Category Archives: Ideas

JUDGMENT DAY (from the Anticalypse)

(An excerpt from the Anticalypse of Sebastian of Appalachia)

And then behold, I found I sat as in a park, upon a bench, in the shade of trees, and the day was clear and bright. And the pigeons did flock all about, and I heard the barking of dogs, and the laughter of children playing. But I knew that beyond this park, all was discord and conflict and fire, and the destruction of the world continued apace.

And next to me sat an angel, tall, dark-skinned, radiant; but he seemed as a street musician or travelling minstrel; and behold he was garbed all in blue, from the soft cloth hat on his head to the shoes of his feet, and butterflies danced upon him, shining with a light like unto rainbows, and the soft tinklings of bells were heard about him.

“The Justice of the Lord is perfect and absolute,” said the blue one to me, “but His Mercy is also infinite. This is the mercy that I know you seek. But consider, and consider well, for this is the choice to be made, by you, upon this, your Day of Judgment: He can extend this mercy unto you, but if so then He shall extend it to all, even those who have harmed or frightened or angered you, whom you have judged to be evil and worthy of punishment. Or he can exact his terrible justice upon them, and so satisfy your thirst for retribution; but then that same awful gaze must needs be turned upon you, and you know what that means.

“And so, beloved… how do you want this all to go down, hmmm?”

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: HOW ARE WE DOING?

(My column for July 2017…)

First, a quick update: my time in Germany has been fabulous, but is soon coming to an end, for now at least. My next column will be sent from Belgrade, in Serbia, where I will be spending at least the month of August volunteering with a refugee assistance agency called BelgrAid. Check my Facebook account for news as it happens.

Now then…

I hope everyone had a thoroughly enjoyable Independence Day. (I also hope we get to have another one!) The Fourth found me in a nice little Italian restaurant here in Krefeld, with a glass of pinot noir and a yummy plate of pasta with shrimp in cream sauce, thinking about where we are, where we’re going, and the importance of goals.

I got introduced to the concepts of “Total Quality Management” while I worked for a software company down in Stroudsburg back in the late nineties. Many of those concepts had to do with goal setting – everything from determining the overall purpose of a company down to identifying the acceptable error rate for widget production. I learned that goals, to be really useful, needed to be SMART: specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and time-oriented… at least, that was one interpretation of the acronym “SMART.” (There are others – see for instance https://www.projectsmart.co.uk/smart-goals.php.)

Maybe you’ve been in one of those annual performance reviews – where you and your manager sat down, looked at the goals you’d set last time, compared them to actual performance, and talked about what had worked well and where improvement was still possible. Properly handled, such talks can be immensely useful, both for employees and management.

Well, we have goals as a country, you know. They’re in the Preamble to the Constitution. (Test yourself! See how many you remember before reading the next paragraph!)

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Now, of course the Founders didn’t have TQM, or the idea of “SMART goals,” so perhaps they can be excused for setting some pretty fuzzy and difficult-to-measure goals. Just what did they mean by “a more perfect Union,” say, or “the Blessings of Liberty”? Heck, judging from the state of the healthcare debate, we can’t even seem to agree on what is meant by “the general Welfare.”

But here’s another important thing to remember about goals: they are not carved in stone. Situations change, and goals can change with them. Some might not prove to be realistic; some might not go far enough. The process of goal-setting can lead to some pretty serious self-examination, and also encourage some audacious visions.

So here’s your opportunity to engage in a little exercise – I’ve set up a survey called “Progress Towards America’s Goals” on the SurveyMonkey website. Go to https://www.surveymonkey.de/r/MCKVFVM, and have at it. It should take about ten to fifteen minutes to complete, maybe more if you want to get really thoughtful about it. In a couple of weeks, I hope to have enough responses to generate a kind of report card, which I can then share with you. Thanks in advance.

 

 

 

 

 

TRIBES (2009)

(My “Peace and Justice Files” column from June 2009.)

