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Take a Stand

October 11th, 2017 No comments

“You may be 38 years old, as I happen to be. And one day, some great opportunity stands before you and calls you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause. And you refuse to do it because you are afraid…. You refuse to do it because you want to live longer…. You’re afraid that you will lose your job, or you are afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity, or you’re afraid that somebody will stab you, or shoot at you or bomb your house; so you refuse to take the stand.

Well, you may go on and live until you are 90, but you’re just as dead at 38 as you would be at 90. And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit.” – Martin Luther King, Jr. 1968

The Arrogance of Historical Memory

October 9th, 2017 No comments

Social media is abuzz with excitement on October 12: variously known as Columbus Day or Indigenous People’s Day and there are other names for it. As if we didn’t have enough to be concerned about some of us need to take time out to denounce Sr. Colombo, laying the blame for all that happened in the Americas after 1492 on him. We should not be so quick to pass judgment.
 
As a historian one of the things I learned early on is that many of us use history as a hammer. We apply our 21st century standards of what we think is right and wrong to actors who lived in a world completely alien to us, so that we can associate our political enemies with their supposed historical misdeeds. This may give us some sense of moral superiority but it doesn’t serve any positive purpose. If we look at history through the lens of our own time we can’t possibly understand it. Then what is the purpose of looking at all? It just becomes another way of dividing ourselves up and casting blame at the “other.”
 
The historical profession is not about rehashing the crimes of the past. It is not only useless it is redundant for us to smugly condemn historical actors, because their actions wouldn’t be considered crimes if history had not already made that judgment. Our more difficult and profitable task is to try to see the world through the eyes of historical actors, not to excuse them, but so we can understand why they thought what they were doing was legitimate.
 
When Columbus sailed for the Indies he didn’t start out with the intention of finding geography previously unknown to Europe so that he could rape, pillage and enslave people he had no prior knowledge of. He set out on a perfectly respectable expedition to seek trade in Asia. He carried with him an entire worldview that saw what happened in the Americas as justifiable, even admirable. What kind of thinking would allow that? If we learn that, we can avoid repeating it. Understanding historical actors does not mean we agree with what they did. In fact, if we understand them, we can prevent what they did from recurring.
 
There is plenty of injustice to address today without casting stones at the past. Much if not all of the injustice that surrounds us is abetted by our failure to understand the past. If we spend our effort working for justice today, maybe our descendants five centuries from now will not remember us as criminals.

Wretched in the Generality 

October 9th, 2017 No comments

I am dumbfounded by my fellow citizens. As I watch social discourse I am reminded of the epigraph of William Shirer’s massive The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, where he quotes Goethe, “I have often felt a bitter sorrow at the thought of the German people, which is so estimable in the individual and so wretched in the generality…”  Shirer set out to record how a nation sure of its civilization and humanity could succumb to the siren-song of Nazism and carry out the most gruesome lawlessness the world has ever seen. As I see Americans respond to tragedy after tragedy, I fear that my country may be sliding down the same slippery slope. 

How can people who profess to believe in the principles of the Enlightenment on which this country was founded, principles that call for life, freedom and equality for all, blithely, almost blindly, argue in favor of inequality and injustice? How can people who claim to subscribe to the idea that all men are endowed with the inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness act as if that right is resaved to only some men, those who “look like me?” And how can people who give nod to the right to life enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, a landmark product of the Age of Reason, advocate life-denying policies justified by fictions, lies so blatant a mere glance at the facts would vanquish them? 

And yet this is what drives our national discourse. Otherwise estimable individuals parroting ideas planted in their consciousness by greedy and power-hungry interests seeking to profit from their gullibility, creating a mass of ignorance propelling the nation toward oblivion.  

Dr. King prescribed a solution: a revolution of values. In a speech denouncing the war in Vietnam, he differentiated between the outlook of a thing-oriented society vs. a people-oriented one. What defines our sense of value? Is it really economic well-being? Or is it commitment to the liberation of the human spirit? 

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin…we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. 

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. 

A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. 

A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. 

America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood. 

