Crossroads

We’re standing at a crossroads.

Donald Trump has the Republican nomination, and Hillary Clinton (almost) has the Democratic nomination. America is thus faced with a choice. But it goes far beyond Trump vs. Clinton or GOP vs. Dems. This is a choice that may well decide several things. First, it may decide what kind of country the United States truly is. Second, it may decide the fate of the US in general. Third, it may decide the fate of human civilization.

Let’s take that one at a time.

Remember this: the United States was built on racism. It was built on the racism of denying non-white people their land, their liberty, and their labor. Mexican-Americans in Texas and California are in the first category, African-Americans in the second and third, and Native Americans in all three. It was built further on a policy that US needs should and would override the needs of everyone else in the world. Thus democratically elected regimes in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Chile, and Iran were all overthrown with US help or approval, in order to preserve profits, and thus Saddam Hussein was our friend while he fought Iran but our foe when he fought Kuwait, and Osama bin Laden was our friend (or at least our fellow-traveler) when he fought the Soviet Union and our foe afterward.

Racism is in our DNA: it taints the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and it haunts us still in police violence, economic disparity, and political power imbalance, to name only the most obvious. Continue reading

Ferguson Queries

As I was coming home from work the other night, a song came up on my headphones: “The Suburbs,” by Arcade Fire. I have always thought of that particular piece as a “prophecy song,” in large part because of the music video, which can be found here. It’s about six minutes long, and I encourage all to watch it.

For those who are unable to watch, the video centers on five friends, in their early teens, enjoying their life among wealthy suburbs, riding bikes, playing with BB guns, roughhousing, and in general becoming fast companions. But they live in a slightly different America, a dystopia, set against the background of, as the song lyrics say, “a suburban war—your part of town against mine.” Armed soldiers patrol the streets. Occasionally people are dragged from their homes in the depths of night. Military helicopters fly overhead, trucks and tanks are common sights. And gradually this background seeps into the foreground, as the twisted world the kids live in begins to destroy their friendship, culminating in an act of brutal violence.

As I listened to the song on my headphones, I thought of the current situation in Ferguson, Missouri—the St. Louis suburb where Michael Brown, 18, was shot and killed, unarmed, prompting protests and riots. I thought of the militarized police that has been so aggressive and so criticized in Ferguson. And it finally hit me, years too late: Continue reading

Authors and Finishers

My country is increasingly fractured and divided these days, with this oncoming election widening the rifts deeper every day. The election has, to an extent, become a clash of ideologies. And though there are still more things that unite us than divide us—all the candidates love their country, all the candidates are trying to protect it—the rifts are so deep that compromise is becoming not just a dirty word but an equivalent to “surrender.” Too many have come to the conclusion that even agreeing with their political opponents is tantamount to treason. I will not pretend that all parties are equal in this respect; one political party, after all, has seemed to drift rightward in the wake of the other’s extremism. Now, it’s possible that the election will end some of this; if Governor Romney wins, he might attribute his success to his late-race moderation, and if he loses, the Republican Party may recognize that it is because of their ideological extremism, and adjust accordingly. But there is no guarantee of that. And with the politics of rage reaping a rich harvest of hate for both parties (though to an unequal degree), I do not see politics in this nation becoming more civil any time soon. The electorate is remarkably divided this year, with few swing votes up for grabs. This means that first, most voters were set along party lines long before Election Day, with few people deciding not on party name but on the merits of arguments, and second, the way to win the election is a matter of firing up the party base and bolstering loyalist turnout. Which means more vitriol and more hatred, because the easiest way to motivate people is through fear. It is almost becoming a situation where we no longer have the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, but the Anti-Democrat and the Anti-Republican Parties. Or at least that is how they bring out the vote.

This makes me deeply uneasy. Continue reading

The Last Judgment of the USA

Then the people of the United States were brought before Christ, and were divided in two, the sheep and the goats, and the goats were placed at his left hand. And he said to them, “You who are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and you did not cure me, in prison and you did not visit me.” And they all answered, “When was this precisely, Lord?”

And he told them:

“Whenever you drove past East St. Louis or around Watts, and did not stop; whenever you passed over Gary or avoided the South Side; whenever you ignored Baltimore or the Bronx, stayed away from Philly’s heart, fled DC at nightfall. Continue reading

No Second Coming

A whisper came into my soul and said, “Write!” And I asked, “What shall I write?” And the whisper said, “Write the words that are given to you, write the law that I wrote in your heart.” The whisper said, “Write of the world you live in, not of the next.” The whisper said, “Write of love and justice.”

For a thousand wrongs, and for ten thousand, the One will not withhold the punishment; because for the wealth of one we have beggared a thousand, and for the feast of ten we have let a million starve. The wealth of the great was a gift given that it might be given again, a blessing to be handed on for the blessing of all, but out of greed and pride and luxury it has been held back. Therefore all luxury shall pass away, and its passage will not be peaceful.

