Sunday, October 12, 2014

Truth and Meaning: The Root of the Problem

As more cases of police violence emerge in our media, we find ourselves repulsed by the violence, by the unprovoked viciousness exhibited by those chosen to protect and to serve. For many of us, our immediate reaction is to call for punishing those using excessive force. We want justice for Michael Brown and so many others brutally abused, beaten and murdered by police officers. We want to stand with the citizens of Ferguson demanding change.

But, the root of the problem is not the police. Our police are only a symptom of the underlying disease. This nation has engaged in one illegal military action after another, fighting one former ally after another that we armed to fight some other supposed enemy. And many brave and patriotic young men and women have felt duty bound to defend the principles of this nation by serving in the armed forces. But after their traumatic experiences, they return home physically wounded, emotionally bruised, and desperately in need of help. And we turn our backs on them.

The way we treat our combat veterans should be a matter of national disgrace. The rates of suicide and homelessness among our veteran population should be a top priority in Washington. The failure to provide these courageous men and women with the physical and mental health treatment they need is beyond appalling. I worked in the hospice unit of a VA hospital and saw the remnants of our fiasco in Vietnam and it grieves me beyond belief than we will be treating thousands more like them for the next 50 years.

Our police are no different. These brave men and women put their lives on the line every day to protect our manicured lawns and allow us to sleep soundly on our posturepedic mattresses. But, we raise our children in a world that still condones racism, sexism and homophobia. Our boys and girls grow up learning that violence is a solution and that a gun conveys power and authority. Our youth learn quickly that intimidation is the American way and that force trumps diplomacy.

So, is it any surprise that a handful of our police are bullies? Should we be shocked when an officer goes quickly to deadly force when facing a person who is the "other?" In a world of political extremists and religious fundamentalists, why should the violent reflexes of a police officer baffle us?

The root of the problem is not bad cops. The root of the problem is our tolerance of hate, our acceptance of prejudice and our parenting that teaches a child that other children are somehow less human because of their social status, skin color or identity.

So, for now, we should punish anyone who abuses their authority. But, we must start treating the disease underlying the symptoms. We must heal the sickness of bigotry; we must refute our gun culture and rape culture; we must start loving each other unconditionally until the death of one is felt equally by all.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Truth and Meaning: Priorities


What do Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman have in common? They are the largest defense contractors in 2014 with almost $50 billion in Defense Department awards. They are also the largest recipients among all government contractors for all purposes. Military spending in the United States constitutes our single largest discretionary spending category. It is a safe assumption, therefore, that the maintenance of our military at current levels or greater is the top priority of our government.
Why? There are no armies capable of invading the United States anymore. "Red Dawn" may be a classic cult film, but in our modern world, such a scenario is impossible. And yet, we continue to spend billions on new planes, tanks, ships, bombs and supporting infrastructure for "defense." In reality, we spend this money to allow our nation to engage in and promote more war. When the world looks at the United States, they do not see people — they see a war machine interested only in oiling its own mechanisms.
Imagine yourself in a future century, reading the history of the United States. Will we be seen as liberators, empowering other nations to determine their own destinies? Or will we be seen as simply one more iteration of Babylon, Rome, the Holy Roman Empire and England? Will we be seen as neighbors, or conquerors? Will we be seen as a force for good, or the servant of greed, power and self-righteous entitlement?
A colleague of mine recently posed the question, "Why has there been almost no reaction from traditional elements of the peace/anti-war movement to recent events surrounding Syria?" I responded. I believe the lack of response is from despair.
With few exceptions, there are no statesmen or stateswomen left in Washington. Many people put their faith in Barack Obama to stem the influence of the military-industrial complex, but he has proven little different than his predecessor when it comes to foreign policy. There is no viable solution in the Middle East because the U.S. contributed so much to creating this mess for the past 60 years that we cannot possibly be part of the solution.
Every bomb or drone we drop kills more innocent people and creates even more enemies. We can't even feed our own people, provide them medical care or maintain our crumbling infrastructure. And the prospects for the 2016 election provide no hope whatsoever. The only sliver of hope I have at all is if Bernie Sanders runs — but he has virtually no chance of winning and would likely be saddled with the same kind of Congress we have now — a bunch of stooges of defense contractors and special interest groups.
We got our hopes up with the Occupy movement, but it couldn't sustain itself. Now our police are rapidly becoming an occupation force in our own cities. Unless five million people show up in Washington and demand fundamental changes to campaign financing, corporate personhood and our warmongering, then our future is bleak. We need the passion, the activism and the leaders like we had in the 1960s to pave the way.
Does the passion still exist? Yes. Are activists ready to move? Yes. Are there leaders out there ready to take charge? I believe so. The upcoming elections will tell us much. If the American people don't vote for change, then we are eventually doomed to stagnation and decline, or revolution and collapse.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Truth and Meaning: Occupy 2.0?

