Columbus

So, a recent column in the Deseret News was all about Christopher Columbus, and how he’s referenced in the Book of Mormon, and how the Spirit led him to America. This article called arguments that Columbus was “motivated by ambition and materialism,” and that he was “an embodiment of rapacious greed and Western colonialism, an imperialist forerunner of genocidal oppression” mistaken, “at best, one-sided and misleading.” Because his own writings showed that he considered himself led by the Holy Spirit to the Indies. Plus he liked a lot of the same scriptures Mormons like. So: good guy, quasi-prophetic and deeply moral. That’s the narrative.

Except Columbus set a gold quota for the Indians under his charge, and any who didn’t make quota lost an arm. Columbus enslaved a shipload of Indians and took them back with him to Spain, where they all died.  Columbus refused to allow his priests to baptize Indians, because Church law didn’t allow baptized Christians to be enslaved.  And when his lieutenant told him about raping a native woman, Columbus didn’t so much as admonish the man.

I’m fascinated with Columbus, and Amerigo Vespucci, and that whole era. I’m particularly interested in Father Bartolome de las Casas, a Columbus contemporary who treated the native peoples with whom he interacted with kindness, compassion and respect, and who wrote letters back to Spain condemning Columbus’ treatment of them.  A genuine Christian, and a heroic individual in every meaningful sense.

So I wrote a play about Columbus, and the ‘discovery’ of America; took about two years to research and write.  Called Amerigo, the premise is that Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci, trapped in Purgatory, have been arguing about which of them should get credit for finding America, and their fights have increasingly disrupted the repose of the truly penitent.  So Nicola Macchiavelli has been asked to moderate a debate between them.  And the judge will be Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, a Mexican nun, who was also the greatest Spanish writer living in the Americas.  Those four characters, in purgatory, arguing about America.

It was produced by Plan B Theatre Company in Salt Lake City in 2009.  It won City Weekly’s annual award for best theatre production in Salt Lake.  It got good reviews, like this oneAnd this one. And it’s available for purchase, in this collection.

I don’t understand this need by some Latter-day Saints to defend Columbus, though. I think it’s related to the myth of American exceptionalism. God inspired Columbus to come here, leading to more Europeans colonizing the Americas, leading to the creation of a safe haven for religious dissidents, leading to God’s favored nation, the United States of America.  I’m familiar with the narrative.  And I find it deeply troubling. The main reason Europeans were able to colonize the Americas is because of the greatest pandemic in human history, a terrible plague in which tens of millions died, possibly up to 95% of the human population. Of the ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ that depopulated these two continents, the Germs were by far the most effective/destructive.  Am I to believe, therefore, that God intended it that way, that God sent bacilli to decimate the New World? Because the other possibility, the more likely and the (slightly) less troubling narrative is that germs just happen, that God allows for pandemic just as He apparently allows for genocide, as an essential part of this testing ground on which we find ourselves.

And if it was all a test, de las Casas passes.  And Columbus does not.

Let’s dispense with the borderline blasphemous intentionality model for colonization, and admit what was really going on. Accident, disease, conquest, misunderstandings, miscommunications leading to violence. Male, white privilege, cultural hegemony. And genocide.

And we know a lot about it. Amerigo Vespucci, for example, was a businessman, interested in trade. He’d been a pimp; he’d sold everything to anyone. But at least he had the grace to see how beautiful the lands were he intended to exploit.

And Columbus. And yes, he was pious, in the peculiar sense in which 15th century Catholic religious fanatics could be pious. He thought he was looking for the Garden of Eden. He thought it was the source of all spices on earth. He thought that if he found spice, he would find enough to fund a Crusade, King Ferdinand leading an army to conquer the Holy Land, leading to the Second Coming.  He certainly deserves credit as a seaman–he was a tremendous sailor. But he was also, let’s face it, kind of a kook.

So that’s America today: Columbus and Amerigo. A land of religious fanaticism and extremism. And a land of rapacious capitalism.  Moderated, only occasionally, by the good sense of a Sor Juana, and the moral power of Bartolome de las Casas.

That’s the America I love, and the America I’m glad to celebrate.  The America of, not Columbus, but de las Casas.  The America of, not Vespucci, but Sor Juana.  An America of literary and artistic achievement, and progressive activism. An America build on tragedy, but also an America built around at least the possibility of positive change.

And absolutely, we should honor Columbus. But we honor him best by getting the facts about his life right. Don’t let ideology overrule history. Let’s tell the truth, about him, and about America, what it is, what it was, what it might become.

Constitution Day

Today is Constitution Day, a national holiday established in 2004. We celebrate it on September 17, because that was the day the Constitutional Convention signed the Constitution. Or the people who were still there signed it, many of the Convention members having already left Philadelphia. The Framers were probably relieved, first to have the ordeal done with, and also because it was September, following a particularly sweltering summer of 1787. With no air conditioning. Or good fans. Or even open windows, which remained closed for fear of eavesdroppers.

Still, this is a good thing, to celebrate the Constitution. And for families with children, the Constitution Center has a website with lots of fun activities designed to teach kids about it.

The Constitution is actually a pretty easy document to read, once you get used to eighteenth century vocabularies and usage.  It’s really pretty simple. It basically describes the process by which laws will be passed, who will pass them, how they will be elected to the task, and who is responsible for executing them. The principle doctrine that informed its creation is ‘separation of powers.’  The Framers were worried about political power. Most of the world of their day was governed using the ‘insane hereditary dictator’ system of government, a popular form throughout most of history, for reasons that defy comprehension, since it never works very well. Anyway, what is political power, how should it be wielded, who exercises it, how can it be channeled in positive, beneficial directions?  Nobody knew.  And when the Framers finished the document, they were generally skeptical about what they’d accomplished. What if it didn’t work? Because maybe it wouldn’t.

James Madison and the other Framers built the theoretical framework for a Constitution out of untested and frankly pretty radical political theories, which they believed in and thought would work in a practical sense, but which they couldn’t be sure of at all.  Key to those theories was the notion that political power resided with the people, and not with a sovereign blessed by God. Throughout most of history, the theory had been that God had, in His Infinite Wisdom, placed everyone in a particular station in life, for inscrutable but wise reasons of His own. If you were a peasant, it was because God wanted you to be a peasant; if a nobleman, again, God’s will.  And kings, of course, were likewise divinely appointed, and ruled by divine right, and therefore, by fiat, by unobstructed decree.

Now, its true that our political traditions were mostly British, and that Britain had, ever since the Glorious Revolution of 1688, been a more or less constitutional monarchy. The political theories Madison believed in had, for the most part, and in rudimentary form, been tried out in Britain. The ever-evolving British constitution did allow for some freedom and personal autonomy; the Magna Carta was in both American and British backgrounds. So there is a sense in which the Framers took the best of their British political heritage and rejected the worst of it.  I certainly don’t think a non-British colony, granted independence, would have come up with anything like our Constitution. It was still radical, and perceived by some as dangerous–dangerously monarchical by some, dangerously anti-monarchical by others. Was the office of the President too strong? Not strong enough?

Some conservatives today believe that our Constitution established America as a Godly nation, a Christian nation, with Christian values. We hear, for example, that the Framers opened their sessions with prayer. They didn’t. They did think about having a prayer once, but rejected it, because it might look bad; might look like they were squabbling so much they needed a priest to sort them out. It certainly never occurred to any of the Framers that they could pray. Wasn’t something gentlemen did.

It’s important to understand that that this Christian document malarkey isn’t remotely true, and that if it had been true, the document would have reflected the traditional understanding most Christian denominations had of political power.  The Framers would have reinstituted the monarchy; would have provided for a king. When historians point out that the Framers were, for the most part, Deists, that isn’t an insult. The Constitution is a Deist document, reflecting Deist values. Deism is not atheism; Deists believed in God.  But they believed in a distant God, who had set the universe on its path and chose not to intervene subsequently in how it worked. The Deist God was a clockmaker God, who wound up the universe and then let it tick along on its own.

