Friday, June 22, 2018

America Has Surrendered an Important Global Battle

John Moore's heartbreaking image has captured world attention

Late in his book Stamped From The Beginning, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi makes a point I’d never considered before (one among many): America’s elected officials didn’t embrace the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s because it was right. They didn’t write laws extending voting rights, police protection, and public schools to African Americans because they felt fuzzy inside. They weren’t moved by some overwhelming change in America’s social conscience.

They did it because they knew the world was watching.

Following World War II and the upheaval caused by carpet bombing and the Marshall Plan, America had the moral heft necessary to change the world. We alone had the military might, economic power, and simple numbers to help create a better world. Granted, this happened because Europe and Asia had been bombed into oblivion, their industrial and cultural bases obliterated to expunge global fascism. But still, America had a unique opportunity in world affairs.

This opportunity wasn’t unchallenged, though. Having paid the high cost of two world wars, the Soviet Union desperately didn’t want to meet the postwar global landscape alone. Having established COMINTERN and the Warsaw Pact, it settled into a long-term global strategy session. It provided strategic help to revolutionary anti-colonialists like Patrice Lumumba and Fidel Castro. And it waited.

As the public face of capitalism, liberal democracy, and Enlightenment freedom, America needed to press the case before a global audience that our model of government better suited the world’s needs than Soviet mandatory collectivism.And we couldn’t do that if we kept designated groups subordinate at home. Civil rights weren’t merely a social good in the 1950s and 1960s; they were a PR front in the Cold War. A front we fought aggressively.

I couldn’t help remembering this fact as President Trump’s concentration camps for immigrants became a national and international news-gathering controversy. John Moore’s heartbreaking photograph of an unidentified two-year-old girl weeping at the border over her separation from her parents, has become an international phenomenon. This has become the face America currently presents to the world. And it’s a face we should all feel ashamed of.

This isn’t hay. I’ve written previously that America won the Cold War in part by subsidizing art, science, and education. Come to our side, we pledged the world through our actions, and you’ll have more beauty, more knowledge, and more opportunities for upward advancement than any other system our planet offers. We won partly on this platform. Then, having won, we burned the platform to the ground.

This, sadly, is how the world will see America for years to come

It’s impossible to disregard America’s precarious place in today’s world. Having won the presidency partly by telling voters “the world is laughing at us,” Donald Trump has prosecuted his presidency by openly disregarding global opinion. He’s launched tariffs on our allies in NAFTA and the EU, sometimes in defiance of treaties, while snuggling up to notorious opponents of freedom like Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-Un.

Donald Trump is apparently immune to scrutiny, at home or abroad. He shows no awareness that people watch him, as America’s public face, and make determinations about how trustworthy Americans are on trade, rights, or economy. He doesn’t care that he’s telling the entire world they can’t trust us to keep our word, uphold our values, or present the global community a better choice than complete anarchy.

And I’m forced to wonder what’s the alternative.

The only countries capable of seriously challenging American global dominance today are China and Germany. China is currently on track to becoming history’s longest-surviving one-party state, and for obvious reasons, history takes a dim view of potential German world hegemony. This means we’re facing a potential future world without any sort of moral leadership, and the alternative is international lawlessness. Today’s economic and military complexity absolutely demands some form of world leader.

America absolutely needs to resume its former practice of showing the world its best face. We won the war against Soviet Communism, in no small part, by rejecting our worst impulses and enshrining antidiscrimination into our laws. Admittedly, we still have long strides to achieve the potential of our goodness. But showing the globe the worst aspects of our racist past is essentially surrendering the international PR front.

Donald Trump needs to become aware that the world watches him. Sadly, our era’s defining image may be that notorious G7 stare-down between Trump and Merkel. The forces who captained World War II are back at it again. And that, sadly, is the face the United States is currently showing the entire world.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

What Does It Mean To Be “Black”?