 
Sept. 17 was the three-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Whatever you thought of the movement's strategies or success, its wondrous and flawed idealism, ask yourself this question: Has anything Occupiers protested improved in the past three years?
  • The bankers, lawyers and other white collar criminals responsible for our economic collapse have not been charged, let alone convicted of crimes. 
  • Income disparity continues to rise, with the average corporate head earning hundreds, even thousands times more than their average worker. 
  • Racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and other oppressions continue unabated and largely unregulated. 
  • Our diet has become more genetically modified and our environment more polluted. 
  • Labor unions continue to be assaulted, no living wage is in sight and health insurance remains a target of the "haves." 
  • Jobs remain scarce, and students continue to graduate from college with decreasing hope and increasing debt. 
  • Corporations are being treated more like people, and people are being treated more like disposable commodities.
  • Our reckless policies regarding campaign financing have created a government owned by the tiny elite they are supposed to be regulating. 
  • Our blind pursuit of war abroad has now expanded onto our city streets as paramilitary police gun down unarmed, innocent civilians. 
  • It has become increasingly easier to buy a gun than to vote in some states.
As the original statement of the Occupy Wall Street movement said, we as one people united must acknowledge that the future of humanity requires that our system must protect our rights, and upon corruption of that system, it is up to us to protect our own rights; that a democratic government derives its just power from the people, but corporations do not seek consent to extract wealth from the people and the Earth; and that no true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power. We continue to live in a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments.
 
The embers of the Occupy movement still glow. Perhaps the time has come to reignite the flame. While we wordsmith and squabble over pennies to aid the poor, the wealth of this great nation is being drained by a new monarchy as trickle down economics has become flood upwards economics. A people united cannot be divided. North Carolina is showing us the way with its Moral Monday movement. Perhaps the time has come for every state and for all people to unite and exercise their rights and responsibilities as Americans to reclaim the moral center of our country.
 

Truth and Meaning: Normal


Normal. I am hard pressed to think of a word I dislike more in the English language. Whatever definition one uses, I believe the word creates confusion and prevents us from engaging in useful and productive dialogue.

For instance, one may say that a society is "normal," because it functions by the laws or norms that it has established. Should we consider normal the fact that nearly 50 million people in the richest country in the world live in poverty? Should we consider normal that there are as many guns as people in this country — and we have the gun death rates to back it up? Should it ever be normal that most of our elected officials could not pass the simplest tests on women's anatomy, the environment, or our national banking system?

One may also say that something is normal if it is the "usual" state or condition. But tens of millions of Americans have untreated physical and mental illnesses. For them, the "usual" state consists of pain and anxiety, disability and depression. Tens of millions of people of color in America are "usually" treated as inferior by so-called white people. Should that situation ever be accepted as normal? On the average, 430 young people injure themselves and 13 succeed in committing suicide every day. How could a society ever consider such a "usual" state to be normal?

We routinely say that someone is "normal" if they are free from illness or sickness. Well, if that is the case, then there are no normal people on the face of the earth. We learn more each day about the nature of physical and mental disease, about neuroscience and addiction, about the impact of stereotypes on our levels of stress, and about the long-term impacts of trauma and abuse. Normal health does not exist and we delude ourselves believing that it does.

