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.

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Thank You, Right Wing Conspiracy

Good morning, lovers of the planet and democracy (yes, we’ve been watching Thom Hartmann). To listen to Democrat officialdom and their media mouthpieces, you would think our nation faces the biggest crisis since the Civil War whose end we will commemorate next month.

Yeah, you would think that.

But let’s think, instead, like Abraham Lincoln. Let’s think, instead, like Dr. Martin Luther King. Because what the Right Wing Conspiracy — and yes, there clearly IS such a thing — has given us planet huggers all the tools we need to shut down THEIR favorite project, the Trans-Pacific Pipeline (TPP). Here we have a secretly negotiated international pact to silence local initiatives against despoliation of basic labor and ecological rights. Here we have a legally enforceable regime which makes it illegal for local government to function in support of its human citizens whenever any corporate “person”‘ — anywhere in the world — claims that local measure violates the corporation fundamental right to maximize profit.

Remember John Adams, and the long-ago “Alien and Sedition Act”? It’s back, and it’s bigger than ever.

But the trade-deal conveyor belt that is today’s federal government has learned it faces rising opposition to such deals. Hence the new device called “Fast Track,” which means the Congress only gets to vote a total bill up or down. It cannot revise, advise, or devise any alterations. Technically, this is the same requirement for ratifying  a treaty, but because a treaty requires a 2/3 majority for approval, negotiators work with a constant calculation of how to reach such a high number. Fast track happens before you know it, and calls only for simple majorities.

Both parties have sought fast track for some of their deals and opposed fast track for deals negotiated by their opponents. Meanwhile, the international left-right fringe objects to the entire regime of “trust me-hate them” secrecy and obfuscation. Unfortunately for us localists, we cannot see past the tear gas of social issues that the money lobby employs to keep us suspicious of each other instead of against them.

I recently had occasion to look at some newspapers from 1859 and 1860, prior to the election of Abraham Lincoln. Both North and South were already mobilizing troops and issuing statements about top priorities. Lincoln’s top priority was different: he intended to conduct his duties in such a way that the Confederacy would fire the first shot. This would allow him rally the North, but it would also prevent the South from claiming they had been invaded. When Sherman marched through Georgia, when Joshua Chamberlain fought through Virginia, the local population was, as the saying goes, “hoisted by their own petard.”

It is not my intention  that we abandon the injustices perpetrated as racial, gender, and generational bullying Lincoln did not intend to ignore the provocations from the South. But here is a chance to do what the Republicans say they want to do — enforce sound principles of governance, as they have articulated these principles themselves Democratic officialdom protests that these are tools they themselves need when they hold power. But the Dems who espouse these tools only want for themselves a lessened — moderated — version of the same privilege enjoyed by the greedsters. James Carville is wrong and Elizabeth Warren — and the Tea Party –Bill’s $25,000 cigars do tie directly to Hillary’s secret emails. The average American knows why Hillary is giving expensive speeches instead of eating rubber chicken and shaking hands with folks who made a real financial sacrifice to attend her event — not the price of a book, but wages foregone, babysitter paid extra for a full day.

Not for a moment do I take back my support for just jurisprudence and an end to bullying by frightened former elites. But in a tough fight, you take allies as they present themselves. The last month it has been the GOP right wing sharpening blades that we planet huggers and justice-seekers can now use to kill the TPP.

Terrorism and Family Ties Call for New Forms of Policing

That two pairs of brothers succeeded in most recent western-based acts of terrorism would not have surprised Oscar Handlin. In The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations That Made the American People, he observes that the nuclear family — which had not been preeminent in the previous world of interrelated but subtly separable networks of business, religion, clan, and recreation — emerges, in a new milieu where all these ties are severed, as the most durable social unit. This survival forces it to over-function. A wife might once have been able to chat with grandmothers, sisters, aunts, mother, mother-in-law, neighbors about domestic matters: separation from clan and country forces her to engage these topics with her husband. He, in turn, no longer has uncles, father, grandfathers, cousins, neighbors on whom he can rely, for conversation, for job referrals, for temporary asset transfers.

