Huntington’s Disease and Herculaneum

When I wrote fondly last week about my joy at playing house, did I mention that it sits on a volcano? Like all volcanoes, this one troubles and frightens in various ways, but not all the time, and not in any pattern. Maybe it’s more like living near several volcanoes, each with its own separate pattern. You might have seen one of those documentaries about the various Iceland volcanoes. One blows straight up in the air, one kind of seeps, another threatens to spew forth enough heat to bury the nearby towns and farms with mud from rapid melting of its usually beautiful glacier. Each of those unpronounceable names has particular characteristics, each of which signals a clear and separate scenario to volcanologists.

The name of our volcano is Huntington’s Disease. It lives in my wife like a parasite, often resting, but always on the lookout for some way to kidnap her body and turn it against us. When we married, I told the minister to announce that our marriage has three participants, because she fights the disease with as much detachment as I do. It has not become her new being, even though it changes her shapes and talents in irreversible ways.

Three weekends ago, as I dug out one of the tougher tree roots, my mind flashed an image — as it does in so many stray moments — of the flash-fried corpses discovered so recently at Herculaneum, at the foot of Mt. Vesuvius. When the lava engulfed them, it perfectly preserved the poses in which they sought comfort. If a shout should come from my open living room window, and I arrived too late to forestall the fall, the choking incident, whatever it would be that would cut short her life, my tree stump would be like one of those Herculaneum bodies: caught mid-task for ages to come.|

Other times, the volcano that looms is Kilauea, the constantly oozing lava that slowly crunches over Hawaii’s trees and roads and houses. My wife just slows down, does less. Fighting the disease is so constant, and although it takes over the brain, it controls the entire body. After a long, ambitious day, she’s likely to spend the next one looking as if she were walking under water. Maybe only sleeping.

But the one that scares me the most is Mt. Pinatubo. Perhaps you remember those films from the Philippines, no more than about twenty years ago. There were warning signals and evacuations, saving thousands of lives. But then, when the mountain erupted, spewing ash into a tropical rainstorm that would have been a disaster all on its own, mud spattered down everywhere. Lahars — lava-mixed mud — rolled down in large rivers, while lava-mixed rain coated the countryside as if in some overdone theatrical: whiteface on the people, the cattle, the pets, the cars and trucks and squalid little bags that held their lives.

What will our lahar-rain look like? Maybe she’ll swallow too much liquid into her lungs and be strangled by that vicious pneumonia. Maybe she’ll fall and suffer one of the major disabilities that beset us women of sixty and over. If these things happen, she will still be my wife, but our cute little home will be shattered. My caregiving-based funding will end when she enters the hospital or residential care. My ties to the community are tenuous, because I spend so much time at home, but residential care or hospitalization will completely uproot me. I’ll look like one of those tree stumps whose roots lie cut around them.

Huntington’s Disease has no cure, and after all the excitement about finding its genetic marker, the subsequent decade has revealed that the gene requires activators the doctors don’t understand. There are some correlative factors that seem important, but no one knows why. My wife is the youngest — one of the risk factors — and her father was somewhat older when she was born — which is now factoring into several neurological syndromes. On the other hand, it appears that in her family the activators have delayed the onset of symptoms past the point they would have been predicted by just the genetic marker.

Maybe you don’t care about this, because no one in your family has this disease. But it’s the only hereditary member of a cluster that might well rumble into your life — Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, maybe even ALS or MS. More and more, our research communities are cross-fertilizing each other. Yes, ALS is still the worst, and fully deserving of all that ice-bucket money you might have heard about. But would you spare a thought for us, living here in this cluster of volcanoes, and donate for research into Huntington’s Disease? We need brain scans to identify the sectors of each HD brain as it wins and loses particular regional battles. My wife, for instance, has phenomenal intellectual capacity, but impulse control and anxiety attacks slice into our lives almost daily.

Next Saturday, September 27, 2014, our humble little Vermont chapter of the Huntington’s Disease Society of America, will walk to raise funds. Our chapter has expenses — a paid convener — and dreams, such as a local residential facility, so caregivers can maintain rooted lives when our loved ones are no longer at home. Please click on our website and make a donation:

http://www.hdsa.org/team-hope-2012/lets-get-started/map/burlington-vt.html

And thank you.