Whenever I see someone here in the North displaying a Confederate flag – whether it’s on a truck, a front porch, or a belt buckle – I find myself wondering just what, exactly, that flag means to that person, and what message that person intends to convey. Did they have ancestors, perhaps, who fought for the South in what some down there still refer to as “the recent unpleasantness,” and they’re just showing some pride in their heritage? Do they mean to demonstrate a hankerin’ for secession, or just a desire to be left alone? Are they making a nuanced political statement regarding states’ rights, encroaching Federal power, and the Tenth Amendment? Or are they simply letting it be known that their weekend schedule is likely to involve some combination of Toby Keith, Bud Light, and NASCAR?

There are all sorts of tribes – ideologies, heritages, lifestyles – and all sorts of ways to display your allegiance to the tribe (or tribes!) of your choice, from uniforms and flags to tattoos and license plate frames.

In some places, so I am told, displaying the wrong tribal symbols can get you killed – wearing the other gang’s colors, having the wrong kind of name, praying in this manner rather than that, sending your daughter to a school, that kind of thing. Sometimes the consequences are more subtle – a little delay in service, perhaps, or an extra-thorough examination at an airport gate, or maybe a bit of preventive detention.

But if you’re connected to whatever tribe happens to be in power, well then! Life becomes much easier. After all, tribes exist (among other things) to provide mutual protection for their members, and to guard the tribe’s resources against attacks from outsiders. So maybe it’s not all that surprising that folks on President Obama’s economic team like Timothy Geitner and Larry Summers, whom we might well consider members in good standing of the “Wall Street Tribe,” have been acting first and foremost to further the interests of their fellows.

Such tribal thinking has its limitations, however, in an interconnected and interdependent world. More dominant “tribes,” whether on local or global levels, can no longer afford to be quite so callous about the effects of their dominance, or imagine themselves immune either from larger responsibilities or from the consequences of irresponsible actions. I am writing these words just a few hours after President Obama delivered his “New Beginning” speech in Cairo, calling on various “tribes” (our own included) to focus more on their connections than on their differences, and to think more about how to make this a better world for everyone. The world can no longer be seen as a “zero-sum” game, where my tribe can only win at the expense of yours – ways must be found for everyone to progress, or we shall all lose ground instead.

Identifying with our various tribes helps us form part of our identities. We don’t have to completely surrender our roots, or our passions, or our beliefs in order to coexist, but we must also remain mindful that, for this short time only, we are each members of the same tribe: the tribe of the living.

ATTACK MODE (2010)

(My Peace and Justice Files column from September, 2010)

attack

“Turn on the TV, we’re under attack.” As September began, James J. Lee attacked the headquarters of the Discovery Channel, taking hostages and issuing a list of demands, in which he attacked “Kate Plus Eight,” among other things. Apparently, he felt that Mother Earth herself was under attack, and he didn’t think that Discovery programming attacked global warming or overpopulation hard enough. So, police attacked in response, killing Lee. Al Sharpton attacked Glenn Beck for trying to co-opt Martin Luther King’s legacy, evangelical Christians attacked Beck for being a Mormon, and Beck attacked President Barack Obama’s faith as “a perversion of the gospel.”

The “Bleacher Report” says this year we should expect to see much more of an aerial attack from the Florida Gators than the past few years. Hamas attacked some Israelis, killing four, so you know the Israelis are going to attack someone in response, right? Nonetheless, Netanyahu and Abbas say they’re willing to attack some the thorniest problems surrounding the peace process. Turkey is still miffed at Israel for attacking that flotilla of humanitarian workers headed for Gaza, although other people defend the Israeli soldiers, whom they claim were attacked with clubs and iron bars by the people on the ships.

“Who’s behind these attacks, anyway?” Hurricane Earl is about to attack the coast of North Carolina. A Muslim imam has been under attack all summer for proposing to build a cultural center a few blocks from the site of the Ground Zero attacks in New York City. The people attacking the imam have been attacked as being Islamophobic racists, but they say they’re still outraged by the 9/11 attacks. A Muslim cab driver was attacked in his cab by a photographer who had just returned from filming attacks with the Marines in Afghanistan.

