Charlottesville has challenged us to rethink some questions. Initial reactions to events have calmed somewhat. For the most part, I have a preference against absolute positions, but here are some interesting (I think) ideas:
1) public space should for the most part be dynamic and rated at least PG if not G. if we allow it to change, we increase the interest in the space, increase the visibility and development of artists and create spaces to discuss.
2) the role of the police in this conflict. I can’t really say because what we have is media accounts. The white supremacist slogans were reportedly pretty horrific and provocative. In addition, they were so heavily armed that it has been said that the police were somewhat intimidated. That said, the guns were not said to have been used. Instead, the origin of the tragic death seems to have been not so much what anyone said, but the car of a 20 year old kid.
3) equivocation. this has been discussed a lot. one side has a moral position about the fundamental dignity of every human being and the right to religious freedom; the other side’s moral argument seems to center on freedom of speech and the right to bear arms to defend that speech in the event that people who say that speech are targeted. the positions and values are not equivalent. Do people have a right to fight about it? If they don’t fight the small battles strongly, does the immoral side get stronger?
4) compulsion. in my view, this is where the president drew the line. he was being asked (possibly forced) to state the above, and he initially chose not to be forced into taking a side. It is arguably the privilege of rank.
5) many people feel that the line needs to be redrawn. about 2 million people fought for the North in the civil war; about 750 000 fought for the South. Those that fought for the South effectively were defending slavery, although as is the case in most wars, most people fight for their families and friends. Are we going to say that those 750 000 who defended slavery are not American, or entitled to citizenship? The irony is that this was the losing side’s argument, the winning side forced everyone to stay together. So, in the spirit of everyone growing together, let’s agree that we are not going to deny people that live amongst us the basic rights of citizenship.
6) what do we do with harmful speech, behavior, and ideas? do we censor it when we know it causes harm? do we correct one another when we hear and are subject to it? what are the rules of disengagement? do we associate it with loss of rank? driver’s license? opportunities for friends? opportunities for employment? opportunities for business? opportunities for conversation? housing? internet access? education? medical care?
7) I’m wary of the above because I have seen political forces be applied against movements – civil rights activists, pacifists, communists, gays, muslims, the mentally ill, etc. Being categorized or “criminalized” because of positions (sometimes erroneously sometimes out of context) by “an observer” should not have the power to disenfranchise people to the point of being shunned, etc.  And here I would argue, we up the level of civility, making sure that those points that we do try to address can be heard in a quiet respectful way no matter how the other side acts.  It is easier said than done.  To quote Michelle Obama “When they go low, we go high.”
8) There is one piece of advice that has served me well over the years, and I turn to it again and again in times of anger. “Never do things for negative reasons.” To me, this does not mean never respond to anger negatively, but rather think about it, and find a positive reason for the actions that one ultimately chooses to take. We owe it to the fine lives that were lost in this situation to prove that we can do better.

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The Civil War: 150 years later

I’m horrified at the events in Charlottesville.  Two weeks ago, I had been asked by the Quakers what to do about the planned protest.  My solution had been to ignore the protest, stay away from it, not give it any press.  I wonder at the bravery of those who did go.  In the end, they got press, not just from others, but also from me.  So, what to do about the monuments to a war that many would rather not remember, what to do with the fact that honoring these monuments perpetuates a discomfort in some that is oppressive to them.  I once thought taking the monuments down was the solution.  After visiting the Native American cultural centers however, I realize that in many ways, that is what happened to them.  Their symbols and culture were removed from our society and put in museums.  Some of these museums have survived, yet others have closed.  So, I am much more ambivalent today about removing the past from the present.  I now think, (and am open to debate), that qualification is necessary.  Use the monuments as an opportunity for reflection about what they mean.  Something like:

“Many years ago, much of the wealth of this country was founded on the unpaid labor of forced immigrants whose families were mostly destroyed in the process.  Slavery as an institution formally ended as a consequence of the end of the Civil War.  This country sacrificed 620,000 men to resolve the question of how much a human being could be exploited by another for profit.  The burden of this exploitation was unequally and almost without exception borne by persons of color.  This burden is felt to this day by many people as we strive towards a post-racial society.  Some people may be reminded by this monument of the pain and intimidation of the suffering; yet others of the shame at being associated with the side that lost the war and the moral line that they failed to uphold by their position on slavery.  We seek to remember the pain, and acknowledge the suffering and work yet to be done.”

Maybe we need different structures – but would they evoke the same feelings, and are these feelings central (necessary) to our history? Or should the public space be used to evoke feelings that we can get along? Can we trust people to make the distinction between taking down a statue that looks like a person, and taking down a person? Do we fight idols? Was Trump really so wrong in making the Sabbath (the day the event happened) a day for peace, and nonengagement in the fight? For waiting until Monday to condemn?

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Some Thoughts on North Korea

It’s a small country. Unlike Russia, where relations have not always been easy, and nuclear arms have been developed, the problem, I think, is that we continue to punish a country for being angry and different. I wish that everyone could take 3 steps back and realize that a) confrontation, b) nuclear arms, and c) war are not good solutions to this problem. Leave them alone. Try to get along with them. They are wanting the same rights that many other countries have as far as weapons go. We have had angry nuclear countries before. Why is this situation different? Is it the relative size/power of the countries, and the fact that this size/power discrepancy does not seem to be comprehended by a very isolated country?

We have better things to do than to destroy our planet trying to forcefully redefine this relationship.