What he has left, in a patrilocal culture, is his brothers. Sisters leave home upon marriage, but brothers don’t move far from the nest. In the old countries, where people married without leaving the neighborhood or village, this didn’t impact the women as dramatically as it does in western countries. To a large extent, it is trust in brothers, uncles, and cousins (everyone rejects their parents in adolescence) that maintains what little social and economic durability a young man in a foreign country can use.

This explains how intelligence services missed the maturation of these murder plans. When terrorism becomes a family activity, the usual warning opportunities vanish. Most importantly, by eschewing a search for allies, family-based terrorism escapes the risk of failed or frightened allies who drop that dime. Secondly, they do not need a neutral semi-public meeting place, not even a separate safe house. Think of the 9/11 terror cells: a key requirement was the ability to avoid all broken windows policing. Think about why US intelligence quit watching Tamerlane Tsarnaev and French intelligence quit following the Quoereses: in both instances, as planning became more intensive, the terrorists left public view. Clearly they were focusing on family relationships, and sentimentalist assumptions in western culture concluded that they must have given up terrorist ideas and activities.

Eating home-cooked meals and having children has usually been associated with hope for personal longevity, not martyrdom. This tautology no longer applies to every “person of interest”. It would take personal information about each individual to understand why, but clearly, for quite a few, domestic bliss holds a poor candle compared to the bright lights of reconquering a despoiled homeland and regaining or improving the social standing one’s parents threw away by emigrating.

It could well be that while they live in western nations, these young men suffer intense humiliation with each instance of belittlement visited on the women and children they love. It could well be that some of these young men firmly believe that only terrorism will open the door to better social status for their sons and daughters, their faith, their language. If so, as with union militancy in our own US decades of economic turmoil, violence becomes not a rejection of family love, but an affirmation of it. I hate that thought, and do not advance it. But history cannot be denied, and this is what union terrorists once said.

I have often thought the the US has such a high divorce rate because of the way our voluntary emigrants turned their back on wider family ties. To this I now add a potential second form of blowback: socially marginalized families maintain enough trust to build complex plans for terrorism without dropping hints or leaving clues in the public square.

Has Oscar Handlin’s Moment Finally Come?

When Harvard scholar Oscar Handlin published, in 1951, The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations that Made the American People, his book won the usual praise and criticism. Unlike so many other academic headliners, though, it also won the Pulitzer Prize and repeated reissues, most recently, in 2002, by the University of Pennsylvania Press. I used to occasionally see Professor Handlin, than an emeritus who had the private study next to the emeritus for whom I happily researched. It is remarkable how little these men in their 80s could be recognized as lions of cultural commentary. Yet Handlin’s book might be more relevant today than it was in 1951. He argued that generations of alienation followed most large waves of immigration, but critics of his era rightly pointed out that the prosperity and cultural integration occasioned by World War II vitiated this problem. But now, with that prosperity and cultural integration decisively in decline, Handlin’s analysis stands up to the current spotlight: recent immigrants, from different countries and to countries other than ours, hold up well to his descriptions.

Recently I purchased this book for a close re-reading. What hit me most immediately was the poetic, almost cinematic, flow of words with which Handlin seduces as much as he persuades. Most of his evocations describe sepia-colored museum displays of Eastern European pastoral cultures that have mostly vanished from the memories of the living and do not resemble the lands vomiting forth new refugees. But his core analysis remains a solidly welded iron framework on which new surface materials easily graft.

Handlin says this:

Immigrants left behind a cohesive and interwoven, almost magically immersive, culture, and thrust themselves into a social environment where nothing was what it appeared to be. Nor. in the new realm, do verbal descriptions and prescriptions set out clear paths to success. This instills loneliness, but also confusion. Against both these sorrows, ancestral religion counterposes connection, security, and order.

Hold that thought for a moment, because I contend that it marks the place where the alienation of the nativist — the person who insists that being born in a country ought, in itself, to count for something — meets the social and religious desperation of the immigrant. Handlin’s point about religion’s tangibility closely match the psychological experience of economically marginalized nativist fundamentalists. Marine LePen has more in common with the Islamists than she has with satirists and scientists. In the Cincinnati of my young adulthood, the widespread registration of African American voters horrified the LGBT community by electing a preacher who had no doubt that all of us were going to burn in hell. Being a member of the liberal clergy, this pairing bothers me. Some of my sympathy is with those who advocate the equality of faith and reason, even as my reason and faith unite to protest either reason or faith, when they call for the death, the inequality, the marginalization of other people.

