LOVE IN THE WINTRY MIX

It was just getting dark
as we walked in the park
we didn’t notice the storm clouds roll in
the rain started to fall
but we cared not at all for our romance was set to begin

soon the air became colder
my arm wrapped round your shoulder
ol’ cupid was up to his tricks
as the rain turned to sleet
my heart skipped a beat
love was waiting in the wintry mix

I’d forgotten my mittens
my nose was frostbitten
but I was so smitten
and your smile kept me warm

midst the sleet mixed with snow
love continued to grow
as the breezes turned into a gale
you slipped into my arms
and I fell for your charms
as the skies blessed our new love with hail

we sloshed through the slush
and my brain turned to mush
but I knew that your touch
would soon help me to thaw

now here we are stuck in bed
with such colds in our heads
but never have I known such bliss
between sniffles and sneezes
come kisses and squeezes
it’s all thanks to that wintry mix
love was waiting in the wintry mix

THE PEACE & JUSTICE FILES: GAME CHANGERS

(My column for January 2014…)

For me, 2013 didn’t go out with a bang: it went out with a cough and a wheeze and a snore. After a year-end barrage of long workdays, a persistent chest bug sent me to bed around 9 PM on New Year’s Eve, and I didn’t stir till late the next morning. It was just as well; I was perfectly happy to be done with a year that had brought more than its share of challenges.

But don’t get me wrong – not everything was dire in 2013. Even in the midst of all the stress and difficulties, a number of new developments – dare I say, “game-changers”? – emerged that give me some hope for 2014 and the years ahead.

POPE FRANCIS: The moment that I saw that the new pope had chosen the name “Francis,” I broke out in an ear-to-ear grin – it was very clear what implications such a choice was meant to convey. For decades, the Catholic faithful were kept focused primarily on the hot-button sexual issues of homosexuality and abortion, to the detriment of the Church’s powerful (and equally unambivalent) teachings about economic and social justice. (I am convinced that this was no accident, by the way; it has well-suited certain interests to have the gaze of the faithful steered away from the seamier aspects of modern capitalism, which frankly cannot withstand a great deal of moral scrutiny.) Pope Francis’ ascension, and his call for a reappraisal of the Church’s priorities in the face of current economic realities, have shattered some very cozy arrangements in the halls of Vatican power. At the same time, he reminds us all that power and influence can be wielded effectively while maintaining an attitude of service and humility – indeed, that such an attitude can be powerful in and of itself.

MALALA YOUSAFZAI: In the course of less than a year, the young Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai rebounded from being the victim of a point-blank assassination attempt to eldering the President of the United States about the American use of drones in her country. In attempting to get rid of her, the Taliban instead created a potent counterforce to their brand of Islamic fundamentalism, one far more powerful than a dozen NATO brigades. Hopefully, she will also prove to be more powerful than the Western machinery of celebrity, or the political machinations of those who might try to exploit her image.

RICHMOND, CALIFORNIA: This community in the suburbs of San Francisco, the largest municipality in the country with a Green Party mayor, sent ripples of fear through financial circles last year. The city council has raised the possibility of using the city’s powers of eminent domain to seize the mortgages of foreclosable properties, restructure the debts, and theerby make it possible for homeowners to stay in their homes. The idea is starting to spread – Newark and Irvington NJ are among the many cities also considering similar strategies. (See http://www.huffingtonpost.com/les-leopold/our-most-powerful-weapon_b_4486413.html for more information.)

These are but three examples. I could also mention the elections of unrepentant leftists like Mayor Bill DiBlasio in New York, and City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant in Seattle. There’s a man in Wisconsin named Amar Kaleka who is gearing up to unseat Paul Ryan in Wisconsin – Kaleka’s father was a local Sikh leader who was shot by a white supremacist. Robert Reich’s documentary “Inequality for All” has added fuel to the growing discussion about the longterm effects of income and wealth distribution in the US.

I don’t expect 2014 to be a cakewalk – far from it, in fact. I’ll go on the record now with a prediction: it’s gonna be a hard, messy slog. But I am more hopeful now than I was a year ago – and it will be up to us to make that hope grow into new realities.

