is a balance question where they could be fairly critiqued in either direction: On the one hand control of the mining sector of the economy remains firmly in the hands of white managers, leading to the deaths of miners protesting for more humane living and working conditions still in this generation. There is some justification possible for indigenous people going farther in stealing back the natural resources that those representing colonial powers stole from their ancestors a couple centuries ago. On the other hand there are many aspects of everyday administration where playing on resentments of what has gone before has been used as a means of distracting from problems of corruption and flat out incompetence in the current administration.

For all of its problems, the vast majority of the people of South Africa, of all races, see things as far better now than they were a generation ago. Elsewhere on the African continent, however, many of the “new bosses” who theoretically represent the formerly oppressed majority, seem to be making things at least as bad for their people as the colonial “old bosses” did. Sadly, Idi Amin and Robert Mugabe seem to be far closer to the post-colonial norm for African leaders than Nelson Mandela.

The same dilemma faces all revolutionary initiatives hoping to improve the lot of oppressed people. It is not good enough to say, “Those [whites, men, Christians, heteros, whatever] have been making life horrible for us [blacks, women, non-believers, LGBT folk, etc.] for centuries; so now it’s time for us to show them…” Bitterness over previous abuses is not a functional basis for improving people’s lives. Yes, radical power transitions may be necessary, but assuming that will be sufficient is a highly flawed theory. As painful as it may be, each revolution needs to look not only at what the old guard did wrong, but what they did right, both morally and logistically. Revolutionaries who have the cool-headed composure to “win the peace” after the battle are a rare commodity indeed. To do so, more often than not they need to turn to those they’ve vanquished for help in the practical running of things, which can indeed lead to deep questions of what the point of their struggle was if so little changes. To say that it’s complicated is a bit of an understatement.

The opposite end of the spectrum from revolution is simply for those in power to give as much assistance to those under their de facto dominion as they feel inclined to give. There is much to be said for voluntary charity, especially when it is based on a sincere desire to build personal contact with those on the receiving end, and when it is intended to bring about lasting good in their lives. The problem, of course, is that charity is frequently used as a means of protecting and reinforcing the systems which put the disadvantaged people at a disadvantage to begin with. Nicolas Wolterstorff tells of how seeing “generosity” used as a means of justifying gross injustices in pre-Apartheid South Africa fundamentally changed his perspective in such matters.

Even when the donors and volunteers are not trying to maintain some repulsive status quo, there is still the risk that they may be assuming, and/or reinforcing an assumption, that those whom they are trying to help are fundamentally incapable of getting by without their help. Too often in a post-colonial charitable context the hidden message given by charitable organizations and charity organizers is one of, “Yes, our conquest of these people may have been morally questionable, but we were able to do so because they were fundamentally weak to begin with. Their culture was fundamentally dysfunctional before we got here, which is precisely what enabled us to colonize them all those centuries ago. For that matter, once we took over the technical improvements we brought into their lives rather balance out the damage we may have done with what we stole from them. And now, even if we were to stop exploiting them in any way –– or even if we were to restore a significant part of what we took out of their land –– they would still be an inherently weak people in need of our help.” Offering assistance without this sort of hidden message attached is often far easier said than done; doing less harm than good with our charitable efforts can turn out to be a rather complicated matter.

In between the extremes of revolution and voluntary charity then we have the alternative of a structural enabling approach, especially focused on education. The premise here is that one of the main things keeping certain groups at a disadvantage is that they have not had the chance to investigate and develop the sort of systems and methods which have brought relative stability and prosperity to others, particularly those who have the greatest power advantages in the world today. This basically assumes that those in the disadvantaged group are not inherently weak in terms of learning abilities and problem solving skills; just that historical systems of oppression have prevented them from realizing their capabilities in these regards. By teaching them the understandings, approaches and techniques which have enabled people elsewhere to properly thrive, we can help disadvantaged people to help themselves overcome their current disadvantages.

This approach is also far from trouble-free. It tends to assume that there are certain “right understandings” of all elements in the curriculum, regarding which those in the disadvantaged position must be ready to submit themselves to the “expertise” of their (former) oppressors. This can perhaps best be illustrated in terms of gender relation conflicts in the West: Ideally both sexes should be allowed to venture into the other’s traditional territory without having to completely conform to the other’s norms for how things “have to be done”, but in practice it tends not to work that way. Men have clear cultural advantages over women in terms of their positions in business and political power structures. While women now increasingly have opportunities to learn these skills and compete in these fields, many women are justifiably resentful of the idea that in order to be respected in business or in politics they have to learn to do things in a typically masculine way or according to masculine expectations. On the other hand, women have significant cultural advantages in terms of respect for their nurturing abilities, and while opportunities for men to participate in care-taking professions and in the active raising of their own children are progressively increasing, many men are justifiably resentful of the way in which respect for their contributions in these fields depends on their compliance to stereotypical feminine standards.

The same principle of respect for the other’s perspective on things needs to be applied to the teaching of social sciences and other “western” academic disciplines in post-colonial contexts. This too is far easier said than done. The problems of “Orientalism” and respect for cultural autonomy in relation to the formulation and application of basic human rights is a long debate unto itself.

Yet even with these risks and underlying tensions taken into account, I still believe that the educational empowerment approach might provide the best chance to overcome problems stemming from historical abuses of power, to build mutual respect between those on opposite sides of the old power struggles, and to initiate a constructive orientation towards the future. It is not safe to assume that peace and justice can be brought about merely by removing a particular group of abusers of power, nor by trusting the good will of those who have historically abused power. The best hope is to be found in respectfully enabling those who have been traditionally disempowered to work together constructively with those who have traditionally held exclusive rights to power, and to do so in a manner that respectfully considers the contributions offered by those who have previously been excluded from the processes in question.

This is how I, as a white, middle-aged man, still hope to improve the world I find myself in. Accuse me of patriarchy or ethno-centrism if you must, but I still believe that some of the knowledge and skills I have acquired over the years are potentially useful for people around me, and not only in a European context. I realize that in sharing what I have to offer I have to be ready to carefully listen to others’ perspectives, but that does not mean that what I have to offer is without value.

To the limited extent to which I am able, I will also try to keep offering direct material aid to those in greater need than I am, and I still offer what moral support I can to revolutionaries with hopeful, constructive orientations in their revolutions; but for myself I don’t see those as primary means of reducing injustices, helping those in need or making the world a better place.

My personal concrete starting point in this regard for 2015 is to do what I can to help empower some of the poorest people in Kenya, beginning with the personal contacts I was able to make there last June. Anyone who would like to join in this particular project is more than welcome to get in touch with me regarding details. Meanwhile I wish all my readers and fellow idealists a blessed and productive new year. May all your dreams of this year finding ways to leave the world a better place than you found it come true.

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Filed under Education, Empathy, Ethics, Holidays, Racism

Kingdom Come, revisited

Finland’s Independence Day, 2014.

I’ve celebrated thus far by letting myself sleep in this morning, then bicycling through the rain and sleet to the cemetery where the cremated remains of my dear ex-father-in-law are interred. As he was one of the war veterans who did more than his fair share to keep this country independent, and has he remained a friend to me regardless of the mess of my divorce from his daughter, it is important to me on a year to year basis to remember him with a candle on this day.

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On the cycle trip each way I noticed that the majority of businesses open here today are actually immigrant owned restaurants. That doesn’t bother me. In many ways it makes sense. I actually went and had a kebab at one Turkish-owned place on my return trip just to support my fellow outsiders within Finnish society with that trivial gesture. But I hope that ultra-nationalist Finns will not start using that as a further justification for their racism against outsiders from Muslim countries in particular.

After the kebab I decided to stop over to my work place, assuming it would be empty today, to use the computer to do a bit of reading and writing. When I arrived, however, I discovered that two of my colleagues –– also foreign men who first came to Finland for matrimonial reasons –– were having the same idea. There are plenty of machines though, and it’s good not to be alone.

But en route I got to thinking about my conflicted perspectives on militancy. I have absolutely no moral reservations about my older son’s work as a drill sergeant in Finland’s army, and I appreciate how those of his maternal grandfather’s generation put up a brave fight to convince the Soviets that Finland would not be worth re-colonizing. On the other hand though, over Thanksgiving I gave Arlo’s Alice’s Restaurant another listen, and between that and my friend Brian’s recent posts, and some academic research I’ve been doing into the meta-ethical structures of Bertrand Russell’s pacifism over the past week, I’m more than a little convinced that there is no moral justification for the vast majority of the killing that the US military in particular has been doing over the past couple of decades.

So how can war be justified? Or can it?

My growing conviction on the matter is that the only valid justification for war is to defend the basic human rights of the basic population of the land in question, and then only if it can be done without prejudice in favor of those who are “our friends” or who are able to promise good business in the future to those who are selling the tools of destruction being used. A very high threshold indeed is needed in these matters, and ideally those who stand to gain heavily from the fighting itself should not be given a say in the matter.

The way in which both fossil fuel and military industrialists continue to get everything they want politically, both in terms of economic and foreign policy decisions, is morally reprehensible. Neither party in the US political system seems prepared to do anything to limit this abuse (though the Republicans seem just a little more gung-ho in supporting it). This in turn leads to other abusive psychopaths like Vladimir Putin, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Kim Jong-un sounding almost justified in claiming that their militant actions are necessary to challenge presumptuously high-minded and over-extended force of the American military machine.

I am thoroughly convinced that if the United States sincerely wants to play a positive role in promoting human rights abroad (which, according to the diplomats I met last month at the US Embassy in Helsinki, is the ongoing political priority of American foreign policy, regardless of which party is in power), the only way for them to effectively do so is through promoting education in social sciences. This is rather difficult for the US to do, however, because it lags significantly behind the rest of the developed world in this particular area. Were this not the case, I stress yet again, conservative organizations so dogmatically proud of their own ignorance would not have the sort of foothold that they do in American political culture. This in turn makes it all the easier for companies that make gasoline and implements of death and destruction to de facto run the country. I could not be more ashamed of my native land in this regard at this point.

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But climbing off of this political hobby horse of mine for the moment, this subject brought to mind a song I wrote over 20 years ago with my dear friend Juuso Happonen, called Kingdom Come. It was inspired at the time, in the early 90s, by an original melody Juuso had given me a recording of on an old C-cassette tape, and how that in turn reminded me of my experiences visiting Northern Ireland during the time of the “troubles” in the early 80s. I wrote lyrics for two verses and a chorus on some old scrap paper at the time, and the tune soon found its way into Juuso’s troubadour set list. Since then, however, it has gathered a fair amount of dust.

For some reason, however, this song came to mind as I was on my bicycle this afternoon, headed to leave a candle at the grave of a soldier I had come to love and respect years after his war. And as I pedaled a potential third verse for the song came to mind.

So here’s for Juuso, and Brian, and all my other friends out there who believe in working for peace on earth in their own little ways:

Kingdom Come (revised edition)

When all our troubles are over,
will there be any point in what we have done?
Will our castles still be lived in?
Will our flags be flown by the sons of our sons?
When we’ve buried all of the soldiers,
can we truly say that the battle is won?
Can we glory in the destruction?
Can we till the land where the fighting was done?

