It’s been ages since I thought there was any point in writing about polity among the Unitarian Universalists. Nor does my return to the topic, at this cataclysmic moment, indicate either a sense of hope, or much interest. These days most of my emotional energy resided in the purely personal. Still, people who have meant so much to me would like a small bit of perspective, so here’s what I can offer.

For those who don’t know, we have had, on the same day — March 30, 2017 — not one but two earthshaking ministerial downfalls. What can’t be overlooked is that they come from the two opposite poles of polity. It’s as if God wanted to wake us up to both dangers, and to do so with enough clarity that none of us can miss it. So without commenting on the content of either event, here are my evaluations.

First, on the resignation of our denominational president over concerns about staff appointments. The problem itself is as old as we are. When we were only New Englanders, a call went out for more leaders from and in the west (a changing place over the centuries, but never a different issue). When we were only led by men, women agitated for a place at the decision-making tables. In each case, the protesters wanted their superficial differentness to harbor a deeper difference in how our congregational approach religion. The UUA, following the lead of its Unitarian forerunners, the Boston Clergy Association and the National Conference of Unitarian and other Liberal Churches, instituted closed selection processes for approving clergy, always claiming their only aim was protecting the innocent and/or sacred. Yet in each case, the victors in writing the bylaws turned out to be elitists convinced that salvation for others lay in control only by folks carefully selected to resemble themselves or at least, show deference to their co-called wisdom and devotion.

In 1899, when Samuel Atkins Eliot I and his co-conspirators on the board of the tiny American Unitarian Association instituted an anti-congregational coup over the decentralized and congregationally-based National and Western Conferences, they thought they had good reasons. In particular, the rise of both evangelical Christianity and Roman Catholic political influence led these folks to believe that educated, rationalist, humanist-driven Protestantism needed to strengthen its ability to speak up in the public realm. This is the tendency which has led us to tighter and tighter staff leadership and more and more strident political advocacy. It was probably inevitable that eventually, heads would roll as that advocacy has finally begun — as once did geographic outreach — to bring in some long-desired but little known new members.

So now, if our ministers and parishioners of color want more staff members that not only look like them, but understand the spiritual ups and downs of their personal lives, I say they only continue an honorable and completely worthy line of disrupters who have always, eventually, made our denomination more rewarding for all of us. It is worth noting that part of their concern is the way racism plays out differently in different parts of the country, meaning regionally-driven leadership is the only legitimate way to truly minister to people where they live. The question raging now is whether the necessary change can be accomplished by appointing better people to the same offices — what denominationalists always have insisted — or whether there will be more folks like me, who believe the only effective answer can be systematic.

Meanwhile, from the opposite end of the polity spectrum, we have a lone wolf who wound up devouring innocent lambs. Really. This minister and community activist, now accepting charges of receiving pornography featuring violence against children, always raised the most fiery and least reasoned supports of my complaints about over-centralized denominational personnel management. It is worth pointing out that when Henry Whitney Bellows laid out the framework for the National Conference, he explicitly enumerated the duty to monitor clergy, which, to his mind, could only done by those in the same locales. Likewise, I have not mentioned our Universalist forebears, because their decentralized polity, for most of their existence, had no relevance to the new structures. Yet their state and regional conventions also included and exercised fellowshipping and disfellowshipping of clergy. The centralist shibbolith that localism means immorality has no place in either of our histories; that was a tool for the coup-plotters of 1899.

 

Of all the time I have spent in organized Unitarian Universalist activities, there are two gatherings, superficially different, geographically and racially unlike, which proved nevertheless to mirror and echo each other. They come back to me at this time, because on both ends of the polity spectrum we are going need a way to heal among ourselves. Each of these events was a gathering of sincerely-committed congregation members, usually assembled to click through meetings to manage something important to parishioners. Yet in each case, we committed to listen to each other’s voices as equals and as seekers. We were not seeking to elucidate on some topic, as small group ministries do, but to share some part of our vulnerable soul by telling our personal stories. The first occurred at All Souls in Washington, DC, when one option in our then-annual retreat was to share the spiritual journeys that brought us into that congregation. I closed my eyes to listen, and marveled at how little difference there really was around distinctions of race. Decades later, at First Church Unitarian in Jamaica Plain, MA, we met to implement the Welcoming Congregation curriculum, whose first step is to simply hear the story of parishioners’ journeys as LGBTQ individuals.