But that’s my personal quandary. What Handlin offers the present situation, with an urgency unknown since the 1920s and 1930s, is how the immigration experience — even when it succeeds economically — continues as a trauma for the second generation. Young people always want to know where they came from. They want their parents to have stature. So the second generation of immigrants, seeing the belittlement of their parents, look to the old world with some hope that going back would restore the family’s grandeur. Handlin eloquently, poignantly, describes this exploration as an unfolding of disillusionment. The photos show buildings, farms, families, even clothing and cars, that cannot compare to what the second generation now understands as home.

Here’s where Handlin jumped off the page at me:

He contends that in these circumstances, it is the second generation that works hardest to reinforce the religious or cultural heritage that proved transportable, transplantable. It is all they have left of their family stature, their elder-wisdom. And if the new country gives them no additional forms of stature, of wisdom, their need for this vestigial wealth grows all the more desperate. If they cannot make it work in their new country, and the homeland looks fluid, undefended, perhaps they can restore its old order in their time.

So now, let’s think again about these alienated Muslim young people. Their old countries are not just dirtier, less free, anarchically governed — things that might lead them to cut those ties — but most visibly, these nations have been invaded. Bombed. Despoiled by greedy outsiders. Given the comforts many of these countries enjoyed in recent memory, how easy for an unsettled young adult to blame the foreign bombers, the foreign corporations, rather than the domestic elites who invited in the plunderers and bartered the national abundance to put themselves in the global rich. There’s a movie that shows this process in action, but a young adult who hears western politicians sneer at his parents, who must remove her religious clothing under government edict, probably has no heart for damning information about people who look, who worship like her. She or he wants revenge against those who destroyed the only option that now seems most attractive: a return to the land of one’s grandparents, to relax into that magical, unified cosmos.

Perhaps this will sound like an apology for terrorism. That’s the last thing I intend. But as a religious woman, I sympathize with sisters not allowed to wear religious clothing in public. As a person with family ties to places despoiled by war (Germany, Poland, China), I know what it is to yearn for landmarks that no longer stand.

The iconoclasts of Charlie Hebdo did not deserve to die for their indiscriminate anti-religiosity. But neither do the women and men and children of the new Muslim diaspora deserve to disappear behind a haze of bullets and bombs cast by the worst members of their own communities. My own faith is Unitarian Universalism, which calls on me, today, in pain and anger, to remember the dignity and soul of people rendered marginal by outrage among their own.

Scarier Than Ebola, Worse than Guns

During the couple of weeks that my wife’s body was building up bacteria from a urinary tract infection, we almost had to turn off our regular news shows because all they could talk about was THE EBOLA THREAT.

What was THE EBOLA THREAT? As I’ve written before, it had nothing whatsoever to do with our personal prospects for dying. The only people who contracted it in this country were health care workers who had the misfortune to fall victim to some small flaw in their Personal Protective Environment (PPEs– the space suits) and thereby come into brief contact with the virus.

But what about the one person who did die of ebola in this country? Thomas Eric Duncan came here from an affected nation to fulfill a long-held dream of marriage and family reunification. When his symptoms appeared, he did what he was supposed to do: isolated himself from his family, and then, as his fever rose, went to the hospital, and told them he had just come from Liberia. And what did they do? They gave him some antibiotics and sent him home, with a fever of 103 degrees.

This kept coming back to me as my wife and I struggled home from our first emergency department visit two weekends ago. She, too, had a fever — very rare for her — and she, too, was given antibiotics and sent home. They had watched her for hours for concussion, but she refuted every possible symptom, every hour on the hour. She flexed her feet, pushed back their palms. Most humorously, although she could not correctly tell them what year it was, she could tell them whose names she had checked on her absentee ballot earlier that week. Perhaps the medical staff do not believe Progressive Democrats need to be able to walk, because when they threw us out at 3 a.m., exhausted and frightened, my wife declined to put even one foot on the floor. What was the person thinking who wheeled her out to the car and pretty much lifted her in?