Disoriented by Married Life

The most useful thing that has been said to me in the aftermath of my Solstice wedding came from a friend in a tightly Christian congregation: “When people get married, we expect them to take a year off from their ministry to settle into married life.” By ministry, she means, as do Unitarian Universalists and many others, not necessarily a professional ministry, but the service outside your own family and neighborhood to which you are called.

Nothing prepared me for the intensely domestic focus that emanates from this tiny gold band and the beautiful woman who placed it on my finger. My eyes want to look at her, my hands love the duties of caring for her. The respite care workers go nuts because we do not want to be apart for any significant amount of time, even when the back-up team is here to get me out. “Out” to me means yard work. Work on the house. Grocery shopping for something that will taste special for both of us.

That’s all as it should be. But more disturbing has been the lessening of my passion for old friends and even my family of origin. Likewise, the ministry that meant so much of me has fallen aside, doomed by its insistence that I follow it to places she cannot physically go. My mind reverts to an earlier stage of life that was dominated by public and international events, enough to have diverted my reading and writing.

The question I ask myself is this: where are those covenants of yore? Did I make too many to keep? Everyone does, of course, and some must be sacrificed to time and distance. But my fiber rebels against such apostasy. What I hope is that my friend’s words are accurate and as married life becomes more familiar, once again it will have space for the family and friends that were my greatest joy until a few years ago.

But notice where this wisdom came from: another religious community. Perhaps Unitarian Universalism will be more attractive to young adults if we expand our explicit expectations to include the roller coaster/whipsaw changes that follow the act of saying, “I do” and honor the obsession with nesting that paves the way for the young families we hope will populate our Religious Education programs. This summer my wife and I not only got married but also turned sixty, so we’re not planning to have any human children or grandchildren. Our congregational life — unlike my former denominational passion — remains intact and, in my case, even a bit renewed. But if we were young adults now, desperately trying to earn more money to buy and fix out a house, to fund offspring, and pay off our student loans, I’m not sure I’d appreciate the lack of respect for private ambition our leaders tend to imply. And if we were people of color, watching our family lose its brief opportunities at success (“last hired and first fired” means there isn’t much of a savings account, much less a cushion), I’m not sure I’d find meaning in a congregation which is wrestling with “our legacy of privilege.”

So if my marriage has done one thing, it’s up-ended my sense of place in the world. It has freed me from some old assumptions, and I’d like to see my religious community experience the same unimaginable buoyancy.

Ghosts of Old War Mistakes

We watch a lot of international news in our house, and every day gets more and more alarming. So many horrible things are happening, you don’t need me to list them for you. And why do we keep cycling through the same types of outrage? My response is that it’s because the US public doesn’t understand the patterns of engagement our country keeps choosing between.

I. Copperheads

The first pattern came up during the US Civil War, and it’s the part of the war that has gotten the least attention, even on C-Span, where usually nothing is too obscure for a book tour. Well, meet the Copperheads. Lots of folks know that General George McClellan ran for President in 1864 as a peace candidate, but don’t understand the iceberg of which he was the tip. Copperheads were Democrats in the North, a tiny minority in the party that dominated the South and mostly seceded when Lincoln won in 1860. Some of them had business interests in the South — meaning supplying or buying from the slavocracy — but many others were the first of the laboring classes displaced by rural changes but not secure in urban factory jobs. Or they were immigrants — many Irish — fearing job competition from freed slaves. While many were supporters of the racist economic regime, many others were just willing to tolerate slavery as their own best economic or personal calculation. The Copperhead movement had nothing to do with pacifism.