This kind of positive revolution of values is our best defense against communism. War is not the answer. [1] 

[1] Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Beyond Vietnam — A Time to Break Silence” (lecture, Riverside Church, New York, New York, April 4, 1967), accessed October 9, 2017, http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkatimetobreaksilence.htm. 

Love Our Country…

October 6th, 2017 No comments

Re-arranging deck chairs…

October 3rd, 2017 No comments

I’m not against making weapons harder to get, but the problem isn’t really the availability of guns. We live in a culture that idolizes violence. When the TV tells us that the resolution to every problem is for the good guy to kill the bad guy, preferably in a satisfyingly vicious way, it reflects our worship of violence as the answer to every problem. Until Americans end their obsession with violence, controlling weapons will be like re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Welcoming the Stranger

September 7th, 2017 No comments

Excerpt from Paul VI “Populorum Progressio” (1967) 

Finding our humanity

September 2nd, 2017 No comments

What is happening in South Texas and Louisiana is unimaginable. Here in San Diego, in the 72 hours ending at 4AM Tuesday February 28, 2017 rainfall was recorded ranging from 9.04 inches at Mt. Palomar observatory to 1.95 inches in Oceanside.[1] If you can remember that weekend people were losing their minds, as if the world was about to end. By contrast, in a similar period in the path of Hurricane Harvey up to 50 inches of rain fell. Dropping over 15 trillion gallons of water. It was a much more powerful storm than Sandy or Katrina. We might even call it a storm of biblical proportions.

I’m not going to follow the lead of others who have blamed the devastation on lesbians or Republicans. I am, instead, going to observe a real miracle. There were two kinds of images that came out of the storm: pictures that tried to relay the immensity of the event both in terms of human suffering and destructive power, and others showing the sacrifices and heroism of first responders, rescue officials, and ordinary citizens.

The last two years at least have been especially polarizing in the United States. The days before the storm were exceptionally so, as Americans pointed fingers at each other with accusations of racism, fascism, and violence. No doubt the people in these photos, both the victims and the rescuers, were as caught up in the drama as everyone else. But in the face of disaster, these people didn’t stop to ask, are you racist?, Are you #BackLivesMatter? Are you liberal, conservative, Democrat, Republican, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, straight or gay?

This is a hopeful sign because it shows that we are fundamentally generous and caring. But why is it that we can only find our common humanity in the midst of calamity?

[1] http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/weather/sd-me-heavy-rain-20170228-story.html

America Loses its Mind

August 26th, 2017 No comments

Novelist Kurt Anderson has written a piece appearing in the September 2017 issue of The Atlantic magazine entitled “How America Lost its Mind.” It’s an intriguing title and a piece sorely needed in our current “post-truth” conundrum. He argues that Americans have always possessed a cultural tendency toward belief in the rationally unbelievable. It may be true, and it’s not surprising given that the country was born out of a David and Goliath-like contest between a makeshift barely-organized Colonial Army and the great Empire of the world (with quite a bit of help from King Louis XVI of France, who would later lose his head in the French Revolution).

Anderson proposes that this propensity for dreaming big dreams has historically been balanced by a tether to what he calls reality, which, as an atheist, he puts forth as the rationality of the Age of Reason. Although I disagree that everything one believes must be supported by rationality, as there are many things we know to be true that cannot be explained rationally, I do believe both that American history is characterized by a highly inflated sense of self and also a shared general agreement about what is real and what is not. In other words, that there is something that we can all agree is “real.” Anderson’s article traces the loss of this common agreement beginning in the 1960s and the anti-war movement and culminating in a nation in which people essentially create their own personal realities with the individual as the anchor and center of reference. He writes:

Why are we like this?

The short answer is because we’re Americans – because being American means we can believe anything we want; that our beliefs are equal or superior to anyone else’s, experts be damned. Once people commit to that approach, the world turns inside out, and no cause-and-effect connection is fixed. The credible becomes incredible and the incredible credible.[1]

What Anderson describes is the dilemma created by the collapse of the Enlightenment metanarrative: summed up by a deep faith in “progress.” It is the overarching belief that humans through their own efforts in science, technology and education will inevitably create a man-made paradise. It started with the Enlightenment Philosophes and climaxed in the Marxist economic critique. “Progress” was the general Truth™ underlying all of American life and thought.  But it was rejected, as it ought to have been, after the horrors of the 20th century –  the Western Front, the Holocaust, and the Atomic Bomb – demonstrated its fallacy.