Recently one of my Facebook friends asked which was better, to be transformative or to be effective. In my experience, transformation is the only long-term effectiveness. I failed in my efforts to transform this association’s polity, although I do take credit for raising its prominence as a worthwhile general focus. As I prepare to turn 63, to help my wife (yes, after a lifetime of bisexual wanderings, I finally landed on this side of the fence) confront her revolutionary self-management of advanced Huntington’s Disease, those of you who come after are my comfort. If I made less and less effort to write, and became more and more of a lurker, in large part it is because your voices began to open parts of my mind and soul in ways too new and exciting to limit by language. Still, I do live in covenant, so if it helps, here’s my little offering.

With prayers for us all, especially the victims in both of our disastrous ministerial implosions.

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Does Pentecost Have a Role in Unitarian Universalism?

Pentecost — all of us liturgical Christians know its meaning on the calendar.

But what does it mean to us Unitarian Universalist Christians who understand Jesus of Nazareth as a historical figure… a rabbi, a role model, a prophet… anything except a risen Saviour?

For Trinitarian Christians, Pentecost stands as “the birthday of the church.” It marks the empowering arrival of a Holy Spirit among a finite group of apostles and friends. Fortified after ten days of devastation – the second devastation, for prior to Ascension they’d been seeing their executed friend in familiar places, doing his comforting things – this time the Apostles experienced the implanting of a formerly exterior power –a Holy Spirit. As if someone had clothed their feet in winged shoes, as if someone had wrapped their spines in solid steel, they ventured forth at last, ready to fulfill his mandate to go forth and baptize the world in his name.

Speaking for no Unitarian Universalist Christian except myself, I admit this year – after decades of trying to pretend – that nothing about that story works for me.  Entering my tenth year in a wonderful home – Vermont – which nevertheless is not the home of my heart – Cambridge and greater Boston, MA – I’ve finally got the words to express my Pentecost sadness.

When I was nine, my father got an excellent job in a different part of the country. It happens to a lot of people; this is the time of year we see relocation industry ads on tv. Your parents carefully hand you the toy your best friend gave you ten days earlier, when she swore she would love you forever. When her parents took her away for her own vacation.

She would return to familiar haunts, beloved places and people that you would not see again. There you sat in the back seat, clutching the toy and knowing it could never be enough. This is where a Unitarian Universalist Christian parts company with Partialist Trinitarian co-religionists.  The Holy Spirit for them is no mere replica, no image, no doll, no ethereal being.  For them it will make sacred the place they arrive, without which it lingers in danger of death eternal.  Not only will it find them friends, but open the eyes of those friends to what makes  a newcomer special, elevates her  even beyond all the friends they’ve had before. At least when they sit in the back seats of their Father’s car, that’s what they firmly believe.

My Unitarian Universalist theology has no part in that.  Believing in One God who lives everywhere and finds something worth saving in everyone, I come to the new scene with eyes not so much open as empty. Yes, we’re supposed to call it spiritual curiosity and rejoice that it broadens our being, but that’s not how it often feels to me.  Because why, if the new place is already sacred, if the new friends are already special, should I think we have anything to add? Not for Unitarianism the planting of churches, the preaching of good news. What is the value of our testimony—the testimony, anyway, that I came here to bring? If we come to hold up a gilded mirror, as so many deride us for doing, then why should we bother with Pentecost’s most basic mission, the founding of a church? Why should we offer support and nurture to folks already living someplace special?

After ten years in one of America’s most beautiful cities, I’ve come to learn that a new place that does not feel like home to me doesn’t even feel like home to everyone who already lives here. There is no heaven on earth, and for that reason, our gilded mirror, our open and empty eyes are just the good news  that many folks need, want, hunger, crave to receive. For the good news we bring – self-affirmation – has been denied to them despite their natural birth there.

