Thursday, March 22, 2012

Don't Pee On The Carpet

Our family heads out early tomorrow morning - the alarm will be set at four a.m.! - for yet another fabulous vacation at Disney World. So, until April, be good, be well, try to stay on topic, don't feed the trolls, and above all else . . .

Oh, hell, I can't think of anything. Just don't forget about me. I'll be out of the news-loop for over a week, which is a good thing, but I'm quite sure there will be plenty of craziness once I get back.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Valuing Human Life

I avoid reading David Brooks, New York Times columnist and author of a couple books only he and his immediate family are proud of, because the only thing worse than a pompous nincompoop is a pompous nincompoop who has fooled enough people in to thinking he says stuff worth listening to. In the internet age, these multiply like flies on a corpse; that one of them has a highly remunerative perch at our national newspaper of record makes me weep.

I am thankful that Charlie Pierce reads Brooks. Far funnier than anything I could say, Pierce pictures Brooks in the Young Fogies Club, an Irish Setter named Moral Hazard rented to give him gravitas routinely looking for an escape, this conjures up nothing less than what I believe is Brooks' image of himself - the one quiet voice of True Conservative Depth And Nuance, huddled with like-minded souls, sipping whiskey through their handlebar mustaches around a fire, upon the mantle of which sits dog-eared copies of Reflections On The Revolution In France and God And Man At Yale.

Brooks latest attempt to sound profound, which hits each and ever fail branch as it tumbles out of the redwood it created for itself, drops banalities the way a rabbit drops raisins as it hops through the forest, the trail leading us right back to where he began - Why do good people do bad things? As if the question needing asking, let alone answering, Brooks soldiers on (pardon the pun in context), until readers realize he has no idea what the hell he's talking about.

One thing Pierce mentions, more in passing than anything, in his discussion of Brooks latest scrib from the mountaintop, is the irony of citing the wisdom of centuries past in regards to human nature:
Can I mention the utter savagery of "centuries past" as regards to religious wars, all of which were launched and fought by "good men" who believed what Chesterton believed, including a number of popes? Innocent III's deep belief in original sin didn't do much for the Cathars, nor did the Huguenots profit much from the fact that Catherine de Medici said her prayers every day and believed in the basic sinfulness of fallen man. And, barely one century past, England rather convulsed over a homicidal eruption that many of its citizens believed was carried out by a member of their god-fearing Anglican nobility.
This brings me to a thought we so often hear regarding the many differences between the West, whose legacy, apparently, we are trying to save from the savage Muslim hordes who saved Aristotle (and improved upon him), only to have this legacy stolen by the barbarians who invaded their lands in the eleventh century. I do not know how many times I've been told over the past decade that Muslims just don't value human life the same way we western Christians do. This same argument was a chorus in my household growing up, by the way; my mother would insist, over and over, that the Japanese just didn't value human life the way we in the Christian west did, which of course explains what that most cultured and civilized of western Christendom, the Germans, were simultaneously doing to Europe's Jewish population.

See what I did there? I went off topic for a moment.

Whenever anyone starts name dropping folks from the past, in particular John Calvin, in regards to human sinfulness and frailty, it is always a good thing to keep in mind that these folks took this particular ball and ran with it all the way to the gibbet. Since human beings are born in sin, utterly without any ability on their own to achieve salvation from this condition, there is no reason in the world why killing such sinners, blind to their own inner corruption, is a bad thing. Whether singly, such as Servetus, or in whole groups - Catholics in France; Anabaptists in the Holy Roman Empire; pick your poison, indeed as Lutherans, Catholics, and Reformed leaders chose up sides and spent the first third of the seventeenth century laying much of central Europe waste in the name of God.

When Europe decided to leave God out of it, they found all sorts of other reasons to slaughter one another. My favorite historical "fact" is the myth of "The Long Peace", from the end of Napoleon's 100 Days and the Congress of Vienna until the outbreak of World War I. Europe, I learned as a young student of history, was shocked by the brutality and length of the conflict because the continent had been peaceful in that century, with the exception of the Crimean War, in which more soldiers died of disease than in battle.