And then still we wonder,
then still we wonder,
why the kingdom won’t come.

There’s a family down on the corner;
they should know better than to live around here.
They don’t speak the respectable language.
They don’t seem to care about what we hold dear.
So the town boys taught them a lesson,
and they made it clear that they were not welcome.
Now I’m left with only one question:
Was it them who turned this into a slum?

And then still we wonder,
then still we wonder,
why the kingdom won’t come.

We’ve all got our own little treasures;
some we’ve earned, some acquired at the point of a gun.
And we hope for even more pleasures,
though with vague ideas about how that is done.
For the thing we’ve become the best at
is to hold our own ground when push comes to shove;
with the consequential effect that
we’ve got no idea about brotherly love.

And then still we wonder,
then still we wonder,
why the kingdom won’t come.

Oh why won’t the kingdom come?

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Filed under Death, Education, Ethics, Holidays, Politics

The Evolution of Public Understanding of Human Rights

I accidentally got preaching to my friends on Facebook this evening, and after the fact I realized that I had written a blog’s worth of material without sitting down and intending to do so. So since I’ve been posting so sparsely here otherwise I thought it would be worth taking a few more minutes while I’m at it to copy-paste together those diatribes and put it up here for all of your reviews and comments.

The basic issue being discussed was prejudice, racism and what we should be doing to stop them. (The stimulus for discussion was this video.) Part of the discussion from there had to do with problems associated with race, and whether black civil rights activists of the current generation are to blame form flaming racial tensions. I find that to be a rather absurd charge, and one that is constructed for ignorant use as an excuse for all sorts of abuse against darker-skinned people: “But they’re being even more racist!”

I jumped in on a rather heated discussion that arose over this matter by commenting: “As long as conservatives talk about the problem of ‘black-on-black crime’ race remains an important construct in their minds by which they differentiate between ‘us’ and ‘them’. It isn’t any Sharpton or Jackson forcing them to see the world that way.” I hold to that: race is not something that black people have constructed and reinforced in the public imagination. It’s not something that lighter skinned folk can just randomly pretend doesn’t exist when it comes to protecting basic rights (“There’s only one race: the human race; it’s just these activists like Jackson and Sharpton who are keeping people from seeing things that way”) and then invoke when it comes to explaining away problems in the structure of society (“All of these problems black people are having are not caused by white oppression so much as other black people”). I find this sort of inconsistency in rhetoric morally disgusting, and I hope to discourage ignorant people of good will from falling into such hate-mongering narratives.

From there, in the flow of heated rhetoric that I wasn’t actively participating in, the issue was raised –– somewhat as a red herring and somewhat as a clarification of a previous side issue –– of the United States historic role in promoting civil rights and human rights. This rhetorical tack is generally used to claim that since the American tradition has been the source of so much good we shouldn’t critique it too harshly, even when it leads to things like obscene levels of economic polarization, imprisonment of large percentages of the population, lack of legitimate opportunity structures for people born into the wrong sort of families, and excusing of blatantly hateful attitudes projected against darker skinned people merely because they have darker skin (regardless of the barrage of excuses routinely employed for such).

A picture from the protests in Ferguson, Missouri. How much of this "American heritage" deserves to be overlooked because of good things Americans have contributed to world culture.

A picture from the protests in Ferguson, Missouri. How much of this “American heritage” deserves to be overlooked because of good things Americans have contributed to world culture?

OK, what is uniquely valuable about American cultural heritage as such? What sort of new developments did the United States introduce into world culture? How are the other 6.7 billion people of the world better (or worse) off because of the existence of American political culture? It’s a question worth considering more carefully than it usually gets considered.

My very separate friends Aaron and Vinnie (who have never met each other and who have nothing more in common with each other than both being from the eastern United States and both being acquainted with me in some distant way) were going after each other on this point: Vinnie taking the position of defending “American Exceptionalism,” and Aaron downplaying this claim by way of introducing historical precedents and context. To this, in the midst of a bit of back-pedalling, Vinnie replied, “The American constitution was a large improvement on those documents. […] I am under the impression that the US constitution was a major evolution in the rights of human beings. […] I still stand by the US bill of rights being a major evolution in human rights built upon the magna carta, [sic] English documents, and French republican ideals.”

This was my cue. My reason for posting the video that started this whole discussion was that it included a tribute to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as standard for making blatant expressions of racism unacceptable. If the US documents in question were “a major evolution in the rights of human beings” over their predecessors, the UDHR in turn represents at least as large a leap forward in terms of human rights compared to American writings of the 18th century.

So on this basis I wrote:

“[My point] in starting this thread was to point out to many, conservative Americans in particular, that there have been a vast number of improvements in human rights legislation since the slaveholders wrote the US Constitution, that people in the US simply haven’t been tracking on — larger improvements than the US Constitution represented over its French and British predecessors. Under these circumstances it’s even a bit absurd for the US to position itself as the global human rights police, when so many Americans are so utterly clueless about the subject. Reading the UDHR and getting its principles operational within the US should be a moral prerequisite for preaching to other nations about human rights and trying to enforce them as an excuse for invading lands whose natural resources we covet. End of this evening’s sermon.”

But for better or for worse, mea culpa, I found myself unable to stop there. I had to give my personal perspective on what was in fact unique and revolutionary about the writings of the American “founding fathers” in these regards:

“BTW, the major revolutionary aspect of the US Constitution was not its emphasis on rights in general, but its break with what scholar Nicholas Wolterstorff calls the tradition of ‘little christendoms’: This new little nation was not officially seeking religious justifications for its power structure, as had been the European tradition, nor was it allowing religious authorities to reinforce themselves as providers of the basis for civil authority. IOW the truly revolutionary thing was the degree to which the US was not founded as a Christian nation! Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Tea Party sympathizers.”

Vinnie, sincere open-minded thinker that he is (and I say that completely sincerely) then put forward the next important question: “I believe that we want to ask, how is the UDHR superior to the US const and is there any deficiency?”

This I answered at length:

“The UDHR was built on the premise that the multiple tragedies of WW2 in particular were based on the problem of people not being treated with the sort of dignity that all people deserve to be treated with, JUST BECAUSE THEY ARE PEOPLE. It was also built on the premise that, when it came right down to it, NONE of the nations involved could claim that they were treating all of their people with the full dignity to which they should be entitled. (The US was, by our current understanding, shamefully segregated still at that time, and couldn’t claim any high moral ground, in spite of FDR’s idealistic inspiration for the project.) Thus all the nations involved officially pledged to take their agreements on the matter forward by learning from and teaching the content of this document. The US in particular has failed to live up to that commitment. (The Soviet Union did too, which largely led to its demise.)

FDR's four freedoms, as painted by Norman Rockwell and used as WW2 propaganda.

FDR’s four freedoms, as painted by Norman Rockwell and used as WW2 propaganda.

“Substantive issues that the UDHR raises in comparison with the US Constitution is that it codifies positive rights for individuals. FDR famously spoke of basic rights to freedom of worship, freedom of speech, freedom from fear and freedom from want. The first two of those were spelled out in the US Constitution. The latter two had yet to be properly codified. How should people, by virtue of being people, be protected from fear and want? What sorts of fears and wants do people deserve to be protected from, and by whom? (Fear of getting old or gaining weight is not something that people are entitled to protection from. Want is something that comparison-based cultures will never know the end of.) The UDHR explores these issues from a broadly multi-cultural perspective, trying to, for the first time, establish a set of standards for what people are entitled to as people that could be equally applicable in Russia, China, Japan, African nations, Arab nations, European nations, and yes, in American nations; acknowledging that all of these cultures had serious improvements to be made, and that none of them could claim the moral high ground in showing the others how they should learn to treat people.

“The primary problem with the US currently is an unjustified triumphalist mentality that the current (and transitory) period of global economic domination that American businesses have enjoyed for the past couple of generations is somehow a divine reward for a job well done. That attitude needs to be unlearned, and Americans need to get on board with the understanding that the point of governments isn’t to enable businesses to steal, kill, rape and plunder at will, but to insure that their people are respected as people. People need to seriously stop and think about what that responsibility for governments entails. They need to read through the UDHR and think critically about the issues it raises. They need to learn to hold their political leaders responsible to such standards, and in order to do that they need to learn what those standards are.

“A few hints in relation to the UDHR –– things that are self-evident to people in most other parts of the world, which the US hasn’t really caught on with yet:

– Corporations are abstract forms of human cooperation, not people which are entitled to rights as people.

– Being equipped to kill other people at will is not an essential right for all people as people.

– An education which enables the person to make informed decisions in the democratic process is something that every government must insure that all of its citizens have free access to, and which they are somewhat required to participate in.

– Insuring that workers are (primarily through their work) able to achieve a standard of living sufficient for housing, nutrition and health care for themselves and their children, is part of the governments moral responsibility as a government. These are not matters that the economically powerful should be allowed to grant or not grant to those they employ/enslave as they see fit.

“For further information on such matters start by actually reading the UDHR for yourself!”

Now in all fairness, Vinnie and Aaron are both among the minority of Americans who actually have read the UDHR for themselves, and who have started actively discussing the issues it raises. I hope the virus spreads from them to many others. I hope they respectfully learn from each other as they keep discussing such matters. I may even have reasonable grounds for such hope.

So what does everyone else here think?

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Filed under Ethics, Human Rights, Politics, Racism

The Children and the Tools

I’m still contemplating what to write here about the philosophical perspectives the conference I attended in Brighton last weekend got me thinking about, but meanwhile I’ve decided to set those matters aside for the moment and consider something else that has been the subject of discussions which have been directed at me elsewhere recently –– which actually might be more relevant to more readers here than my deconstructive take on logocentrism. The issue is the hatemongering which has been going on regarding immigrant children in the United States, and whether or not I see any potential for constructive solutions on the matter.

The problem to a great extent relates to the personal emotional dysfunctions of Texas governor Rick Perry, and the emotional dysfunctions of a disturbingly large number of Americans that his position resonates with. Perry tosses out the statistics that those who have crossed into his state by way of Mexico without official permission to do so since Obama became president account for nearly 1% of the population of his state, and that these “illegals” account for nearly 10% of the violent crime in his state. Then pretending to be some sort of Arnold Schwarzenegger (in the role of tough guy actor, not in the role of semi-competent governor) he says that if the federal government isn’t going to deal with the problem then he’s going to have to deal with it himself. If that means that there will be less money for things like education and keeping children from dying of malnutrition or preventable diseases in his state… well… those are the breaks. The first priority is to keep these little kids that keep showing up on the Texas border from being used as tools to help others to get in –– forming “anchor points” which enable their big bad parents to gain access to Texan resources. If a bunch of them end up dying after being sent back by livestock transport… well… that’s just how life goes.

photo-rick-perry-hunting-refugee-children-in-mom-jeansA friend of mine posted the following “Christian” perspective on the situation to me: “Like many Christians, I support their desire for a new life, the dignity of and the ability to eat. Like most Christians I support them just so long as they are not in my neighborhood; could take my job; or release infections into the community or, heaven forbid, affect property prices. Like most Christians I support their rights, but don’t really want to meet one. But I also support our right to live in luxury whilst the rest of the world supports my lifestyle.”

