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

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The Problem of Evil

For centuries, theologians have wrestled with a simple problem. If there is a god, then that god would have to be all-powerful and all-knowing; any limitations would make such a being less than divine. But if there is such a being, and that being is loving and merciful, then why do terrible events befall the world? Surely a powerful and loving god would step in and do something. I feel, however, that (with apologies to the Bard) “the fault is not in our gods, but in ourselves.” The worst evil and the darkest disaster, such as the storm that has just pounded the Philippines flat and left death and desolation in its wake, is not the fault of any god above, nor necessarily the fault of the lack of such a god, but due to our own inaction. Edmund Burke probably never said “All that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” But my point remains regardless. If there is evil in the world, it is because we allow it.

Longtime readers will remember, however, that I am not concerned with the proof of God. I will not try to prove the existence of the divine, nor will I try to argue against it. It is, quite simply, not my issue. I don’t care if God exists, though I believe that the Holy Spirit is real—God or not, my actions would be the same. So why am I, so resolutely dedicated to the here-and-now world, addressing a theological debate? I do so because there are real lessons in the discussion for believers and doubters alike. Continue reading

Choosers of the Fed

I had a few unsettling experiences lately. Minor, really, but it does make me question our culture’s priorities, or at least my own. And, misery loving company, what can I do but share that discomfort with all of you?

Yesterday* I exited the bank with $20 in cash in my pocket. Looking across the intersection, I saw a man lying down on the sidewalk under a blanket… next to his wheelchair. Obviously homeless. Obviously unable to work. I considered crossing the street and handing him one of my nice new ten-dollar bills. I decided not to. I decided not to because I was in a bit of a hurry, and because I had an intended destination for some of that money: Ron, another homeless man I’ve come to know pretty well. You help your friends first.

On my way up the road, I dropped into the ice cream shop and unhesitatingly spent $4.50 on a pint for the party I was throwing that night.

Now armed with one-dollar bills instead, I gave a buck to a guy who I didn’t remember at all, though he seemed to remember me pretty well… or at least the (probable) alcohol did.

Today I went up to the farmer’s market and spent another ten-dollar bill on potatoes and kale. A little expensive, but I like getting good local food. I also passed up buying some pears because I knew they’d be just a luxury for me. I deliberately saved a five to give to Ron.

Then I went to the Apple store and spent $86.51 on a new power cord for my laptop.

This last one is the one that’s bothering me most. Did I really need that power cord? On the one hand, I rely heavily on my computer for work, and there are a few projects in progress that I really need a functional laptop for, not one due to run out of power in twenty minutes. Also I’m discovering that I need my computer for social interaction, more than I’d care to admit. So getting a cord quickly was maybe the right idea. Plus I got the whole computer for free, so spending a little on maintenance is nothing, really — less than a hundred spent on a mostly-state-of-the-art machine? Cheap at twice the price.

But I got the computer from a friend who used to fix them for a living, nor is he the only friend who knows a thing or two. Should I have called someone and tried to get the power cord patched up first? Should I have pushed for a repair at the store, instead of a replacement? Should I have just limped along on my old slow computer until I made something else work? I have a nagging feeling that I didn’t really pay for a functional computer. I paid so that I could go back home and get on the internet fifteen minutes later. I paid to have it be easy.

Considering I spent a big part of the party talking with friends about the constraints of stuff, the inability to shed all the accumulated items of a life, I have the particularly nagging feeling that I didn’t command my stuff: it commanded me.

I juxtapose this with my encounters with the homeless because a thought keeps crossing my mind as I pass them on the street: “If I give you this dollar, and you eat tonight,” I keep wondering, “who else doesn’t get to eat?” I am nervous about being such a “chooser of the fed,” if you will. I am always nervous when I have power over others, a power not of their own choosing… or at least I should be. I am especially so when I realize that the cord now powering the laptop I type this on costs more than a night in a hotel room for Ron. If I’d figured out another way to fix the problem, then he might have had another night out of the cold.

Instead of helping my fellow people I spent money on ice cream and power cords. Or, to put it more simply, these past few days I was “chooser of the fed” whether I liked it or not, and I decided to feed myself luxuriously.

“It was your birthday!” some may say. “You need the power cord to make more money, and thereby help more people,” others might point out. These are not untrue things. What’s also true, however, is that I walked past one man and picked another to help… and I also helped myself. Was there any justice in that? Any compassion?

Someday, I think, I may have to go Full Assisi and give away everything. But is that wisdom, either? Is it better to parlay my education and my property into a useful salary, so I can keep funneling wealth to the causes I prefer? Keeping myself alive is probably a halfway-reasonable cause, too, but does it need to involve ice cream? Or by renouncing everything down to the clothes off my back, might I be the inspiration to others to break the shackles of their stuff and give more freely too, as St. Francis would be the inspiration for me? Or would the whole thing be a self-indulgent, self-centric, Guilty White Boy stunt to assuage a troubled conscience? Would that, too, be a purchase of convenience, a shortcut to an untroubled conscience, another way of making it easy? Considering the huge number of people I still wouldn’t be feeding, would it even make much difference? Would it even matter that much “to that one” as the starfish story goes? Am I greedy, lucky, overly analytical, or all three?

For the moment I have no answers for myself or for you. But perhaps the questions aren’t a bad place to start. If we all start to think about the way we choose to feed some and not others, maybe more people would wind up fed. If we kept thinking along those lines, we might even begin to shift the world a bit. Who knows, maybe it would be a world where good potatoes and power cords cost less. Just a thought.

And maybe, if we stopped buying ice cream and power cords altogether, we wouldn’t live in a world where those with the money like me decide every day who we choose to feed. Maybe the hungry could feed themselves, and we the wealthy would no longer have power over them.

But for today, the power to choose — indeed, the power to think about choosing, which is a luxury of sorts — remains in the hands that hold the dollars, be it one or a billion. And we choose whether we think about it or not.

*: Actually last year. Such is the nature of the Filter.

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.