This doctrine didn’t disenfranchise God, but it did empower ordinary (property-owning, white, male) citizens. People were generally free to decide what they would make of their own lives. Birth and wealth and privilege didn’t matter much; what mattered were the decisions of free men, working out their own destinies. And that meant a democratic document.

But the Framers were just as afraid of the raw power of pure democracy. They were savvy enough to know how easily mobs could form and be swayed and the destruction they could wreak.  So democratic power had to be limited in scope, turned into a Republic, in which enlightened citizen-philosophers, elected by their fellow citizens, could make decisions that would be binding and conclusive.

Another familiar conservative trope is that the Framers intended a ‘limited government,’ that they would be appalled by the massive behemoth that our current federal government has become.  This is likewise nonsense. The Framers were in Philadelphia to revise the Articles of Confederation.  They’d tried Federalism. They’d tried small government. They’d tried the ‘local government is best government’ experiment. If there was one thing that united them, it was disgust with the ineffectual, bankrupt mess the Articles had created.

Again, their solution was separation of powers. They wanted to disrupt the traditional centers of power.  A democratic House, immediately responsive to voter concerns needed to be checked by a more contemplative Senate, protected from passionate demogoguery by its leisurely six year electoral cycle. If laws were passed that violated the rights of minorities, a Supreme Court could declare them invalid. Presidents nominated Court members, but those nominations required Senate ratification.  The Framers didn’t want government to be powerless; indeed the very doctrine of a separation of powers presupposes that government would have significant powers that needed separating.

What they established (or were at least willing to live with) was a government that would be inefficient. They didn’t mind much that the process of passing a bill was cumbersome and ineffective. That was all right. They figured that sooner or later, legislators would compromise, and the measures that resulted would be regarded by most as ‘not great, but probably the best we can come up with, given the circumstances’.  They were fine with half-measures, with watered down legislation, with debates in which egotists and gasbags and show-offs and grandstanders would hold forth endlessly on subjects they knew nothing about. They weren’t afraid, in other words, of American governance getting pretty comical at times.  They were pessimistic optimists, in other words, realistic about human self-delusion, but also certain that in the end, future Americans would muddle along well enough.

They also knew their work wasn’t perfect, and that changes would need to be made. That’s why they included an amendment process. When James Madison was elected to the House he’d helped create, his first, self-imposed task was passing a Bill of Rights. That’s worked out pretty well. But the Constitution was absurdly accommodating to slavery, and most of the Framers knew well enough that that was going to be a problem, that they’d basically shuffled a major slavery confrontation off to their grandchildren. The Framers may well have been ‘inspired,’ but collectively, their work was informed by self-interest, anticipated personal economic benefits, and moral cowardice every bit as much as nobility and sagacious wisdom.

And the Constitution is deliberately and intentionally vague about a lot of issues that it might have been nice to have clarified. (Like, what they meant by ‘bear arms,’ for example!)  From time to time, you’ll hear people declare, in terms of utter certitude, that some action or other by some President is ‘unconstitutional.’ That’s the basis for Speaker Boehner’s amazing, risible lawsuit against President Obama; the President unilaterally changed some of the deadlines in the Affordable Care Act.  But it’s not remotely clear what the constitutional line is between  ‘Congress passing legislation’ and ‘President executing laws.’  The Framers give us, like, two sentences on those issues. So you can make a case for the President’s actions being unconstitutional, but you can make an equally plausible case for those actions being perfectly constitutional.  The Constitution is kind of infuriating that way.

And that’s what I like about it. It’s a framework, a set of guiding principles.  It’s not Holy Writ. Did the Framers intend for the US of A having a modern social welfare state? Providing health care? Regulating car safety? Passing environmental legislation? Child safety laws? Gay marriage? Access to public buildings for people with disabilities?  How could they possibly have anticipated any of those issues? Article One Section Eight does offer a few suggestions regarding the kinds of issues Congress might consider, but there’s no hint that those are the only questions they properly could address.

Do you want a big government or a smaller one? Do you want a bigger army or a smaller one? Do you want more money spent to help disadvantaged people, or do you want less money spent on those efforts?

We’re the People. We get to decide. And that’s the genius of the Constitution.

 

 

Presidential lying

I’m going to do something that I’m normally reluctant to do; respond to a source without providing you a link to that source. I’m not just going to respond to it, in fact, I’m going to judge it, declare it utterly worthless.  And I’m going to confess right now that I haven’t actually even read the article in question. And I feel absolutely comfortable doing all this.

The subject is Presidential lying, and the article in question, based on its title, makes the case that President Obama is a liar of the first order, that he lies all the time, routinely, pathologically. That he is, in fact, the worst liar ever to occupy the White House. As I say, I have not read the article, and I’m not going to link to it, nor even tell you where it might be found. A conservative friend linked to it on Facebook, and I read some of the commentary about it on his FB page. So, again without reading the article or examining the author’s evidence, I’m prepared, right now, to say that this article is worthless, and that its very existence fundamentally discredits the website on which it appeared.

Presidents and lies. And first of all, let’s define what a lie actually is. If I claim that yesterday, I grew wings out my upper back, and flew around the neighborhood, and using those wings, was able to hover in the air outside one of the upstairs rooms of my house and fix a broken window, that would be a lie. I don’t have wings, and even if I did have wings, wouldn’t be able to fix a window. But if I said to you that the company I hired to fix that window did a terrific job on it, and that I recommend their professionalism and workmanship, and you subsequently hired that company and they did a poor job on your window, my recommendation would not be a lie. You might be angry at how bad a job those window-fixers did for you, and how dishonest and corrupt they seemed, but my recommendation was offered in good faith. I had a good experience with that company, and told you of it fully anticipating that you would have a good experience too. If I say to you ‘I strapped a magnet to my back, and my back pain went away,’ and you strap a magnet to your back and it doesn’t do you any good at all, I still didn’t lie to you.  Even if I say to you ‘magnets cure back pain,’ that wouldn’t necessarily be a lie. Maybe I genuinely believe that magnets can cure back pain. Maybe I say ‘scientific evidence proves that magnets draw healing chemicals to the source of the pain in your back’, again, that’s not necessarily a lie. It’s nonsense, but it’s not a lie, unless I know it to be nonsense when I say it.

Presidents are politicians, and part of the politician job description is to be a salesman. Politicians try to sell us on their ideas, on their programs, on their proposals, and of course, also on them.  And so, when describing a program, a politician, like any salesman, is likely to emphasize the benefits of that program, and soft-pedal possible downsides. If there are three estimates regarding the cost of the program, a politician will emphasize the lowest of those estimates. That’s just sales. And it’s not fundamentally dishonest. Our political system, like our legal system, is adversarial in nature. One pol says ‘this is a good idea,’ and his/her electoral opponent responds ‘no, it’s a terrible idea,’ and we voters sort it all out on election day. But it wouldn’t be accurate to say that either politician lied to us. They were both making a case for their ideas.  They just disagree.

Now sometimes, a politician really does just lie to us. He’ll say something like “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”  Or he’ll say “I am not a crook.”  Usually, we see right through it.  We look at President Clinton and we say to ourselves, “you did too have sexual relations with her.”  Or we look at President Nixon and say to ourselves, “I don’t believe you.  I think you are a crook.”  And that kind of lie is a very serious matter, and massively destructive to that politician’s career, when they get caught. And they always get caught. Nixon would have been impeached if he hadn’t resigned. Clinton was impeached, though not removed from office.

Presidents can’t really get away with those sorts of lies for very long. People notice, people pay attention. Any claim that President Obama lies all the time just doesn’t hold up. Watchdog groups, like Politifact, don’t seem to have noticed any massive whoppers like the two I just cited. If President Obama lies all the time, it’s not obvious the way the Clinton and Nixon lies I mentioned were.