So what would I suggest as a means of fixing this situation? Short answer: Texan culture is too broken to fix properly in the short-term. Rather than creating hell for those who the self-righteous believe deserve hell, I would hope that they would start focusing on learning to think of other people as fellow bearers of the “image of God” and to treat them accordingly. But I don’t see that as happening any time soon.

The problem of immigration is a tough one on many levels. As someone who’s done more than his fair share of attempted immigration and border crossing, and having built a career out of teaching the children of habitual border-crossers, I have a more personal perspectives on the matter than the average American –– or the average Finn for that matter. Ultimately there are three primary issues involved: resources, personal competition and safety concerns. New people coming into an area can be a source of all three and a factor in reducing all three. Newcomers can both use and create resources. Newcomers can stimulate new forms of competition in both positive and negative senses. Newcomers can serve to make life more risky in some areas and less risky in others. Now let me see if I can explain what I mean by that in terms so simple that even a tea partier might understand.

When I first moved to Finland one of the mild surprises I experienced was seeing Mallard Ducks that seemed to be convinced that they were pigeons. Yes, Boston, Massachusetts also has a culture of caring about ducklings and all that, but this was taking the idea a bit further. These were birds which were losing their fear of humans and their migratory instincts entirely. A small population of such birds seemed to have undergone an evolutionary mutation which changed what “came naturally” for them, causing them to hang around begging for food from humans rather than looking for seeds and fish and the like to eat, and keeping them from migrating when the weather changed. This change had taken place over the course of a set of especially mild winters, and some environmental ethicists were trying to convince people to stop feeding them and let them go back to their “normal lifestyle” of flying south when their natural food sources became unavailable. If we were to have a really cold winter these creatures would freeze to death in a particularly cruel manner. This besides the other matters of taste in which certain people dislike city ducks for the same reasons they dislike pigeons, seagulls and/or mice. But then a funny thing happened: there was a record-setting cold snap where for over a month temperatures were below -20 degrees Celsius… and the ducks managed just fine. So those who didn’t want the ducks to be fed because they don’t like duck droppings all over the parks lost one of their best excuses for their position: it could no longer be said to be for the ducks’ own good.

IMG_5118Arguments that certain people don’t belong in certain parts of the world “for their own good” tend to be even more transparently dishonest, but there is a variation on them which gets used fairly commonly regardless: “There isn’t enough ______ here for everyone, and what there is already has been claimed by others. If you let more people come in from outside they’ll end up fighting with us over our already overtaxed resources.” In some cases there can even be a marginal element of truth to such claims: in the Sahara Desert there is a serious lack of drinking water, and any newcomer who plans to just wander out there looking for more space for themselves could either end up fighting to the death for scarce water resources or just simply dying for lack of water. To a slightly lesser extent the same logic applies to the various sorts of beggars from southern climates who attempt to come to northern Europe and go around asking for money on the streets: In the summer they’re just a nuisance, but in the chill of an Arctic winter the lack of readily available heated shelter for such people can put some of them at serious mortal.

But for the most part when we are talking about limited resources in the western world the problem actually comes down to an abstract understanding of financial resources: “We don’t have enough money.” For that there’s a simple answer: make some more money by fiat, just like the rest of the money we have in circulation.

imagesMoney is ultimately nothing more than a government backed scheme for setting value on the services people trade with each other. As long as you have people who are willing to do stuff to get it, money “works”. When you don’t have enough money in free circulation for people to be able to use it as a means of trading what they are willing and able to do for others in order to get what they want and need for themselves, the money has stopped working properly. Likewise when you have too much money floating around, and people cease to be willing to do so much to get it because they aren’t sure that others will be willing to do anything for them in exchange for it, then too the money has stopped working properly. As long as you have people who are willing to work for it then, money maintains its value. The harder people are willing to work to get it, the more practical value money has. So when people come into a country willing to work for whatever sort of money they have there, “lack of money” is not a valid reason for trying to keep them out. The only problem with just “making more money” out of thin air under such circumstances is that it gets people to stop and look at the obscene levels of corruption with which the whole monetary system functions. It when you need to put more money out there so that more people are able to get work done by more other people it gets harder to ignore all of the nasty greedy people pulling the strings at the top, siphoning off well more than their fair share of the money they create.

The amount of actual physical resources available is not a serious limitation on the number of people the richer countries of the world can allow in. The amount of food that gets thrown away, the amount of energy of all sorts that gets wasted and the number of buildings that sit abandoned and derelict give ample testimony to the sufficiency of physical resources, if they could somehow be used just a bit more intelligently. The problem is getting a distribution system to work so that everyone can play a role in contributing to providing what everyone else wants and needs in exchange for what they are hoping to get out of the system for themselves. Part of the problem from there is determining what useful roles we might play in each other’s lives (i.e., what counts as “productive work”), making sure that people can learn how to do the sort of “return favors” we expect of them (i.e., having a functional education system), and making sure that people are rewarded well enough for their efforts to keep doing what we hope they will keep doing for us (i.e., just wage structures).

Some see “maintaining a healthy economy” as a matter of finding ways to push others to work harder for less so that we in turn can have more toys while paying less for them. If potential workers are otherwise unwilling to do what you tell them to, make sure that you seriously threaten their children’s lives to get them properly motivated! To this way of thinking the government’s job to be to keep workers and consumers “in line” for the corporate interests, and if government tries to protect people from de facto slavery to these corporate interests then it has overstepped its proper bounds. This has nothing to do with justice and everything to do with the abuse of power.

Meanwhile those who are “wage slaves” within this system see it as being in their best interest to prevent those who are willing to work harder for less from having access to their same labor market. Their masters have convinced them that they are nothing more than disposable tools to get a certain job done, and if there is a cheaper tool available to get the same job done for less, they can expect to be thrown away. Thus the only way to prevent themselves from being thrown away is to keep other disposable tools from becoming available to the masters, in part through immigration control.

This defensive position is always rather short-sighted. Beside the fact that industrial production continues to move to whatever country in which wages slaves can be had the cheapest, making protecting jobs by protecting borders a meaningless endeavor, if the only way you can prove that your work is valuable is to prevent others from being able to do it, your respected role in society is doomed to fail relatively soon anyway. If you aren’t replaced by an immigrant right away you can pretty much count on being replaced by some computerized device long before you’re ready to move on from your current task. The alternative is two-fold: Workers need to focus on being genuinely good at what they do in such a way that they are too valuable just to be tossed aside; and people need to be treated with dignity “as ends unto themselves” as Kant would put it, not merely as disposable tools. If you aren’t working under the duress of literally trying to keep those you love from dying, and you are able to have confidence that what you do is genuinely valuable, then having more people out there in the labor market together with you ceases to be a threat. The more other workers you have around you, the greater the number of services you can potentially get in exchange for what you have to offer. From that perspective, as long as they are able to learn skills which are valuable in their new place of residence, immigrants are far more of an opportunity than a threat to life as I know it.

Of course there are many “ifs” or “as long ases” in this perspective. The economic system needs to focus a sufficient amount of energy into basic education, newcomers need to be willing to acquire useful skills, those within the system need to be willing to adapt to change, and there needs to be an overall ethic of solidarity within the society for this sort of openness to function in practice. When any of those factors fail –– especially the last two –– a dynamic of managing the mutual threat that people pose to each other takes over. Life becomes, to varying degrees, an ongoing state of war; in Hobbes words, “nasty, brutish and short”. The “right to bear arms,” i.e. being equipped to kill other people, becomes a more important right than education, food, shelter or any other basic human need. This is where I see much of the US, Texas in particular, as being culturally rather too broken to fix any time soon.

simpkins3When you have that sort of basic level of hatred functioning in a society, of course the problem gets further compounded with every new form of human difference or “outsideness” that you introduce into the war zone. Immigrants, religious minorities, significant ethnic identities, sexual minorities and skin color varieties can all serve as bases for considering some people to be a worse threat than everyone else. Sometimes having someone else to hate can bring together some sort of alliance between “insiders” but in the long run it’s never truly “worth it.” When solidarity is based on shared enemies neo-Nazis and the KKK become far more the cultural norm than the exception. This is a tendency that all civic and religious organizations should be guarding themselves against, but few do.

There is some further excuse for hating outsiders possible in claiming that they pose a serious health risk to the local population. There is some precedent for this, in that Europeans managed to wipe out as many of the populations they set out to colonize with various forms of pox as they did with their firearms. We don’t want any darker skinned people to do to us what centuries ago we did to them! But these days the level of vaccinations available to anyone who is worried about imported diseases really makes the point moot.

The flimsiest argument I have seen in defense of hatred towards immigrants creates a hypothetical situation in which children from the unofficially war-torn northern cities of the US, like Chicago and Detroit, start getting sent north across the border into Canada, where life is safer and where they have the possibility of getting basic education and medical care that wouldn’t be available to them at home. Would US citizens have a right to get angry at Canadians if they were to refuse to allow such children into their country?

To the extent that this is a plausible scenario at all, the thing which makes it such is that Canada has not wasted nearly so great a portion of its economic output on means of killing other people as the United States has. This has left them in a better position to care for the basic health, education and welfare of their citizens, and others who happen to drift into their nation. Canadians are not angels, but they don’t have nearly the ingrained culture of mutual hostility that dominates US politics these days. So if kids from Chicago run away to Canada with their parents’ blessing, Canadians would, I would fully expect, try to re-integrate them with their families, but they would not treat them like wild animals or dangerous criminals the way US border guards are treating children from Latin America. For proof of this one need look no further than at the number of young people from the US who ran away to Canada in order to avoid being sent to fight in Viet Nam fifty years ago, and eventually became productive members of Canadian society. How they were treated? Thus Canada’s lack of militancy in relation to outsiders, and the safer life there that results from this, does not really provide anything like a rational basis for justifying US militancy against foreigners. Efforts to build such an argument really only prove how clueless some in the right wing of US politics really are.

There are certainly no perfect countries in the world when it comes to their approach to immigrants –– both to actual immigrants and to potential ones. There are also many existing cultures based on raiding and stealing from their neighbors, which create a serious challenge for those who would try to welcome those who have been raised in such cultures into their communities. My primary point, however, would be that immigrants in general aren’t a major source of danger to receiving societies which have a healthy culture to start with; immigrants merely play a troublesome role in making societies’ existing dysfunctions all the more obvious.

So what should we do about the immigration crises we see around the world? IMHO we just need to keep moving forward towards building genuinely just and functional multi-cultural societies. Meanwhile, on an individual level, we should get into the habit of seeing people not as abstract threats, but as people.