And a few hours later, naturally, she fell again. Well, even if you’re not dizzy from an advanced infection, if you have Huntington’s Disease, falling is something you can plan on. This weekend was different primarily because she could not get herself back up. So we had to call the ambulance, for a second time in 24 hours.

When we arrived, the nurses and doctors greeted us without surprise. They confused us by asking enthusiastically if we had arrived in response to the neurosurgeon’s phone call. What phone call? Come to find out, that when the morning staff came in, they reviewed her brain scans and discovered a pinpoint brain bleed. As we arrived, they were preparing a room to operate on the same brain that a few hours ago someone had ferried back to our 1998 Corolla.

So what really killed Thomas Eric Duncan, depriving his fiancee and their son of the family life of which they long had dreamed? Was it really ebola? Or did he, as my own wife almost did, succumb to hospital error?

This is when it’s great to live in a small place like Burlington, Vermont. The doctors have time to back each other up and catch mistakes. The nurses — like the one who was the first to detect the infection, while doing the unglamorous task of emptying a bedpan — have our doctors’ full respect. Now that we’re home, the visiting nurse evaluator, even the state benefits adjuster, are all familiar to us and with us. All of them wonder why she was dismissed with only one live-in caregiver when the instructions clearly said she required two person transfers. But we’re managing. We had a few scary hours, but the networks overlap and all is well.

This is rare. For too many Americans, there is no safety net at all. Crappy insurance, or none at all, keeps people from seeking medical care until their diagnosis is acute. Probably one thing has led to another, as in our case, so medical teams might catch two tricky things and still miss that third one.

According to the most recent statistics available, as many as 400,000 Americans die each year of hospital errors — both omission and commission, as we say in the religion business. 17,227 die of falls, 129,476 of cardiovascular disease, 36,000 of the flu and its complications. My wife in that Sunday dawn two weeks ago dodged a passel of bullets that drop all too many Americans (not to mention our guests) out of what should be the normal courses of happy lives.

As things calm down here at home, I finally got an hour to sit down and clean out my old phone messages. There, indeed, was the one from the neurosurgeon. A doctor who had the time and institutional support — the political climate — to start his morning by checking whether the overnight crew had missed anything important. Neurosurgeons aren’t cheap. But to everyone who loses a loved one to hospital error — to the grieving family of Thomas Eric Duncan — doctor money is a very small price to pay.

A Fast Fix for the US Government Revolving Door

Just in case you’ve been too busy to look at the 1790 US Census — signed by Thomas Jefferson! — here’s synopsis I’ll be using to make my point. (Citation: Haines, Michael. “Fertility and Mortality in the United States”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 19, 2008. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/fertility-and-mortality-in-the-united-states/)

One fact jumps out: Life expectancy as late as 1850 was less than forty years old, even for white Americans.

What does this mean? The Constitution’s minimum ages for office are shamefully out of keeping with today’s life expectancy. James Madison and his team feared hot-headed youth at the reins of power, just as they feared hot-headed mobs choosing the US Senate or a hot-headed President launching a war. Elevated minimum ages were also a subtle means of imposing a wealth requirement, because what killed a lot of young adult males was accidents involved in making a living. Hunting accidents that turned into gangrene. Blade-related accidents that turned into tetanus. Bad water and unpreserved food that took out the digestive tract. Folks with servants and slaves to run these risks didn’t just have the chance to get an education when young, they had a chance to eat, drink, and make merry during their young adult years without chopping off a foot the next day or succumbing to a buddy’s missed aim in the field.

What does this mean for our era? People are using Congress as a stepping stone to lucrative careers in lobbying, contracting, and at the upper reaches of financial and educational money mills. And the Presidency! Either we’re going to have to execute them on their last day in office, or plan to have nothing but dynasties from now on.

So here’s my simple plan. Never mind the US Senate, which has become such a millionaires’ club (not that being a millionaire is that big these days). Let’s take all branches of government and require everyone at the federal level to have reached 55 years of age before they can be considered for public service. US Supreme Court and the rest of the federal bench, everyone in the Congress, and above all else, the White House.