The word "normal" always carries with it an inherent stigma. When a teacher calls Johnny a normal student, the implication is that he does not really excel at anything but fits some arbitrary average. He may be the next Rembrandt or Albert Einstein, but we might never know because he is dyslexic. When friends call Katrina a normal-looking girl, the implication is that she is not beautiful. She may be the next Amelia Earhart or Sally Ride, but we might never know because she suffers from bulimia. And when we say that the Smiths are a normal family, we imply that the Smiths are heterosexual, have children, and pursue goals that match those of their neighbors. We don't notice the bruises on Mrs. Smith's arms, or the way the children flinch from the slightest touch. And the "abnormal" Joneses next door may be an amazing gay couple who could revitalize the neighborhood, but they just got evicted from their apartment and fired from their jobs for being gay.

"Normal" should be an aspiration — not the average or worse yet, the least common denominator. Wouldn't it be nice if a normal day consisted of the United States not bombing some other country in the name of democracy and freedom? Wouldn't it be nice if a normal day consisted of not one gay teenager being beaten and bullied, and not one woman assaulted or raped? Wouldn't it be nice if a normal day consisted of not one single instance of wanton police brutality against unarmed and innocent civilians? Wouldn't it be nice if a normal day consisted of every person in the world being fed, clothed, sheltered, safe, and happy?

Unfortunately, we live in the real world, and our leaders insist that those aspirations are currently beyond our reach. So, in the meantime, I will revel in being abnormal. Because the only way we can make those aspiration real is if we all excel in whatever makes us not normal — that is what makes us who we are.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Truth and Meaning: Pain



When I was in college, I commuted every day by bus. One day, I stood on a narrow island on Liberty Avenue in Pittsburgh as the bus approached. I moved backwards slightly and accidentally stepped on the foot of the man behind me. I turned and said, "I'm sorry," boarded the bus and sat down. The man followed me, stood directly in front of me, and then shouted at me for the next 15 minutes. I said I was sorry again, but he was intent on venting his rage at me. I kept my head down reading my newspaper until he finally got off at his destination.

I got off a few stops later — grateful that he had gotten off first. The bus driver said to me, "Yeah, I know that guy. He's always angry." Needless to say, the incident shook me. I had no idea at any point during the trip whether he would lash out and grab me, punch me, or worse. For a long time, I relived that moment, trying to think of what I could have done to avoid the situation, but came up empty.

The reason I came up empty is that there was nothing I could have done to avoid the situation. I just happened to be the person at that time and that place when that man's pain erupted. Partly out of fear, and partly out of my desire to not escalate the event, I managed to escape with only 15 minutes of verbal abuse. At least I was left only emotionally shaken, and with the knowledge that the likelihood that I would ever encounter that man again was very small.

Now, over 35 years later, I was reminded of that incident with the release of the video of Ray Rice beating his wife. Like many men who would never dream of hitting a woman, I have long wondered why women in abusive situations stay with their abusers. There is much research on this topic and I now know many of the reasons why a woman would stay with an abusive husband or boyfriend. For those interested in learning more about this, search Twitter for #whyistayed and read the hundreds of stories of women caught in this nightmare of pain.

And that is largely the answer. Pain. Pain is, of course, a part of life. Pain is something we all must learn to deal with. Perhaps we all have different thresholds of pain. Perhaps some of us are better able to endure pain because we value more highly our children, our marriage, and the hope that someone will live up to their promises to stop abusing us. I thought of the man on the bus again and imagined what kind of pain could allow anyone to think that venting such extreme anger at a stranger was acceptable.
And while I was finally able to forgive him and forgive myself for my inability to defuse the situation, what about his wife and children? Were they enduring such outbursts regularly? Did he express his fury with only words, or did his abuse go further into physical violence? I will never know, but I do know that the answer lies in our need as a society for a paradigm shift regarding pain.

1.  We must stop tolerating racism, sexism, homophobia, and other hatreds and fears that victimize those unlike ourselves, and only increase our own pain.

2.  We must increase our awareness of the pain being felt by others and reach out when we think the pain is becoming unbearable. Our religious communities can play a huge role in this work.