PerryRioGrandeRiverI admit, it’s hard for me to see people like Governor Perry and his fan club as real people sometimes. That’s probably because they only relate to many people whom I consider to be important by –– literally and figuratively –– looking down their gun barrels at them. This puts the “border defenders” in a sort of hell of their own making. For the moment I don’t see any alternative but to leave them there. Such “tools” can remain as isolated as they feel they need to be in order to maintain their abstract concept of safety. Poor children, however, I have no excuse to think of as anything other than valuable human beings. Your mileage may vary.

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Stevie’s Summertime Spirituality

Somewhat in contrast with my recent Kenya experiences –– but yet in a way in complete harmony with them –– this past week I allowed myself what for me is a major luxury expenditure; but one I can also write off as an important investment in my relationship with my younger son: I bought tickets for he and I to go to a concert by one of the great music icons of my generation: Stevie Wonder. Some would say it just goes with my ethnically Dutch heritage that I felt a certain pain in paying as much as I did for these tickets… just to be allowed to stand out under the afternoon sun on a dusty gravel sporting grounds, crowded together with a sweaty mob of mostly drunk people, to listen to music I’d actually heard hundreds of times before… but I still believe it was a necessary expenditure, and in the end well worth it.

029While I was off on my most recent African adventure I had missed my son’s birthday, as well as the celebration after he completed his required military service, so I felt I owed it to him to do something particularly special together this week. But in all honesty once again the present that I bought for him (like so many of his birthday toys from previous years) was something I probably bought at least as much for my enjoyment than for his. As a strongly professing fan of Motown music in general, and Stevie Wonder tunes in particular, I couldn’t really pass up the opportunity to witness his performance live. OK, so the promoter’s arrangements left something to be desired. It was still an experience that will rank among the most important lifetime memories I will share with my son. It was also a rather spiritual experience for me.

I actually got confused as to which Helsinki park the concert was in, somehow convincing myself that it would be in the grassier and shadier of the two where concerts are regularly held. With the more idyllic venue in mind I packed a small picnic for us and tossed that into a bag together with my digital camera of course, only to face significant disappointment when we arrived at the actual gate of the venue.  As I said, the concert site was actually a city sandlot on which kids’ soccer and baseball tournaments are held fairly regularly. There was no place to comfortably spread the picnic blanket and they had a policy of not allowing in any full sized cameras. (Hundreds of people were shooting video with their cell phones with seemingly nothing the promoters could do about it, but that was beside the point: Cameras like mine were not permitted.) So I was told I’d have to leave my belongings at the baggage check point they had set up outside the gate.

This gave rise to another minor problem in that I didn’t bring any cash with me to pay the fee for such an additional service, but in the end that problem was rather pleasantly worked out. As the first opening act took the stage my son and I just sat down on a grassy knoll just outside the concert venue and enjoyed our little picnic together. It was just as the second act was coming on that I went to check my bag. It was a slow moment for those working at the baggage check area and so when I explained my dilemma to one of the attendants there, Hannu, had a bit of spare time to negotiate with me. In the end he was willing to take 10 minutes of interesting conversation as “payment in kind” for keeping an eye on my bag for the rest of the show. He had noticed that I was carrying the printout of my on-line concert ticket tucked into a small paperback history of Kenya, and he was interested in hearing the whole background story about my trip, and how I also considered Stevie to be a positive role model in promoting justice and compassion for the poor of Africa.

021Hannu was further interested in hearing about my work as a religious education teacher and why I consider such work to also be important, but we didn’t explore that avenue of conversation too far. After the fact I had somewhat of a feeling that perhaps I should have. Many of my evangelical friends might fault me for missing a golden opportunity to steer the conversation around in the sort of way that I could have “led him to the lord”. Instead I merely answered his question about why such lessons are important by saying that it is important for children in this country to have a functional understanding of what different sorts of people believe in religious terms, and how all that relates to their own (official, nominal) beliefs and let it go at that. He proceeded to tell me how cool it had been a few hours earlier to listen to Stevie and his band play “Yesterday” and some other Beatles cover material in their sound check, and to talk about his own perspectives on the value of intercultural experiences.

That level of conversation actually gelled better with the rest of my summer’s spiritual experiences thus far –– including the Kenya trip as a whole, the background factors that led to me taking such a trip, and the significance of Stevie Wonder’s life and music for me as a person in relation to that context –– than an attempt at “personal evangelism” would have. That subject in turn is actually worth meditating on a bit here, so let me take some time to explain (to you and to myself) what I mean by that.

It was actually by way of former student of mine, Sandhja, who also happens to be an exceptionally talented singer and performer, that I first met the people from Bondoaid, whose work in Kenya I’ve taken the active interest in. The core group of active members in this organization are evangelical Christians of one stripe or another –– ranging from the Pentecostal to the more radical Baptist to the mainstream denominational Protestant branches of that spectrum. Sandhja is none of the above. Having been her religious education instructor throughout her teenage years I know something about her personal religious perspectives and how pressure to adjust them might feel to her.

047I know her to be highly sensitive in the most beautiful sense, and deeply interested in the sort of spirituality that goes with caring for others on many different levels; but prone to see that spirituality in part through the lens of her mother’s Hindu background and in part through a general secular humanist perspective. She was willing to give of her time and money to help Kenyan orphans, not because she saw it as a means of bringing them into some particular faith, but because she is genuinely prone to caring for others wants to help reduce human suffering when it is in her power to do so. That’s just the sort of person she is, and over the years she has consistently impressed me with her emotional depth in such matters. It was part of my job to make sure she understands the most basic concepts of what it means to be a Christian, and how that compares with other spiritual paths, including her own. It was never part of my job to try to convert her to my own way of thinking on such matters though, nor was it ever my inclination to try to do so. As I see it her life provides a closer reflection of the teachings of Jesus than most professing Christians that I know, so I’m not about to condemn her to hell for putting the wrong label on it.

But it’s not my job to decide her eternal destiny anyway. It’s ultimately up to a source of justice way beyond what I can access or administer to do the final evaluation Sandhja’s life. So when it comes to that call, I’m happy to treat it the same as I did the predictions I was asked for regard World Cup Soccer this summer: Here’s how it looks to me, but it’s beyond my expertise to say anything for sure in advance, so I’m ready just to step aside and watch and see what happens. Meanwhile I have my own job to do –– what I believe God requires of me as a believer –– which is to “pay forward” the blessings I’ve received, in particular towards the poor, the outcasts, the prisoners and other disadvantaged people.

I happened to bump into Sandhja last week at a beachfront coffee shop, and we ended up sitting together for a bit discussing my trip, the Kenya project in general and the values behind it. She basically said that in her experience the evangelical Christians she had been working with on the project are truly warm and wonderful people, but there has been a continuous underlying tension over their expectations that at some point she would also become a “born-again Christian”. I could relate to what she was talking about not only from knowing the “born-again mind” intimately from the inside, but also from the similarities between what she was talking about and my experiences among the Cape Malay Muslims of South Africa during the year I spent there. Those folks too were generally very warm and hospitable, and accepting of my religious and cultural difference as a matter of respect for the most part; but not far below the surface was something between a hope and an expectation that someday, if I was honest enough and “my heart was open enough,” I would let go of my preconceptions about my own heritage and religiously become one of them. That wasn’t about to happen though, and from where I sat it wasn’t a matter of my having an insufficiently open heart or mind.

So Sandhja’s awkward situation was more than familiar to me. I couldn’t really apologize for the others’ expectations, but I could well appreciate the difficulties involved for her. I know how deeply ingrained the urge to win converts is in such circles, and how, for them, pursuing the objective of converting as many others as possible is considered to be the most virtuous behavior any person can possibly take part in. I know how thoroughly many have convinced themselves that the best way for them to truly love others is to coerce conversions and extract confessions of faith out of them by any means possible. I also know how –– even if one accepts such a premise regarding “the need to evangelize” –– the most sincere efforts to reach out to help others (both materially and spiritually) can easily morph into systems by means of which to gain and maintain abusive control over those being “helped”.  I have seen many times how there is actually no form of religion –– or secular ideology for that matter –– which is completely immune to being corrupted by the thrill of having power over the beliefs of others, and that when it comes right down to it Evangelical Christians are probably the worst by this disease (with Muslims coming in a close second). So I’m pretty sure that those with a powerful urge to “lead this girl to the Lord” were quite blind to their own motivations in wanting to do so. So in the end Sandhja and I agreed that it’s not always easy but we do what we can to overlook other people’s cultural blind spots in the process of attempting to do good together with them.

And that brings me back to the Stevie Wonder show. When it was finally his turn Stevie came out onto stage to the tune of one of the few songs in the set which were not of his own composition: “How Sweet It Is (To be Loved by You)”. This provided a glorious opportunity for an audience sing-along right from the start, and Stevie was continuously working us throughout the show to try to turn us into a sweeter sounding choir –– including drilling us on the harmony parts to be sung. But more to the point, after the third chorus and some harmony suggestions on this number, Stevie offered a bit of explanation for its choice as the opener: for him it also contains an element of prayer. He’s not on the road this time promoting a new album or anything like that; he’s just out thankfully enjoying the experience of doing the work he loves and feeling the love of the international audiences in the process. And as part and parcel of that motivation he wanted to publicly thank God for the opportunities he has had in life and career, and to encourage others to join him in appreciating God’s great love.

helsinkiclassic2014-11The appreciation for this perspective seemed to be somewhat limited among those in the highly secularized and fairly drunk Finnish audience, but Stevie didn’t let that discourage him. He qualified it right away by saying that he wasn’t promoting any particular religion. Like Pope Francis, Stevie is perfectly fine with people of good will being of other religions, or even being atheists. But still he wanted to stress the message that there is something greater than all of us to which we owe a certain awe, respect and thankfulness, and on the basis of which we need to learn to love each other. From there this implicit prayer of thanksgiving was a running theme throughout the rest of the show.

The one classic song of his included in the show that seemed to least harmonize with this principle of respect for the divine and loving each other on that basis, was “Part-Time Lover,” a tale of appreciation for a forbidden and conflict-laden relationship. His way of setting up that number with the audience had its own interesting humor to it. He asked the audience, “How many of you are in love?” A moderate number of hands showed murmured positive responses arose. “How many of you are in love with just one person?” Some giggles, but otherwise pretty close to the same level of response as for the previous question. “OK, now be honest: How many of you guys would really like to be in love with more than one lady?” While the audience was still chewing on that one the band started playing the intro. After the first verse then Stevie gave the audience their harmony parts for the song: guys scatting “bum, bum, badada-bum…” and women singing, “no, no, no, no, no…” Overall Stevie gave the impression that the experience this song talks about were as distant from his personal experiences as the unspoken eye-contact of unrequited love that he sings about in “My Cherie Amour”.

When it came to a song being intensely personal for him and intimately tied to his own life experience, on the other hand, the high water mark came with “Isn’t She Lovely,” which he wrote for his newborn daughter back in the seventies. She has since made a grandfather out of him and she was on the road with him as one of his backup singers –– the tall one on the far right. Savoring, appreciating and thanking God for that sort of love is where Stevie was clearly most in his element.