Northerners seem to believe that Copperheadism ended at Appomattox, but for Southerners they were part of the Scourge of Reconstruction. Decimated landscapes always attract rapacious investors ready to buy up your debts for less than they’re worth but more than you’ve got. That form of Copperheadism deserves more attention, but it’s not what matters in foreign policy, my topic for today. Northern Copperheadism — “peace at any price because war has no benefit to me” — has not only never died out, it has spread like a vicious weed. When negotiations begin, the focus is on appeasement — give the aggressor whatever will get them to stop — but the prime goal stems back to Whiggism, the policy of compromising to prevent the outbreak of hostilities. The two primary goals are to “maintain business as usual” and to prevent a breakdown of known political structures. It’s worth noting that this was the party of classical New England Unitarianism.

Most of my friends and family are a contemporary cleaned-up version of Copperhead: by idealizing human nature as “inherently good” they persuade themselves that restoring equality to human transactions — economic, cultural, political — will cause both war and poverty to simply wither away. Everyone will discover the good in everyone else and be satisfied with that knowledge as life’s highest and finest reward.

Idealists are people who have not had the experience of interviewing survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime, as I did in 1981-82. A week ago, I would have told you what is happening throughout the Middle East and North Africa resembles the kind of low-grade outrage that characterizes governance in Pakistan. This week, though, it looks like violence has passed a horrible tipping point. Sustained campaigns of bombing and other military violence foster society-wide PTSD, and the worst of those victims can be exploited by individuals who are either themselves completely deranged by abuse, or carrying around an evil they were born with. It might help to read “The Plague” again, by Albert Camus, but you’d do better to look at mass murderers who washed out of the military, who got fired from Postal Service jobs, who underwent years of ridicule and humiliation. These are folks who want revenge, but whose grievance has no bottom and no top.

II. Great War Syndrome

Commentator David Brooks gets a lot of things wrong, but sometimes he’s very right. Tonight on The PBS News Hour, he said that our mistake in Syria was forgetting that “It’s easier to do the little things early than to do the big things later.” The US experience in World War I led to a delusion that we are the exception to this inconvenient truism. Europeans have spent this past week commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of hostilities of which we care nothing, because we entered so much later. And when we went in, the primary reason appears to have been that attacks on shipping were starting to hurt our economic elite. And what were they shipping? Why, munitions, to be sold at shameful profit, and apparently in some cases to both sides. So this was really a variation on Copperheadism — not that one would stay out of war to maintain business and politics as usual, but that one would enter it for the same reason. Sort of like the Confederates, and their apologists remain proud of it.

For Europe, 1914-1918 was “The Great War” because of its casualties and social upheavals, but we called it that because it had elements of excitement and adventure. Remember “The World War One Flying Ace”? Remember “How You Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm [After They've Seen Paree]?” Josephine Baker, and the African American discovery that the French had other prejudices, and loved American jazz? Let me be the first to say that for far too many Americans, 1918 was also a year of unprecedented death, much of which occurred because global war made our troops into victims and carriers of the lethal Spanish Influenza.

But for those U.S. troops who marched into Paris, who came home relatively unscathed, The Great War message was that our military could anticipate a fairly safe and profitable future assisting good guys who were trying hard but didn’t have our advantages. This is what led directly to Iraq in March 2003. “They’ll welcome us with open arms.” “We’ll be done in no time, once we help them establish the democracy they know in their hearts is what they want.” That might have been true in 1918 and 1945, but it has nothing to do with the way things are in the Middle East and Northern Africa.

So there we went, deluding ourselves into believing that people everywhere just want to do what we do here (which, might I point out, we are less and less sure we want to continue doing). Some folks say we have to give them guns and pocket-sized constitutions, other folks encourage more economic and educational empowerment. But today’s wars aren’t happening in Paree, they’re  not even in Weimar Berlin. This week tells me we might be looking at Kampuchea, in the hellish years before the Vietnamese finally rejected international norms and invaded their neighbor. That invasion, with its puppet government, released the Kampuchean people from agonizing suffering, but Vietnam’s primary goal was to stabilize and rationalize a neighboring country whose psychological injuries were starting to threaten the region. For this the Vietnamese suffered tons of excoriating condemnation in, of all places, the United Nations, for having invaded a country whose government had not invited them.

