The Radical in Me

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Not to see that the essence of humanism is to understand human history as a continuous process of self-understanding and self-realization, not just for us, as white, male, European, and American, but for everyone, is to see nothing at all.

– Edward Said

As I listen to our national fears emptied upon the world in terms beyond hyperbolic; as I watch our rhetoric become self-fulfilling prophecy before our very eyes; as I wait for whichever shoe drops next to land with a thud upon our collective psyche, each successive blow threatening to bring down the whole of the crumbling edifice of our pretension…

…I wonder…

At what point do we realize that it is our own violent language that encourages the radicalization of enemies we ourselves create every time we allow sound bites to shove aside sound judgment? Hate gives birth to hate, prejudice to prejudice. When the Trumps among us deliver pronouncements that devalue and demonize difference as difference, we should not be so surprised when difference gives way to demon, or when difference devalues us in return.

The 24-hour “news” networks have taken xenophobia to the air waves in a way not witnessed since the height of the Cold War: Radio Free Europe has morphed into Video Loose Lips. We monger fear alongside patriotism, to the point that it becomes difficult to distinguish between the two. And we are hoisted on our own petard. We grow so intent on destroying the Other that we do not realize that we are actually destroying ourselves.

Because, you see…we’re all somebody’s Other.

The enemy of my enemy is my enemy’s enemy. If we are to insist on casting ourselves in the role of nemesis, is it any wonder that we are treated as such? Such an approach may work well on Game of Thrones, but let’s face it: what are the odds anyone actually survives it?

Faced with the specter of radicalism, at what point do we realize that the only real solution to any of our problems is to become radicalized ourselves? Not by way of guns or bombs, and not as dictated by any religion or ideology (including, I might add, the one that goes by the name of “freedom and democracy”)…but as members of one race, one global community of neighbors far and wide. We’re all in the same boat, and when it goes down, we all go down with it.

I dream of a day when our humanity is of so radical a stripe that difference as difference ceases to exist. A day when we conceive of one another only as various shades of similarity, when kinship transcends oceans, bloodlines, and political boundaries, taking in every feature, every line and crease, of a global human face. When we truly are the world, regardless of the beverage we drink.

And every time a new story hits the wires, I feel myself pushed closer and closer to that day. Underneath the anger and frustration, there is a glimmer of hope, dim though it may sometimes be.

I want to be a radical in my human being, in my humanity toward humanity. I want to be a terror to terror by offering love in the face of hate.

My enemy is my enemy because I am his enemy. I will, then, be no one’s enemy. Difference divides only if we allow it to take away from, rather than add to, who we are and who we can be. I will, therefore, subtract no one from myself.

In a world coming apart at the seams, this sort of radicalism is the only thread that can hold us all together…

Spread the word:
Open the doors!!!

Will the Real Pro-Lifer Please Stand Up?

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It is possible that life begins at conception…
but it is indisputable that it does not end there.

At the height of the Syrian refugee “post-ocalypse”, I stumbled across the following blog post: “That Other Refugee Problem is Much Bigger than the Syrian One.”

Okay, No. 1: Bullshit.

And, now that that’s out of the way…

We need to revisit the parameters of the pro-life/pro-choice debate in this country. Because at its heart, it is neither one nor the other. But then, that is what labels are for: focusing attention on the sound bite so that the content ceases to matter.

What we need is not more rhetoric; what we need is a new definition of life.