After that the next priority in his message to the audience was to pray and work together to eliminate the sort of suffering and social injustice described in the most pessimistic song in the set: “Living for the City”. How much more specific than that does the “gospel” message need to be in a pop concert? How much more specific than that can it be without the added detail getting in the way of the core message of peace and love?

If I were to analyze Stevie’s perspective on organized religion further I would have to turn to a song not included in his recent concerts, from his 1985 “In Square Circle” album: “Spiritual Walkers”. It is a somewhat cryptic musical comment on evangelical practices in general, and perhaps on Stevie’s fellow Motown veteran Michael Jackson’s propensity at the time to keep promoting his Jehovah’s Witnesses’ belief:

They knock on your door
You laugh in their face…
Walking places they should not be
But they will walk their lives
With a never ending light
They will walk their lives
’til they shine the light
Of truth into your life…
You run from their sight
Not to hear the holy word…
They have no defense
Except inner sense
And knowing the Almighty Friend

Stevie doesn’t actually come out for or against such people; he merely respectfully reports on what he “sees” and rhetorically asks others what they think.

In terms of his own core message though, Stevie remains focused on things that should be central concerns to people of faith, but which too many conspicuously religious folks remain silent about: fighting against such tragic injustices as racism, extreme poverty, various forms of segregation, handgun violence and “stand your ground laws”. Promoting particular religious dogmas just isn’t his thing. Nor is lecturing on ethics for that matter. He didn’t come to Helsinki to preach morality; he came to help people to feel good by getting them to sing along and share the love. If anyone else is interested in spreading the love in the same sorts of ways Stevie seems perfectly happy to have them on his side, regardless of their religious perspectives.

The only way I can remotely compare myself with Stevie is in saying that he and I are very much on the same page when it comes to understanding that the basic point of religion, when it’s done right, is building a genuine capacity for love and caring about others. As I said, he and I are on the same page with that one, though Stevie’s been reading from that page a lot longer than I have. I don’t have his same creative genius as a means of sharing that message with others, so I have to rely on being able to get just a bit closer to those in serious need than he can. At the same time I need to follow his example in limiting myself a bit in picking the causes I fight for carefully and sticking with the ones I choose.

No, I don’t think that religion can or should be reduced to nothing more than neutral “warm and fuzzy feelings” between “people of good will.” There really has to be something bigger “out there” to hold the whole system together for any religious teaching to have distinct value as such. My point here isn’t to redefine or defend my beliefs in ways that disregard the transcendent. My point –– and Stevie Wonder’s point as well, I believe –– is that what God has called each of us to do is to express the sort of love and mercy that he has given to each of us in turn to each other; not to bring everyone under the control of our favored style of religious system or to attempt to become the instruments of God’s vengeance and judgment upon the earth, the way so many religious folks seem to be longing to try their hand at. If we can remember what our basic task before God is in this regard, and if we can stick to working on that task rather than letting ourselves get distracted with religious power struggles, that is how I believe we can really bring the greatest glory and honor to God –– far more than by amassing huge numbers of new members or suitably preparing ourselves for an extended siege leading up to the battle of Armageddon.

Daring to care for others is the truest expression of true faith. Thus I would far rather work together with those with whom I have major philosophical and theological disagreements in the process of caring for those whom I believe God has instructed us to care for than to casually sit and endlessly discuss theories of the Second Coming with those who happen to theoretically agree with me on the mechanics of the redemption available in Christ. Furthermore, I honestly believe that those who genuinely care for others who are made in God’s image will stand in better stead before divine judgment than those who expect to pass through on the basis of having said the right evangelical magic words and participated in the proper rituals. But again, speculating over who God will judge how harshly, and on what basis, is really not our job as believers.

So regardless of how similar to or different from my own Stevie’s and Sandhja’s spiritual perspectives happen to be, I draw strength from the aesthetic satisfaction I get from their performances and I join together with them in doing what all believers properly should be doing: spreading the love, increasing the peace and treating the world around us (and all the people I share it with) with respect. Feel free to join us if in that effort if you’re so inclined.

 

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Epilogue to my Kenya Trip

For two days now I’ve been back in Europe after my two weeks in Ahero, Kenya. I still haven’t heard anything about my suitcase that Finnair misplaced in Paris, but other than that I am very pleased with the way everything about the trip worked out. I met many wonderful, warm people. I got some amazing photographs. I managed to stay healthy under somewhat risky circumstances. I was received with kindness and respect everywhere I went, and many people seemed to be touched and encouraged by what I had to say for myself.072

I also noticed many things that were uniquely valuable about the culture of the people I spent those weeks living among there. I am really not tempted to try and make Finns or Americans out of them, even if that would be possible. They have their own rich and beautiful way of life that, for all its problems, deserves our sincere respect.

Those qualifications in place, however, especially now after the fact of my trip it must be acknowledged that the most important reason for my trip was that there are thousands if not millions of people there who in many ways desperately need whatever sort of help I can arrange for them, because some things there are tragically dysfunctional. Thus the task I have set for myself now is to, on the balance, evaluate what I consider to be wrong with the situation there, what can be done about it, and what lessons there are to be learned from it. This entry, therefore, is my way of “thinking aloud” about those factors for myself. Your feedback on this process, regardless of your cultural and ideological perspectives, is more than welcome.

036The clearest way I know of to do this is to lay things out for myself in terms of a list of lists, and then to see if I have any profound conclusions to draw afterwards. My lists themselves are basically: a) the things I see as wrong with the current state of affairs in Kenya, b) the forms of constructive help that I would like to see those in the West offering to Kenyans, and c) the Kenyan mistakes that Westerners –– Americans in particular –– should be careful to learn from and not repeat. So here we go.

Kenya’s major problems

1. If there is one thing this country does not need it is more competing brands of Christianity. I might go as far as to say that in all my travels around the world I have never seen such a thoroughly over-evangelized and over-churched people anywhere. When it comes awareness of Jesus’ death for their sins and living up to the ideal of child-like faith in the Bible there is no nation on earth which is in any position to instruct the Kenyan people. If this were the key to solving the country’s problems it would clearly have no problems. This is not of course to say that all of Kenya’s churches are preaching “the pure gospel of Jesus” (however you care to define that) in a way that truly helps the people sitting in the stackable Chinese plastic chairs and shouting “Amen!” but that does not mean that introducing further new brands will be of any help. This in fact is a particularly complex problem to be addressed.013

2. Most people in Kenya seem to have entirely lost faith in the political process, and the rules and laws that result from it. There are of course many good reasons for them not to trust their politicians: nearly all of them are in one way or another preserving an oligarchy of insiders, working for their own selfish benefit rather than for the benefit of their people. To the extent that they are reaching out to the common people of the country it is frequently a matter of rewarding members of their own party and their own tribe for supporting their particular branch of the oligarchy over other ones. Thus laws are seen as politicians’ means of manipulating and further enslaving and impoverishing the people; things to be circumvented wherever possible. Paying a bribe or two along the way is frequently taken for granted as part of the status quo. But as long as people don’t believe that they really can make a difference in terms of holding their leaders accountable for their actions, the failure of government to genuinely help people and protect the human rights of its citizens will remain pretty much inevitable.

3. As with official laws, many basic health and safety rules are routinely ignored in Kenya. Nowhere is this more obvious than in traffic. Vehicle safety seems to be left entirely up to the discretion of the driver. Load limits and passenger protection considerations are a joke. Traffic patterns, especially during rush hours, tend to resemble a rugby scrum more than anything else. The same logic applies to pretty much every other form of communal activity as well: People do whatever they feel they can get away with, pay off anyone who might have the power to try to shut them down, and pray that their practices of cutting corners won’t come back to bite them. Many times they do, resulting in some fairly serious health problems and tragic accident rates.

Seeing these guys attempt to fix their car on the street in front of the hotel where I was staying, I couldn't help but recall the end of the quote from Jesus in the back window there: "...for they know not what they do."

Seeing these guys attempt to fix their car on the street in front of the hotel where I was staying, I couldn’t help but recall the end of the quote from Jesus in the back window there: “…for they know not what they do.”

4. There remains a tragic lack of self-reliance in Kenyan society. Part of this has to do with a conditioned habit as seeing white people as sources of support, empowerment and guidance. As one white businessman I met in Kisumu put it, “They think that if the put a misungu [white person] in charge, everything will work from there, but it really doesn’t.” And of course this is a bit strange and ironic for me to say something about, since I am one of the white people who has gone in hoping to offer support, empowerment and guidance… potentially leading to something resembling the classic scene in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian where he tells his followers to think for themselves. I was thankful, of course, not to confront major incidents of post-colonial hostility in my travels there, and I believe that looking for opportunities to work together across ethnic and cultural lines is a far more productive approach than demonizing the other colonial other and blaming all of the country’s problems on them, but… ultimately Kenya’s deepest problems can only be resolved by Kenyans themselves. That in turn requires breaking out of a mentality of seeing how many little forms of cheating they can get away with.

5. Many problems in Kenyan life are further compounded by a traditional lower status for women. Perhaps the clearest example of this is the anecdote told to me by one of my Kenyan friends that his grandmother considered it to be somewhat improper for a woman to eat chicken at all: not only are the choicest bits of meat generally reserved for the men at the table, but it is improper for women to indulge themselves in nicer foods even if the men aren’t eating them. This pattern of keeping women in a state of subservience is seen in many little routines ranging from norms of kitchen work to continued acceptance of polygamy. This makes the status of AIDS widows with large numbers of children all the more tragic for the victims involved.

Of course when you give women freedom from their traditional roles it often leads to them deciding to do things like leaving their husbands. It is hard to deny that greater freedom for women is the most significant factor in the catastrophic divorce rates in much of the developed world. We haven’t got the whole thing figured out yet, clearly. But I’m convinced that the problems for societies stemming from a culture of keeping women down are greater than the problems entailed in men losing control over women. Not all Kenyan men share my perspective on that matter.

One of the peasant women employed as a "human scarecrow" in the rice fields.

One of the peasant women employed as a “human scarecrow” in the rice fields.

6. There are a significant number of dysfunctional aspects in Kenya’s education system. In addition to the lack of material resources for schools stemming from official corruption, the high percentage of orphans and malnourished children in Kenya’s rural schools, the lack of qualified teachers (and secure salaries for those who are so as to keep them teaching), and the problem of school accessibility for children especially during rainy seasons, Kenyan schools that I visited all tend to rely most heavily on a pedagogy of rote memorization. Part of the challenge is that national examinations and higher education opportunities strongly stress the use of English as a language of learning. This eliminates a certain amount of tribal infighting by putting all Kenyan children –– Luo, Kikuyu, Maasai, Kamba or Kisii –– at equal disadvantage in terms of being able to write fluent exam essays. It also prevents the vast majority from thoroughly assimilating the lesson material in the way one is able to take in what one hears in one’s native language. Combine this with a lack of technical capacity to provide an interactive learning environment of any sort and you end up with a teacher copying materials from a standardized textbook onto a chalk board, students repeating this back to the teacher as they copy it down in their notebooks and evaluation being based almost exclusively on how well they can remember this material after the fact. In spite of this emphasis on English in education, and in the media for that matter, the level of spoken English in the population at large is significantly lower than in any country in central Europe where I have visited. So it is small wonder that the life skills acquired through the formal education process in Kenya are frequently not proving adequate for the challenges of the modern world.