I’LL HAVE A HAPPY CHRISTMAS (IF IT KILLS ME)

 Well, the holidays are nearing
And once again I’m fearing
The spirit of the time may fail to fill me
But I’ll have a happy Christmas
A jolly little Christmas
I’ll have a happy Christmas if it kills me

 Yes,. I’ve made up my mind
To be generous and kind
Though I’ll admit the prospect doesn’t thrill me
But I’ll have a happy Christmas
A jolly little Christmas
I’ll have a happy Christmas if it kills me

(bridge)
In my mind I’ll carry mistletoe
Look around for reindeer in the snow
And if I see a baby with his eyes aglow
I’ll know someone found the candy

 Well, the holidays get hectic
So don’t get apoplectic
Or have a heart attack when Visa bills ya
Just have a happy Christmas
I wish you Merry Christmas
And I sure hope that Christmas doesn’t kill ya

 (bridge)
In my mind I’ll carry mistletoe
Look around for babies in the snow
And if I see a reindeer with his nose aglow
I’ll know someone found the brandy

Well, the holidays get hectic
So don’t get apoplectic
Or have a heart attack when Visa bills ya
Just have a happy Christmas
I wish you Merry Christmas
And I sure hope that Christmas doesn’t kill ya

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: THE COLD HARD FACE OF POWER

(My column for December 2013…)

The recent passing of Nelson Mandela brought my mind back to 1978.

In 1978… well, let’s tell it how it was: I was pretty clueless.

I was in my senior year at Harvard College. In my undergraduate years I had not paid much attention to political issues – I was more involved in theatrical productions, the campus radio station, and the other, um, pursuits that concerned a young man of college age in the late 1970’s. (And, oh yes, I was also trying to keep my head above water academically. That too.)

But there was a certain fervor on campus that year, something that was starting to boil over – something happening that I didn’t know or understand much about.

Something about South Africa – and apartheid – and money.

Harvard University is fueled by its massive endowment – and by the income derived from its investments. For some time, student activists had been trying to persuade the University to divest – that is, to pull its investment money from any companies that did business in South Africa. In this way, they hoped to exert economic pressure on South Africa’s apartheid regime to change its repressive and discriminatory policies.

Opinions ran strong on all sides. Divestment advocates felt that Harvard could make a strong and influential moral statement by divesting. Some opponents maintained that mere moral considerations should have no effect on investment decisions. Others feared that divestment would remove Harvard’s ability as a shareholder to affect corporate policies for the better, while yet others were active supporters of the South African government, seeing it as a bulwark against Communism.

In response to the controversy, the Harvard Corporation (which runs the day-to-day affairs of the University) announced a series of open meetings where people could give testimony about the situation and make suggestions about what Harvard should do. One of these meetings seemed to me an ideal opportunity to learn more about the issues involved, and so, on an impulse, I went.

The meeting was crowded, and the vast majority of the speakers – all but one, in fact – were pro-divestment. But the most affecting testimony came from a black South African journalist, a Zulu man from Soweto named Obed Kunene, who was at Harvard on a Nieman Fellowship. His statement, describing the day-to-day realities of life for blacks in a South African township, brought the situation alive for me in a way that news reports had not. As Kunene spoke, I was watching the men on the dais, the men of the Harvard Corporation – when I was suddenly struck by a stunning realization:

They didn’t seem to care.

They just sat there, these powerful men, stolid and apparently unaffected, with no flicker of emotion that I could detect. I suppose Kunene’s tales of repression and cruelty weren’t really “news” to them, of course, as they were to me, but still I found their diffidence difficult to comprehend.

And for perhaps the first time, I started to sense the connection between my comfortable and fortunate circumstances and the sufferings of others, however far away. As a scholarship student, after all, I was a beneficiary of those investments – and therefore indirectly complicit in what those investments had made possible.

This was my introduction to the cold, hard face of power – and the beginning of my radicalization.