So if I’m right, and the Boka Haram/Islamic State of Iraq type of army really does represent a new form of Khmer Rouge frenzy for annihilation, we on the left need to look at the shadowy ghost of Copperheadism. We do the right thing by confronting conservatives with their own sad Great War Syndrome. Unfortunately, for too much of the planet, these two models have meshed into a foreign policy that lays bare the worst of both of them.

New Shoes for New Wives

New Shoes for New Wives

About six weeks ago, my love and I got married. She has Huntington’s Disease, but with medication, physical therapy, and sheer determination, she is living with it, rather than dying of it. My mom says I should write a memoir about this, but we aren’t really that interested in it. Like anyone else who does self-maintenance in order to do the things we enjoy or have to do. Just now, we are working on the house she bought and owns, through a combination of hard work and family support. But inevitably, as the disease takes it toll, she is less able to do most of the physical work, both large and small. She no longer drives. Hence, the work falls onto me. 

And I am grateful for the opportunity to do it. Vermont pays family caregivers like me to help their dependents stay out of residential or institutional care settings, on the assumption that this is cheaper than shelling out Medicaid at that level. They are probably right. This summer, thanks to our generous wedding guests and family, we are doing about two thousand dollars worth of work on said house, as well as heading for church camp next week. We pay property taxes, we buy organic food, we take care of stray cats. In the larger sense of community, we are a good investment. I say “we” because although she cannot do very much of the physical work, she knows more about it, and comes along to mentor and support me, every step of the way.

“Every step of the way.” That’s the pivot phrase to my topic at this moment. Like my mother, I have narrow feet in a common size. Well, almost a common size — one is a seven and one is a seven-and-one-half. Many years,there are no shoes for me to buy, even if I need to, because the combination of style, fit, and availability never happens. For the past two years, that has been the case with sandals. Gladiator sandals — especially with three inch heels and dog collars around the ankles — just don’t meet my needs. But my previous sandals had fallen apart, except for two last pairs, thankfully in very basic colors. Being on a limited budget, I was racing to every clearance bin and clearance website I could find, for better colors and nicer styles.

Finally I succeeded. Black, blue and brown. I like to also have multicolored and red — and I love this year’s corals, mustards,and olives — but care-giving is not that kind of lifestyle. So, basics only.

My wife has one pair of LL Bean sandals, and would never dream of having more. She marvels at my accessories fetish. But here’s the kicker: when the shoes arrived, she asked if I had put them on HER credit card. 

“Of course not! There are MY shoes.”

“These are OUR shoes.”

“There are things that are mine, and shoes are one of them. If you were a man, you’d never question a wife buying some things on her own, with her own money.”

Okay. But what made her say that?

Is it because she has more money from family sources? In reality, our family resources are pretty equal, but I am trying not to exploit mine. I encourage her to be more cautious with hers as well.

Or — and this didn’t occur to me until much later — is it because she wants to thank me for all the work, and to treat me to something she knows I need and want, in one of the few ways she can?

I could ask her, and that would answer this question for us. But I’m writing this to say that care-giving has cast a different light on a long-held calculation.

Distinguishing Among Different Kinds of Safe Harbor in a Refugee Crisis

This weekend many of my clergy colleagues have given their time, money, and personal comfort to demonstrate against oppression of immigrants in this country without legal authorization. Part of what confuses the public conversation about what to do is that there are various types of what are called “push” situations, meaning there needs to be more than one avenue for response. 

What does not work is to lump everyone who gets here “by any means possible” into a single Emma Lazarus grand category. Such idealization — not even blurry thinking, but irrational emotionalism– overthrows not only our own nation’s immigration laws, but established international norms for shifting populations. The international community itself has overthrown these norms, by allowing what began as one kind of operation to morph into the other without any positive decision to make the change, but discussions always begin with a reclarification of the benchmarks.