Emerging adults need our support when they want to leave the ways and homes of their parents and grandparents to choose their own life partners.  Huge swaths of the planet deny this right not only to homosexuals, but also – maybe even more so — to heterosexuals. People cannot choose their parents, but lots of aspiring grandparents want to correct that lack of power in reverse. The world is full of parents and grandparents putting property rights and social status ahead of personal fulfillment for their own young.

Some otherwise happy families need our support as they fight to assert the value of personal and planetary health ahead of rigid economic and social structures built on unsustainable extraction.

Unexpected folks – every age, every gender, every location — need our open eyes and gilded mirror when inner energy drives them to produce new forms in music, of words, by movement, with paints and found materials.

And then are those who need our gilded mirror to fight a culture which despises or derides their very being.

It doesn’t help me much, this gilded mirror and open eyes, when first encountering some unfamiliar place and different people. Unfamiliar voices too often send me back to a corner, a book or movie that brings back memories of joy. Nothing is going to lead me anywhere. No one is going to hold me up, at least not for a long while. Maybe that’s why we’re such a performance-oriented religion: for some among us, the moment is always Pentecost, that empty, lonely interlude when nothing we can clutch or imagine will bring back the one place we’ve always called home.

 

 

 

Beyond Categorical Terrorism

Kudos to Rachel Maddow for blurring out the face, and refusing to repeat the name, of the young man suspected of joining a prayer service in South Carolina for the purpose of killing the leadership of a congregation with two centuries of leadership on behalf of equality for Africans and African-Americans in this country (USA). When I say I hope other media will repeat this technique,  my hope rests not in personal repugnance, but in the deepest roots of my religious tradition.

Several decades ago, the Unitarian Universalist Association introduced a program called “Beyond Categorical Thinking,” with the intention of teaching us adherents to look beyond the superficials of race, gender, age, economic status, cultural heritage, gender identity, sexual orientation — anything you can see on the surface — in order to open ourselves to a deeper kind of listening. Heart to heart. Dream to dream. Pain to Pain. Idea to idea. Fact to fact.

Twenty years later, or whatever it has been, neuroscience underscores the role of such aspirations when it comes to social choices. Instinctively, we feel more defensive in proximity to someone who looks or sounds different from ourselves. Despite our best intentions, when someone restates a known lie in order to rebut its truth, our ears reinforce the lie and tune out the negation. And reflexively, before our rational mind can flick its switch, the dominant parts of our brain light up — these being our temperaments, our primary intelligences — whenever we engage a situation, actively or passively. “You always say that!” pouts our teenage offspring. “Why do you pull back?” inquire our therapists. So it does take work — constant self-monitoring and recommitment — to get outside our comfort zone, and, just as crucial, to shut down inner messages which say, “Here, and here only, is where you belong.”

Happily, the same neuroscience that seems to doom us to autopilot has discovered that the brain itself is plastic. That doesn’t mean it leaves nasty little fish-killing beads in our waterways, but the other kind of plastic, the one that means “constantly open to reshaping.” Researchers looking into “cures” for stroke — not unlike educators trying to help young people become the first member of their family to graduate from high school — have discovered that constant repetition of necessary practices can teach the brain to work differently. At first, the necessary practice must be guided externally. Even young people nowadays might find themselves in closely-monitored physical therapy for a month or two, pushing an ankle to point a different direction, sweeping our arms in strange directions to strengthen our rotator cuffs. Meanwhile, what’s really happening is that up in our heads, our basal ganglia are telling other parts of the brain to set up new functional arrangements. (This even works with my wife’s Stage Four Huntington’s Disease, which is why this blog has suffered from neglect: she’s had to learn to walk again after a serious fall in October. But walk she can.)

But I digress. Back to Rachel Maddow’s commendable media leadership. The first step in making room for new habits is to get out of old ones. She used her media space to deny this man the fame he sought among a particular population.

