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.

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.

Cautious about “First Principle Euphoria”

For weeks, if not months, my historian’s heart and mind have been nervous, conflicted, about the various “Standing on the Side of Love” campaigns teeming through my denomination, Unitarian Universalism. It has taken quite a while to sort it all out. Welcoming the refugee children and reopening the books on people who have been unjustly incarcerated (and are still alive) both feel right. They follow long-established policy statements by our General Assemblies, and more and more take shape as work done by dedicated members of our faith community. Indeed, although my current life doesn’t support such offerings, it gratifies me to state that back when I had the chance, I did indeed work in a refugee camp, identifying and assisting victims of bitter war.

So what’s the problem? For a long time, I could not tell. It took the return of an old PBS program, a Secrets of the Dead about Irish railway workers, to finally finish the puzzle. The most idealistic form of patriotic Universalism deludes us into wishful thinking if we turn our backs on the harsh truth of immigration history. Sure, the Statue of Liberty called on us to open our doors and shores. But a more callous, a more vicious thread of the American Dream — what might be called The American Scheme — saw such infusions of enthusiasm differently. If the American Dream says anyone can work hard and make a good living here, if not for themselves then for their children and grandchildren, the American Scheme says that an entrenched elite can weave itself into a secretive network of social institutions by which all this enthusiasm can be exploited, sucked dry, discarded. From this enthusiasm the most talented will be plucked for a different kind of exploitation. By appearing to have succeeded by their own efforts, they will renew the social networks of power, giving false hope to some group which had begun to understand the slight dimensions of its chances for collective stability.

As to the opening of the prisons, need I mention the disaster which was the closing of mental institutions in the early 1970s? “Community treatment” it was called. “Community neglect” is more likely. Might I remind us that many of these unjustly incarcerated are exactly the same individuals, or survivors with exactly the same neurological issues, that we refused to support before? I look at cities installing those anti-homeless spikes on benches and grates, and suddenly prison looks like a better alternative for many.

So what’s a good liberal to do? People are dying in place, struggling to find safety and freedom; we hardly can turn our backs on brutal bloodshed. And our troubles — what we derisively call “First World Problems” — truly do pale next to theirs. Surely we can adapt our lives to come up with some greater generosity?

Well, maybe not. Unitarian Universalists need to take a second look at our First Principle. My attention has lately shifted to the second part of its affirmation of everyone’s “inherent worth and dignity.”

How do we affirm and establish everyone’s God-given dignity in the current world of shrinking resources? Politywonk — and I bet this is pretty common in my faith family — spends a lot of time studying the news and hissing at screens bearing bad news. Then I turn my attention to the quest for structural reforms at macro levels. Single Payer Universal Access Health Insurance. A higher national minimum wage. Access to family planning for all families everywhere. When it comes to covenants, my focus makes a huge jump: covenant is for family and congregation; the next level is universal civic religion.

But now that I’m old — sixty, which is, you have to admit, more old than young — reality advises that intermediate covenants are what supports life’s frail intervals. Neighborhood and congregation caring for others, not just in the abstract, but at the ready, over and over, the same faces, the same voices, the same stories, over and over and over. This takes my mind back to the refugee program at the end of the Indochinese war. By sending an advance guard of “pre-screeners” — of which I was one — and finding out who everyone was (and verifying with endless hours of document-sharing by means of modern electronics) and where they had a reason to settle successfully, the international community achieved what might have been the most successful relocation program in history. Yet when President Obama suggested this a few weeks ago — “let’s go down to Honduras and sort people out” — he was hooted off the stage.

The key to that program’s success was not bureaucracy, it was covenant. No one got released for resettlement until someone at the destination had agreed to provide shelter, financial support, educational and job mentoring for each applicant, one by one. Congregations and social welfare agencies mingled with families in making and fulfilling these commitments. Neither federal bureaucracy nor civic religion — both ultimately impersonal and depersonalizing — has ever accomplished what these highly partialist (the opposite of universalist, meaning, “only part is saved”)  structures achieved with particular commitments. (For what it’s worth, the same held true of organized labor — which is why it ultimately failed. Its success lay in nurturing certain ethnic and family networks; it failed when those same groups — wrongly, as it turns out — believed they no longer needed its power against impermeable secret networks of exploitation.)