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A Little Space

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Louisiana is culturally so special. Historically Native American and then French, the genteel manners of the French are everywhere apparent with the French penchant for excellent cuisine and cooking everything. Admittedly, there is not too much that is vegetarian-Kosher (crawfish, catfish, crabs, frog legs, alligator tail, boudin). One has the same problem in France… The Native American cultural part comes in with the fishing and gaming. Although the people are generally not wealthy, like the French, they enjoy a licentious good time, and give them a boat, they are happy to be out all day catching their food and cooking it in their small homes. I listen to the slow creole banter on the radio, trying to find a place to pitch a tent. I ask the local fire station, and the fireman thinks there might be a place up the road. I move hopefully a few miles up the road, following his direction, only to find it to be a trailer park across from the fireman’s training station… I remember too late that he had said that “they might let me pitch a tent there.” His accent was thick with the local patois.  I wondered if he had ever been much further than the trip from the fireman’s training station to the fire house. Still, it was kind of nice that he thought I might pitch my tent among the trailers however awkward that might be.

A nice bike ride with the pups through the swamp,

and then deep into Acadia. The overnight facilities are closed at the campground. 20 years after Katrina, they are still trying to rebuild after the floods. It is ancestral Native American. I visit the Chitimacha tribe and learn how they plant the cane that they use to double weave their baskets. Their language was archived many many years ago, and although all who spoke the language had passed, the tribe has gone through an extensive effort to “revive the language from its sleep”. It is now being taught in the schools in their tribe. Beautiful stories are woven by tribal members to describe their land and their culture. I watch one tribe member (a writer) describe how the boat he fishes from has to be wooden (otherwise it is not living), and listen to the granddaughter of one of the many tribal members who had been sent off to boarding schools in Pennsylvania as children. Her grandmother had run away.  Back in the day, she had hopped trains to get back.

As I move through the Atchafalaya Basin and its aquatic culture, I am quite aware that this really is ground zero for global warming.  The beaches along the coast, still not rebuilt after the hurricane, contain residue from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  People lounge on the beach, swimming in the water, with the oil rigs in the background, as one half of the state stands on the edge of being submerged and/or releveled by the next natural disaster.  The Chitimacha belong to the Mississippian mound culture and I had asked whether any of their mounds had survived all of the flattening of the land.  They answered yes.  But I truly wonder how many more disasters this land will survive, and whether it has passed into a chronic stage of illness where one no longer really hopes for recovery – just a good death at the end.

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What it’s Worth

Living out of a car, and yet having the enormous compassion with those who have lost everything, motivated me 15 years ago to drive down to Louisiana and help to rebuild after both Katrina and Rita. I was part of a team of Latinos who worked cities with open sewage flooding the fields and streets, mosquitoes so dense you could not see your skin underneath them, unbearable humidity without air-conditioning, no toilets, no running water (we were hauling it in from an hour and a half away on streets with no street signs, no electricity, etc.) I was there sometimes living out of my car with my dogs, sometimes staying in black-mold covered abandoned housing, working 10 hour days to rebuild roofs, hotels, and apartments. I was among a handful of people who did show up.

It hurts so much when the same hotel, that I had brought all of the goodwill in the world to try to help, will not rent me a room today with my dogs. They have adopted a no-pet policy.  Hurts to the point of wanting to vomit. I gave comparatively so much of what I had at the time when they had nothing. It makes me question ever helping anyone again.

So I realize that many undocumented Latinos are in a similar situation. They have worked extensively to build a country that is now deporting them.

This is also a legacy of slavery. The belief that some people should work for someone and something that they will never be allowed (out of principle) to enjoy. I had the option of going to visit the estate of a freed Black who became a slaveowner in Natchez. I think not. It might make some feel better to know that the slave line crossed racial divisions. I don’t doubt that under “extreme vetting” you can get some people to cross. The psychology of mistreatment in extreme situations is not something I would rather revisit.

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Bondage and Legacy

I’m down in the deep South now, coming over the Natchez trace. A long time ago, someone had pointed out to me the relationship between slavery and criminal justice systems, and I had dismissed it as an oversensitivity to the race question. With a little more wisdom and experience, however, I have come to see the 2 issues as deeply related. Both of them are fundamentally about exercising power over human beings, and when slavery was abolished, the legacy and grooming for control had to be satisfied in other ways. Although the institution left, individuals groomed to participate in it, found other ways of satisfying the roles that felt comfortable to them with any little vulnerability that arose in a situation. So, it is no accident that the number of executions in Southern states outweighs the rest of the country by a lot. The criminal justice system is designed to empower some individuals over others the same way that slavery traditionally did.

Why did people enslave? I don’t know exactly, but some of it is a legacy of war – also manifest in criminal justice. Those we have declared to be enemies to the point of lethal conflict with them are socially demoted to a lack of ability to participate as equals in society once the war is over. And when external wars are not available, the bar is raised and “a war on crime” or “a war on terror” is declared so that the development effort for war is justified and people can use the technologies that have been developed. Some class of people are given “criminal records” to socially and economically disable a class of people so that power drives can be satisfied.

So the point here, is that the legacy of slavery extends beyond the question of race.

How to avoid war to begin with? In the case of North Korea, I find it important to note that their system of governance has been self-contained with the exception of one attempt to unify the Korean peninsula that resulted in the Korean war. I don’t feel that the temperament testing that the military uses to articulate the dance between power and response is right. I feel that it does psychological harm to the other side with stress and destabilization.

I wish that the provocations would stop, and that boundaries could be respected among countries.

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