Except, of course, that's bushwah.
1803 Souliote War
1803-1815 Napoleonic Wars
1804-1813 First Serbian Uprising
1804-1813 Russo-Persian War
1809 Polish-Austrian War
1815-1817 Second Serbian Uprising
1817-1864 Russian conquest of the Caucasus
1821-1832 Greek War of Independence
1821 Wallachian uprising of 1821
1823 French invasion of Spain
1826-1828 Russo-Persian War
1827 War of the Malcontents
1828-1829 Russo-Turkish War
1828-1834 Liberal Wars
1830 Ten Days Campaign (following the Belgian Revolt)
1830-1831 November Uprising
1831-1832 Great Bosnian uprising
1832 War in the Vendée and Chouannerie of 1832
1832 June Rebellion
1833-1839 First Carlist War
1833-1839 Albanian Revolts of 1833–1839
1843-1844 Albanian Revolt of 1843–1844
1846 Galician slaughter
1846-1849 Second Carlist War
1847 Albanian Revolt of 1847
1847 Sonderbund War
1848-1849 Hungarian Revolution and War of Independence
1848-1851 First Schleswig War
1848-1866 Wars of Italian Independence
1848-1849 First Italian Independence War
1859 Second Italian War of Independence
1866 Third Italian War of Independence
1854 Epirus Revolt of 1854
1854-1856 Crimean War
1858 Mahtra War
1863-1864 January Uprising
1864 Second Schleswig War
1864 January Uprising
1866 Austro-Prussian War
1866-1869 Cretan Revolt
1870-1871 Franco-Prussian War
1872-1876 Third Carlist War
1873-1874 Cantonal Revolution
1877-1878 Russo–Turkish War
1878 Epirus Revolt of 1878
1885 Serbo-Bulgarian War
1893-1896 Cod War of 1893
1897 Greco–Turkish War
Even in the allegedly peaceful, enlightened 19th century, we in the west were killing one another at a pretty brisk pace.

We no more value human life more than others than we have some key to true civilization that all others in the world lack. Even a glance at our collective history should be enough to disabuse most people from such a silly idea.

Whatever else the west may have exported to the rest of the world - syphilis, chattel slavery, mass exploitation, our waste and trash to poison their land and water - we have yet to export anything resembling a superior ethic rooted in the value of human life. That we are horrified by events such as the mass murder in Afghanistan or the Trayvon Martin murder says more about our current bourgeois sensibilities, so easily offended by the reality of our penchant for intramural slaughter, than it does some violation of some secret norm we and only we have been vouchsafed to protect.

All of Babbling Brooks' nonsense leaves out a huge piece of the puzzle, not so much about how such a horrible act may be possible, as our collective shock at it: It isn't a big deal, at least not in historical terms. Sgt. Bales is no aberration, save that he violated our laws. We have laws against such things precisely because we understand they will happen. All the rest of what Brooks is attempting to say gives gibberish a bad name.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Not A Tragedy

A blurb at the top of the front page of Think Progress linking to a post on the Trayvon Martin murder in Sanford, FL calls it a "tragedy". I was glad to see that word nowhere present either in the headline or body of the piece itself. What happened that February day can be described as a cold-blooded killing, a hate crime, yet another contemporary lynching of a young black man for the singular perceived crime of walking where a white person felt he had no business walking. That George Zimmerman used a gun instead of a rope, and acted on his own instead of with a group of similarly affronted fellow whites makes little difference.

This was not, however, a tragedy.

A tragedy, at least as conventionally understood, is a series of events that are simultaneously unavoidable and leave observers feeling nothing but sorrow and compassion for all those involved. Hamlet is a tragedy because the interlocking plots and schemes of the antagonists lead, in the end, to the deaths of many people whose deaths need not have happened, from Hamlet and his mother and stepfather to Rosencranz and Guildenstern to Ophelia and Laertes and their father, Polonius.