For several years now, I’ve watched our yellow-tee-shirt brigades pop up in place after place, hoping always to discern not just a fireworks of caring but a network of mentoring and nurture. Maybe it’s happening. But there’s a painful moment — which I’m going through now — of grieving that idealistic universalism and exposing my heart to all the aches and pains of personal relationships. It’s so much more fun to demonstrate, and there’s always another outrage. But how many folks in need will watch my car drive past them as I head for that next media event? Maybe it’s time to remember the starfish story and hold up these little beachheads as the real places where our yellow teeshirts can build a better world.

Gardening as Racism

The neighbors catty-cornered from one of our lilacs have a beautiful grapevine growing against our common fence. For about two weeks, I’ve been noticing that their grapes have twined and vined over and through my lilac, first where it overhangs their property, and now, way into my yard. Today’s late afternoon gardening task was to cut these vines (on my side) and pull them off the lilac.

Makes sense, eh? But I live in the part of Burlington where Jews and Italians cultivated grapevines during the half-century of prohibition my people imposed on theirs. So while my clippers trimmed and pulled, my heart mourned the injustice this simple act of gardening would once have been.

God and Abe Lincoln Agree: Both Sides Need a Fundamental Challenge

There are so many ironies and illuminations from the weather-related contraction of the GOP Convention. Someone (sorry, I was channel-surfing) has already pointed out that the GOP budget substantially reduces both weather monitoring and disaster response. Apparently, God begs to differ. Let’s see how Romney and Ryan respond to an actual on-the-ground disaster. Let’s see if they tell their adherents along the Gulf Coast to dig themselves out with the family backhoes.

But the Left isn’t doing much better. On Sunday I heard an inspiring service about the UUA’s recent “Justice GA” in Phoenix. Certainly the treatment of these detainees — and the unfairness of the trumped up charges against so many of them — tears at my heart and arouses my wrath. But at no point did anyone mention that Phoenix has one of the top foreclosure rates in the nation. The statistic about Mexican economic disruption due to NAFTA had no parallel about what the same legislation did to jobs in the US.

In his second inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln looked over a nation damaged by slavery and war, now completely without any process for assisting millions of freed people– and said to all sides,

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Whatever one thinks about Sheriff Arpeio’s work, there are reasons he enjoys popular support. I would have thought that GA a little more just if there had been a little more charity toward the folks of Phoenix, at least enough to ask about their lives as well.

A More Positive View of the Problem

Yesterday’s post was so bleak, I really wanna get something positive up here now, without just going all hopey-dopey. Happily, Today’s “Here and Now” featured a scholar addressing some of the same issues from a practical point of view. Some of the same concerns — have we reached the end of work, because people are so cheap and machines can make so much profit? — came up in this article in this week’s NYTimes Book Review. This father-son team is revisiting John Maynard Keynes’ idea that by now we would all be working no more than twenty hours per week — but living more fulfilled lives. (Irrelevant complaint about this review: apparently not one of these men realize how much housework and child care an energetic woman could provide with those “extra “twenty hours.)

Both authors come to about the same conclusion: people need money to live, and employers need people to earn enough wages — or, although they don’t say this, government transfer income — to function as regular customers. Brynjolffson sums it up in the dialogue between Henry Ford and the labor leader. Ford shows the organizer a room full of machines and asks, “How are you going to get your men to make cars as well and as cheaply as these robots do?” And the labor leader answers: “How are you gonna get all those robots to buy your cars?”

Was the labor leader right? The Times thinks there’s something to it. Turns out they need working Americans to buy all that stuff we pay them to make for us. Now that we can’t pay them for it, they’re feeling stuck.  Maybe even a little interdependent.

Do We Need Another Black Death?

Wat Tyler’s Rebellion — an obscure trivia question, something for crossword puzzles and Jeopardy. Don’t repeat my mistake, and confuse it with the Diggers of Elizabethan times, despite the similarities. Because Wat Tyler’s Rebellion teaches what Occupy movements have to learn.