But, then, lies regarding policy are not as obviously lies. Take two examples, one from a Republican and one from a Democrat. When President Bush told the American people that Saddam Hussein, in Iraq, had weapons of mass destruction that endangered American interests, that turned out not to be true. But I don’t think it’s accurate to call that statement a lie. There’s no question that the Bush administration genuinely thought the evidence of Saddam’s WMD was credible. A statement that turns out not to be true is not necessarily a deliberate falsehood.

By the same token, when President Obama said ‘under the ACA, if you like your doctor, you’ll be able to keep him,’ that wasn’t a lie. The best information he had suggested that almost all insurance plans would meet the ACA guidelines. He didn’t know that health insurance companies would suddenly sell a bunch of low-premium, low-benefit plans that would have to be canceled when the ACA kicked in. He was trying to sell people on the benefits of the Affordable Care Act. Maybe he exaggerated a little, but there’s no evidence of him consciously and intentionally lying. Politifact called the ACA statements lies, because there’s no question that the President said things that turned out not to be true. And he’s paid a heavy political price for it; his approval ratings are very low right now. But deliberate, intentional lies?  Did he know that a great many people would actually lose their insurance and their doctors, and say the opposite, on purpose?  If so, why tell so obvious a whopper?  Is he really that stupid? No. I suggest to you, therefore, that his statement was offered in good faith, and that it was not a lie.

But there are always people who despise the current President, whoever he is, for partisan reasons. I’m a liberal; I thought George W. Bush was a very bad President. My conservative friends think Barack Obama is a very bad President.  Everyone, every person in the country, suffers from some form of confirmation bias. But for a hard-core political partisan confirmation bias gets amped up to eleven.  So every time a President we dislike says anything, we parse it carefully.  We take every slight exaggeration, every tiny misstatement, every failed projection as a deliberate and intentional falsehood. We never cut a President we disagree with any slack at all.

So on the periphery of our national political conversation, we can always hear, buzzing in our ears, a tremendous amount of partisan white noise. I have liberal friends who will go their graves ‘knowing’ that President Bush deliberately lied our nation into war, so he could enrich his wealthy oilmen friends. I have liberal friends who think President Bush ordered explosives placed inside the Twin Towers foundational gridwork; that 9/11 was an intentional Bush plot. I have conservative friends who are equally convinced that President Obama is a foreign agent, a secret Muslim terrorist and also a communist, born in Kenya, trained by Al Qaeda; that his agenda is to destroy America.

So liberal partisans are convinced that everything George W. Bush (or Dick Cheney) ever said was a lie, a deliberate intentional falsehood. And conservative partisans are convinced that President Obama is essentially a pathological liar, congenitally incapable of telling the truth, about anything, ever. There are liberals who suffer from ‘Bush derangement disorder.’ There are conservatives who suffer from ‘Obama derangement disorder.’  Both disorders are catching, and probably best avoided, and the best way to keep from catching them is to shut them out of our heads.  So when conservative white noise, about Obama and lying, appears on my FB page, I’m not going to read it, and I’m not going to link to it.

It’s perfectly possible to think that Bush’s Iraq policy was a mistake without considering the man a hideous monster. It’s perfectly possible to have misgivings about Obamacare, without considering Obama a tyrant.  Let’s have a reasonable conversation about politics. Let’s focus on policies, and on evidence, and on reason. Let’s leaven rancor with humor, certainty with humility, conviction with compassion. We’re all Americans, after all, and our elected leaders are human beings, susceptible to error, capable of great achievements.  And Presidents have the hardest job in the world. Respect the office, if you can’t respect the person holding it, and let’s keep our cool.

 

 

Rand Paul, ISIL, and the new nihilist chic

ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (or alternatively, ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) is really really evil. They’re so evil that al-Qaeda has disavowed them. When your extremist jihadist army is too evil for the guys behind 9/11, that’s really evil. I apologize for my tone here; ISIS (or ISIL) continues to murder journalists, and slaughter innocent civilians. They really are a horror show.

So the consensus on all the Sunday morning political talk shows was, as usual, that Something Has to be Done, and whatever the Obama administration is doing is too little, ineffective, and not part of an overall coherent strategy. Is ISIL a genuine threat to American interests?  That question tends to get dismissed pretty quickly. They’re really evil; of course they’re a threat.

Right now, the American response is to bomb ISIL positions, a kind of military action which Congress has not specifically authorized, not that they’re in any huge hurry to do anything of the kind, Article One Section Eight of the Constitution notwithstanding.  But Rand Paul published an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal attacking both the President’s actions and those members of his own party (pace John McCain and Lindsay Graham), who are arguing for a continued American military presence in Iraq.  Wrote Paul: “shooting first and asking questions later has never been a good foreign policy.”  Paul isn’t convinced that Isis is a threat to America.  Meanwhile, the Democratic National Committee issued an utterly contemptible response to Paul’s op-ed, questioning his patriotism and saying he supported policies that would “make America less safe.”  I’m grateful to my good friend Adam Blackwell, who called this contretemps to my attention, as well as Ezra Klein’s response on the invaluable Vox.com: “the DNC response recalls “the brain-dead patriotism-baiting that Democrats used to loathe” when they were subjected to them by Karl Rove and his proxies.” Dead on.

Paul doesn’t say what he thinks we should do, or what he’d do if he were President (something he would very much like to see happen).  But like his father before him, Rand Paul is never more interesting than when he comments on foreign policy, precisely because he doesn’t care what the Washington conventional consensus is.

The Sunday talk shows are invaluable as a guide to what All the Smart People Think, mainstream Beltway wisdom. I always watch This Week on ABC, and it drives my daughter insane: “why do you watch this? It’s terrible!”  She’s right, but I watch nontheless–it’s good to know what the Establishment is up to. Washington always wants the President to Do Something, to Show Leadership, to Project American Will. That’s why the mainstream media turned cheerleader so quickly in the leadup to Bush’s Iraq invasion. It’s why Hans Blix couldn’t get a major media outlet to listen when he was busy shouting from the rooftops how Saddam Hussein did NOT have WMD, something Blix knew with some certainty, because he was the guy tasked by the UN to go to Iraq and look for them.  So that’s Beltway wisdom: always certain, usually wrong.

When Rand Paul writes about how disastrous that 2003 invasion proved, and how invading Iraq destabilized the region, freeing up human cockroaches like ISIL to crawl out from under the fridge and start blowing stuff up, he’s absolutely right. And so our foreign policy has become almost entirely reactive. Threats emerge, hands are wrung, the President is blamed for those threats, and generally it turns out that there’s not much we can do, except the limited measures the President anyway prefers.

The larger question, of course, is whether or not there are legitimate American interests at risk in Iraq and Syria.  The reason there might be is this: about a hundred Americans, and over a thousand Europeans have joined ISIL.  (I’m calling them ISIL instead of ISIS for reasons I’ll explain later).  That’s the fact that’s being cited on all the talk shows.  There are a hundred American guys going over there!  What happens when they come home!  They have passports!  They’re terrorists!  They’re going to do terrorist-y things over here!  Not so fast, writes Zack Beauchamp on Vox.

The first American jihadist ISIL guy to be killed over there is a guy named Douglas MacArthur McCain.  No kidding; he was named for one of the greatest of American generals, and shares a last name with John McCain.  Who was he?  He was from a Milwaukee suburb. Had a few traffic tickets. Was described as a goofy guy, kind of lost, searching for something.  I also read about the British citizen who they think was the guy who beheaded journalist James Foley.  He supposedly became a jihadist because his rap career wasn’t taking off.

And so I read about these guys, and no, I’m not a national security expert. I’m an aging playwright who used to teach theatre history. But they sure sounded familiar. They remind me of a friend of mine in high school who joined the Children of God.  They remind me of the Baader-Meinhof guys.  They remind me of the SLA.  You remember them; the folks who kidnapped Patty Hearst? My brother’s junior high school English teacher, Emily Harris, was in that group. Smart, disaffected, searching, lost.