For a thousand wrongs, and for ten thousand, the One will not withhold the punishment; for what the One gave open-handed has been taken and consumed, and the fingers and the hand as well, and now we gnaw the wrist! The streams and the trees of the mountains are stripped and fouled, and the mountains themselves are thrown down, and not by faith but greed. The sea has been poisoned, and the air itself, and all the bounty that was once called limitless draws near to its end. Continue reading

One in Seven Billion

We are one.

It’s a frail and fragile solution I offer to the problems of the world; its only virtue is that it is the only possible permanent fix. In the old Quaker phrasing, it runs, “Walk cheerfully over the earth, answering that of God in every one.” The voice out of Nazareth had it as “Love your neighbor.” In more modern terms, it might be, “You’ve got to be kind.” Give all people what you would ask for yourself and for your own family. Because we are all one kin, one people — we are all one. Continue reading

Righteous Among the Nations

There is a dark place in Washington, DC, and not one of the ones you might be thinking of. I mean a place that is physically dark as well as metaphorically, a place with black walls and low light, and terrible things on display: the Holocaust Memorial Museum. It is an intentionally oppressive and uncomfortable place, where visitors walk through the records of death.

There is, however, a literal bright spot: a white wall, well-lit, standing out from the gloom. It is the list of rescuers, the “Righteous Among the Nations” as honored by Yad Vashem: the ones who risked their lives to save the Jews fleeing the Holocaust. They were listed by country. I found a few familiar names quickly: Raoul Wallenberg among Sweden’s contingent, for instance. Then I looked for Denmark.

Denmark, after all, had one of the more remarkable rescue efforts of the Holocaust. The Germans had let Denmark be, to a great extent; the Jews had not even been required to wear the hated yellow star. This unfortunately means that the legend of King Christian X wearing the star in solidarity is apocryphal, although elsewhere in Europe non-Jews did put on stars in protest. But eventually the Holocaust reached Denmark, too. Continue reading

An Open Letter to Senator Patty Murray

[Senator Patty Murray, Senator from Washington since 1992, is the Democratic co-chair of the “SuperCommittee,” the group tasked with reducing the deficit. This letter was sent to her via this comment form on October 2, 2011. I encourage Washington residents to add your own voices.]

Senator:

Since your appointment as co-chair of the “SuperCommittee,” you’ve probably gotten a lot of mail. No doubt a lot of people are trying to get you to move in one direction or another. After all, the decisions of your committee will likely decide the immediate financial future of this country. I am sure you know the responsibility lying on you. As a longtime supporter, I am writing to you regarding potential spending cuts that your committee may recommend.

It’s become clear that raising taxes is necessary, so long as the taxes are only on those people who actually have money, the richest. But cutting spending will be needed as well, for political purposes as well as practical ones. But what to cut?

Many Americans are calling for cuts to Medicare and Medicaid. Others are advocating cuts for defense spending.

And that puts you in a tight spot, doesn’t it?

Senator, everyone knows that you have worked hard to bring contracts and Federal money home to Washington State, and everyone knows that a lot of what you’ve brought home is defense spending, and everyone knows that you’ve gotten a fair amount of money from Boeing and other major defense contractors. So while as a Democrat you’ve staunchly defended Medicare and Medicaid, you also have a vested interest in supporting Washington’s economy, specifically by bringing home Pentagon contracts.

Let’s consider, though. When we spend money on weapons, what do we get? Death and destruction. Ideally for our enemies, often for unlucky bystanders, occasionally (war being the chaos that it is) for our own. If the weapons are used at all, of course. I think all but the most bloodthirsty and xenophobic will hope and pray that they never will be.

When we spend money on health care, what do we get? Life. People living, working, thriving, and (let’s be direct) voting. And health care is something we definitely will use.

In these times, can we afford to build bombs we hope we’ll never drop, missiles we hope we’ll never launch? In these times, can we afford the luxury of war? Or should we bend our efforts and our treasure to the necessity of life?

The answer is, in part, in your hands.

Your longtime supporter,

Paul Christiansen

Divisions

[Note: This was written on April 22; it’s taken this long to get up in part because of The Filter.]

I have just watched a deeply troubling video of a brutal beating. It shows a transgender woman under attack by two women in a Baltimore McDonald’s. The violence is horrifying, and seems to never end; every time the attackers move off for a moment, they come back. The McDonald’s employees largely do nothing, instead recording the attack on a camera phone; one employee does try to stop the beating, but after a brief time he seems to give up. The pummeling doesn’t end until the attacked woman begins to have a seizure, her blood smeared on the floor, and the man recording the incident warns the attackers to run before the police arrive.

First let me state that the footage is not always clear. The video makes the violence plain, but does not reveal motivations, show what is happening elsewhere, follow the incident all the way to its conclusion, or even provide a clear recording of what the people are saying. All that can truly be understood from the video is the flying fists and the blood on the floor. So my analysis here may be flawed on several levels.