The social studies lesson that was left on the chalk board of a primary school that I visited.

The social studies lesson that was left on the chalk board of a primary school that I visited.

7. Finally, as I commented in the last blog I wrote during my time on the ground there in Kenya, there is a problem of many churches offering magical solutions to practical problems rather than strength of character to confront these problems and deal with them constructively. This may come across as a liberal critique of those who are more theologically conservative than myself, or as a mainstream critique of more charismatic or Pentecostal forms of worship, but that is not my intent here. I see great value in people coming together and having a profound emotional experience of “the spirit moving” among them, especially for those whose lives are otherwise so often difficult and joyless. My problem is with those whose motivation for coming to church is to magically gain material advantage over non-believing neighbors, and with pastors who market their various competing brands of Christianity on such a basis. The border between ignorance and willful (self-)deception in this matter is hard to draw, but one clear thing is what I said at the beginning of this list: if strength of faith was the solution to social problems Kenya would have no social problems.

This brings me to the matter of the next list to be considered…

Constructive forms of help that the developed world can/should provide for Kenya:

Nyangoto 1941. Engagement with teacher education. It is quite likely impossible to have a positive impact on the dysfunctions of Kenya’s education system through a top-down strategy, especially given the sorry state of trust between political leaders and education providers throughout the country. The best hope for improving the state of education in Kenya is to instill in young teachers a vision for improving their country through equipping young people to become better citizens, neighbors and workers. When teachers genuinely care about those they are teaching and when they genuinely believe that they can make a difference, good things can happen. There are many levels on which this engagement can take place, ranging from exchange programs for students of education, to providing professional development seminars for teachers in service, to stipends for student teachers, to sponsorship for projects making some basic learning materials available in students’ native languages. Kenyans are by no means stupid or lazy people, and the structure of the education system needs to be changed from the bottom up so as to prevent them from appearing to be that way.

b0232. Pastoral training programs. Among the extensive number and vast variety of churches throughout Kenya, with their profound impact on the day-to-day lives of over three quarters of the population, from what I could tell those with leaders who have received more than six months’ worth of formal theological or divinity studies are a small minority. These pastors want to learn more about the Bible, about history, about how to discuss their faith with those outside of it, about how to council those in traumatic circumstances or with mental disabilities –– training which is a prerequisite for work in pretty much any sort of church in the developed world. The thing preventing them from getting such training is the time and money it would require, which their poor parishioners are in no position to sponsor. These pastors would also greatly benefit from sitting together for training seminars on a regular basis, to learn not only from an expert instructor but from each other, to fellowship and discuss their prayers and goals for their churches and their society. It is far more difficult for them to attack and demonize each other when they have been engaged in constructive dialog with each other about what it means to them to be working towards the realization of God’s will in their region. Such seminars need to be as denominationally and ideologically neutral as possible, geared not towards reinforcing particular dogmas but providing practical understanding in some very basic areas of human interaction. By training those pastors who wish to be trained in such skills, and by giving them more confidence in their capacity to have a positive influence on their communities there is a potential for bringing about many profound improvements in people’s everyday lives.

3. Emergency aid for those most in need.Setting aside all of the tired old “give a man a fish vs. teaching him to fish” analogies, there are many people who won’t live long enough to learn to fish for themselves without some immediate practical help. Of course the risk of creating a culture of dependence on outside help is to be taken seriously, as is the risk of feeding a culture of corruption whereby middle men are enriched using donors’ empathy with the poor as their cash crop. But there are many ways of making quite direct contact with those in the greatest need and ensuring that their hope is increased and their suffering is reduced. Programs can be instituted and supported for providing basic nutrition to malnourished orphans at specific Kenyan schools without enriching any middle men or reinforcing any particular church’s market position in the process. Specific children can be sponsored and interacted with by specific Western “God-parents” with very little being lost in the transfer of resources these days. There are countless other ways of making significant positive impacts on people’s lives in that part of the world without putting their long-term self-sufficiency at further risk. If this is not something you consider to be part of your basic humanitarian responsibility it is certainly part of your moral responsibility if you wish to call yourself a Christian; refusing to do so is something that fundamentally disqualifies a person from having any legitimate claim to be a follower of Jesus.

c0094. Building solidarity networks in the distribution of assistance. When in the process of receiving support from abroad local people are encouraged to work together with each other across clan, tribal, political and ideological boundaries, good things can happen. When people start to recognize each other as partners more than as competitors the potential for improvement in the society as a whole increases exponentially. This sort of approach goes beyond worrying about damaging recipients’ self-reliance with our generosity; it equips them to become part of a broader mutually supportive local community which might not have otherwise taken shape.

These are by no means particularly original concepts, nor are my friends in the newly formed NGO Bondoaid –– on the basis of whose work I went to visit Kenya to begin with –– the only ones doing valuable work in these sorts of regards. There are plenty of ways in which real good can be done for those in real need in such circumstances, and among the con artists there are plenty of honest organizations working to help those with the greatest needs. I claim no monopoly on any unique sort of opportunity here. If, however, you are lacking in some way to place yourself on the right side of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25:31-46 send me a message and I’ll put you in touch with some of “the least of these” that he was talking about.

Meanwhile I’ve got one more list to go here…

Kenyan mistakes for other countries to avoid:

If you’ve been reading this far I probably don’t have to spell these out in any great detail, but hopefully my American friends in particular will take these matters to heart.

1. Allowing negative expectations regarding the role of government in people’s lives to become a self-fulfilling prophesy: If you expect the government to be the problem and not the solution, you can cause the government to be the problem and not the solution. If you consider government to ideally be an institution by the people, for the people and ultimately responsible to the people to preserve liberties and to protect basic rights, you can cause it to move in the direction of conformity with those ideals.

2. Letting tribal rivalries stand in the way of working together for the common good. When defeating and/or demonizing the other guy becomes more important than working together to meet the needs of the most vulnerable and to protect the well-being of our “neighbors” (however widely we define that term) we have become self-destructive in ways in which Kenyan politics provide a strong negative example.

3. Letting public education atrophy into an irrelevant and bothersome experience for young people rather than a means of equipping them to build a better future for themselves and their country. When you cut corners on how much you invest in the minds of future generations, and when you make school into a ritualized status determinant rather than a means of personal empowerment, you condemn your society to a future as bleak as much of Kenya’s present.

4. Cutting corners on personal and public safety. There’s a lot to be said for limiting bureaucracy which exists merely for its own sake and to limit the possibilities of people succeeding through their own original thought and hard work, but there’s even more to be said for the enforcing of standards that protect people from dangerous business practices. Kenya’s roads and rural construction practices are not the sort of model that fiscal conservatives should be aspiring to in the Western world, but that is very much the direction they are going.

5. Looking for magical help from above rather than working on a system of caring for each other. Let me say it again in a different way: In my first few days in Kenya one profoundly sincere woman commented that God had blessed the nation I come from greatly, and asked what I believed Kenya needed to do in order to reap similar sorts of blessings. I don’t know how to make it clear to them, or to those in US “prosperity gospel” churches, without scaring them away, that they’re probably asking the wrong questions. Believing that following the right sort of ceremonial rules and exclusive standards of purity in faith will ensure material prosperity has little if anything to do with the message of Jesus, and even less to do with practical planning to creating a stable and prosperous society. If that is your basic method what Kenya now has is what you can more or less expect to get in the future.

The filing system in the vice-principal's office of a secondary school that I visited

The filing system in the vice-principal’s office of a secondary school that I visited

So those are my basic thoughts at this point as I unwind and digest my recent exotic experiences. Forgive me for getting a bit preachy in places. I fully realize that there are some things I am too close to still to see clearly, so if anyone can offer clarification on some of these issues from further away I welcome your input. Meanwhile thank you for taking the time to share in my process of sorting through these thoughts and my sincere wish for each reader here is that you also have the experience of being able to make your world a bit better by daring to care about others.

 

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“Misungu, How are You?”

Yes, for those who haven’t heard, this week I’m writing this from the town of Ahero, Kenya, where I’m spending a couple of weeks investigating the field of potential charitable cooperation with schools and orphanages and the like. When setting off on this adventure to “real Africa” (not just some enclave of Western culture on the African continent like Cape Town) I knew sort of what was in store for me, and that I was as prepared as I was going to get, but probably not sufficiently. So far that seems true enough in all senses. This is a basic report on my impressions from my first few days in Kenya –– how it has touched me and what hopes I am starting to develop so far.

c036The passengers on the Kenya Airways flight I took from Amsterdam to Nairobi were a good mix of cultures and skin types; perhaps a slight majority of white folk. The flight itself went without a hitch, other than that (typically for me, some might say) my assigned seat had the one broken entertainment console on the entire 777. But as there were a few passengers who missed their connection to be on the flight there were other places for me to sit where I could be as properly entertained as I wished. We arrived on time to Nairobi just at sunrise, with the temperature surprisingly cool at just under 15 Celsius. The sun and temperature rose quickly, however, burning off the fog before it even had time to give an emotional atmospheric impression.

One of the flight attendants started to give basic instructions for disembarkation, by telling us that those passengers who were transferring to other flights must take the ramp attached to the exit on the right side of the aircraft, and those for whom Nairobi was their final flight destination must take the stairs down from the left… except she forgot to specify the left and right bit, and she couldn’t remember the word for stairs in English. Her colleague where I was standing in the mid-section sort of rolled her eyes and smiled at that.

Getting to the stairs seemed to take a while, and when I got to them the situation was partially explained by the fact of the wheelchair waiting at the bottom, with special assistance staff on hand to wheel this white woman with conspicuously swollen legs through the airport… once she had managed to climb down the stairs on her own. This was my first impression of Kenyans perhaps being a bit lacking in certain aspects of logistical understanding this trip.

Customs clearance was also an exercise in mild communications difficulties making the otherwise friendly service a bit less efficient, but nothing to complain about too seriously. Before the last of my fellow passengers had their business sorted out I had all my luggage and was free to go. I was just starting to phone to my contact, Pastor Dan, when I spotted his face in the crowd.