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 91
Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped From the Beginning: the Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America

What makes a racist? Tough question to answer. Despite Americans’ persistent myth of racial progress, most of us have seen the continuing occurrence of outright bigotry at least occasionally. Smarter writers than me have commented upon how racism remains written into America’s social code, even when dressed in race-neutral language. But what if the problem runs deeper, and influences more decisions, than even most Americans realize?

Historian and African Studies professor Ibram Kendi admits, in his introduction, even he’s imbibed racist ideas, which he only recognized when he began writing this book. Racism remains as widespread in America as the air we breathe; spotting it sometimes takes a radical effort of countercultural thinking. Kendi and I hope Americans will, after reading this book, speak boldly against racism we see. Even when it doesn’t look like naked bigotry.

Racism didn’t always exist. St. Augustine explicitly rejected creating divisions among people; we’re all descended from Adam, he insisted. Aristotle and Ibn Battuta said something similar. Not until the 1460s, when Portugal conquered Ceuta, in Morocco, and brought Moors back for slave markets, did Europeans start seeing different-colored people as separate races. The Portuguese needed a moral justification to sell human beings captured in war, and racism was born.

That establishes Kendi’s theme throughout this book. American folk wisdom holds that slavery and segregation arose from widespread racist ideals, but Kendi says this reverses cause and effect. He writes explicitly on page 174, and implicitly elsewhere: “Racist ideas always seemed to arrive right on time to dress up the ugly economic and political exploitation of African people.” We could say the same about other races too.

Professor Ibram X. Kendi
Kendi identifies three threads in American racial thinking. (Race, for Kendi, means White and Black. He briefly acknowledges other races, but they aren’t his focus.) Segregationists believe Black and Brown people are innately inferior, and should remain separate from mainstream White society. Assimilationists believe Blacks aren’t innately inferior, but their culture and behavior are; if Blacks simply learned to comport themselves more White, inequality would wither.

Against these two threads, Kendi poses pure Antiracists. These people oppose all attempts to divide people, whether biologically or culturally, into constructed racial categories. This gets complicated, because many Assimilationists call themselves Antiracists, even while embracing categories.. It’s also complicated because many superficial Antiracists engage in what Kendi calls “colorism,” exemplified in the old schoolyard rhyme “If you’re black, get back.” Remaining actually Antiracist requires constant vigilance.

Racism has evolved throughout American history; it has never been only one force. Kendi observes that evolution through five figures he believes exemplify the stages of American history: Puritan preacher Cotton Mather, Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, abolitionist editor William Lloyd Garrison, pioneering Black scholar W.E.B. du Bois, and activist Angela Davis. They focus threads in American history, while their own evolving opinions reflect their time, and racism’s changing demands.

Jefferson, for instance, was anti-abolitionist, but also anti-slavery, at least in his writings; he struggled with the contradictions, but never reconciled them before his death. Du Bois started out accepting Assimilationist ideas of Europe’s cultural superiority, and Black people’s obligation to “improve” themselves in White eyes. His opinions shifted as he realized Black improvement usually resulted in Whites moving goalposts, and as he had firsthand encounters with Africa.

If these important American luminaries can struggle with race and liberty, Kendi says, then our own ongoing struggles mean we’re still capable of improving. But only if we let ourselves. American race history hasn’t been a progress from improvement to improvement. We’ve seen several setbacks, some shockingly recently, when race relations have moved away from communication and freedom. And we’ve seen Black Americans struggle with how to define themselves.

Don’t undertake this book lightly. Kendi peers deeply into historical events your high school history textbook elided to maintain its optimistic tone. His investigations of the economic motivations behind American racism, and the way race relations evolve to keep labor cheap and compliant, are often harrowing. Reading this book, you will feel great regret and sadness over bad choices made, historical opportunities lost, and Americas that could have been.