The two different categories of welcome are “resettlement country” — where people are free to build homes and pursue citizenship — and “first asylum countries” — where people are kept safe until whatever crisis drove them out gets resolved. Part of the problem facing the United States at this time is that Mexico, the logical country of first asylum for the Honduran refugee children, has set up a system for effectively funneling them north to the US. There’s a long list of reasons why nations dislike providing first asylum, the most important of which can be seen in the Middle East, where Palestinians have been living in so-called refugee camps since 1948. Without distant nations volunteering to resettle refugees out of camps in first asylum nations, the only other recourses are imprisonment or repatriation. Involuntary repatriation is not allowed under international norms and United Nations standards for countries for whom it provides refugee assistance.

Politywonk has no particular theory on how to solve the problem of the Honduran refugee children. However, the depths of my resume reveals a year spent working in a program whose whole purpose was to separate legitimate refugees from economic migrants, with the commitment to find everyone some kind of home in a country which had agreed to resettle a certain number of these refugees. Yes, some of them were economic migrants, and they went to the back of every line.

The American Dream traditionally has had two components: personal safety and personal opportunity. Immigration law doesn’t see it that way. It is my belief that the first step in calming the  current hysteria is to set up such a system for this crisis. We need a first asylum program for legitimate refugees — people with well-founded fear for their lives in the place where they have spent their lives thus far — which treats them differently from economic migrants. And for economic migrants, regular immigration law continues to apply. Making these distinctions would anger the most vocal observers on both sides of the issue by thwarting a lot of family reunification dreams among folks not here with legal authorization. Yet for those with genuine needs for personal protection — including some for whom family reunification would be an outcome — this system will indeed save their lives.

Idealism represents the polar opposite to categorical hatred. Neither of them is a good guild to public policy. And given that lives are really at stake, Politywonk respectfully submits that considering international legal norms can help even our nation get its house back in order.

How to make Evil Banal (Slavery and Freedom Summer, too)

Inadvertently this blog has stumbled into a little series on the function of covenant in the endless war between banality of evil and civic courage. Given that a few of us are attending to the centenary of the first engagements of what became known as The Great War, and subsequently as The First World War, it’s not a bad idea. One historian the other day asserted that the whole thing had been one big conflict, with an extended cease fire between the two major conflagrations. Does Albert Camus explain the Roaring Twenties? It looks to me like we’re probably heading into another such half century, or might already have entered into it. Not sure what the cease fires were, but they sure look to be over.

So, back to the banality of evil in its war with civic courage. Yesterday’s “Fresh Air” gave a fuller expansion to reporter Rukmini Callimachi’s expose of kidnapping for ransom as the bankroll process for terrorism. Where to start with all the ways this resonates with headlines and history stories! But when seen through the lens of making evil banal, the fit simplifies — and terrifies. For what she describes matches almost perfectly the description of Nazism’s rise to power in Weimar Germany, and Mussolini’s in Italy.

First came the thugs, who attacked brutally and publicly. Then came the ideologues, who justified the brutality with simplifying statements of how the violence fit into social possibilities for those who supported Nazism. Exploiting and manipulating free speech in a too-liberal democracy, this combination which drew out and suppressed all political and cultural opposition, by veiling with thin persuasion what it aroused with manipulative rhetoric.

Cultural opponents fell into two groups: those with different lifestyles and those with different ethnicities. Political intimidation of persons with different lifestyles, including the well-known round up of homosexuals, coincided with early round-ups of political opponents. So if rhetorical persuasion wasn’t doing the job, maybe our prisons will. These folks –many of them labor leaders and followers — suffered imprisonments that were long enough to suck out their civic courage, but short enough to allow them back into society. Here they spread the well-known phrase, “resistance is futile.”

But their releases spread something else: false data for folks who wished to deceive themselves that the Jews, Roma, and later political opponents would also be held, subdued and released. It was the perfect complement to thugs in the streets: “This party is just doing what every government does: discouraging its enemies and rewarding its supporters. Learn your lesson and you’ll be fine.”

This is where the notorious Al Quaeda expense accounts come into it. When an organization shifts its invitation to supporters from participating in face-to-face violence to simply doing an office job, Adolph Eichmanns result. I do not doubt that for those who would like to engage in personal terrorizing, Al Quaeda still has opportunities, but for those too dainty for such work, it now has a second path to social stature. There was a point in Terry Gross’s interview yesterday when Rukmini Callimachi said that the kidnap victims are now being obtained indirectly, by social networks who have been displaced in the wars and droughts and nation-building chaos which is today’s northern Africa. Tuaregs are doing the dirty work in Mali, other Bedouins in other places. “You mean they are outsourcing terror?” exclaimed Terry, in genuine surprise. “Yes,” replied Callimachi.