The consequence is what scholars call “post-modernism.” The fundamental rule of the Enlightenment was that there is a single monolithic and unchangeable reality that every educated person can discern through “reason,” which essentially resolves to scientific measurement. When that faith system collapsed, the idea that there is a single truth that we can all agree on collapsed with it. The locus of truth shifted from the exterior world to the individual. In the sixties, as Anderson notes, America had “a new rule written into their mental operating systems: Do your own thing, find your own reality, it’s all relative.[2] The problem isn’t “right vs. left,” it is that there are as many “truths” as there are those who want to believe them, and because they do not require any external validation, these “truths” are unassailable.

Our national loss of a connection to a common narrative has led to our current political challenges because while all of us agree that “progress” is the goal, we no longer have general agreement as to what that looks like. For some, progress would be returning to a time when the United States was filled with righteous Christian folks chosen by God to further the cause that makes the United States exceptional, ironically not the gospel of Jesus Christ but that of John Locke and Adam Smith.

For others, progress consists of overcoming the shortsightedness and injustices of the past and creating a society that embodies the ideals contained in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Gettysburg Address. The ultimate tragedy is that all sides point to the same words and identify completely different things. Why? Because they don’t mean what they mean, they mean what we think they mean. Without a commitment to a common reality, anyone who disagrees with you is not wrong, they are insane. Or deliberately evil.

To be fair, this is not new. Ratification of the Constitution was accomplished by leaving contentious issues unresolved. For example, the Constitution nowhere states that the Union cannot be dissolved. If that had been specified, many Southern States, even in 1787, would not have joined the United States. Some walked away believing they had created a confederation of convenience, and others a permanent union.

During the first Presidential Administration, these ambiguities set the groundwork for US politics to the present in the conflict between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. Is the United States an idyllic landscape of liberty where a prosperous agrarian middle class pursues happiness? Or is it an economic powerhouse rivaling Great Britain? The conflict very nearly ended the American Experiment in 1800. In order to preserve the union, the antagonists reluctantly compromised, effectively confining political conflict to the ballot box until 1861.

Politics in 1800 evoked at least as much passion as politics today. Both sides saw the other not as opponents but enemies, not only of themselves, but of the country. And yet, rather than watching their dreams come crashing down around them, they found a way to overcome their biases and save the country. Why? They must have agreed that whatever had been created, preserving it was worth more than political victory. But they also must have inhabited the same intellectual universe. Think about that word: uni. One.

Now let’s take a look at a very sad but telling incident that occurred in Charlottesville, Va. Permits were given for a “Unite the Right “rally to participants and opponents. The organizers of the rally were avowed White Supremacists who idolize Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. They are allied with or perhaps have morphed into a combination of their own Nazi views and the racist ideology of the Ku Klux Klan. They came to town heavily armed, and marched through the streets with torches shouting Nazi and racist chants, seeking to intimidate. They were met by unarmed leftist groups who nevertheless confronted them. There was violence. In the end, a deranged White Supremacist drove his car at high speed into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one and wounding several others.

The rallying point of the march was to protest the proposed removal of a statue of Confederate hero Robert E. Lee. Americans are in conflict over such statues because they are seen as symbols of White Supremacy and a war fought to defend the institution of slavery. Interestingly, the events of the weekend prove that both protesters and counter-protesters view the statues just so. After the events in Charlottesville the Great-Great-Grandsons of Stonewall Jackson wrote,

Last weekend, Charlottesville showed us unequivocally that Confederate statues offer pre-existing iconography for racists. The people who descended on Charlottesville last weekend were there to make a naked show of force for white supremacy. To them, the Robert E. Lee statue is a clear symbol of their hateful ideology.[3]

Nevertheless, the argument employed by those who defend the statues is not that they are White Supremacist intimidations, but rather that they represent Southern “heritage.” Southern heritage conjures a narrative called the “Lost Cause,” which works to salve the sting of defeat for Southerners by explaining the Civil War as a noble cause that could not be sustained against overwhelming odds. Therefore, those who fought for the Confederacy were actually heroes.