The divestment movement would have some successes, eventually – and eventually, the apartheid regime would yield, due perhaps not so much to the divestment movement as to an unstoppable force named Mandela, and what Dr. King called “the moral arc of the universe.”

Rest in peace, Nelson Mandela – and thank you.

(Some history of the anti-apartheid struggle at Harvard can be found at http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2003/6/4/out-of-africa-on-a-cool/)

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: A DEVIL’S RESPONSE TO PAUL HARVEY

MEMO

FROM: Screwdisk, Executive Vice-Demon for Sales, HellCorp North America
TO: Regional Field Agent Scumbucket, Tempter Second Class
RE: “If I Were the Devil,” by Paul Harvey

My dearest nephew –

I received your last message with interest, especially the essay “If I Were the Devil,” by the mortal radio personality Paul Harvey.  Quite intriguing. Apparently, though, the version you forwarded to me was not entirely authentic. Not surprising – the original was penned more that fifty years ago, after all. Mr. Harvey himself wrote a couple of versions. And the humans’ “folk process” seems to have had its way with the text. (If you’d care to study the history of the piece, you can find the “rest of the story” at www.snopes.com/politics/soapbox/devil.asp)

Let me first assuage your concerns – this document does not mean there was any “security breach” or “leak.” Mr. Harvey made some astute guesses, true, but any human who knows anything about us could do the same with a bit of thought. (That is one reason we strive so mightily to prevent them from engaging in the practice for any extended length of time.)  You may recall that a mortal author named C.S. Lewis attempted a similar feat, publishing some purported correspondence which he ascribed to our esteemed ancestor Screwtape.

I should love to correct Mr. Lewis, but he does not seem to be here.

But back to Mr. Harvey. Mr. Harvey seems to think we care about the spiritual state of “nations” as such. We deal in individual souls; we don’t worry about how we could “take over the United States.” We may concern ourselves with influencing leaders, we may engender social trends to further our cause, true enough, but work towards damning entire, specific countries en masse? Not necessary. Our Enemy does not confer salvation based on citizenship or political affiliation; our eternal battle is conducted one soul at a time. (Though we do concern ourselves with volume – and speaking of which, we must soon discuss your progress against your monthly quota. But I digress.)

That does not mean that we cannot use certain national characteristics to our advantage, though.  Mr. Harvey thinks we are trying to turn all Americans into atheists. He does not seem to understand – or perhaps does not believe in – the raw historical inertia that faith exerts in his society, It would be quite difficult to turn all Americans completely away from spiritual matters.

But we can take that faith and, in a significant number of individuals, twist it to suit out ends.

Consider those wonderful words, “American exceptionalism.”  One of the best products from our Semantics Branch, I must say.  Rather than try to convince Americans that their blessings have nothing to do with Divine benevolence, we push the opposite. Rather than allow those blessings to engender feelings of gratitude, humility, or responsibility, we instead encourage their pride, hubris, and arrogance. We tell them – and they love to hear this – that since they clearly enjoy such special favor in the Creator’s sight, that they can do just about anything they want – invade, loot, plunder… Let them assume that they are always doing good – and this will make it easier to bring them to commit evil.

Let me see here, so many errors… No, Mr. Harvey, I would not “deify science.” I would much rather undermine rationality at every turn; logic is one of our greatest enemies, and irrational people are ever so much easier to lead astray. And “kill the incentive of the ambitious”? Never! Hell forbid! It is one of our most productive and advantageous avenues into the hearts of men!

Your Mr. Harvey may catch us red-handed in some of our more blatant manifestations, dear nephew, but he misses the finer levels of our machinations. You may remove the knot from your tail.

Affectionately, as ever, your devoted uncle,

Screwdisk

The Start of Fall (a bit of doggerel)

The start of fall, the end of summer -
Some may consider this a bummer
But I don’t feel that way at all
Because I really like the fall.The fall, that features cooling breezes,
But not yet winter’s coughs and sneezes -
The harvest comes, the corn grows tall
And that’s not all about the fall.