“We’re in full-attack mode now, by golly!” A mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee was the target of an arson attack. Some kids in Carlton, NY, are accused of a drive-by attack harassing a Sufi mosque. Sarah Palin maintains that the American way of life is under attack. I had a major panic attack myself in January of 2008. Newt Gingrich attacks Obama’s “secular-socialist machine,” and some of Obama’s critics have attacked the veracity of the President’s citizenship. US-led aerial attacks killed 16 civilians near Kandahar, some of whom were reportedly election campaign workers.

The schoolkids are back to attacking their books, and here in Honesdale it’s football season, and you know what that means – it’s time for the “Red and Black Attack!” Political campaigns are working on new series of attack ads, in preparation for the November elections. “The attack came before dawn, while the village was asleep.” Shark attacks against swimmers in coastal waters have grabbed headlines. Police are investigating a series of acid-throwing attacks in the Northwest. Bee colonies are under attack from a mysterious illness. Former UN Ambassador John Bolton thinks that Israel should already have attacked Iran’s nuclear program by now. An Iranian newspaper has attacked Carla Bruni, the wife of French President Sarkozy, as a “prostitute” for defending the rights of Iranian women from attack by conservative clerics.

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) renewed calls for a missile defense system, saying “I think we are naked in terms of an attack on the East Coast.” Archaeologists have attacked BP’s plans to start exploratory oil drilling off the coast of Libya. Two people died in Port Huron, MI, as a result of one of a number of recent attacks around the country involving machetes. Some conservatives attacked Ann Coulter for speaking at an event for gay Republicans, and of course she attacked them right back. The Defense Department recently confirmed a major cyber-attack against US military computers. Wikileaks founder Julius Assange contends the rape charges against him are part of an attack campaign following Wikileaks’ release of a huge number of military attack reports from Iraq. A fungus has attacked the bat population in the Northeast, and is spreading.

So when Obama says that our days of attacking Iraq are over… somehow, for some reason, that gives me little comfort.

RUMBLINGS (2011)

(My “Peace and Justice Files” column from March, 2011, recently unearthed.)

Has the earth shifted under your feet yet?

No, I’m not talking about Christchurch, New Zealand, which was recently hit by its second major earthquake in less than six months. I’m not talking about Arkansas, where a recent increase in seismic activity has been linked to the “fracking” process for extracting natural gas. And while I am speaking metaphorically, I’m also not referring to the political changes that are still reverberating across many Arab countries as I write, “earth-shattering” though those changes certainly are.

It’s tempting, to be sure, to paint what’s going on in places as diverse as Libya and Wisconsin – and here around us in the Upper Delaware Valley, for that matter – in terms of grand tectonic movements, to think of massive historical forces grinding against each other, sending out shock waves as old forms are destroyed and new ones created. But my concern at the moment is more on the individual, personal level.

Namely: what do we do when our old stories, our tried-and-true ways of seeing the world, become obsolete? These stories – or “narratives,” as I’ve been referring to them in the last couple of columns – help us comprehend what is going on around us. What happens when they are taken away?

We spend the first parts of our lifetimes learning how to see, how to categorize the flood of sensory data we experience, how to evaluate patterns, and how to sort out real dangers from illusory ones. We learn what others expect from us, and what we can usually expect from them. We learn to predict, and generalize, and navigate our way through the world. We learn the rules, and the exceptions to the rules.

But sometimes the rules change. They change when personal tragedy strikes, when disasters hit, when conflicts erupt… or when the existing order of society becomes no longer sustainable.

And when that happens, the disorientation can be gutwrenching. Like a neophyte on a bad LSD trip, one can find things that should be solid, that have always been firm and reliable, become fluid and changeable, or disappear altogether. Suddenly one doesn’t know what to do, or how to react, or exactly what is really happening. Things normally benign can take on threatening aspects, or one can unwittingly throw oneself into harm’s way.