You might have seen — might even own — the tee-shirt that says “Black Death World Tour.” In 1347, the population of England declined by about 40 per cent. According to Norman Cantor, quoting Michael Hatcher, the labor shortage didn’t begin to affect wages until the second generation. The Statute of Laborers, 1351, begs to differ: Parliament moved immediately to suppress the wage increase that supply and demand would force into effect. Cantor summarizes this generically, rather than pointing out the immediate suppression of market forces.

What made the wage level of 1346 so attractive to employers? Well, despite the almost total lack of medical care as we know it, the spread of competent farming, coupled with some good climate years, had generated a huge labor surplus. Landlords were able to bind peasants and employers to bind workers at low wages, because all these poor folk felt lucky to have even minimal food and shelter. Supply and demand in this case benefited the employers and landholders. Plus, given the excess population, they could afford their own private police forces (all those dashing knights, swearing fealty to “my lord”) to keep the more ambitious potential fugitives in line. Black Death eliminated the surplus on which personal excess depended.

Thanks to medical care — which might become more widespread if Obamacare or something like it prevails — food lunches, even those bags of groceries you drop off at the local food shelf or, conversely, stand in line to receive — the current American laborer lives in 1346. It’s probably worse now than it was then, due to our longer span of life — which, again, is rising more greatly. I have to laugh at the Greedy Class: if they knew what was good for them, they’d be sending Obama so much money he’d send it back!

So how do we, the 99 per cent, avoid the fate of Wat Tyler? You might not recall that his rebellion was suppressed and its leaders executed in nasty ways. I laugh at all the Facebook posts about police oppression against Occupy: you folks have no idea what state-suppression can mean. Tyler was run through with a sword as he approached King Richard II, who then promised peasant leaders a full hearing. Once they settled into his presence, he had them arrested, and some were hung. Apparently not drawn and quartered, as would have been done in Elizabethan times. Ah, progress.

Despite this setback, supply and demand prevailed: wages rose over the next century, as did the first independent middle class. For a readable account of such a family, try this life of Geoffrey Chaucer,
which I found to be a real page-turner that completely derailed my aspiration to read The Canterbury Tales. What Professor Howard makes clear is that Chaucer’s economic and political rise was no isolated incident. The Black Death had reconsolidated scattered family wealth and made a talented local youth a good investment for ambitious aristocracy. Not only did the smaller population open a path for him, but the clearing was wide enough to be seen from inside the royal household itself.

But, again, we live in 1346, not 1351. The wage level we want to restore grew not from supply and demand but outright class warfare between unions and corporations. But even then, recent medical advances have increased survival rates from warfare, childbirth, workplace accidents and ecological degradation. Have you ever noticed how many young men in early US history died from misadventures with farming tools? Do you notice the way folks in other countries still suffer and die –especially children and elderly — of bad water, bad air, landslides, heat waves, deep freezes, floods that for us are just Weather Channel “Send Us Your Photo” ephemera?

That’s the real problem, and no, I don’t know the answer. All I know is that the switch from unionism to universalism isn’t going to happen without a return to the kind of nasty class warfare that names and condemns greed, that distinguishes between the desperate acquisitive energy of folks trying to escape poverty and celebrate newly-won comfort, as compared with folks who want their kids to think of work as something their social circles give them to play with (which lets everyone deduct all the parties, horses and club memberships from their taxes).

Supply and demand, at this moment, is not the laborer’s friend. In earlier eras, social pressure forced women back into unpaid marital and parental roles, and that helped (especially since hiring females is a great way to maintain low wage averages). Racial and ethnic prejudice, tight borders for labor or capital — those are other avenues often pursued. Which are we going to choose? How are we going to combine them? These days we reward members of affluent families for unpaid “community service” and delay our children’s earning years with “internships,” but these do not remove them from the job market: they remove jobs from the realm of pay and make the pressure worse.

I’ve been pondering this one for over a year, and come up with no ready answer. But the first step is to understand what we are up against, and what has worked before. The only thing that restores wages is a smaller pool of laborers. Even then, the only thing that gets employers to pay them is blood-soaked class warfare.

This is not what I advocate. Mao tried it and within three generations, the problem is back, big time. But what can we do instead?