The noble cause is most often summarized in the words “States’ Rights,” implying that the Union was trying to violate the sacred rights of the Southern States. This was indeed the rationale employed by the authors of secession and by those who fought, most of whom were not slave owners and would never have fought to preserve slavery. In fact, for Southerners the issue of the Civil War was exactly the same as the Revolutionary War. The latter was sparked when the Parliament acted to deprive the colonists of their property without their consent. “Taxation without representation is tyranny.” Southerners argued that their property rights were being threatened by the Federal government in the same way. The catch is that the items of property they sought to defend were human beings. The “Lost Cause” narrative emphasizes that Southerners were fighting for their rights, but leaves out that the rights they were fighting for consisted of keeping human beings enslaved. “States’ Rights” and slavery are inseparable.[4]

And therein lies the nub. The facts are entirely knowable, and in a reality based world they would be indisputable. But in a world where reality can be whatever I want it to be, facts are meaningless. What you say may be true but I don’t care because I’m entitled to my own (“alternative”) facts. Leaving the statues up or taking them down are equally useless, because the statues are not the problem The problem is the meaning assigned to those statues by the various actors.

I think it is fairly obvious that armed thugs marching through the streets spewing hate are not concerned about Southern heritage. Their issues are White Supremacy and racism (this isn’t arguable, this is what they said, loudly and gleefully). There may be others who are concerned about Southern heritage. Because they don’t want to believe they are White Supremacists and racists (and perhaps they try not to be), and/or because they truly believe these things stand for something good.

The first group is beyond reason. The second group I don’t know. I think if we could remove the study of history from the realm of narrative fantasy and tether it to verifiable facts, perhaps we could agree on something. If we could agree on what is true and what is false we might be able to see each other as fellow human beings rather than madmen and demons. And then, even though we disagree with and perhaps even don’t like each other, we might come to recognize that our differences are not as big as our common welfare.

Is that still possible?

Tolerance doesn’t mean I agree or approve. It means I disagree and disapprove, but I’m not going to try to stop you.

[1] Kurt Anderson, “How America Lost its Mind,” The Atlantic, September 2017, 76.

[2] Ibid.

[3] William Jackson Christian and Warren Edmund Christian, “The Monuments Must Go: An open letter from the great-great-grandsons of Stonewall Jackson.,” Slate, August 16, 2017, 1, accessed August 25, 2017,  http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2017/08/stonewall_jackson_s_grandsons_the_monuments_must_go.html.

[4] Please don’t take my word for this; read the words of those who moved to destroy the nation: The Declaration of Causes of Seceding States.

Enough

August 13th, 2017 No comments

This country was born with an open wound. The pain of this open wound caused so much division that eventually the nation tried to commit suicide. Then the wound was closed but the infection remained. That infection festered until it burst the skin, and the nation covered it with a band-aid. With the band-aid it looked like the wound was healed for a time but it continued to fester.

The election of a black President exposed the putrefying sore, and eventually the band-aid was completely ripped away, leaving a mass of stinking bloody pus.

Covering it over never really helped. In fact, it just allowed the wound to get worse, continuing to cause damage to the whole body. Now it is completely exposed.

Racism is not a political issue. Do not be confused or distracted by apologists for hate pointing fingers at the “other side.” It is not a left vs. right issue. It is a right vs. wrong issue. We do not have to agree on anything else to agree that the symbols of the hateful ideology Americans sacrificed to vanquish have no place in our public discourse. If you are not willing to condemn them, you are with them.

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor” – Desmond Tutu

“The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict…[an individual] who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it” – Martin Luther King Jr.

“We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented” – Elie Wiesel

“Tragic Prelude”

July 27th, 2017 No comments

Most of us in my generation are familiar with this image as the cover of rock band Kansas’ first album “Kansas.” (1974). It is a mural on the second floor of the Kansas State capitol titled “Tragic Prelude” by John Steuart Curry. (1942) It depicts the abolitionist struggle known as “Bleeding Kansas” that preceded the Civil War in the 1850s. I cannot imagine a more quintessentially American image.

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