In other words, the Americans and Western Europeans who are running off to Syria and joining ISIS may well be simply the latest iteration of the ‘bored nihilist hipster’ crowd. You want to reject mainstream suburban values? One way to do it is to become Kurt Cobain and write some of the greatest music of the last fifty years.  Another way is to run off into the wilderness.  The possibilities are endless.  Get a tattoo, dye your hair, get multiple piercings, drop out of school, try heroin, rob a convenience store. But if you really want to piss off your parents, try joining a group of jihadist terrorists. Way more hardcore than playing Tour of Duty all night. This way, you can really shoot a real weapon.  Drive around in a Toyota pickup waving an AK around. Wear a bandana and talk jihad, send home letters about the glorious pan-Islamic caliphate you’re bringing about. And maybe shoot some people, too.  That’s hardcore, man.

That’s why I’m calling them ISIL, instead of ISIS. Isis was an Egyptian goddess.  ISIL sounds like the thing painters set their canvas on to paint. I don’t want terrorist to sound even a little bit cool. ISIL sounds stupider.

So what happens when they come back to the US, those who survive. Well, not much. First of all, they’re going to be easy to identify, easy to track, and easy to follow. They’re already pretty easy to keep tabs on, because they love to tweet. Doug McCain was, by all accounts, a pretty bright kid, who was lost and needed something to give his life meaning. He found it in Islam, and that’s great. Then he found a greater fulfillment in the darkest corners of the Islamic world, and became a killer, a savage nihilist. It’s a tragedy. My heart breaks for his family. But he wasn’t ever much of a threat to America or to American interests.

So what should we do about ISIL? I’m not convinced they’re much of a threat to American interests. Iraq has a very large, superbly trained and equipped army. They also don’t seem very interested in fighting for the glory of Iraq. The Kurds are semi-autonomous, much better fighters than Iraqi general forces, and motivated–they’ve seen enough of Isis up close to know what they’re dealing with. If some limited bombing strikes can provide support for Kurdish forces, that might be worth trying, if we can manage it without infuriating Turkey, which does not want a Kurdish state on its southern border.

I also think that the US might have a larger humanitarian role to fill. If NATO forces, or UN peacekeepers can be persuaded to get involved, we might be able to fight ISIL effectively, without at the same time supporting Assad’s brutal regime in Syria, or further destabilizing the hopelessly corrupt and inefficient Iraqi government, such as it is. Who knows; perhaps the threat of ISIL could even provide an opportunity for some very careful and nuanced diplomacy with Iran, since ISIL is a Sunni force and Iran generally supports endangered Shiites.

So our options are limited, and the role the US can and should play is a complicated one. So far, I’m willing to support President Obama’s general approach. But Rand Paul should also be listened to. To the degree that it’s possible for both President Obama and Senator Paul to be right about foreign policy, that might be a middle ground worth further exploration.

 

 

Race, Ferguson, “exculpatory” and competing world views

While all the media attention has been directed at Ferguson, Missouri, and the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, there was a second shooting four miles away. The second shooting, of 25-year old Kajieme Powell, was captured on video camera by a passer-by. Powell, walked into a nearby convenience store and shoplifted some energy drinks, which he took outside and carefully laid on the sidewalk.  He was walking around in circles, muttering to himself, and was holding a steak knife. On the footage, a police car showed up, two officers got out, and Powell took a step or two towards them.  Twenty three seconds after the squad car showed up, Powell was shot, at least nine times, killed, and then, bizarrely, handcuffed.

What’s interesting to me was the explanation offered by the St. Louis police department. Originally, they said that Powell moved towards the officers in a threatening manner, holding a knife, that he got within 2 or 3 feet of them, that he was armed and dangerous, that the shooting was justified, and that they released the video, at least in part, because it was, in their view, “exculpatory.”  In other words, they released the video because it supported the official police narrative of the event.

It doesn’t. Powell was never 3 feet from the nearest officer; more like 8 feet, and at least 15 from the second officer. And the officers were equipped with tasers. Nor does Powell seem particularly threatening. He appears, to be honest, a bit deranged.

“Exculpatory?”  I have never served as a police officer, nor in the armed services. I do not own a gun, and can’t imagine ever wanting to. I’ll grant, freely and absolutely, that I am uninformed. I don’t know what it’s like to be a policeman. Maybe I’d shoot too. I don’t know.

What I do know is that, to me, the video is not even remotely exculpatory.  If I served on a grand jury, and I was shown that video, I would absolutely vote to indict both officers for manslaughter. If I were on a jury trying them, and I saw that video, I would vote to convict them, perhaps not of murder, but certainly of the lesser charge of manslaughter. Chatting about it on the internet yesterday, though, a lot of people I don’t know disagreed with me. Some thought this was easily and obviously a justifiable homicide. The officers were threatened by a guy with a knife. They stopped him from hurting anyone, including themselves.

So I look at that video, and it seem obvious–this is an unjustified shooting, a criminal act. Police officers, apparently, look at the video and it’s just as obvious–justifiable homicide.  Our world views shape how we see evidence, and shape therefore the narratives we create around that evidence. I see the incidents in Ferguson from the point of view of a middle-aged white liberal. I tend to impute racism to other white people, partly because I’m acutely aware of my own occasional racism.  We’re all shaped by our life experiences, we all have ideological biases. We just don’t all see the world the same way. I cannot fathom anyone looking at that video and calling it “exculpatory” of the officers. Obviously, lots of people, and most especially people who work in law enforcement, completely disagree. We don’t all see the same video. And we tend to label those who disagree with us ‘nuts.’ We think they’re crazy. They just can’t see straight, we think.

Great Britain, France, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Spain–most of the countries of Europe, most First World nations have police forces, crazy people, and steak knives.  They have way way way fewer incidents where police shoot civilians.  In Iceland, in December, for the first time in their nation’s modern history, a police officer shot and killed an armed civilian. The victim was armed with a shotgun, which he used to shoot two other officers; the killing was completely justified.  But the whole nation’s practically in mourning over it.  In Iceland, police officers don’t carry guns. Neither do most European cops.  And they keep civil order just fine.  (Of course, they also have civilian populations that don’t have a lot of guns either.)

So my perspective on guns is urban, middle-class, and liberal. I don’t own a gun, and can’t imagine wanting to own one. If I did own one, it wouldn’t make me feel safer, it would make me feel less safe. I see policemen as essentially benign. To me, they are benign. My few interactions with cops come when I get a ticket for something, which doesn’t happen very often, and which, honestly, I pretty much always deserve, when I do get one.

But in Ferguson, a smallish town without a lot of crime, the Municipal Court issued three warrants and tried 1.5 cases per household. That’s a mind-blowing statistic. Guilty verdicts in Ferguson bring in an average fine of $280 dollars. Which means, if you’re a resident of Ferguson, you’re used to being hassled by cops. You factor fines and court appearances into your family budget and your family schedule. And those fines and arrests and court appearances disproportionately hit black families.  Why does Ferguson do this, have so many arrests? They have to. Those fines made up a quarter of the city’s budget. Unemployment is high in the city, and the tax base is small. A lot of businesses have closed. The city has to pay its bills somehow. So they arrest a lot of people, charge ‘em with crimes–loitering, jaywalking, moving traffic violations–and try ‘em. And pay the bills.

So the black population in Ferguson feels put upon, disrespected, unfairly stigmatized and criminalized. And the Michael Brown shooting was the match that lit the powder keg.