At such times, the very ground we stand on no longer seems steady. With nothing to hold onto, nothing to guide us, our own sense of identity can itself be shaken, possibly even shattered.

This is what I mean when I speak of feeling the earth shifting beneath our feet – the awareness that a transition, a basic and profound change, is bearing down upon us.

I do not think it is overly alarmist to suggest, as gently as possible, that it may be time to begin preparing for such a moment. Fundamental institutions – like the fossil-fuel economy, for example, or the idea of Western hegemony in world affairs – are nearing the ends of their natural lives, and their replacements are not yet born. We can feel the early rumblings, the harbingers of the shocks to come.

How can we prepare? Among other ways, by finding our place within larger stories. We can connect more deeply to our communities; we can reinforce our bonds both with those who surround us now in physical space, and those who come before and after us in time. We can connect more strongly to ourselves, through spiritual disciplines, mental practices, or creative activities that help keep us centered. And we can keep reminding ourselves that these changes are part of a natural process, part of the ongoing development of life.

 

 

Who are we as a country?

we the people

A Facebook friend, no doubt looking forward to July 4, recently asked: “Who are we as a country?”

Here’s my response:

Well, that is indeed the question, isn’t it? The Founders set up a system that (eventually, after a few tweaks and a couple of rough patches) made it possible for practically anyone to join in and be known as “American.” What unites us (or rather, what should be uniting us) is not genetics, or shared faith, or language, or even cultural heritage, but allegiance to, belief in, and support of a certain set of values. Justice, respect, and equity before the law are some of the values that are supposed to be in that package. Unfortunately, our history shows that we haven’t always done the best job of living up to those values. And our present situation shows that some of us are still quite willing to jettison or sabotage some of those values if there is money or power to be gained.

So, who are “we” as a country? A diverse collection of human beings – fallible, flawed, imperfect – looking to create something that isn’t finished yet, not by a long shot. Something that has never really existed before. What is it that we have been trying to create? A “more perfect union”, with established justice, domestic tranquility, and common defense, that promotes the general welfare and secures the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity.

Not a divided society of haves and have-nots, of different groups eyeing each other warily across increasingly broad chasms, of people in conflict at home and abroad. That wasn’t supposed to be the idea at all.

Foundation for the General Welfare

What counts as “work”? Or a “job”?

The usual conception of a “job” implies activities that create value for someone else – one’s employer. For doing this, one gets paid… and the employer makes profit by making sure that payment is less than the value of the work.

Many activities, though, that demand time and effort, and that do in fact create value for society, but not for an employer, are not recognized as “jobs.” As social theorist Riane Eisler has pointed out, our economic systems “fail to value and support the most essential human work: the so-called ‘women’s work’ of caring and caregiving.” This includes the work – usually full-time, if not 24/7 – of caring for oneself, one’s family, one’s community, and one’s environment.

In the present debate on healthcare, for instance, conservatives who are trying to dismantle sections of the social safety net are fond of saying that those who may lose Medicaid coverage “can always get jobs,” as White House spokescreature Kellyanne Conway recently stated.

general welfare

Well, okay then.

I propose the establishment of a quasi-governmental foundation, to be called the Foundation for the General Welfare. (As in “promote the general welfare,” one of the stated goals of the United States of America.) This foundation would be funded initially by the government and, increasingly over time, by private donations.

It would hire people, and pay them a living wage to do what they have to do.

This foundation would, for example, hire the chronically ill who do not have insurance. Their job description would be simple: to participate in treatment for their illnesses, and get better if possible. Full insurance would be among the benefits – in fact, it would be the same Federal employee package now enjoyed by our Congresscritters.

This foundation would hire single unemployed parents, especially teenage moms. Their job description: to raise their kids and take care of their households.

This foundation would hire adults who are caregivers for their parents. Their job description: keep their parents as safe, comfortable, and happy as possible.

Get the idea?