  1. We cannot claim a pro-life stance while ignoring the ongoing plight of the Syrians at our borders. Let’s get that out of the way up top. Last I checked, they were alive, living beings…at least for the moment. So get off your high abortion horse and try some introspection on for size.
  2. We cannot claim a pro-life stance and insist that our fellow citizens do not have a right to affordable, adequate healthcare. Are we really protecting life if we do not provide for the continual well-being of the lives we have protected?
  3. We cannot claim a pro-life stance if we are not willing at least to reconsider our positions on capital punishment. If it is murder to take a life at its inception, is it not also murder to take it at any point along the way? And why is it we’re more concerned about the death penalty than about life sentences handed down for ridiculous reasons? What about those lives? Do we simply slam the door and forget about them?
  4. We cannot claim a pro-life stance and proceed to ignore the “strangers” on the other side of the planet.
  5. We cannot claim a pro-life stance and insist that rampant capitalism, guided only by an invisible hand (apparently attached to the invisible arm of an invisible sociopath), is the most promising approach to global economics.
  6. We cannot claim a pro-life stance without calling to account the employment practices, at home and abroad, of the merchants and corporations with whom we do business on a daily basis.
  7. And (I hope it goes without saying) we cannot claim a pro-life stance and proceed to shoot up Planned Parenthood clinics. To do this is both to give the lie to our supposed position and to misunderstand the work that Planned Parenthood does. The value of a woman’s life goes far beyond her ability to give birth, and PP does much to ensure that this value is recognized in full, start to finish, as it should be.

Whether or not life begins at conception (and, personally, I tend to think that it does), there is no escaping the fact that it doesn’t end until death. But here’s the problem: the period between the two is often measured by our own understanding (too often political rather than principled) of the meaning of life. And if we insist on limiting our concept of “pro-life” to the nine months preceding birth, many of those full lives will end far too soon.

As for myself, I am neither “pro-life” nor “pro-choice.” I am pro-nuance. And that poor little guy goes begging every single day.

 

Post-Thanksgiving Thoughts

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Are we beginning to forget?

I’ve been following the Syrian Refugee Crisis tag in my Reader, and I’ve noticed a steady downturn in the number of posts dealing with the subject. Whereas in the days immediately following the first gubernatorial declarations new posts were published by the second, now, in the midst of Black Friday madness and the fading general food coma, they have dwindled to one or two per day.

But this is still happening. They still need our help. And the doors are still closed.

Yesterday, I enjoyed a wonderful meal with wonderful people whose wonderful faces I’ve seen far too little of over the past few years. Good food, good conversation, warmth and love and family togetherness. For all this, I am more than thankful.

But this is still happening. They still need our help. And the doors are still closed.

Today, you may make it home with a really cool new possession bought on the cheap, and you may enjoy your new toy for months to come, and there’s nothing wrong with that…so far as it goes. Five thousand channels, high def, a movie theater in your living room. Or the newest iPhone: makes phone calls and cappuccino, while you wait. Another distraction in an over-stimulated life.

But this is still happening. They still need our help. And the doors are still closed.

I don’t mean to judge; I don’t mean to place myself on an undeserved pedestal. I forget, too. Out of sight, out of mind. And there are so many things to watch on Netflix. I get it; it’s my addiction, as well. Boy, howdy, is it ever.

But this is still happening. They still need our help. And the doors are still closed.

This is simply a gentle reminder, to all of us, that in times like these we can’t afford to forget, lest we be forgotten. I leave you with the words of Percy Bysshe Shelley:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Spread the word:
Open the doors!!!

Do What’s Right, and Risk the Consequences

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All those with agency are confronted by a choice. We can use that agency to secure for ourselves a safe and comfortable existence. We can use our life, that one unrepeatable product of four billion years of serendipity and evolution, to earn a little more, to save a little more, to win the approval of our bosses and the envy of our neighbors….We can, quite rationally, subordinate our desire for liberty to our desire for security. Or we can use our agency to change the world, and, in changing it, to change ourselves. We will die and be forgotten with no less certainty than those who sought to fend off death by enhancing their material presence on earth, but we will live before we die through the extremes of feeling which comfort would deny us.

– George Monbiot

The above quote is from a book called The Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order (2003). It’s posted on my cubicle wall at work; it makes my mind tingle every time I read it. It is, quite simply, magnificent. And at the moment, quite apropos.