This doesn’t just mean the public officials will have had to have a long-term track record, but their children will have had to do something besides getting in line to continue the family industry. This might give what’s left of local media a way to re-energize themselves, because most of what a member of Congress will have done will now be researchable when they run. By definition, members of Congress will have several generations of work and personal record on which run, which will greatly temper their ability to proclaim strong ideals and party loyalty. But if we’ve learned anything from the Bush and other dynasties (Michael Powell comes to mind), employing the immediate family of office-holders and party-leaders constitutes a back-door form of bribery. Here is where local and national media need to develop thick skin and investigate not just the candidate’s money, but everyone on which their family has deep confidence.

Up here in Vermont, we have this situation more or less by accident, because our small population means we have few top-of-ballot offices and therefore, anyone who wants them has to have spent a long time earning them. The one person who tried to buy one of them — Richard Tarrant, who ran for the US Senate against Bernie Sanders when Jim Jeffords retired — has entered electoral lore as the candidate who spent money per vote in a losing effort.

And how did he lose against the fifteenth-poorest member of the Senate? He faced someone who had shaken every hand in the state, repeatedly for several decades. And before that, every hand in the state’s population center, again for most of a decade. Everyone knows him. We don’t like everything about him, but he has no secrets that deeply affect how we feel about him. Even now, when someone is running an ad pointing out that his wife got a golden parachute to leave her job at Burlington College, most of us know how much it was.

Grappling with an Old Demon

Along with so many others, I watch in horror and disgust as Israeli rockets fall into residential areas their own policies have packed too full of all ages of people and too few resources for said residents. Gazans complain — rightfully — about all the noncombatants being killed, while Israelis object that the homes and lives of combatants and noncombatants are too closely tangled to allow for purely military targeting.

That is not what I’m grappling with. What troubles my conscience is the extent to which the current assaults justify the increase in anti-Jewish rhetoric, violence, and sentiment exhibited all over the world. Talk about tangled targets! Steven Schaama’s recent film series on the history of the Jews documented the undeniable fact that Jews all over the world have been targeted for violence and ghettoization. This has happened again and again. When Jews moved to Palestine in recent centuries, they were bowing to the sad reality that this cycle would continue so long as they lived among non-Jews. Indeed, the Holocaust arose in part as a backlash against one of the most successful periods of intermingling and intermarriage, especially and including in Germany. So two steps forward led to miles of horrific and unmendable setbacks.

Nevertheless, some of the rhetoric coming from Israel implies that the violence done to them has become the violence they do to others. Too many statements place Jewish life above all other life — especially Palestinian. Too many statements attempt to erase centuries of Palestinian life in places that Jews claim as if their presence there had not been broken, interrupted, supplanted, abandoned. When Jews place themselves above all others, it is only natural for others to lob shots intended to level things out. When Jews exact individual justice for Jewish miscreants, but collective retribution for crimes against Jews, they pretty much ought to expect the outcry they now receive.

As much as I object to Zionism, it seems not only inevitable but necessary. However, it cannot be allowed to replace the efforts we must all make to combat the cultural infrastructure of anti-Judaism which makes Zionism so desperately inevitable. We Unitarian Universalists talk often about covenants, as if it were something invented by our Puritan forebears, or — even worse — that we ourselves came up with to maintain some recent and beloved community. No, covenant traces back to God’s promises to the Israelites. The Jews. Jews, through their cycle of scriptural documents — Torah, Histories, Wisdom, Prophets — have explored more fully and more powerfully than anyone else how hard it is to live in covenant, and yet, how catastrophic to fail.

The Hebrew Bible famously rings with all kinds of explorations of thought — including many challenges to decisions God announces or unfolds.When certain Christians (and not others) appropriated “covenant” for their own particularist purposes, they twisted what had been an ethical formulation into a doctrine of thought control. Unitarian Universalism, with its emphasis on behaviors rather than ideas, along with our informal motto, “To question is the answer,” hark back to, carry forward, the Jewish model of covenant.

It would be wrong to practice the Jewish model of covenant in every relationship except the one I have with those who gave it to me. So I don’t know how to deal with the current conundrum in the Middle East, except through personal accountability. I will name particular deeds and practices that horrify me, and seek to eradicate them wherever they occur. Sometimes that will be in the Middle East. Just as often, as anyone can attest who watches the news for a solid hour, the outrage will happen elsewhere, and have nothing to do with Jews.