This whole incident cuts across so many divisions in American society. Let us count the chasms…

What first leaped out at me is that the attackers appear to be black while the trans woman appears to be white. I say “appears” because again the footage is not always clear; it is difficult to judge race from a blurry cameraphone video — again, we encounter the limits of anything filmed — but also because the racial lines in this country are themselves increasingly blurred. The attacked woman could identify as white or as Hispanic or as almost anything, which underscores the futility of ever judging by skin tone. But this doesn’t mean that we can dismiss the racial element. There seems to be greater resistance toward non-heteronormative identity and presentation from some in the African-American community. I also note that one of the people to interfere in the violence is white, and while again motivation is unknown, a yelling match between an older white woman and a younger black woman will inevitably have some racial overtones.

A second thing that struck me is that both people who attempt to intervene are older than the attackers, while the bystanders seem to be younger people themselves, setting up an age-imbalance dynamic. Speaking as a teacher, I know that younger people do not always react well to being yelled at by older people, or even just being told what to do. I also note from long personal experience that bullying by young people is always more effectively opposed not by adults but by other young people. While this battering is obviously on a different level entirely, the age of the bystanders makes me wonder: if one or more of the younger employees or customers had even spoken up, would the attack have continued so long? The tacit approval of their peers and the presence of a camera might have added to the vitriol of the assailants.

A third divide worth noting is that of citizens vs. authorities. The bystanders warn the attackers to flee before the police come, indicating that the bystanders have more sympathy for the assailants than for law enforcement. The bystanders also make no move to call for an ambulance at first, as this too would draw official notice, until they realize that with the woman’s seizure they have entered a new level. The racial element returns here, and I may also note that trans people may not always welcome the police, either.

The most obvious division, of course, is between heteronormative and transgender women.

The most fundamental divide, however, is “Us vs. Them,” sameness vs. the other, which runs through all the rifts discussed here.

It seems to me that every act of brutality, from this small-scale viciousness to the most dire genocide, hinges on drawing that line between “like me” and “not like me,” and then cutting off those “not like me” from any common feeling. Those “like me” I will protect; those “not like me” I will attack, or permit to be attacked. We are people, They aren’t. And you only have to be good to people.

This incident teaches us all too viscerally of where that line of thinking leads us: it makes us into victims or villains. It leaves us bloody on the floor, or with blood on our fists, or — most likely — watching idle from the sidelines, inactive and yet just as complicit. There are no other options if we divide the world into Us and Them; every act of human violence has happened because people allow people to suffer what they would not suffer themselves.

This incident also teaches us that all our problems are interconnected. We cannot separate the clash of heteronormative vs. transgender from the clash of race, age, class, or power.

And finally, just as all the problems are entangled — just one problem, really: dividing people — then this incident teaches us that we must be united. I write this on both Earth Day and Good Friday. Just as those two occasions are far more connected than you might think, we are all more connected than we realize. Earth Day reminds us that all the people in the video have more in common than they have differences: the same genetic heritage, the same needs and hopes and aspirations, the same oasis home on the Pale Blue Dot They are all human. Good Friday suggests that — now that what’s happened has been done and cannot be undone — then the absolute best possible outcome from this terrible deed would be all the women, attackers and attacked, becoming friends. If these blows do not lead to an embrace in the end, then the attack’s last tragedy rolls around: it cuts the chasms deeper, and hurts all involved again.

I’ve written of what weapons do to us, the harm they inflict in both directions. That is true even if the weapons are words, or fists, or feet, or power, or paychecks. Harming anyone does damage to the harmer. So I mourn for what the attackers did, both to another person and to themselves. And I mourn for the bystanders who let it happen, as I mourn every time we stand by.

All the problems we face are aspects of the dire knot, humanity’s self-division and civil war. All hope we have rests in our reunion. Unless “Us vs. Them” becomes “Us and the Rest of Us,” we can’t even begin to face the catastrophes we’ve brought on our heads, because we’ll still carry the cracks in our hearts, the cracks that will widen to chasms and divide us yet again.

So speak with me now:

All our woes are one. All people are one. All the earth is one. I must be a friend to all my foes, and they must be friends to me, or everything we have and everything we are will always live in risk.

We are one.

We are one.

We are one.

Enough

For a long time now we have faced our problems from a certain standpoint. Confronted by grave difficulties, we redouble our efforts. Our resilience of mind is remarkable: we seem to persist in our course no matter what occurs. Our answer is almost always the same: if we are not succeeding, it is because we are not doing enough.

I’m told that one in six (or even one in four) women is sexually abused sometime in her life, as one in ten men is abused in his. Most of these assaults happen early in life. To counteract them we put more efforts into teaching children to beware strangers, to stay in at night, to not drink so much or to not wear “provocative” clothing. If our children are just careful enough and safe enough, we reason, rape will end and we will be safe.

It helps to catch rapists, of course, as with all other criminals, and crime is certainly a major issue in this country. Drug crimes in particular, but violent offenses as well. We have traditionally dealt with crime through adding more police, handing down harsher sentences, imprisoning more people and for longer, in bigger jails. We give our police and law enforcement agents more power, more resources, more weapons, more latitude. If we just lock away enough criminals, we reason, crime will end and we will be safe. Continue reading