Everyone says original thinkers are those who “think outside the box.” That’s not enough for me. I want to take the box outside, smash it to pieces, set it on fire, and forget there was ever a box in the first place. I want to start fresh. Every. Single. Time.

We have reached a point in our evolution as a planet at which this sort of thinking is the only way forward. Postmodernism paved the way, pointing out the moral potency of language and reminding us that individual perception is at least as important as collective interpretation to understanding the world we live in. But I would argue that we’ve moved past even that: it’s time now for the rise of a new metanarrative. We must reassemble what we’ve so assiduously deconstructed. The individual must once again become part of a whole.

That whole is the global community. Not a new world order, necessarily; that’s a loaded term that conjures for many the abandonment of identity. Perhaps instead a “new world understanding.” Not the rejection, but the redefinition, of identity. Now that we have come to appreciate the value of the one, how do we build something bigger, better, and stronger on that foundation? How do we reconstruct?

Here in the United States, the first step toward this new understanding involves a reassessment of who we are as a nation. The “superpower” paradigm is no longer viable. The world doesn’t need watchdogs; the world needs good global citizens. We need to embrace the global community that, in large part, we created, by way of corporations like Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart, and McDonald’s.

This means reining in those very corporate actors, the ones who give us such a bad name around the world. The ones that go into developing nations in the name of solidarity, use up all the local resources, enrich the local despots, and then move on to greener pastures once the well’s been sucked dry.

This means actually being a member of the United Nations: not just drafting resolutions, but adopting them in good faith, and living by them instead of just forcing everyone else to. Addressing climate change and the global economy as more than simply electoral leverage, and recognizing the multitude of ways in which our actions affect strangers on the other side of the planet.

It means thinking past national security and “peace in our time.” Not thinking in terms of our problems and their problems. Their problems are our problems; there is no parsing that away anymore. If that weren’t the case, the attacks in Paris wouldn’t be making us so nervous right now. We know how easily troubles move about the globe these days. The next step is to accept our responsibility for helping to solve them. Which includes taking in the refugee.

It means rethinking the idea of nationality itself. I’m not saying we should do away with our shared identity as American citizens. But we should not allow our definition of the United States to stand in the way of a united planet. We can be American citizens, and global citizens, at the same time. We simply have to find the will to do it.

I would wager that most people are familiar enough with the cultural meme of the Good Samaritan, so I won’t take the time to explain the whole thing. I’ll just leave you with this thought:

Who is my neighbor? Everyone, everywhere.

As my good friend Russell commented on my previous post, we need to have the courage to do what is right, together, and risk the consequences. It’s the only way to survive the future.

Spread the word:
Open the doors!!!

Why Don’t He Just Shut Up?!?

19365_717013806513_9223634_39963040_868241_nI believe
That if you’re bristling
While you hear this song
I could be wrong
Or have I hit a nerve?

– Tears for Fears

I know, I know…

I’ve been making a right nuisance of myself over the past few days. I’ve been harsh; I’ve been critical; I’ve been–dare I say it–a bit judgmental. Perhaps I’ve stepped on toes; perhaps I’ve gotten on a few last nerves.

Good.
That’s the idea.

On the other hand, perhaps I’ve come off as a tad superior, mayhap even condescending. That’s not good; also not my intention. Here’s the thing: I’m disappointed, more so than I remember being in anything in a long, long time. And when I’m this far down the rabbit hole, I get angry. And when I get angry, I get a little sharp.

I’m disappointed in my former faith: I see the likes of Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas, spewing hatred disguised as theology from the pulpit of a major Southern Baptist church, televised, watched, listened to, thoughtlessly adored by who knows how many so-called Christians.

I’m disappointed in those who can’t understand the fact that Jeffress and his ilk, while louder than most and therefore more visible, do not represent the soul of Christianity, any more than the Paris terrorists represent the whole of Islam.