The first step we must take as a society is to remove all content labels from extremist acts. To deny them the theological, racial, cultural stature they seek is the first step in undercutting their attractiveness to a generation raised on selfies and Instagram. Whether they commit their crimes in the Middle East or Midwest, in the name of Anglo-Saxon purity or theological puritanism, let their message and faces vanish. Assign them numbers and dates, the way we mark our wedding anniversaries and birthdays. Put them on a map, yes — but say no more than “another murder in Texas” or “another suicide bomber in Ramadi.” Name their weapons and other tools — but only so peaceseekers can more clearly see a “how” that we can manage.

For most of the six decades of my life, I’ve found some kind of pleasure in studying English history. The first thing we have to learn is that the so-called English Civil War included religion-based beheadings and burnings, massive destruction of sacred artworks, and send generations of Roman Catholics into underground worship (from which they fled to Maryland). Yet at the same time, over in Africa, some tribal leaders were waging wars whose purpose was capturing prisoners to sell to English merchants anchored in ancient port cities from which scholars and monarchs had once sailed in grandeur that Europeans hoped to appropriate. Extremism finds most of its victims among its own kind.

So let us remove the faces, the theologies, the ideologies of extremism. White folks do it and white folks fight it. Members of other races and ideologies do it, and in those same communities are tireless opponents of those miscreants.

It’s time for Unitarian Universalism — a religion of the Enlightenment tools of research and reason — to step into wider frameworks with that old theme of getting “beyond categorical thinking.” Yes, we need to combat misdeeds with information about the how, the where, the what. But let our “who” be blandly demographic and our “why” couched not in terms of  theology — that most misused of sciences — but neurological and sociological verities.

Not Just a European Union Responsibility

Way back in what seems like another lifetime,the end of the French-US wars in Indochina sent thousands,if not millions, of desperate Vietnamese, Cambodians, Loatians fleeing the victors by any means available. Shabby boats, bleeding feet, hands and knees calloused from crawling through open stretches: the world watched in horror as they suffered, died, or triumphed in such poor physical condition that it seemed impossible they would ever recover. Numerous nations banded together to rescue and support these fugitives, both with rescues and with resettlement. Among the thousand tiny points of light, late in the game, you could then find this writer, helping interview and document those who arrived in Indonesia.

Now the same nightmare has reincarnated itself, on the Mediterranean Sea, Judging from the stunning lack of interest on the part of US news media (what’s left of it), I gather we Americans have decided, with both glee and relief, that this time, it’s not our fault.

Well, yesterday’s New York Times front page calls on us to reconsider. It isn’t that surprising but it’s good to see the numbers laid out so fully. How could arms profiteers NOT have been our best guess at why this has gotten so bloody so fast? The Times also notes that these new sales stem from a fundamental change in US foreign policy, which has up till now been careful to allow Israel a clear and present superiority. Now that we’ve crashed all the former governments –horrible as they were –with our shock and awe adventurism, we’ve opened our government wallet to let all the flotsam and jetsam buy in.

Because the news channel of choice at my house is Al Jazeera, my wife and I are well aware that this open sea disaster has now gotten worse over four years. That’s about the same interval that Boat People struggled across the South China Sea before Politywonk first landed in Southeast Asia. This leads me to skip over the tears-and-guilt issues and leap straight to the issues of Compassion Fatigue (“why do we have to always help out these strangers?”) and Foreign Aid Disgust (“This is nothing but international welfare that we can’t afford”). We need to look at new ways to fund these operations, with stronger targeting on those who caused the problems in the first place. Yes, this is more Pottery Barn Foreign Policy (Colin Powell’s assertion that “if you break it, you pay for it) — but this time, it’s not us taxpayers who need to dig into our wallets.

1) First up, let’s check the role of the Export-Import Bank in this debacle. It’s a little bit like slavery was in the pre-Civil War South: the majority of slaveholders had fewer than ten slaves, but the large hostage holders had such huge operations that more than 80% of the enslaved lived in their vast enclaves. Ex-Im assists a large number of small businesses in vital ways, but the vast majority of its money goes to Boeing and a few other titans. According to its own website, their initatives include support for arms sales. Yes, I’m a Vermont leftie and I hate having to encourage Paul Ryan and Rand Paul, but in this case, the Tea Party is doing good work and deserves our support.