3.  We must stop blaming the victims of abuse, rape, assault, and brutality for the anger of perpetrators. We must take responsibility for our anger and find constructive, or at least harmless, ways to release the frustration and hurt. This means building a much larger support system for victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence, and much more support for counseling and therapy.

4.  We must acknowledge the interconnection of oppression, mental illness, systemic poverty, addiction, unemployment, and abuse and build an adequate safety net for everyone victimized by pain.

5.  When someone, in spite of all of the safeguards put into place, insists on venting their pain on others, then the criminal justice system must punish abusers harshly. That means that police must start believing victims and act on their behalf.

And perhaps most important, women and male allies MUST make it clear to everyone that abuse — whether emotional, verbal, coercive, or violent — is always wrong. Every girl should grow up knowing that being abused by a partner must not be tolerated. And every boy should grow up learning that violence against women is never acceptable.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Truth and Meaning: What is Racist?


Regular readers of this blog know that I have several enthusiastic contributors to the comments section. One of them openly supports the Ku Klux Klan and some Midland residents may remember his 2008 demonstration in full Klan regalia at the corner of Eastman Avenue and Saginaw Road here in Midland Michigan. Sometimes, people advise me to ignore his postings because of their extremist slant. I believe, however, that people of faith must try to engage anyone, at anytime, and at any place where the opportunity for spiritual growth presents itself.

I was rewarded for my diligence when, in response to my blog posting last week, this individual asked me several important questions on the subject of race. He posted the questions as they were written in an article titled "The Answer to Crime Among Young Black Males" by Tim Wildmon. I will quote Mr. Wildmon's words exactly and then provide answers to each. Perhaps you will hear your own voice somewhere in the text.

He began by asking, "For example, without knowing skin color, when someone tells me they saw an awesome basketball player I immediately think he is Black. Why is that? Because most awesome basketball players in America are indeed Black. Does that make me a racist?"

Yes, it does! Most basketball players in high school are White and there are awesome White high school basketball players. At the college level, according to the latest NCAA Student-Athlete ethnicity report, there are still more White players than any other racial/ethnic group, and there are awesome White college basketball players. Only at the NBA level does one see a marked dominance of African-American players. And of the NBA’s 49 majority owners, only Michael Jordan of the Charlotte Bobcats is a person of color. And that is because of PRIVILEGE. Predominately White public schools generally get more funding than predominately Black schools. White families can usually afford college more easily than Black families. Blacks have far fewer opportunities than Whites to escape systemic poverty. And Blacks have far fewer opportunities open to them in other occupational sectors. So, yes, assuming that an awesome basketball player is Black is a racist observation.

He continued, "In the same way, when I hear of a convenience store robbery, without knowing the skin color, I immediately think it was a young Black male who committed the crime. Why is that? Because night after night I see the faces of young Black males on the news arrested for crimes. Does that make me a racist?"

Yes, it does! In 2010, the National Institutes of Health published a definitive article on the portrayal of lawbreakers and victims in crime news (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2904566/). In their conclusion they wrote, “Starting with the results for portrayals of offenders, we would expect Whites to have a higher likelihood of being reported on if reporting reflects offending incidents, because they are the most populous group. We did not find evidence of a significant difference in the number of portrayals of White perpetrators relative to Blacks in our base models. To us, this suggests a relative over-reporting of Blacks compared to Whites. We also found under-reporting of Hispanic perpetrators relative to Whites. We interpret the results for Blacks as consistent with power structure, racial threat and racial privileging arguments.” People are led to believe that Blacks commit more crimes because our media highlight the race of suspects far more frequently when he/she is a person of color. When that presentation is not challenged, we cooperate with the racist portrayals in our media. In 2011, White people committed nearly 250,000 violent crimes in this country, but just because the news shows more Black suspects than White does not make them more prone to violent crimes. So, yes, immediately assuming that a criminal is Black is racist.

He concluded with this question. "Which begs another question: does a stereotype only become racist when it is negative? Or can one have a positive stereotype based on race? What about the idea that “White men can’t jump”? Is that racist?"