Kendi’s forward to the paperback edition includes acknowledgement that Donald Trump complicates American race issues. The most outspokenly racist President since Woodrow Wilson, Trump challenges our myths about eternal improvement. Yet Kendi refuses to concede to pessimism. No, everything isn’t sunshine and eternal progress in American race relations. But, Kendi says, we’ve seen enough improvement, enough times, to believe that addressing this problem is maybe possible. Maybe now is the time.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The City of Lost Livestock

Rosamund Young, The Secret Life of Cows

The Young family has operated the same livestock farm in northern England’s Cotswolds region for over sixty years. By Rosamund Young’s description, they were organic farmers before the term “organic” was invented. They didn’t expect to pioneer a movement; they just bought a farm and, knowing little about livestock, they let the cattle graze where they wanted. The effects on their cattle were both unexpected, and instantaneous.

Rosamund Young actually puts little of herself into this book. She has written about the complex personalities and unique behaviors of livestock living on her property; she exists, for us, only in relationship to her cattle. Yet she presents her animals as dynamic individuals, whose bucolic adventures have the depth of Thomas Hardy townsfolk. In tone and content, Young reminds me of reading James Herriot as a child.

Outsiders often see cattle as uniform, interchangeable, and stupid, Young says, because we see them from outside. If left to themselves, livestock know their own best interests. (Young’s anecdotes mostly focus on cattle, but she also raises, and occasionally writes about, sheep, pigs, and chickens.) They find the best grasses, form friendships, raise their calves, and generally make a community. And they do this without high-handed human intervention.

One young cow has such tender sensibilities that she won’t cross wet fields; getting mud on her shanks is beneath her dignity. Another simply disdains human help and does her own thing, until the day her hooves get tangled in barbed wire, forcing her to quietly permit humans to disentangle her. Several anecdotes dwell on mother-daughter relationships which, when calves aren’t weaned for milk, last for years. Cows often help raise their grandchildren.

It takes a herd, apparently.

Rosamund Young with Dot, one of her cows (photo from The Guardian)

Young spins stories of her animals, with the aplomb of an old friend trading stemwinders at the watering hole. There’s a hint of the peat-fire British rural pub in her storytelling. She doesn’t enforce chapter breaks and beginning-middle-end structure on her stories. This sometimes makes her anecdotes difficult to follow, especially if you put the book down overnight. But it gives her stories a personal touch missing from scholarly texts.

There’s serious science behind raising animals naturally. Grass-fed beef is higher in nutrients, less prone to parasites, and is generally considered tastier. Such science isn’t Young’s emphasis, however, and she frontloads it in her long introduction. Rather, she emphasizes how herds, when permitted to graze freely and interact naturally, organize themselves around raising children and protecting one another. Left to themselves, livestock form a community.

This stands in contrast to industrial livestock farming. In her introduction, Young describes scientific research indicating that cattle raised in confinement get smaller and smaller skulls across generations, as their brains go unchallenged. Cage-raised chickens need their beaks removed to prevent them pecking one another to death, because they’re bored. Industrially raised animals become stupid, violent, and less healthful for humans.

As a former educator, it’s impossible for me to avoid obvious comparisons. State-run schools, like confined animal operations, operate for cost effectiveness, not the well-being of the children, or those who will employ the children later. Though schoolteachers, like hired farmhands, generally love their work (and accept penurious wages for that love), they’re inadvertent participants in a system that harms their charges and graduates ill-prepared product.

Save that for later, though.

By standing back and providing the help her livestock needs, when the livestock needs it, Young describes how animals flourish, live long lives, and produce beautiful children. But more than that, her animals husband the earth, each species consuming just the right foliage, each individual consuming the right balance. Young describes streams running clear and classical British hedgerows waxing prosperous because the animals husband nature, and she husbands the animals.

Young admittedly elides one important fact: she’s raising these animals for food. Though she briefly mentions her family cleans, dresses, and sells its own meat, it scarcely comes up again. And she keeps talking about “cows,” with only a few anecdotes about “bulls.” This allows her to avoid mentioning that bulls are sorted from an early age: a few become breeding stock, the rest become meat, usually around sixteen months.

Though I wish Young addressed the meat issue better, that’s incidental to her point. She prefers discussing how animals organize themselves without humans steering them to our convenience. Raising animals naturally may be more time-consuming and costly in the near term. But her animals to well, feed humans abundantly, and nurture their own land. Let’s remember that cattle aren’t stupid, they’re subtle.