Here was where my mind exploded with the “ah ha!” moment in a difficult part of African’s history with kidnapping for enslavement by Europeans. In ancient times, and at many moments throughout time – including our own — slavery was/is the fate of prisoners of war. Because this was the African tradition –as well as the well-documented European tradition — I conjured until recently that American slavery relied on some unknown-to-me interior wars for hostages for sale to slavers. That didn’t make sense: no continent can hide four centuries of warfare strong enough to produce that many kidnap victims, but the alternative was just too awful to contemplate. But recent history makes clear that some Africans were making money kidnapping and selling others, on a regular basis, in much the same way Callimachi describes Al Quaeda operating today. There was no war, at least not at this level. It was simply the most lucrative business available in a continent whose healthy young people were being siphoned out, much as gems and minerals would later be hauled away.

And here was where Hannah Arendt became and remains an incendiary scholar. The fact that some Jewish community and camp leaders “cooperated” in selecting immediate victims for Nazism cannot be denied. But the terrified submission of people at gunpoint, people who are witnessing the brutal deaths of people standing right next to them, possibly in their own families or with other close social ties, should not be equated with the self-satisfied professionalism of people like Adolph Eichmann, slave kidnappers, Al Queda career climbers. To have only a single word — “cooperation” —  is a language failing that needs to be corrected. “Cooptation ” is worse, for it implies not only grudging physical participation, but acceptance of key ideas.

People who are randomly alive in a holocaust, even by their own actions (for similar actions had no saving grace for many others) cannot be asked for civic courage. The Warsaw Uprising succeeded by recognizing the need to unify personal consciences into warfare. No, civic courage is the duty of people to stand up from within the potential professional ranks of banal evildoers, individually taking risk, from start to finish. The hard part is that to do so is to shift the holocaust from others onto oneself. To save other families is to lose one’s own. That is the function of the public violence with which such campaigns begin. You will not just linger on a lower rung of the social ladder, you will see us brutalize your children, humiliate your parents, dispatch your grandparents and suckling babies as if they were some kind of pests. Boko Haram, anybody?

So who signs up for this? The United States has been honoring Freedom Summer this year, remembering the martyrs, and noticing again how most of the folks who went — black and white — were childless, unmarried, in a stage of life devoted to detaching from family and finding one’s personal deepest meaning. Civic courage has its banality, too; such activism was made possible by families whose children did not have to send money home. But what happened in Freedom Summer — this never really came home to me until this year — is that Cheney, Schwirmer, and Goodman were killed at the very outset of the campaign. Volunteers were still arriving. The message was clear: you can turn around and save yourself now. The recognizable pattern of totalitarianism, starting out by exhibiting random brutality.

But the volunteers did not turn around. The families they came to serve were at first reluctant to associate with them, terrified of long-term consequences (already being victims of the long-term consequences of slavery’s lingering outrages). But by staying out the summer, entering into the risks, the poverty, the cultural structure of local African American communities, the volunteers modeled civic courage. This is what I mean by affirming the “dignity” of someone, once you’ve decided it is your job to stand up for their inherent worth. The truly banal participants in horrible evil can be outlasted. They get nervous when they see alternative career ladders that might be more lucrative than that offered by the monster machine. Ambitious white southerners learned to get along with integration when federal policies made it a condition for regional uplift; racism lingers most heavily among white folks left behind as The New South made progress, and frustrated northern minimum wage workers, who have adopted the region because it has a rhetoric for shifting the pain of their poverty onto “others.”

The appearance of alternative professional options is the moment when the terror campaigns click into high gear: other millions — political, religious, and social rebels–  join the Jews and Roma in the gas chambers, roadside trenches, anonymous forest graves, on the gallows. These other millions died — and still die– defending personal consciences. When their numbers are high enough, pacifism has no prospects. But “just war” is not the right description of taking up arms at this point. The “just war” would have been earlier.