Yes, it is! Saying that “all Asians are good at math” is a negative stereotype of what a racist would consider a positive observation. Research shows that perceived positive stereotypes, when brought into the forefront of an individual’s mind, can actually make them do worse at the thing they are supposed to be able to do better. One such study discovered that when Asian-American women were made explicitly aware of their ethnicity (and the expectations attached to it) right before testing their math skills, they were more likely to collapse under the pressure and do poorly in the test (http://pss.sagepub.com/content/11/5/399.short). ANY stereotype reduces the complex humanity of individuals, making it easier to dismiss each person’s inherent worth and dignity. And 'White men can't jump' derives from an evil and ignorant stereotype that somehow Blacks are more closely tied to jungle animals than Whites. So, yes, attempts to compliment a group of people through stereotyping of any kind is racist.

The comments and questions posted by this individual represent classic examples of privilege — of how White, or straight, or male, or American-born people are often oblivious to their privilege and in complete denial of their prejudice. Systemic racism oppresses people of color, just as systemic sexism oppresses women, systemic hated of LGBT folk oppresses gays and lesbians, and systemic anti-immigration laws and opinions oppress undocumented immigrants. And those with privilege benefit ONLY by accident of birth. Those who possess privilege did absolutely nothing on their own to earn that privilege. Therefore, those who choose to take advantage of their privilege and do nothing to level the playing field, ARE racist, or sexist, or homophobic, or xenophobic.

But, here is the most important point. HAVING privilege is nothing to be ashamed of. No one is trying to lay a guilt trip on you for being White, or straight, or male, or a native-born American citizen. But those who accept the advantages of privilege do so at a cost to those who do not have privilege. Thus, those who accept the benefits — and do not work toward eliminating privilege — do so from the suffering of others. I am a White, straight, male, American, too. But I fight to eliminate privilege. I defend the poor, the hopeless, the oppressed, the exiled. As long as privilege exists, there will be oppression. And so long as the oppressors do nothing to stop it, then they are complicit in the resulting discrimination and suffering.
 

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Truth and Meaning: Another Senseless Death


By now, it is no secret — I loathe guns. I have shot rifles and pistols at ranges and tried skeet shooting once. But I have never owned a gun and never will. If I feel a strong enough need, I will take a self-defense course, or buy a taser. And when I sense that our government is going astray, I engage our Constitutional right to free assembly and protest — which I have done on many occasions.
I have no grudge against hunters, especially those who handle their weapons properly. If you find it sporting or necessary to kill wildlife for food, feel free. I will argue that you don’t need an automatic rifle with a high capacity magazine, however, to take down your prey.
But, hardly a day goes by that a child doesn’t mishandle a gun in their home, often with fatal results. The accidental death at the hands of a 9-year old girl in Arizona this week should make this nation weep. We should mourn the loss of this child’s innocence, torn away from her forever. This could have been your daughter. We should grieve with the family of the dead instructor, whose loss can never be replaced. This could have been your husband, father or brother. And we should be furious that another careless and preventable action involving our insane gun culture should have been prevented.
And then, less than TWO DAYS after this tragic accident, the NRA promoted information on how “Children Can Have Fun at the Shooting Range.” This callous act is just one of a long list of such affronts to the welfare of our children and our nation. Every American should be outraged by the NRA, which is literally looking you straight in the eyes and telling you, “You don’t matter — only guns matter.” The NRA is spitting in your face while it uses your membership fees to curry favor with politicians that will result in the death and loss of innocence of more children.
I say ENOUGH! I understand defending the right to bear arms. We may differ on how the Second Amendment is interpreted, but that is not the point. The NRA has overwhelmingly proven that it is not the body that should be influencing that discussion supposedly on the behalf of gun owners. Yes, training in the use of guns is absolutely essential. But that training need not be done by a ruthless, uncaring lobbying group only concerned with keeping every American in harm’s way. Do you honestly believe that the Founders imagined, or would have ever considered, supporting people strapped with loaded automatic rifles walking the aisles of your local grocery store?
If you support responsible gun ownership, then quit the NRA. Start a new group that really promotes that laudable goal. Demand mandatory background checks on all gun purchases, including those at gun shows and online. And at least be willing to discuss the possibility that certain weapons should never, ever be put into the hands of a 9-year old.