The gates of knowledge now reopen
And though I know each schoolkid’s hopin’
School might collapse roof upon wall
Still nonetheless they like the fall.

A new school year, a pristine slate,
New friends to meet (perchance to date)
An excuse to hit the nearest mall -
Yes, there are good things about the fall.

Now comes that march of holidays
That leave us in a turkeyed daze
Of pumpkins, candy, and football -
A big ol’ party, that’s the fall.

So put away the sunscreen, Jake,
Get out the jackets (and the rake) -
Heed the autumn’s siren call
And have yourself a lovely fall.

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: YOUR COUNTER-FASCISM TOOLKIT

(Last in a series.)

According to numerous public health studies, just washing your hands on a regular basis – a simple, mundane activity if ever there was one – actually provides one of the most effective measures for preventing the spread of many diseases. Preventing the spread of the “social disease” called fascism is a bit more complex – but many of the preventive measures that are available to each and every one of us are similarly simple and mundane.

But before we can understand how that works, first we need to recognize that fascism is more than just a form (or style, actually) of government. It is not just a matter of structure – of laws, agencies, and regulations. It is also a cultural phenomenon, in which the media, the arts, the educational system, the church, and all the other institutions, traditions, and customs that make up “society” are enlisted (or drafted) into the cause of imposing the artificial “unity” that fascist propaganda makes to seem so attractive. And to the extent that individual citizens accept and internalize the fascist agenda, it affects even our day-to-day interpersonal relationships.

So counterfascist actions must take place at all three levels – the structural, the cultural, and the personal. Of these three, it is perhaps the cultural that is most important – for in order to establish their dominance, fascists who aspire to power first need to create an apparent groundswell of “popular support” for the structural changes they desire. (It is far more likely that fascist power will be established in the USA through apparently “free and fair” elections than through some kind of armed rebellion or coup d’etat.)

What kinds of tools do we have, then, in our “counterfascist toolbox”? The first tool is simple vigilance: just paying attention, and keeping ourselves informed about what is going on, both in our immediate vicinity and in other places around the country. Not paranoia, mind you – fearfulness can paralyze us, and make us think we are powerless when in fact we are not. Legislatures are still passing laws in the open, even if some of those laws are being composed behind closed doors by special interests. (If you haven’t heard of an outfit called “ALEC,” you might want to check out www.alecexposed.org – it’s a good place to start.)

Centeredness – the ability to maintain calm, rational equanimity in the face of stress or provocation – counters the tendency to panic, or take rash, impulsive, and ultimately counterproductive action. Many physical and spiritual disciplines exist that help develop this quality, from meditation and prayer to martial arts and tightrope walking – and as it develops, we become better able to think clearly when we might otherwise get caught up in the emotion of the moment.

Centeredness supports courage, another important tool to have handy. Countering fascism on the everyday, interpersonal level might mean interrupting or contradicting someone else’s oppressive attitudes or mistaken assumptions, and risking some kind of immediate personal blowback. Countering it on the structural or cultural levels might mean taking a visible public stand, risking arrest, or worse. (Check out what’s been happening in Texas lately, or in North Carolina with the “Moral Mondays” protests.)

The creation and maintenance of community is also crucial – and here I mean “community” in two different senses of the word. First, it is obviously important to surround oneself with like-minded and supportive people – but it is also equally important to reach out across ideological boundaries, and create a wider sense of “community” among people who do not agree on everything. Fascism, of whatever stripe, thrives on the easy delineation of groups between “Us”’s and “Them”’s, and we should muddle those borders whenever possible. (This means, by the way, resisting the strong temptation to dehumanize and belittle those with whom we disagree on this issue or that, and instead searching to find areas of common ground where communication becomes possible.)

Finally – what can we do with these and the many other tools we have? Press for ever-greater openness, transparency, and accountability in both government and business. Encourage greater civic participation, whether at the polling place, on the street, or in the workplace. Strive to reduce the power of corporations over the government, and of government over the people. Use the power of community both to celebrate the diversity that enriches our lives, and to lessen the differences that divide us.

And most of all: refuse to remain silent.