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

The Goblin King Could be a Powerful Friend

Yesterday I argued that David Bowie’s legacy must be tarnished, but not erased. If anyone thinks it odd that I am defending the legacy of a musician and actor after he committed a genuine crime, I offer this as evidence for why he can’t be simply dismissed:

“…There Are So Few Black Artists on MTV. Why Is That?”

The deep tragedy of heroes who abuse their power is that they are still heroes.

Goblin King

The word is going around: David Bowie had sex with a 14-year-old girl.

Sometimes it’s put more forcefully: Bowie was a child abuser.

Others don’t think so (including the woman in question): It was consensual! “Who wouldn’t want to lose their virginity to David Bowie?” (A direct quote.)

The best piece I’ve seen so far is this one, which boils down to this line: “We want to be inspired be wonderful people, and to condemn the human excrement who do terrible things. We’re not comfortable with how grubby it is, here in the grey areas.”

Always the gray areas. Continue reading

Immunity

Sometimes, I wonder about the basic intelligence of my people. Americans can be incredibly short-sighted, blind to both future and past. But that just means that teachers like me need to step up and show people what they may have overlooked—particularly when it is not just one problem, but a pattern.

If you haven’t been keeping up, the measles are back. Never totally gone, this disease—which can in fact be lethal, despite what many think—has roared back to high levels in recent years. Most recently measles made the news at Disneyland, where hundreds were infected. Nor is it the only disease to be making a comeback: pertussis (whooping cough) made a major return a few years ago. Why are these diseases, long held at bay, suddenly returning in full force? Because of the anti-vaccination movement, called the “anti-vaxxers.” These are parents who believe that the vaccinations are more dangerous than the diseases they prevent.

There are many reasons for the anti-vaxxer movement. A few prominent celebrities made headlines by decrying vaccinations. A scientific paper made an unscientific link between the MMR vaccine and autism; its author had to retract it for manipulating his data, but the anti-vaxxers haven’t heard, or simply ignore this. The reasonable fear of toxic chemicals has spilled over to an unreasonable fear of anything with the word chemicals, and people may have forgotten that it’s not the substance but the dosage that does the damage (water is toxic in sufficient quantities, though for a few substances there is no safe dosage at all). And in a world that seems to be spinning out of control, parents may be reassured that they can still at least have a say about what goes into their children’s bodies, even if their decisions are just wrong. Continue reading

Western Lessons

I have crossed the American West, particularly Montana, several times in the last two years. The first time was by car, via Interstates 90 and 84, when some friends and I were traveling from Seattle to Friends General Conference (FGC). After that, I started visiting my beloved, Adrian, in Chicago. The trips, and what I’ve learned subsequently, have taught me vital lessons about what Friends—and indeed, all humans—are now called to do.

The friends I traveled with to FGC are dedicated environmentalists. One is the founder of the Seattle chapter of 350.org, and the other is her daughter, who planned and led a protest against climate change at the Federal Building in downtown Seattle before she left for college this fall. As we crossed the western plains we saw hundreds of windmills, generating electricity with no carbon required, and we were cheered to see them. But as we drove we reflected on the emissions we were pumping out, for even though we were driving a Prius, we were still burning oil. 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

A Flying Fable

Once upon a time, a long time ago, there was a mountainous kingdom where people loved to fly. It was a national passion. Most anyone who dared went flying, because it was a highly dangerous activity in the old days, leading to many crashes, injuries, and deaths. But because the mountains were separated by treacherous ravines and raging rivers, flying also served a vital purpose: it made it possible to get from one part of the kingdom to another. But generally, those who went flying went because flying is a wonderful thing.

Because flying was so dangerous, and because so many families were left shaken or broken by the deaths of members in flying accidents, the leading priests of the kingdom decided that it was against God’s will to go flying—except under certain circumstances. If one had to fly, the priests pronounced, it had to be done properly: a specific and legitimate destination in mind, not flying for sheer pleasure, and for legitimate, non-pleasurable reasons; a limit on the number of times someone flew in life, and with whom; legal documents such as wills and inheritance squared away in advance, and official oversight obtained; and all consequences to be accepted, whatever they might be.

Some of the priests had decided that flying for fun was against God’s will, and so it needed to be controlled; others had come to the conclusion that flying needed to be controlled, and so decided it was against God’s will. Whichever way it began, however, it came to the same thing, and it was written down accordingly.

Time went on, and, since humans are clever, ways of flying more safely were invented, and then more ways still. As the gear improved, more and more people began flying not just to get around, but for the sheer joy of it. Since many more people were flying now, there were more accidents, but if done well, flying was increasingly safe. It became commonplace—to the point where if someone flew only for business, or not at all, they were considered quite old-fashioned.

The priests who had pronounced on flying in the old days were long gone, of course, but their written words remained, and their priestly successors were numerous and vocal. Not a few, seeing that the danger had passed, began to drop their objections to flying, or looked the other way, or even outright encouraged some limited forms of pleasure-flights.

Others, however, objected strenuously. They pointed out that flying for pleasure was time wasted and resources squandered. They pointed out that flying for pleasure decreased the significance of business flights. And most of all they pointed to the holy writings, which said plainly that flying was only to be done under certain circumstances, and certainly not just for the fun of it.

As flying became more and more common, this latter group of priests grew more forceful in condemning it—and in a fascinating wrinkle, they objected with increasing rage to the safety gear which had made flying less dangerous. Every time someone invented a new flying safety device, these particular priests denounced it vigorously, on the grounds that it would encourage more people to fly. And whenever anyone offered classes on flying safety, oh, how these priests would howl!

Flying was still inherently risky, of course. There were always unexpected updrafts and so forth. But as the risk dropped closer and closer to zero, flying for fun simply became the norm.

Still, certain priests kept protesting. If anyone ever suggested to them that their rules were now totally archaic, and had been written in reaction to a situation that no longer existed, they vehemently denied that the laws of their God had ever had anything to do with safety. The law had always been that way, they said, and always would be: God’s will was God’s will.

And while they were wrong about “it’s always been that way,” they might have been right about “God’s will.” Who can discern the mind of God?

But one thing is certain: flying is fun. And it really has always been that way, and it really always will be.

Draw your own conclusions.