I’m disappointed in my country. Some of you may know I grew up in Argentina, and I have seen us through the eyes of others. Consequently, the grand rhetoric has always sounded somewhat hollow in my ears. But the events of this last week have fairly yanked whatever patriotic myopia I might have had left right out of my head.

I have seen comments by self-assured ‘Muricans, praising the magnanimity and generosity of spirit “for which we are known around the world.”

Here’s an example:

I wonder if situations were reversed and it was “the greatest nation on earth” who required help for millions of our people, I would be most curious to see the rush of compassion and outpouring of help, that we are known for. It’s classic though. You can rise to the occasion every time, but the ONE time you may have to withhold or proceed with caution, you are resented and all past acts of kindness are totally forgotten. Typical.

That would be such a good point, if it weren’t complete crap. There is a list of UN treaties and resolutions that we have “signed but not ratified” that is longer than the list of excuses we’ve come up with for ignoring the Syrian refugees. This includes, among others, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (which we helped to draft) and the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (which we signed knowing that, due to previously adopted domestic legislation, we lacked the ability to ratify). In other words, we want to police international law without committing to abide by it ourselves. We hold the purse strings to the IMF and World Bank, and have, time and again, forced other countries into near-bankruptcy through coercive, lop-sided loan agreements. Our domestic subsidies throw international markets out of balance, leaving farmers and small manufacturers without affordable sales partners. We force our multinational corporations on other nations, while refusing those nations access to our own markets. These things are not hearsay. They are well-documented facts…if we’re willing to listen. And they are not exceptions; they’re just another day at the office.

This time, though, in my opinion we have sunk to a new low. I’m not sure how much lower we can go, at this point. We have turned tail and run for this hills because of something that didn’t even happen in our country. We have abdicated whatever moral high ground we still occupied, and left thousands of our fellow human beings (human beings; not rabid dogs, or bad apples, or fans of falafel; not even potential terrorists) cold and alone and afraid, with nowhere to go and nowhere to turn.

A word of reminder: an isolationist stance did little to keep us out of World War II, and may have even contributed to the attack on Pearl Harbor. So, isolationism is no protection. Why not go down swinging? That’s the rhetoric, right? John Wayne, the OK Corral, High freakin’ Noon? Are our historical/fictional characters really the only brave souls among us?

At long last, I’m disappointed in myself. For writing this damn post while Rome is burning. For assuming that by taking time out of my day to do this, that I’m actually making a difference. For not getting off my ass and finding ways to actually address this situation with actions rather than words. For being one of the shrinking violets I’ve been criticizing so loudly for the last few days.

We–I–need less social media, and more social action.

But above all, we need to be the people we pretend to be when we’re trying to distract the world (and ourselves) from who we really are.

If we want to be the greatest nation on earth, we need to act like the greatest nation on earth.

Spread the word:
Open the doors!

Open the Doors

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Everyone must understand: you can’t ask for solidarity when there’s a problem and then exempt yourself from doing your duty when there is a solution.

– Francois Hollande

Where do we stand, O Greatest Nation in the World?

In one week (minus change), our citizens will be crowded up against closed doors, gazing wistfully upon what lies beyond, fully prepared to beat the living shit out of one another for the chance to be free…to buy a 60-inch TV at a low, low price. And we (meaning our stuffed-shirt, pansy-ass politicians) will defend that freedom to the bitter end. We will go so far as to redefine “Friday,” which now apparently begins at 6:00 PM on Thursday. Because America stands for nothing if not greed (sorry, “free enterprise”).

Black Friday is always the brunt of hypocritical and futile rants. Not unlike Valentine’s Day at my Southern Baptist alma mater. But, like the angry students at my school, who stopped protesting as soon as they got dates, Black Friday editorializing tends to last about as long as it takes Wal-Mart or Target to open their doors, at which point the editorialists let slip the dogs of war and plunge once more into the breach.