He proceeded to make some inquiries about the best means of getting to the bus station in town from which we could get the coach to Kisumu. That turned out to be the basic “City Hoppa” service, which seemed to wind its way through most of the various outlying districts of Nairobi where service staff might live before working its way closer to the city center. There were some price guidelines of sorts from last year on the inside wall behind the driver, but near as I could tell ticket prices were subject to barter (which I left to Dan to negotiate). Traffic was hectic, of course, and not all of the roads the shuttle negotiated were paved. There was a pair of conductors who, in a fairly well practiced system of teamwork, took turns taking money from passengers, hanging out the window looking for new passengers on the sides of the roads, directing traffic in aggressive ways to get the bus in and out of informal stopping places and around ruts in the road of over a foot deep, and manually operating the passenger door latch, which consisted of a make-shift peg and loop system had been welded to the door frame where the original hydraulic door operating system once was. They communicated with the driver through a code of sorts which they hammered on the side of the bus as it drove. This daredevil form of transit thus successfully got us within 5 blocks of the coach station without serious incident. I’m really not sure how long each of these stages took but there were 5 hours between my flight’s landing and the coach’s departure from Nairobi for Kisumu, and that turned out to be just enough for the logistics of buying coach tickets and having brunch at a nice little local café that Dan picked out.

The view from the front window of the coach while waiting for departure

The view from the front window of the coach while waiting for departure

The coach itself was, by Kenyan standards, a fairly luxurious form of transport. There was no A/C, onboard toilet or video systems, but it still showed signs of being one of the better services on offer. On impressive feature was the broad reclining seats, which seemed to have been recycled from the business class section of an airliner from the 70s or something. It also had a strong smell of having been freshly disinfected as we boarded. I was the only white person on board, but among the Africans there none seemed to be anywhere close to the poverty line at least.

Once clear of the suburbs of Nairobi, the coach struggled up and down the hilly terrain across the country. Following what seemed to be the only paved road for a significant distance in any direction. Parts of the road were being reconstructed of course, with extended sections of semi-prepared gravel road bed to drive across and rather informal systems of for directing traffic as to which “lanes” to take in either direction. At various intervals there were also police checkpoints equipped with chicanes of spike mats to discourage anyone from trying to bypass them.

Then along the way there were also a number of “shopping centers” of sorts, constructed in what South Africans would call a “township style” of temporary architecture. Mud looked pretty deep surrounding most of them, and life there gave the illusion at least of being pretty relaxed. All of the advertising and direction-giving signs along the way appeared to be in English, but no one actually seemed to be speaking English. Some of these more populated wide spots in the road had some pretty draconian speed bumps installed on the main road to protect the lighter traffic going in and out of them from any momentum that passing trucks and busses might otherwise have built up.

066Another conspicuous factor was that each of these little shopping center villages, other than those set up for foreign tourists at “scenic view” locations, seemed to have 2 or 3 churches and/or church run schools of various brands conspicuously present in them. In fact while driving through the countryside on this main road I counted roughly a church of some sort every two minutes on average. If there is one thing Kenyans doing seem to be lacking then, it’s faith in Jesus. What they seem to be less secure in is how that faith is supposed to relate to building a safer and more secure life for themselves and their children, but I’ll come back to that.

Roughly 7 hours on this coach brought us to the town of Ahero, in the suburbs of Kisumu, where Dan’s wife and a few helpers were waiting for us. My conspicuously pale skin immediately began to draw attention from children on the sides of the dirt roads there. At that point Dan told me that the Swahili word for a white man is “misungu,” and that I would be hearing it a lot from children in particular. True enough. It also seems as though for many Kenyan children, especially at a preschool and early elementary level, the only active English vocabulary they have is “how are you,” together with one or two formulaic responses to such a greeting. Thus I have been more or less continuously confronted with the question, “Misungu, how are you?”

A group of children gathered to stare at the "misungu"

A group of children gathered to stare at the “misungu”

The only difficulty I have in responding to this inquiry from children is that not all of my responses fit within the social formulas they have been taught and memorized; so if I say in response, “I am very happy today,” I mostly get puzzled looks from the young children who are asking. Even so, I started to experience tiredness in some of my facial muscles from sharing smiles with so many little dark faces –– a very satisfying form of tiredness to experience.

On a deeper level though it is of course a more complex question to address: How am I really? I mean, what is this crazy white man doing here to begin with?

I got vaccinated up to the eyeballs for everything relevant to this part of Africa in the months before my trip, and the only health challenge I’ve experienced since I’ve been here thus far has been a few nose bleeds of the sort I am prone to when I get especially tired in travelling. In my first morning here, however, I had to join my host in a stop at the local health clinic, where he was helping a family deal with money transfer issues to pay for the treatment of an elderly aunt for acute malaria. Later in the afternoon I found out that my host himself had been experiencing malaria symptoms, and while we were visiting schools together he left me with an assistant and took off for a doctor’s office to get a prescription for drugs to help fight the disease. Now he is just hoping that the drugs he received will not turn out to be counterfeits, as so many of the drugs available in Kenyan village pharmacies turn out to be.

I was a little bit disappointed to discover that my accommodations had been arranged in a local hotel rather than in the home of some church member as I had expected, but Dan perhaps correctly surmised that it would be necessary to put a “misungu” someplace with running water, a private porcelain throne for his bowel relief needs, coffee service of sorts, and a bed with secure mosquito netting rigged around it. These things would be bit much for any of his very poor parishioners to provide. In this hotel room where I am then the television in the room doesn’t work, there is mold on the ceiling, I got a bit of a jolt from the electric shower system while adjusting the water flow, the toilet lacks a seat, and there are a number of other little details that don’t quite live up to western tourist standards, but overall it works, and I don’t think it will bankrupt me.

The street in front of the hotel where I am staying

The street in front of the hotel where I am staying

But it was Joseph, the headmaster at the first medium sized elementary school I went to visit here in Ahero, that really put the whole matter of “how I am” here in perspective for me. My first impression of Joseph was that he bore striking physical resemblance to my Palestinian colleague, “Mudi”, only slightly darker and older looking –– so I was slightly surprised to discover that he is actually close to a year younger than I am! But in many ways Joseph already thinks of himself as an older man for his community: most of the fathers of his school’s pupils end up dying long before they reach his age.

Of the 360 students in Joseph’s school, 27 are currently HIV positive from birth. So far this school year they’ve had one pupil suddenly die of AIDS. Over three quarters of his pupils’ families live below the poverty line, and many of them are mal-nourished to one extent or another. Illness is frequent and long lasting among these pupils, in part because their parents can’t afford medication, in part because medications are frequently counterfeit anyway, and in part because lack of proper food leaves their little bodies without sufficient energy to fight off even basic illnesses.

Joseph was more than happy to call all of the pupils in his school together in the school yard for a spontaneous assembly to greet this foreign visitor. As he explained it, for his pupils seeing a misungu is a significant source of hope in their lives: For some it raises their hope that some help might come to leave them just a little less physically hungry. For others it is symbolic of a wider world of possibilities, further away from their current challenges, but nevertheless possibly open to them some day. Representatives of the full spectrum of Christian churches are thus welcome, including those who focus on testimonies of having been delivered from lives of sin and crime, because it gave these little minds the message that people can really change, and that one’s early experiences and impossible background challenges don’t have to set the limits of one’s potential. The only sort of misungus he had any serious reservations about where those which came to promote new cults which are especially critical of Christian traditions.

b045It was thus rather humbling to stand in front of this crowd of hopeful children and try to find something spontaneously hopeful to say to them. My message was not that I could promise major material resources for their acute needs –– though I would try to spread the word about their needs –– but that the greatest and most reliable source of human happiness is the feeling that we humans can be important to each other and somehow part of each other in a deeply personal sense. I was there for selfish reasons in the sense that I wanted the sort of fulfilment that I know comes from living according to what we call the Twin Commandment of Love: loving God with my whole heart in terms of being fully committed to what I believe in, and loving my neighbor as myself in terms of coming to recognize even distant others as important elements in what makes me me. All I could offer them for certain under the circumstances was the advice to remember the importance of caring for and caring about each other, and the possibility of having one (more) crazy old friend from way up north to further expand the circle of people to whom they are important.

I spoke in English with some limited translation of key points being offered by Joseph when I paused to take questions. I guess it worked, because my host here who had arranged the visit to begin with said that the school had called him back and saying that they would really like to have me there for a full week of guest lectures. So in that sense, yes, this misungu is feeling quite fine this week.

If there are any other misungus out there (or people of any other skin color for that matter) who want to increase their own happiness by connecting with and supporting an orphan or two in this part of the world that none of the established NGOs have reached yet, or if they want to support a local school teacher or two here who currently live in poverty and work without a salary, or even if they would like to provide basic support for children’s education here in the form of one-time sponsorship of an infrastructure project like pouring concrete over the dirt floors in a primitive school building here to keep it from getting shut down for violations of the local health and safety codes (such as they are),  get in touch with me here and I can hook you up.

c026This is not a means of spreading a message or making converts to some particular brand of Christianity; this is a matter of living up to the ideals that Jesus taught as a means of experiencing the richer sort of life that Jesus talked about in John 10:10. It can be something as simple as brightening the lives of a group of five-year-olds for a moment by showing them the basic theory of how to throw, catch and kick a little American football. It can be something as profound as saving children’s lives through feeding them when they are dangerously hungry. In the end it’s all about love, in the many different non-erotic senses of the word, at least as much for our sake as for theirs. We’re not going to fix all of this country’s problems right away, but we can save some very important lives here, and help some very important people to reach their full potential as people. Seriously, what could be more important than that?

Meanwhile, for any of you for whom this report leads you to pray over what sort of contributions you might consider making to this cause, a few extra words to God on behalf of my own continued health and safety while you’re at it wouldn’t go amiss.

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Moderately Radical Christianity

While indulging in my usual Facebook distractions while finishing up my last entry on Aristotle’s concept of the soul, I found myself in a minor dispute with an old acquaintance of mine who was passing around a blog link for an essay which presented the New Testament book of Ephesians as an antidote to “radical Christianity”. I pointed out that I found such material offensive and briefly tried to explain why. He didn’t really get it, and others jumped in to say it was my problem, not his. I don’t expect to change their minds on that matter, but as a matter of respect I decided to spend some time this weekend explicating my perspective on the matter anyway. The rest of you can take this for what it’s worth.

The blog in question never actually laid out what sort of “radical Christianity” the author is specifically opposed to. It speaks generally about “radicals” as those who feel a need to “do something more” or “do amazing things for Jesus”. The author clearly has no problem, however, with Christians attempt amazing levels of self-control, self-denial or social ostracism. So in practice what form of radicalism does he really consider to be so problematic?

Between the lines is an implication that it would be those who wish to change the socio-economic status quo in the interest of the poor and the outcast. Rather than bothering with social issues, the implication says, we should keep ourselves occupied with “doing an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay”, avoiding anything that might be construed as sexual immorality, maintaining patriarchal authority structures within the home, etc. If believers keep up with all of those moral requirements to the full extent of the law they won’t have time for, in Robert George‘s words,  “making utter nuisances of themselves like Old Testament prophets”.