But would it have been by equally ugly methods –drones? renditions? plowing over houses? Or would it have been by establishing, nourishing, and defending a banality of civic goodness? Something like our Great Compression, when unions and corporations (yes, they did that then) fought like crazy not only to enrich their members but especially to provide life long security for families who joined their ranks. Something like what Europe has now, with its regulations against quack science in the name of profit and its protections for personal integrity against corporate expansionism. Something like what Singapore practices, with its mandatory savings accounts and educational oversights.

I began this series by complaining about mistaking media events for civic courage, and my assertion remains the same. Civic courage means living in the long haul. It means entering uncomfortably close quarters and making yourself vulnerable to folks who won’t get what you’re saying, doing, living. At least not at first. But if what you do there is show them your covenant, and show them how they, too, can fulfill their dreams by accepting you in their covenant — not for transformation or imitation, but just at the level of mutual toleration and respectful communication — only then will you have smothered evil’s incipient banality.

 

 

 

 

 

In Defense of Demonstrating

My favorite movies explore the interplay of character and ideas. If they include history, so much the better. This explains why Politywonk is amusing herself with “Hannah Arendt”, whose topic speaks for itself. It’s a German film which makes use of footage from the actual trial of Adolph Eichmann. 

Eichmann explained himself with words that jolted back to life all the times I’ve gone out to demonstrate, petition, observe a police commission, write a letter to an editor. The words were simple, as translated in the film:

“If there had been more civic courage, things would have been different.” 

Eichmann is here explaining how he lived with a split conscience. One half maintained his personal values, of which he declared the highest one was to keep his personal oath. The other half, which he suppressed, considered what was happening and calculated the outcome of disobeying orders. 

There was no part of him which contemplated that following orders and performing as an excellent bureaucrat, he sent six million Jews to horrible deaths. For that he was hung, and probably a good thing it was.

When Arendt published “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” first in The New Yorker and then as a book, her claim that evil could manifest as banality rather than monstrosity outraged many. In reality, it simply updated the old truism of Edmund Burke, “All that it takes for evil to triumph is for good men (sic) to do nothing.”  In the movie, Arendt says that totalitarianism has accomplished the ultimate evil, which is to build environments in which human beings feel that being human is irrelevant. Punishment does not follow crimes, rewards do not follow work. I remember being told, over and over, by my politically active family — as well as by so many others — that the first crucial step is the one taken by Eichmann, in which his humanness became irrelevant to himself.

Although I often decry the tendency of Unitarian Universalists — and other bleeding hearts of every faith — to demonstrate again and again at every outrage, these demonstrations do serve the purpose of modeling the civic courage Eichmann said might have changed his strategy for survival. I support this. But a culture of demonstration lacks the tough backbone of neighbor-to-neighbor self-exposure that characterized Freedom Summer and the majority of work that I and others did against the Vietnam War and in support of La Raza and Cesar Chavez’s United Farmworkers. Hours and hours every week — including every Saturday morning at a large suburban Kroger’s, leafletting every shopper — were what made these efforts successful. Equal marriage has swirled onto beachheads worldwide because individuals came out to their families and those families chose to stand with them, often in spite of social ostracism.

As much as I respect the sacrifice of time and money, it doesn’t take civic courage to jump from one media event to another on a superficial basis. There’s a phrase called “Skin in the game,” which refers to this process of positioning oneself in a vulnerable social spot. This is what bothers me about demonstration culture. People get praised. People get speaking opps. Even if they go to prison, it’s not a long, tough ride. And usually, with a fine or community service, the whole event dissolves and demonstration culture starts looking for another.

Someone as superficial as Eichmann would certainly have paid attention to demonstrations. But someone so ambitious would probably not have been swayed without more than one personal conversation, more than one individual or family who stood up and got away with it.

“Civic courage.” Thank you for that phrase, Eichmann trial. It’s good to be reminded why we do what we do. It’s important to remember what it means to do it well.