Oedipus is a tragedy because, trapped by irresistible fate in to fulfilling the promised murder of his father and marriage to his mother, every act Oedipus takes to prevent these eventualities only moves closer the revelation that he has already fulfilled them.

There is no reason at all to assume a young man, walking down a suburban street, should face a threat to his life. That we would live in a society where a young man can be shot down for no other reason than being the wrong skin color in the wrong place at the wrong time is not the result of blind chance; nor is it the inevitable result of choices beyond our control. On the contrary, that we continue to live in a world where a young black man lives with the ever-present threat of death for no other reason than that he is black is our fault.

All of us.

George Zimmerman pulled the trigger. We have not done enough - not nearly enough, never enough - to create conditions where George Zimmerman wouldn't think it necessary to carry a gun and shoot a young man for doing little more than walk down the street. We have not done enough - not nearly enough, never enough - to demystify blackness as a threat. Trayvon was a young man whose only remarkable feature was his skin color; for that reason alone he posed what far too many people insist is a very real threat. Was George Zimmerman truly afraid? Was he angry? Was he little more than a cold-hearted bigot who, seeing a young African-American male walk down the street of his gated community, didn't see a person but a label? These questions are, I think, only partially answerable. However far we come to an answer, little doubt remains that Trayvon Martin died on February 26 because of the willful decision on George Zimmerman's part to kill him. That the many swirling questions regarding race and power remain open have little to do with the reality that Tayvon's death is not, and cannot be, a tragedy.

Monday, March 19, 2012

This I Believe

For a couple years now, I've been thinking of submitting an essay to the This I Believe project. I've listened to a whole lot of them, and am variously moved, amused, confounded, and generally supported in my own sense that the sheer variety of human reactions to the universe, to life, to all the things around us is something to embrace and celebrate. So, as they say, here goes nothing.

I believe life, a mystery filled with beauty and terror, offers us the unique opportunity to discover the one thing that allows us to make our way through the flurry of experiences around us: a life focused on the needs of others, variously in the midst of the banality of the day-to-day or immersed in joy, or perhaps blinded by one horror or another is more powerful than any weapon, more potent than any drug, more threatening than any political slogan.

Nearly two decades of life as a clergy spouse has taught me how little of all that happens, both wonderful and awful, has to do with me. Rather than insist it is only intelligible if I make it mine, I recognize the integrity these events have as events in the lives of other people. My own and only proper attitude should be a truly human being with these men and women as they search for the resources to find their way through, whether it is the joy of the birth of a child, the loss of a loved one, a job found that opens doors and opportunities, the horror of domestic violence, the confusion of a loved one lost in addiction, or the criss-crossing lines of racial, gender, and sexual discrimination and hatreds. Injecting myself in to the midst of these many and varied experiences steals from the people in the midst of the them the freedom and duty to live in them and through them; the best I can ever offer is the reality that they are not and will not be alone, even as the world seems to collapse around them, or perhaps opens up in ways that they couldn't have anticipated.

As the father of two girls, I have tried as hard as I can to teach them never to lose that sense of wonder and awe as their lives unfold. It hasn't always been easy to restrain my desire to intercede for them as they've experienced the many physical and emotional pains that life brings. All the same, what kind of parent would I be if I taught them that it was possible to erase from one's life any experience that was overwhelming? Being with them, without interceding for them, has given them the chance to learn how to live with broken arms and broken hearts without me telling them how they should respond. With one caveat: that they should always respond, even if it is only tears or laughter, disgust or boredom, a time of happiness or mourning.

In St. John's Gospel, the night before he is crucified, Jesus tells his disciples that there is no greater love than laying down one's life for one's friends. While this certainly includes the willingness to physically die for those we love, I believe it also means we lay down our self-centered desire to make the world about us, to be with others in a spirit of love and fellow-feeling that may well be the most true expression of the Kingdom of God there can ever be.

Virtual Tin Cup

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