I just finished reading Michael Waldman’s terrific new book, The Second Amendment: a Biography.  Anyone interested in a smart, thoughtful, readable one volume examination of the issues surrounding the Second Amendment should check out Waldman’s book.  As he makes abundantly clear, the Framers absolutely did not intend to codify an individual right to own firearms. Their concern was entirely with state and local militias, institutions that no longer exist in anything like their 18th century forms. The idea that later generations would find in the 2nd Amendment a right for private individuals to own, for self-protection, a semi-automatic rifle, is an argument that the Framers would have found both incomprehensible and ludicrous. They didn’t like ‘standing armies’ and they did like ‘militias.’ And those sentiments were wide-spread enough to get James Madison to stick a poorly worded sop to militia fans into the Bill of Rights. Scalia’s pro-gun decision in District of Columbia v. Heller cannot, by the furthest stretch of the imagination, be called an ‘originalist’ decision. Originalism itself is just silly.

It also doesn’t matter. Justice Scalia ruled as he did because he’s a conservative who likes guns. But enough Americans agree with him (passionately!) that now, yeah, the Second Amendment gives individuals the right to own guns. That’s what our day believes. And there’s not a lot we anti-gun types can do about it, except try to persuade people that they’re wrong. And that’s not going to be easy; probably it won’t even be possible. We’re stuck with guns. Probably around 300 million of them, circulating.

There are members of my family who are really pro-gun. I don’t understand that. It seems nuts to me. But I hold beliefs that they disagree with too. I’m not sure how, in a civil society, we can find a way to disagree respectfully and calmly.

But we have to try.  We have to make some effort to maintain civil discourse, to respect each other’s differences, to always re-think and re-examine our own issues, in light of our biases.  It’s hard.  But it’s essential to our democratic experiment. We have to try.

 

Dawn of the Planet of Apes: Movie Review

It’s a big blockbuster summer action movie.  About monkeys.  I went with fairly low expectations.  But Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the smartest, saddest, most deeply tragic film of the year, a soulful, brilliant movie, thoughtfully conceived and superbly rendered.  It feels like a Shakespearean tragedy, honestly, that kind of power and resonance.  Images linger.  My wife and I went home, and could hardly talk about it; it overwhelmed us both.  It’s just a remarkable film, an amazing meditation on leadership and the limits of leadership and on the inevitability of violence and the way peaceful intentions can become derailed.

If you saw the 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes, with James Franco, this is the sequel.  In that earlier film, Franco played a scientist researching a cure for Alzheimer’s, desperate for a cure for his rapidly diminishing father.  He experiments on Caesar, his pet chimpanzee, and is astonished when Caesar develops human intelligence and emotional complexity.  But Caesar is taken from him, and placed in an ape sanctuary, where he becomes a leader to the other apes.  He acquires more of the drug developed by Franco, and he and the other apes escape to a forest sanctuary.  But the same drug, it turns out, is toxic to humans, and a massive pandemic threatens mankind.

As this film begins, most of the human race has died in the pandemic.  Some few survivors, however, had a genetic defense against it, and have gathered in San Francisco, where they have formed a community under the leadership of Dreyfus (Gary Oldman).  Also in that community, Malcolm (Jason Clarke), his domestic partner, Ellie (Keri Russell), a doctor, and his teenaged son from before the pandemic, Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee). The community’s energy reserves are badly depleted, and Malcolm has been tasked with repairing the electrical generators at a nearby dam.  But his route to that dam runs straight through Caesar’s forest home.

Caesar, meanwhile, has created a city, a refuge for apes, perfectly adapted to simian abilities and needs.  They have a highly sophisticated kind of sign language, but can also speak human English, though they have difficulty forming words.  They tend to use the human language for emphasis, but for conversations requiring subtlety and nuance, they prefer signing.  They’re mostly chimps, along with one gorilla and one elderly orangutan, Maurice, who serves as the teacher for their school.  And Caesar has given them a religious code of sorts, the first commandment of which is ‘ape not kill ape.’  Caesar’s ‘chief-of-security’ is a deeply damaged and angry ape named Koba.  Caesar is also married, with a son, and his wife has just given birth to a second boy.

As in the earlier film, Caesar is played, in an extraordinary physical performance (then animated via CGI), by Andy Serkis.  As in the earlier film, Maurice is played by Karin Konoval.  But the film’s antagonist, Koba, is now an actor named Toby Kebbell.  And he gives the performance of the film.

Okay, so, the first big cultural clash between human and ape comes when Malcolm’s team of humans, trying to fix the generators at this dam, cross ape territory, and are confronted by a security team led by Koba.  One of the humans shoots and wounds an ape, and it appears as though the confrontation is likely to turn violent.  But Caesar shows up, and by his sheer presence, forces Koba to back down.  Malcolm and his party retreat back to San Francisco.  The next day, Caesar and a large party of apes show up at the human colony and Caesar warns the humans not to return.  He’ll maintain the peace, as long as humans stay in their territory and don’t trespass into ape lands.  (All this is expressed in a few words, but it’s unmistakable).

The problem is, the human colony desperately needs energy, for heat and light and, above all, for communications, for attempts to contact other possible human enclaves.  And so Malcolm goes back, and negotiates a truce with Caesar.  He promises that humans will surrender their guns, if safe passage can be guaranteed to and from the dam.  And Caesar agrees to this, although it really puts his authority with his own people to the test.  Koba especially does not trust humans.  Koba was, in the earlier film, the subject of the most brutal kinds of animal testing–he’s a torture victim–and in a deeply moving scene, he points to his various scars and says ‘human work, human work, human work.’  (Which is one of the things I love about this film.  Koba is the ‘villain’ of the piece, but he’s a deeply wounded, damaged, sympathetic character, beautifully written and acted.)

So Malcolm and his men get the dam repaired (with considerable help from the apes), and suddenly, San Francisco has electricity.  And we see one of the characters, searching through a suddenly-aglow gas station, and he finds a CD player, and he puts in a CD, and we hear the strains of The Band playing The Weight.  And we see him dance.

But Koba, always mistrustful, leads a small team back to the city, and finds where the human weapons’ arsenal is.  And he sees a a group of human soldier-wannabes taking target practice.  And all his suspicions about the untrustworthiness of humans are confirmed.  And when the human ‘soldiers’ see him, they’re about to shoot, but he puts on a happy monkey act for them, what would be for apes a Stepin Fetchit act.  A Cheetah act; jivin’ and grinnin’; monkey blackface vaudeville.  It’s a tremendous scene, and an effective one, seeing Koba demean himself to survive.  And then Koba playfully grabs an AK-47.  And then he starts shooting humans.

And then, back at the ape town, Koba shoots Caesar, abandons him, and leads the rest of the apes back to San Francisco, on horseback, heavily armed.  And a battle scene commences, an ugly, violent horrific war between man and ape.  And then Koba commandeers a tank, and we see the battle unfold from his POV.  And the humans are defeated, and crowded into cages.  As are Caesar’s remaining allies among the apes, including Maurice.  And Caesar lingers, close to death.  And Caesar’s older son is torn, between his loyalty to his father, and his admiration for Koba and Koba’s courage and charisma and pain.

But Malcolm and Ellie find Caesar, and Ellie performs life-saving surgery.  And Caesar survives.  And heads back into San Francisco, again to lead his people.

I don’t want to give away the ending.  But what’s remarkable is this; it’s not triumphant.  Caesar and Malcolm remain close friends to the end, but this will not end peacefully.  The two real leaders have become impotent; peace eludes them, and will continue to elude them.  Foolishness and paranoia and fear and the enticing prospect of violence are too ingrained in both human and ape personalities; war must come, and it will not end well.

I kept thinking of historical parallels.  The first is to our own history, and the ugly warfare between whites and Indians that marred it.  Caesar could parallel some of the extraordinary Native American leaders of the past, men like Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull and Tecumseh and Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. On the other hand, the people against whom Sitting Bull was pitted had not been decimated in a pandemic, while Native tribes certainly all were.  Or we might look to our day, to the inevitability of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, to the current battles fought between the Israeli army and Hamas.  Or we might look to other historical parallels.  Much of the power of this film is in its dissection of what inevitably happens when two peoples fight over limited resources.  This film manages to feel historically grounded, without recalling any one specific historical period or conflict.  But it’s completely convincing, especially in its depiction of genuine, great leadership (Caesar, and to a lesser extent, Malcolm), and suspicion and hatred and paranoid leadership (Dreyfus and Koba).  Leaders can only lead up to a point.  And then everything blows up.