Monday, June 11, 2018

A Serious Bible For Serious Times

Rachel Held Evans, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again

Rachel Held Evans’ fourth book commences with a vital question: how can modern Christians read the Bible receptively? Given its bouts of misogyny, genocide, and intolerance; its apparent scientific illiteracy; and its often contradictory moral compass, how can we take the Bible seriously? Despite Evangelicals’ common claim, nobody reads the Bible literally; all believers select what they consider authoritative. Why, then, don’t we chuck the whole thing out?

Raised conservative Evangelical, Evans describes her childhood relationship with the Bible as a “magic book.” She loved church, attended a Christian college, believed the dogma. But adulthood left her disillusioned, like many of us. Reading the Bible with grown-up eyes, she discovered it little resembled the picture books and Sunday School flannelgraphs of childhood. She struggled with doubt, left her church, and began questioning everything.

Years of mentorship under theologians, academics, pastors, and street-level Christians taught her to understand the Bible, not as textbook or instruction manual, but as story. Human beings think in narrative. We need important concepts in ethics, science, politics, and other topics translated into stories before we understand them. And that’s what these biblical writers did, providing stories for peoples struggling to find their places in an often oppressive world.

To help understand what she means by “story,” Evans rewrites biblical moments into modern forms. Job’s argument with God as a screenplay set in a modern Christian university. The autobiography of the Samaritan Woman at the Well. Peter walking on water as a Choose Your Own Adventure. Biblical writers told these stories in the language of their time; Evans makes a stab at retelling them in our language.

Rachel Held Evans
Many Christians’ nagging desire to find universal aphorisms in Scripture blinds them to the remarkable characters and epic struggles which permeate the Bible. We read national histories, but also family histories; pitched battles and lingering wars, but also deep internal struggles with doubt. These stories resemble our own stories, the generational memory of favored grandparents and national myths. We indulge the same impulses that drove the biblical authors millenia ago.

This isn’t a mere storybook, however. A seasoned journalist, Evans combines deeply personal, even autobiographical, ruminations on the Bible with the latest scholarship on how stories bind humans together and raise a thinking mind. Her personal struggles with faith share equal footing with public debates about stories’ meanings, especially amid changing values about sexuality, gender, and politics. Our world is changing; how does that affect our stories?

One story features a First-Century pastor reading one of Paul’s epistles to the congregation. We forget that Scripture was written to be read aloud, an engagement of multiple senses in public. In both her stories and her chapters, Evans attempts to recapture the wonder first-generation Christians must have felt discovering Jesus for the first time. We lose the plot when we become hypnotized by strict exegesis or seek moral absolutes.

Scripture admittedly does have occasional blunt declarations of truth. The Commandments, for instance, or the Levitical laws. But nobody (except the most Orthodox of Jews) applies all laws equally; we have stories, experiences, moments that help us decide which truths apply. The Bible, Evans writes, isn’t one book; it’s several books, written across several centuries, a panoply of stories feuding to provide the best explanation of the reality we share.

I especially like when Evans notes that Christians use Scripture to foreclose debate. “The Bible says X, so do it!” Jews, by contrast, use Scripture to commence debate: “The Bible says X, what does that mean? Did it come from a context? Does this commandment ring through the ages, or must we strive to understand God’s will now?” Christians could profit from reclaiming this spirit of debate.

Evans wrote this book in the year surrounding her first child’s birth. Unsurprisingly, questions of how we pass stories from generation loom large in her investigation. The Bible represents a sophisticated oral and written tradition specifically intended to preserve a people’s heritage and beliefs across the span of time. Evans doesn’t have simple solutions. She simply says we must not fear to bring the eternal story into our changing world.

Maybe the Bible isn’t a “magic book” anymore. Maybe adults, facing a world very different from that which birthed the Bible, must have a different relationship with the story than we once did. But Evans invites us faithful doubters to reclaim the story heritage our ancestors took for granted. Maybe then we can rediscover what it means to love and have a relationship with our beloved Bible.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Han Solo Deserves the Right to Die

Han Solo at the end of his journey.