This year ought to be different. This Black Friday has potential, in that it might stand out as more than usually black. While we press our noses against sliding glass doors, begging for a bargain, numberless refugees press their whole lives against our national borders, begging for our help. And unlike the doors at Best Buy, our hearts show little sign of opening. As we ransack the shelves at whichever den of capitalism we frequent, little thought will likely be given to those whose entire worlds have been ransacked around them.

Where do we stand, O Greatest Nation in the World? What price our souls? Have we, at long last, no sense of decency?

Spread the word:
Open the doors!

Being Here

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If there is a light you can’t always see
And there is a world we can’t always be
If there is a dark within and without
And there is a light, don’t let it go out

– U2

In 1985, two displaced Romanian families came to Marshfield, Missouri, having defected from the Soviet bloc. At the time, my dad (the guy in the back row with the stripey tie) was minister of music and youth at First Baptist Marshfield. All the teenagers you see crammed into the picture were members of his youth group. Scattered throughout are the Borza family–mother Maria in the back center, son Audie in the second row, and daughter Diana beside me and my Smurf.

That Christmas (which is when this photo was taken), First Baptist decided to pull together gifts and supplies for the newly arrived families, to help them feel more connected to our community. And I had an idea: I raided my toy box. There was this Transformers car (or Go-Bots–I don’t remember which), a little blue convertible number, that I absolutely loved, and I seized on that as the perfect gift. I don’t remember if Mom wrapped it or not; I just remember the feeling of happiness that came with handing it over to my new friend. Strong enough that today, almost thirty years after the fact, it’s still clear as a bell in my mind.

The world is full of so many lonely souls. That moment of connection with the Borza boy was an eight-year-old’s first inkling of the truth of that statement. At the time, I didn’t know from communism or dictatorship or political repression. It would be years before I could formulate a decent definition of the Soviet Union, and by the time I could it didn’t even exist anymore. But here was this kid, not so different from me, a kid who enjoyed Christmas presents and little toy cars every bit as much as I did. A kid who, given other circumstances, might have been me, and I him. And for the briefest of spaces, our lives intertwined, became one. And I learned, albeit unconsciously. As I told my friend upon relating the story, I couldn’t even remember the family’s name, not until I read it off the back of the photo. Couldn’t remember the year. Just the faces. And the feeling. Of connection. Of camaraderie. Of compassion.

Perhaps this explains the fervor with which I approach the ongoing confrontation between fear and human decency that is the Syrian refugee crisis. I have been there and done that. And I would gladly do it again. In a heartbeat. My friendship with the Borza kids (there was even some teasing about a young crush I might or might not have had on Diana) is a foundational memory, one of the basic building blocks of who I am today.

Lest I be misunderstood, this is not about religion or spirituality. The part played in this story by my dad’s church is purely incidental, the conduit whereby I was connected with the Other, who turned out to be not quite as Other as we sometimes expect. Really, this is about recognition: staring into the face of a stranger only to discover it’s your own face in disguise. A refugee by any other name…is Me.

The events of the last few days have yanked this memory back into the forefront of my brain. I’m glad for that: it keeps my humanity alive, in the face of overwhelming odds. It reminds me of the blood that runs, and the hearts that beat alike, in their chests and mine. We are brothers, sisters, prójimos. We are One.

I understand the fear; I understand the hatred, the instinct that begs for the immediate release of violent and fiery retaliation. These voices whisper to me as much as to anyone else. Which is why this is so important: freedom is meaningless until we willingly set it aside for the sake of others. Courage is just a word until we face a threat, and act anyway.

The Borzas call to me from the past, and the Syrians call to me in the present. What is my answer? I am here.

I can’t just urge my governor to reverse his stance on this issue unless I’m willing to step up and reach out. I am here.

These people need friends, shelter, guidance, hands extended in welcome. I am here.

Governor Abbott: Need a sponsor?

I am Here.