I should add a word about the acting in this film.  Obviously, Serkis and Kebbell give extraordinary performances, given the extra detail of seamlessly integrated CGI.  But I can’t say enough about Jason Clarke.  He was terrific in Zero Dark Thirty, equally fine in The Great Gatsby.  This is his first big action movie lead, and I hope it really launches him.  He’s a tremendous actor, another of those Aussie acting marvels, and I’d love to see him have one of those Mark Ruffalo/Peter Sarsgaard careers, where he’s great in everything in he’s in, but is never quite an A-list superstar.  He’s certainly remarkable here, if a bit overshadowed by Serkis’ performance.

Anyway.  Wow.  Great movie.  See it.  I know; summer action movie.  Monkeys.  It doesn’t matter.  This is the best movie of the year, so far.  See it.

The border kids

I have a new hero.

His name is Clay Jenkins. He is County Judge for Dallas County, Texas.  Biggest city in that county is, as one might imagine, Dallas, the ninth largest city in the US.  The County Judge is the most important elected official in the county.  In addition to his responsibilities as a Judge, he’s also the guy who is responsible for coordinating relief efforts in the county with the federal Department of Homeland Security.

He’s an active Methodist.  He’s the first person in his family to ever graduate from college.  Has a law degree from Baylor.  And he and his wife have one child, a daughter.

And Clay Jenkins also volunteered his county to house and care for some of that flood of unaccompanied minor children coming into our country (illegally, a lot of them, not that that matters), from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador.

He volunteered.  He contacted the feds on this; he stepped up. Said his 8-year old daughter saw a news story about the crisis, and asked if she meet them; said she thought it would be fun to play with those children.

Clay Jenkins was featured on Rachel Maddow’s show yesterday, and of course, she asked him about the politics of this.  He said ‘the politics of this is that there are no politics of this.  These are children.’  He said he expected some backlash, but that he’d gone door to door and talked to people in the county. They supported it.  He talked to his pastor; talked to the local Baptist minister, the local Catholic priest.  Unanimous agreement; these were children, and they needed food and shelter and kindness; bring ‘em in.

Of course, it would be great if we could see this situation as Clay Jenkins sees it, in purely humanitarian terms.  But with thousands of desperate children, some with parents, many without, having made the dangerous journey from their home countries to escape violence, anarchy, the breakdown of civil society, with thousands of kids here, in internment camps and rough shelters along our borders, in Texas and California and Arizona, the issue has become more politicized than ever.

Sunday, and then again yesterday, I watched, switching channels from ABC News to CBS to CNN to MSNBC, and we saw the flashpoints, in Murrieta California. Flag waving protesters shouting ‘go back,’ and uglier slurs as buses full of children arrived for processing. Immigration officials finally giving up, diverting the buses elsewhere, trying to avoid subjecting these poor kids to more violence.  Above all, I saw the faces of the protesters, red-faced white folks (almost entirely), faces distorted in rage.  We’ve seen those same faces, haven’t we?  Back when I was a kid, just getting into watching news shows, a youthful news junky even then, watching footage from Birmingham and Selma, faces spewing hate as James Meredith tried to enroll in the college of his choice, as Dr. King talked about a dream.  Not the same people, but the same faces.  Enraged white folk, fearful of change, fearful of loss, fearful for their jobs in a tough economy, finding a single focus for all that fear.  And the faces of children, looking out bus windows, wondering when they could ever be safe again.

The politics of this are getting ugly.  And the cowardice of elected officials remains permanently on display.  I could care less about the legalities of the case; there are 50,000 kids here or arriving, with more on the way.  50, 60, 70 thousand: I don’t care.  They’re fleeing violence; they’re afraid for their lives.  Just as, during the Cold War, the United States welcomed Eastern Europeans who climbed The Wall, or burrowed under a fence or forged a passport, broke the law to escape tyranny, and we welcomed them with open arms, made exceptions for them, so should we do the same for these children and for their families.  Let ‘em in.  All of them in; let ‘em work here and live here and get an American education.  We’re a huge country and a rich country and we can do this and we should do this.

On this issue, at least, John Boehner has revealed himself as the greatest moral coward in the history of the Speakership.  President Obama’s not far behind him, frankly.  As these kids are ‘processed,’ many will be sent back, to disintegrating civil societies, to again fear, daily, for their lives.  It’s reprehensible and it’s wrong.  Let them stay.  All of them; let them all stay.

This is a minor consideration, but worth mentioning; American undocumented workers are a net plus for our economy by every possible measure, according to every non-partisan study that’s been done. They have a higher rate of entrepreneurship than most Americans generally.  They have far lower crime rates than the populace at large. They’re a great blessing to our nation, and they create more jobs than they perform, and their money circulates just the same as mine does.

Another minor consideration: yeah, they’re here illegally.  They broke the law to come in, some of them. It doesn’t matter.  The law they broke is a misdemeanor; the equivalent of a lane change traffic violation. The buzz-word politically is amnesty, so let’s shout that too: we’re in favor of amnesty!  Amnesty now, amnesty tomorrow, amnesty forever!  If I were a poor guy living in a poor country with a rich country next door, and if, to feed my family, all I had to do is disobey a law (a minor law, to boot, an unimportant law) and also risk a dangerous border, just to get work, just to feed my wife and children, I would do it in a second, and so would you. And anyone who says they wouldn’t isn’t telling you the truth.

And in this case, with what’s going on now, we’re talking about countries that do not border the United States, countries where parents are terrified that violence will touch their children.  I saw the footage: fifty kids, the youngest a two-year-old, covered with a blanket and tied to the roof of a train heading to America.  How desperate would you have to be, how frightened for your kids, how much of a last resort would that be?  And we’re seriously thinking of sending them back?  Are you kidding me?

Also this: their countries are disintegrating largely because of the inherent violence and instability of any product that is a) really lucrative, b) pretty easy to grow, and c) seriously illegal. To anyone who wants to shout from the rooftops that these kids (and other undocumented folks), are here ILLEGALLY!  THEY BROKE THE LAW!!!! I would suggest this: their countries, Mexico and Guatemala and Honduras and El Salvador are imploding, because America’s dentists and accountants and hedge fund managers and executive vice-Presidents and insurance adjusters and corporate attorneys can’t lay off the nose-candy. Because some super poor countries have one insanely profitable cash crop, a market for which exists here, not there. Lady Coke. Also, we have gun dealers who see an equally lucrative market heading back the other way.  So, yeah, they’ve formed gangs (small businesses), and cartels (big corporations), and they’re really seriously fighting for market share.

So at least, if we’re Christians, if we profess to be Christians in a Christian nation, let’s treat the collateral damage of that reality with some humanity.  Clay Jenkins sees it.  The politics of this is that there are no politics.  Just children, who need our help.

 

 

The Deseret News gets Iraq wrong

Every morning of my life, I read The Deseret News on-line.  I’m not sure why I do this. It’s a comically bad newspaper.  Habit, I suppose.  I’ve read a daily newspaper since I was 7.  The DN covers Utah County pretty well, where I live, plus it’s a great window into mainstream Utah Mormon culture, a culture I live amidst and which I do not understand at all.

But it’s a terrible paper, and the editorial page is especially risible.  For awhile the DN was on a roll in which it published a daily op-ed piece opposing gay marriage.  Every single day, for months. You’d think they’d run out of things to say, but no, their inventiveness had no limits.  They’re down to 3, 4 times a week now on that.  And what’s great is that the arguments they present against SSM almost always turn out, the closer you look at them, to be great arguments for it.