The pop culture brouhaha recently circles almost entirely around the latest Lucasfilm extravaganza, Solo: a Star Wars Story. The debate largely moves around fans who gush enthusiastically about how awesome it is, versus industry critics casting blame for its lackluster take and slow momentum. Is Solo a statement about where we currently exist as a society? Or a numbing admission that we’ve reached Star Wars exhaustion? I can’t help wondering if there’s an Option C.

I shouldn’t have to say “Spoiler Alert,” but look away: Han Solo dies in The Force Awakens. They finally gave Harrison Ford a heroic death fighting the good fight, which he wanted thirty years ago. But having given Solo the valiant end his character earned, Lucasfilm, owned by that ultimate profit machine, Disney, cannot stomach letting the cash cow die, so they begin filling in details from before. They’ve created the opportunity to keep him alive forever.

Characters like Han Solo exist within a psychological arc for their audiences, a process of discovery. While Luke Skywalker fights to discover his inheritance with the Force, Han Solo, who has no parents or inheritance, fights to discover his identity. He struggled to connect with something. The first time we meet him, he boasts of his fast ship and superior smuggling skills. He tells Luke “Don’t get cocky,” tacitly admitting the ship can’t handle two egos.

Han Solo at the beginning of his journey
Because George Lucas didn’t know whether he’d ever get to make The Empire Strikes Back, he gave Han Solo what could’ve been a satisfying ending, when Solo helps destroy the Death Star. But by the next movie, he’s back to fretting over his debt. He’s also trying to annoy Princess Leia into loving him, which, in 1977, probably looked charming. However, in the #MeToo context and my burnout on the Leonard Hofstadter model of courtship, he looks, frankly, creepy.

But again, Solo chooses the self-sacrificing path when he helps the Princess escape certain death on Hoth. Throughout the remaining footage, he survives torture before being frozen, helps overthrow a gangster, and accepts a military commission to help destroy the Empire. Because he’s chosen an identity, a cause he’s willing to embrace. He’s stopped living for the next adrenaline rush and accepted that life is worth living, because something’s worth dying for.

Which explains why I felt disappointed, in The Force Awakens, to discover he’d returned to smuggling. He’d returned to his life of thrill-chasing, basically, because the production house wanted to rebuild the dynamic from Episode IV. We had the young Jedi idealist (Rey/Luke) and the escapee from Imperial dominion (Finn/Leia); we needed the arrogant pilot to complete the triumvirate. No wonder Poe Dameron spent the movie mostly offscreen.

But his time was over. He wasn’t free-flying and giddy anymore; as a father with a grown son and a grizzled beard, he couldn’t be the lawless man-child we once loved. He had to mentor the new protagonists. So when the protagonists graduated his tutelage, he needed, like Obi-Wan Kenobi, to die. No, not retire, die. Not only did the story need to assure he wouldn’t suddenly return, but he’d earned the right to sleep.

Be serious here: can you imagine Han Solo dying quietly in bed, surrounded by his grandchildren? Of course not. Han Solo isn’t the kind of character who retires from the story. If he can’t die standing up, it compromises his entire identity. He’s learned, across his narrative arc, that life matters because it could end, so he needs to fight. The culmination of such a journey must be dying while fighting to make life worth living.

Han Solo at the... wait.
What the hell is this?
So yeah, I had problems with Solo returning to his beginning, but he received the end he deserved. The end we, his audience, deserved. We watched him develop from an overgrown teenager, addicted to adrenaline in lieu of human connection, to someone who stood for something, and who ultimately died standing up. Finally, his journey was complete. And then… Walt’s people brought him back! Arrgh! Why? Because he had more to learn? Of course not.

In fifth grade, I remember mourning because Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain ended. I wanted the story to continue forever. Yet it took only a little while to realize: that character fought so much, so hard, so long. He’d earned the right to be done. Now I needed to commence my journey, not substitute his. Likewise, Han Solo’s story has definition because it has a beginning, middle, and end. But Walt’s people can’t accept that.