I find this sort of perspective to be morally offensive on a number of different levels. To start with, in theological terms this anti-radical approach commits a sin that is especially common among right-wing evangelicals: using isolated teachings of St. Paul as an excuse for ignoring the most fundamental teachings of Jesus himself. “The Jesus Way,” as my virtual friend Brian Zahnd calls it, is all about putting love and compassion ahead of social and religious respectability; about stretching ourselves to love those who are considered too dangerous to love, and questioning the authority of those who attempt to put themselves in the position of saying who is acceptable to God and who isn’t. This isn’t just a matter of maintaining moral self-control and certainly not a matter of promoting status quo respectability. Yes, Paul has a point in telling believers exercise particular forms of self-restraint and to continue to function as responsible members of society, but using that as an excuse for ignoring Jesus’ core teachings and reconstructing the message of Christianity so as to make it one of sexual moralizing and unquestioned support for status quo economic power structures is just sloppy theological thinking!

Jean-Léon Gérôme's "Jerusalem"

Jean-Léon Gérôme’s “Jerusalem”

Somewhat in conjunction with the above problem, the anti-radical message here mirrors the problematic implications of Pope John Paul II’s famous transitional encyclical letter, Veritatis Splendor –– basically saying that since it is easier to formulate negative moral requirements than positive ones in absolute terms, and since absolute moral requirements should always trump relative moral requirements, keeping all of the “thou shalt nots” should therefore be the primary focus of Christian life in general and Catholic life in particular. Over the past couple of decades since this encyclical was written its teaching has led to a gross neglect of the underlying core principle of Christian ethics, which the late pope in fact strongly acknowledges in the letter itself: the ultimate purpose of any Christian moral action is to express absolute love for God, and selflessly reciprocal love for those around us –– what is commonly known as the twin commandment of love. All other commands are merely means to those ends. By implying from there that the best way to love God is to absolutely follow the negative commands given by the church in his name –– or to otherwise make the keeping of negative moral imperatives the priority of one’s life –– the old pope and his followers have overlooked the core essence of Jesus’ dispute with the Pharisees, which set the tone for so much of his teaching –– not to mention the core moral teachings given in the books of James and 1 John in particular:

If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as law-breakers (James 2:8-9).

Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? (James 2:15-16)

Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. […] The wages you failed to pay to the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. […]  You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you (James 5:1, 4, 6).

This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another (1 John 3:11).

Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love (1 John 4:8).

Anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this commandment: Whoever loves God must also love his brother (1 John 4:20-21).

If we get beyond the sort of screwed up moral priority system which John Paul II inadvertently (perhaps) implemented –– ­one of putting respectable rule-keeping ahead of compassion –– and if instead we follow Pope Francis’ example of setting rules aside and reaching out the outcast, we will inevitably end up being somewhat radical. Of course this in turn will be a major source of offense to Glen Beck fans, but that’s just something we should take as an added bonus.

That in fact brings me to the third issue I take with those who see an anti-radical agenda as essential to Christian morality and politics: I hate seeing the privileges of those who get rich by abusing the weak –– the ultimate antithesis of everything Jesus ever taught –– being justified through the cynical manipulation of believers’ sincere faith and sincere desire to love God. Jesus did not die as a means of helping to reinforce the abusers’ ungodly grip on power! I’m sorry, but that is totally NOT what being recipients of God’s mercy should be motivating us to stand up for!

Let me give you some background for the bug I have in my bonnet on this one: As part of my research for my dissertation I’ve been been reading some of the books Ralph Reed wrote when he was at the peak of his political influence within the religious right. There he speaks of what he saw among those who were working to maintain conservative Christians’ support for Ronald Reagan before he became actively involved in that particular aspect of Republican politics himself: To manipulate conservative Christians into continuing to vote for Reagan, Republican strategists carefully chose a theatrical political battle for the White House to fight on behalf of the religious right –– an initiative that strategists could be sure in advance would have no chance of passing into law, and which would be sure to have no practical impact on what sort of laws would get passed: a constitutional amendment providing a right to have prayer in public schools. Reed says that, in his pre-Christian days, he watched up close and personal as all this happened, and thought, “It was all rather sad and poignant. Much blood and treasure had been spilled in a futile effort that served to solidify Reagan’s evangelical base but did little to advance [their] agenda. The religious conservatives had been rolled by the White House and didn’t even know it.” He goes on to freely admit that, starting in 1980, Republicans kept trying to use such issues “as a wedge to drive Catholics and evangelicals away from the Democratic party [sic].”  (Reed, Ralph (1996) Active Faith. New York: Free Press — pp. 116-118)

Of course he never admits playing an active role in that process himself, but it takes a pretty intense amount of naiveté to believe in Reed’s personal innocence in such processes. The point here is that we have one of the most strategically connected people within the religious right, with the strongest possible interest in making the movement look good, freely admitting that the little men behind the curtain, controlling the movements of their movement’s greatest hero, cynically used them as political pawns; and that this sort of manipulation became a more or less continuous thing thereafter.

In the generation since the “Reagan Revolution” evangelical Christians involved in politics, far from learning from these mistakes, seem to have developed a certain fondness for “getting rolled” by Republicans. Those who question the value of rolling over for Republicans as an expression of one’s faith –– who insist on paying attention to the needs of the poor and the importance of limiting environmental destruction in the political process –– tend to be labeled as “radicals”. In that regard it’s hard for me to respect any Christian who is not at least a bit “radical”!

But while standing firm on everything I have stated above, I will now attempt to “balance it out” a  bit in an Aristotelian sort of way, and in doing so hold out an olive branch to my less “radical” brothers here. I realize that, like many other virtues, the “radicalism” I espouse would ceases to be a virtue if it is taken to the extreme of blinding its enthusiast to all other aspects of life. Thus Aristotle’s recommendation to exercise moderation in every virtue is applicable even with reference to what is being called “radicalism” here. In this context then the oxymoron of “moderate radicalism” makes quite a bit of sense.

More specifically in relation to the radical virtue of loving others in a Christian sense here –– and in fighting to make the world more just and more sustainable place accordingly –– one must also maintain a sense of personal equilibrium and grounding in one’s personal moral convictions in order for that love to be properly manifested in the world. Still more specifically, as radical as I am in terms of not accepting the idea of certain people deserving to be abused or of Christianity having a proper role to play in reinforcing the abuse being heaped on less “respectable” sorts, I still acknowledge the wisdom of living according to many of the principles from the second half of the book of Ephesians that my old acquaintances are promoting as a cure for such “radicalism”:

Being a radical certainly does not stop me from believing that I should keep working to overcome divisions within Christianity (4:3-5). Being radical does not stop me from seeking intellectual maturity and a stable, coherent theological and moral perspective in life; which is both consistent with the message of Jesus himself and based on a humble awareness of the grace that I have been given, and which I am therefore duty bound to express with patience to those who really don’t get it yet (4:13-15). My radicalism also includes a belief in the inherent value in honest communication, particularly among those who are “on the same side” (4:25).  Creative and/or strategic telling of half-truths and out and out lies in order to manipulate others is always an un-brotherly act of aggression to be avoided, including in the sort of political talking points that we pass around between ourselves.

Being the sort of radical that I am does not stop me from attempting to use what skills I have for the benefit of others, whether or not there’s something in it for me (4:28). As the sort of radical that I am I still recognize the dangers of operating on testosterone-fueled rage, and that as the aphorism goes, “Getting enraged at someone is like swallowing poison in order to make someone else sick” (4:26, 31). Being the sort of radical I am, I strongly object to impersonally objectifying and/or using of other people, either sexually or economically (issues Paul clearly addresses in parallel: 5:3-5). Furthermore, as the sort of radical that I am, I strongly believe in exposing evil processes, especially those which justify greed and abuse in Jesus’ name (5:11).

I must, however, confess that, more in spite of my radicalism than because of it, there are some standards which Paul preaches that I fail to live up to. In particular I confess my failure in not making music as important a part of my life as Paul recommends (5:19). I accept that order to better express my radical perspective I really should try to be more musical. (Right Juuso?)  As a moderately radical Christian I deeply respect and appreciate all those who use music to bring people together, bring about emotional healing and create a sense of interpersonal connection; who are in this way able to be far more radical than I am, yet still in a balanced sort of way. That is part of what made me so thankful and thrilled to be able to attend the debut album release concert by my former student Sandhja this weekend!

Like musicality, I must also confess that thankfulness (5:20) is something I need to work on more. My life includes plenty to complain about, but also plenty I can be thankful for. I appreciate the truth in what A.J. Jacobs says about a habit of thankfulness being one of the most beneficial things he took away from his year of living biblically. I recognize that being more thankful would be a happier and healthier way for me to live, and together with losing a bit of weight, it is one of the main self-improvement projects I am currently working on.

I must further confess, however, that some parts of Paul’s teaching in the end of Ephesians just don’t work for me. In particular, though I’ve always treated each of my wives and slaves with the utmost Christian respect, none of them ever submitted to me the ways Paul says they should have! Some of them said that if I had been more like Christ they could have been able to respect me more, but the underlying suggestion there was for me to allow myself to be crucified and to take things from there. That just didn’t work for me. Some folks on the other hand say that I should have dealt with their problems a bit more directly, giving them a good beating every now and again. But though I never tried it, I’m pretty sure such a tactic would have caused more problems than it would have solved for me. Whatever the case, keeping wives and slaves in their proper place these days is one of those projects that by-and-large I’ve just given up on. The way cultures have changed in the past 2000 years, slaves just don’t recognize their proper place in life any more; wives even less so. When I’m tempted to complain about this I just have to remember the importance of being thankful in life regardless.

Yes, I must further confess that some aspects of my current “radicalism” are the indirect result of my shortcomings both as a slaveholder and as a husband. Not being able to exercise my authority properly in those sorts of relationships has led me to a deeper consideration of ways in which to love God and love those around me in spite of all the ways that the cultural norms governing such relationships have changed in the past couple of millennia. Consequently there are some areas in which I no longer consider Paul’s teaching to be the final word on the subject of how we must go about loving God and each other. I recognize that this puts me at odds with Fundamentalists –– those who need to believe that everything in the Bible is perfectly true for all time and in every sense in order to be able believe that God is real and in to have some absolute source of certainty by means of which to make sense of their lives. What can I say? Turning back the clock to restore patriarchal authority structures just isn’t going to work for me, no matter how I might try. I realize that others remain more optimistic about this project and that they find my pessimism in these matters offensive. The best I can offer them is to say that as long as they aren’t too aggressive in their attempts to restore biblical systems of slavery, I can be just as patient and loving with them as they are with me.

All in all then, yes, I continue to self-identify as a radical Christian, albeit in a moderate sort of way. I find this consistent with most if not all of the teachings in the last chapters of the book of Ephesians, which have been posed as an antidote for such radicalism. Yes, I do tend to have problems with those who have problems with “radicalism” in general, but in that respect I can live by Paul’s guidelines for healthy and respectful interaction between believers if my opponents can. If some chose to anathematize me for my “radicalism”, however, I can live with that too. Jesus had the same type of experience with the religious people of his day, and if I can identify with him on that level at least, I can be thankful for the privilege.

 

 

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