2) Second, let’s impose a Humanitarian Excise Tax on the profits arms and other industries have gotten from their Middle East sales and labor contracts. These are the funds for those refugees and other humanitarian assistances. In particular, I would tax the salaries and capital gains of their primary executives and shareholders (yes, Dick Cheney, this means you).

3) Let’s call on our media to pay attention to the details of these outrages as they get worse. In Indochina, the Boat People and Trekkers got robbed and raped by an expanding population of pirates and highway robbers. I note that over the last few days, Al Jazeera has added reports of robbing and sectarian high-seas murder to the other miseries reported by those who can manage to land or get rescued in the current holocaust. You can expect a steady increase in these occurrences. Hopefully, if there is any last antidote to Compassion Fatigue, these tails (many of which I heard personally) will do the trick.

When a person spent their young years dealing with something as awful as the South China Sea Boat People and Cambodian Trekkers/Crawlers, their one consolation is that they’ll never have to see anything so awful again. Again and again, all over the world, that hope has been misplaced. It’s time for us to honestly, fully, take action on everything we can do to turn off the bloody spigot. (And yes, I know there are other arms dealers anxious to fill our void: it will be up to us to penalize them in every way we can manage, including cutting them out from renewals of preferential trade deals as those arise.)

Insults and Violence: A Scholar’s Analysis

The wife and I have been glued to the television this week, indeed this month, watching what were once civilizations degenerate into adolescent self-promotion networks. All I can say is that when Wayne LaPierre attempts to cloak extremisms of weaponry in Second Amendment altar cloths, he makes much less progress than do the insult-slingers who have monopolized our attention for an entire month, in the name of a sadly-embarrassed First Amendment. I neither agree nor disagree with the content of the movie called “The Interview,” nor with the little bit of Charlie Hebdo available to me. What pains me is that these two purveyors of insult and iconoclasm have been mistaken for art, for journalism.

Still, shoddy stuff gets published, printed, projected all the time, and as an ordained minister, there is no question that insult and iconoclasm push my buttons. Imagine, then, my relief, to discover, on C-Span, a scholar who dives into the cold, hard framework of communal identity-building to categorize various forms of insult that play a role in the process. Karina Korostelina comes from the Crimean Ukraine but now holds forth at George Mason University, in the field of International Relations. IR was my field before ministry, but never did I approach her analytic prowess.

So here’s the link to her 90-minute seminar at the Kennan Center at the Woodrow Wilson School. Her examples don’t mean that much to me, because she feels for the former Soviet Union in a way I have never tried to approach through study or friendship. Her questioners include challengers who disagree with her characterizations of certain disputes, which shows that they do not challenge her fundamental framework. She puts insult into six categories according to the needs of the insulter, and cautions — correctly in my view — that insult forms, shapes and can direct a dynamic relationship between two parties, groups, nations. In some cases, she says, insults can substitute for violence, but in too many, insults escalate –deliberately — the pace of impending violence. Her talk was taped on 17 December 2014, and refers to the Sony film, “The Interview,” which was, in that week, being suppressed by its corporate sponsors. But somewhere in the suburbs of Paris, the assaults on Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket were taking final form. Her book, her work, could not be more topical, more vital.

So, in the spirit of David Brooks, and other folks venturing cautiously to say, “Je ne suis pas Charlie” — and hastening to add that insults should not be capital crimes — I commend this scholar to you. Her new book appears to be coming soon, and she includes, in a portion of the book covered only briefly in the question-and-answer, a first attempt to distinguish between satire and insult. Being an academic tome, this book costs $50+ on Amazon. I hope that by calling attention to her work — not endorsing every word, but by offering her clear, comprehensive framework as a starting point — we can knock down its price and lift up our public conversation.

Happy New Year. Let’s see if we can correct its errant launch.

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.

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.