Anyway, today the editorial board decided to weigh in on Iraq.  Here’s the link.  What makes this hilarious, though, is not the editorial itself, but the comments section in the on-line version.

You can follow the link, but I thought I’d provide some highlights too, for those of you who don’t want to bother.  The op-ed piece is your basic common-or-garden neo-conservative line.  Invading Iraq was awesome, because we were planting seeds of democracy in the Middle East.

The invasion that toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein may well have been finished at that point, but the mission of establishing a free, peaceful and self-sustaining government there was far from over.

That still is the case today, which makes President Barack Obama’s declaration in 2011 that, on the occasion of the U.S. withdrawal, “We’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable, and self-reliant Iraq,” just as infamous and embarrassing. The United States withdrew too early, reacting more to political pressures at home than to the long-term dangers of an Iraq too unstable to protect itself.

Americans now face the real danger of Iraq becoming a radical Islamic state. ISIS, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, now controls much of Iraq and is threatening to topple Baghdad.

ISIS likely wouldn’t have been able to gain such a foothold if U.S. forces remained in Iraq in sufficient strength to help the government establish itself.

Late last week, Obama seemed reluctant to provide much aid to the Iraqi government, announcing that no ground troops would re-enter the country. Obama said Iraq has political problems, noting that the U.S. has made huge sacrifices (about 5,000 casualties, for starters) in an effort to give Iraq a representative democracy, but that the leaders of that country have been unable to overcome sectarian differences. Until that is corrected, he said, the U.S. won’t be able to fix things with “short-term military action.”

But a dysfunctional representative government is far better than what ISIS has to offer, and the president’s approach to the situation seems inadequate given the threats to the United States.

The editorial then went on, kind of subtly, to suggest that we need troops back in Iraq, and that it was the sad duty of the President to explain to everyone why we needed to go back. Yay!  More American soldiers fighting (and dying) in Iraq!  How very jolly.

And then the comments section took over:

If Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, his 900,000-man army, and Shia militia cannot defend Baghdad from a few thousand Islamist warriors, America is under no obligation to do it for them. Also, remember please that we left because Maliki told us to get out. (Marxist)

Followed by this, from a guy calling himself Bob.

Why was it our place to not only go into another country and force out the leader that held it together (bad guy or not), then assume we should choose their government for them?
What about the fact that we destroyed the infrastructure of the country and killed a couple hundred thousand of its citizens? Do people with no electricity or water and a dead son start loving the USA and wanting to be like us?
What about the arrogance of thinking we are so great that groups who have been adversaries for hundreds of years will drop that and follow us?
And what about the trillions of dollars drained from our country? Our dead boys?
Obama was trying to make the best of a bad situation and get the heck out of a place we can’t fix.

From a guy calling himself FatherofFour, with military experience in Iraq.

We withdrew along the timetable set by the SOFA agreement between the Iraqi government and the Bush administration in 2008. Obama did not set our withdrawal timeline, that was done before he even became president. I served in Baghdad from 2003-2004 and the mission was extremely unclear. Now, according to this editorial, you want us all to go back and stay for an undefined amount of time. Which side do you want us to support? The Shia’s who are aligned with Iran, make up the majority of the Iraqi population, and want to impose an Islamic theocracy similar to Iran? The Iraqi constitution already states that Iraq is governed by Islamic law. Or do you want to support the Sunnis who are aligned with ISIS and Al-Qaeda? Those are the only two choices. Or do you just want to do the opposite of whatever President Obama suggests? That is likely the reality here.

Another Iraq war veteran weighed in.  This was the comment that got to me; the passion, outrage, anger and pain expressed should command our fullest attention and respect:

 

I was in Iraq in 2004-2005 as an old gristled Sergeant, then I retired after I returned home. Too many good men and women were killed and permanently maimed while serving in Iraq. The Iraqis hated us and threw rocks at us as we drove through the country. They set IEDs alongside the roads. It was a horrible place to serve, and when we left a year later, nothing had changed. There were far too few of us to maintain order. It seemed like the military was half-committed to winning and didn’t expect that some Pepsi cans on the side of the road would cause abject fear in otherwise tough men.

I saw comrades from my own platoon blown to bits before my very eyes by an IED. It is something I will never forget no matter how hard I try. Their lives were NOT worth it. This editorial trivializes the lives of the men and women and their families who were forever changed by this misguided war. Let them work it out. There is nothing we can do to permanently keep order there. Read their history and you’ll understand.

What a remarkable perspective.  I like this one, too, from ‘Esquire’, from Springville:

And so you are saying to send in troops. Your approach didn’t work in 2003. It made things much, much worse. Who is writing your editorials? Dick Cheney? This newspaper editorial board baffles me. Talk about naive, irresponsible and ignorant of history. Didn’t you also advocate arming the Syrian rebels, the same folks leading the charge into Iraq? Your judgment, and that of McCain, Chaffetz, and the entire Bush neo-con team, is utterly a waste of time and devoid of good sense. We tried your way, and all it did was destabilize the Middle East, feed the snake of terrorism and burdened the West for decades to come. Our national interests are exactly not what you are promoting.

“Naive, irresponsible and ignorant of history.”  The same guy, Esquire, later commented on the same thread:

Reading the comments, it seems to me that the editorial board would do well to listen to its readers. They are providing a lot more insight and common sense than this editorial.

As I post this today, there are 32 comments in the on-line version of this editorial.  All 32 oppose it.  All of them ferociously, angrily, furiously rejecting the Deseret News‘ position.  And all of them, without exception, are better informed, more knowledgeable, and more historically grounded than the DN editorial board.

I’ve never been prouder to be a Utahn.

 

Excommunication, Republican-style

Excommunication has been much in the news lately, and especially in Mormon circles.  It’s always a little surprising for me when issues relating to Mormonism receive national attention.  The John and Kate story has recently been a big story in the Huffington Post, the New York Times, Good Morning America.  I mean, when Mitt Romney was running for President, his religious beliefs were, quite properly, part of the American political conversation.  I get that.  But the letters received by John Dehlin and Kate Kelly?  Why is that a national story?  In part, I’m sure, it’s because Mormons are weird.

When I say that we’re weird, I don’t mean because we seem to like green jello, or because we wear strange underwear.  It’s not because we oppose gay marriage, or don’t drink coffee.  It’s because we believe in other books of scripture than the Bible, because there are men we refer to as ‘prophets,’ because we claim the power of revelation, because we have these big pretty buildings we call ‘temples,’ because we send out thousands of young missionaries (kids, who wear suits and go around preaching).  We’re weird, I think, in part because we believe in a set of quite specific doctrines, many of them way outside the Christian mainstream.  And because we excommunicate.

That has to seem oddly medieval to people outside our faith, doesn’t it?  I’ve been researching a play set in the 11th century, about a clash between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope; excommunication was central to that conflict, because that particular Emperor wanted to ordain bishops, and that Pope considered ordination an exclusively papal responsibility.  Because the Pope excommunicated the Emperor. And then they nearly fought a war over it.  Thousands of young men nearly died, because of that disagreement over ecclesiastical prerogatives.  And Catholics historically excommunicated lots of people who taught heterodox doctrines.

Boy, not any more.  I know lots of Catholics who disagree with the Church on really fundamental questions, like abortion, birth control, celibacy.  Nobody gets excommunicated for it.

I also read a book recently about the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who was excommunicated as a Jew at the age of 23 (and who was later honored by the Catholic Church when they put his books on the Index of Forbidden Books).  John Dehlin recently talked about Jewish people, friends of his, who may not even believe that God exists, but are still regarded as respectable and faithful Jews by their rabbis.

Mostly, excommunication doesn’t happen much anymore.  But this week, it occurred to me that it sort of does happen politically.  It’s probably because the big political news of the week was the primary defeat of Eric Cantor in Virginia.  But isn’t there a sense in which Cantor could be said to have been excommunicated?  Because of doubts within his ‘church’ over the authenticity and orthodoxy of his beliefs?

Okay, in case you were vacationing on Mars last week, Eric Cantor was the House Majority Leader, the third highest ranking Republican in Washington, after the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader.  He represents the Virginia Seventh (the “fightin’ Seventh,” as Stephen Colbert would put it).  He lost in the Republican primary to a Tea Party-supported economics professor named Dave Brat.  Cantor outspent Brat by a massive amount.  Polls showed him winning by a wide margin.  But he lost, and lost badly.  It was a huge upset.

Brat was essentially a one-issue candidate, hammering Cantor for supporting immigration reform, which Brat characterized as ‘amnesty.’  So this election was seen nationally as kind of a referendum on immigration reform, and a confirmation of a national narrative that sees the Tea Party as hopelessly nativist and borderline racist.  In fact, as the invaluable Rachel Maddow pointed out this week, in-depth polling of the Virginia Seventh District shows that Virginia voters didn’t care much about immigration.  It wasn’t an important issue to them.  Brat kept hammering it, and he did win, but Maddow argued that Brat would have won just as easily if he’d picked another issue to hammer Cantor over.  The fact was, Cantor’s unfavorable ratings were very very high.  He wasn’t popular in his district.  He seemed much more focused on his Washington career (and his probable advancement to House Speaker), than on the issues that mattered to his district.  And on conservative, Tea Party issues, he seemed . . . insincere.

In post-election interviews, Cantor kept saying something that seemed weird to me.  He said that he would continue ‘fighting for the conservative cause.’  If he had been a Democrat, I think he wouldn’t have said ‘I will keep fighting for the liberal cause.’  He would probably say something like ‘fighting for the issues that matter to the American people,’ or ‘fighting for the issues that matter to the people of Virginia,’ or ‘fighting for what I believe in.’  Liberalism isn’t an ideology.  And conservatism is one.

Look, it’s a truism that all politicians pay lip service to issues, but the only issue they really care about is their own election/re-election.  In fact, I do think some folks get into politics because they care about certain issues.  I love the TV show Veep, and Selina Meyer, the politician played so wonderfully by Julia Louis-Dreyfus is entirely career focused–she doesn’t care about anything, or believe in anything, and her cynicism (and the utter cynicism of all the characters) is key to the comedy.  It’s satire.  Satire’s always exaggerates for comedic effect–that’s how it works.  And there may well be politicians that cynical, but mostly they’re not, I think. They may compromise, but they still believe.

But Tea Party voters today really do seem to get angry when politicians don’t believe in the issues they believe in as fervently as they believe in them.  Eric Cantor would sometimes explain his support for immigration reform in political terms–’we’re up against some hard demographic truths, we need to reach out to Hispanic voters, who will never vote for us if they perceive us as, you know, racist, so we need this, we need immigration reform.’  There’s some terrific footage of Cantor trying a variant of that argument in a town meeting, and getting roundly booed.  He didn’t believe in what Tea Party Republicans believe.  He was an opportunist, a political calculator.  He wasn’t ideologically pure.  And so he got fired.  Excommunicated.

The Democratic equivalent has to be Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign in 2008.  She had voted for the war in Iraq.  To many liberals, the war in Iraq was anathema.  Barack Obama had not supported the war.  That made him seem more authentically Democratic, more genuinely liberal.  And so he won the nomination, and eventually the Presidency.  So yeah, liberals can do it too.  But the war in Iraq really was important.  It really was defining.

And for the Tea Party, the list of ‘really important, ideologically defining’ issues is very long.  You have to, absolutely have to oppose Obamacare.  You have to be against immigration reform.  You have to oppose the minimum wage increase.  Gay marriage and abortion are, as always, crucial.  Any tax increases, at all, ever, for anyone, ever, is political suicide.  Cutting spending is embraced with an evangelical fervor.

Dave Brat is an ideological extremist, and will, if elected this fall, make Congress crazier.  He’s an ‘economics professor,’ but exists on the Ayn Randian lunatic fringe of his discipline.  But I also get why he won.  He seemed genuinely to care about the issues his constituents cared about.  He comes across as sincere.  And Eric Cantor does not seem similarly authentic.

So they excommunicated him, for ideological impurity.  What a weird world we live in these days.  In a week where the Mormon part of it got weird too.

What now?

It’s been a rough couple of days. I am absolutely heartsick.

Kate Kelly, founder of Ordain Women, and John Dehlin, of the Mormon Stories podcast series, were both sent letters recently informing them that they will face Church disciplinary councils.

I don’t know Kate and I don’t know John–I have never met either of them.  I do know people who know them, am Facebook friends with both, and have read their writings.  These are two incredibly important voices in Mormon culture.  John is a psychologist, who has spent his life working with LDS people who doubt, and especially with LGBT Latter-day Saints.  Kate not only advocates for female ordination (an issue about which I hold no strong position), but has also been a voice for LDS women who feel marginalized by LDS patriarchy.

For me, an organizing metaphor in the Church is that of a tent; we live in ‘stakes,’ outposts to which tent lines are tethered.  So how big is that tent?  Is it big enough for voices calling for female priesthood ordination?  Is it big enough to make room for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters?  Is it big enough for doubt, for questioning, for non-correlated lessons and non-orthodox conversations?  And the question I’m hearing over and over is this: is it big enough for me?

Fourteen.  As I write this, I know of fourteen young LDS friends, male and female, who have decided, based on this news, to terminate their membership in the Church.  I know of fourteen letters written, fourteen formal requests for excommunication.  ‘Good riddance,’ some may say.  In fact, many people are saying precisely that. ‘Go away.’  The on-line comments to the Deseret News article about this number nearly 200, nearly all of them saying some version of ‘get lost.  Leave.’

Fourteen.  Fourteen, that I know of, so far.  Some of them, to be sure, are from people who were pretty disaffected anyway.  But not all.  One young woman I know was, until this week, very active in her ward.  She served in her ward’s Relief Society Presidency.  But this is too much, she thinks.  This is unconscionable. So she’s out.

Mormonism is my spiritual home.  Mormonism is the well from which I drink, the roof over me, the bed on which I lay my head.  I love the Church.  I love its leaders.  I also believe that they are men, expounders of truth, but capable of error, men of  a courage which sometimes falters, sensible and senseless, as are we all.  I doubt; I also believe. And the authenticity of my faith journey requires both doubt and belief.

So is there room for me in the tent?

The right words, spoken at the right time, by the right people, can make a huge difference.  And so, today, I listened to this. John Dehlin and Kate Kelly, on a Salt Lake Tribune podcast.  And they’re in pain, clearly in pain, and in mourning and fearful and at times, inarticulate.  But what should we do about it?  What should we do?  John Dehlin:

Do whatever makes you healthy. . . I do not want anyone resigning their membership because of me–please don’t do that.  At least a hundred people have suggested that they’ll do that; please don’t.  I don’t think people should put themselves in jeopardy or harm by being open in public, if they’re not in a life position where that would be good for them. I think people should tap into their center, to their soul, to their core, to the safety issues that surround them.  If people want to leave the church because it’s not healthy for them, then by all means do that.  But I’m not asking for anyone to fall on their sword, or protest, or march, or storm the castle.  I just want people to be healthy and happy, and to live the life that’s good for them.

Kate Kelly:

The day that I launched OrdainWomen.org was March 17, 2013, and I went to Church, and that was the most joy I had felt going to Church basically since my mission. . .  I felt like I could be my true self.  I felt liberated.  And I felt the Spirit.  So you should do whatever makes you feel like that.

I don’t want to speak for the Church, or impute ill motives to Church leaders, or attack anyone for anything.  I prayed last night, most of the night I prayed, and towards morning, I felt some relief, some love, some peace.

Let’s pray together, counsel together, mourn together, hope together.  Let’s push back the tent poles a little.  John and Kate, thank you.  And let the Restoration continue.