We all walk ancientrails. Welcome to the journey.

The country I used to know

Fall                                                                           Harvest Moon

1968The country I used to know. It wasn’t perfect. Take MLK and the civil rights movement. Vietnam. Crushing, unnecessary poverty and the dismal, shameful access to health care. Coal and gas poisoning the atmosphere. The lives of women and girls. And, yes, so much else.

It wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t sit at the stoplight, look at the car next to you and wonder if this asshole voted for Trump bad. It wasn’t mock the disabled, give aid and comfort to white supremacists bad. It wasn’t lock up democracy in a Republican’s only cabinet, then turn the Republicans into mean spirited and cruel operatives. It wasn’t grow the 1% at the expense of everyone else, grow the 1% at the expense of mother earth, grow the 1% at the expense of our allies. It wasn’t give aid and comfort to our enemies, to dictators and shun our friends.

No, this, this whatever we have now is worse, so much worse. I feel as if I woke up one morning, uncertain when, and found I’d moved to 1930’s Italy or Germany or Japan. As if the cultural fabric in which I lived and moved and had my being for 71 years had torn. In this case it revealed not an inept but kindly wizard, but a disturbing cabal of old white men, each one worse than Gollum, rubbing their own versions of the one ring and saying, my Precious, my Precious, my Precious.

ValuesAs I drive down the hill, then climb back up, I wonder if this is the way it was. Lives going on, wives in hospitals, trying to make sense of the unexpected, sudden calamities that visit us all but finding those calamities embedded in a greater one like Russian nesting dolls. Kate’s struggle a small instance of the larger one, a people beset by unforeseen tragedy. But, where do you take a country in extremis? Where are the emt’s for a sick nation?

This will sound strange, but I find Kate’s troubles, significant and important as they are to our family and friends, pale in comparison to the rot, yes, the evil, the poison in the veins of our body politic. These are not times of political disagreement, of debates over national debt or military preparedness or immigration policy, these are times with the flavor of a cold civil war.

I cannot describe to you how sad all this makes me. How disorienting I find these times. I don’t know what happens next, where we go from here. I hope the November elections shake the foundations of the Republic.

Too much. Kavanagh’s cowardly confirmation now seats two known sex offenders, criminals, on the highest court in our land, both with lifetime appointments. How can we trust our country? What does it mean to be an American now?

Ancientrails Looks Back: 9/11

Lughnasa                                                                        Harvest Moon

09 11 10_Joseph_0256-1Yes. I remember. Too well. At home in Andover, catching the news. Watching in disbelief as things that never happen happened. Passenger jets flying too low, not stopping, hitting, exploding. A feeling of personal violation and awful grief.

This was no moon landing, more like the Cuban Missile Crisis or the assassination of JFK, something too terrible to watch, yet too fascinating to stop. Would there be more? What did this mean? Who? Why? God, all those people falling. All those firefighters, police, EMT’s in the dust and smoke, as my Jesuit friends said of a comrade in Hiroshima, “…running toward the bomb.”

A young college sophomore was in his dorm or on campus or working, somewhere. He heard the news. Heard a call. A call to a life devoted to this country, one who had given him, in his mind, so much. Years later he would direct bombers over Libya, make plans to protect South Korea against the North, control fighters and bombers over Afghanistan, Iraq. Attend weapons school. Ten years plus and still a warrior, created by Osama bin Laden.

9.11The world, the blood. The thousands dead then, multiple more thousands of dead now, people still dying. Terrorism, asymmetric warfare, has succeeded. They have tested us, found us willing to do exactly what they need. Punish them, disproportionately. Easy recruiting. Soldiers for the caliphate. Break free of the capitalist West, hamstring the great Satan. And, gain glory from Allah.

It was, I think, the invasion of Iraq that made the terrorist’s argument for them. Afghanistan, no. Bin Laden was there. The Taliban sheltered him. We had a right to go after him, after those that aided him. But, Iraq? An unnecessary war, like Vietnam. In this case a war that convinced thousands of disenfranchised youth in the Middle East that death in jihad was more desirable than death by the thousand cuts of poverty and dysfunctional societies.

9.112Will this end? Yes. Even the Hundred Years war ended. The Thirty Years war, too. If climate change doesn’t take us all down first, at some point exhaustion will set in here and over there in the Middle East. Or, maybe a reformed Islam will take root, push out the extremists who read which texts they choose and ignore the rest.

This war, what some call the Forever War, has defined a generation. Sadly. We have learned no good lessons. No home truths. We have experienced and inflicted pain, gotten no where. Might be that climate change will eventually be the enemy that binds us all together. Wishful thinking? Probably.

Anyhow, I remember. Too well.

 

 

Going to the movies

Lughnasa                                                                Waning Summer Moon

In the spirit of the holiday weekend I’m relaxing before school starts, religious school that is. Getting ready has occupied my mind on some level every day since mid-June. Now that Alan and I have a plan, I’m giving myself these three days as a break. Feels great.

Yesterday Kate and I went to BlacKkKlansman. I’m sure many of you who read this have seen it, so we’re a little late. Several folks from Beth Evergreen have seen it. The story is a bit thin. The KKK in Colorado Springs was not historically significant and though hateful were, even as presented in the film, inept. What Spike Lee has done is take that thin story and use it as the core of a biting criticism of the Trumpstate and the folks he encourages.

He begins with a satirical short film of Alec Baldwin playing a fictitious race “scholar.” He also includes clips from Gone With the Wind and Birth of a Nation, both of which smuggle in a great deal of cultural commentary on race relations and the historical context that created and sustains white supremacist ideology. He also has several Trump related jibes. For example, after a Klan initiation ceremony, David Duke has a screening of Birth of a Nation. The berobed stand up and shout “America First!” According to a Colorado Springs reporter at the time, Nancy Johnson, this happened. There were also references to making America great again.

The Adam Driver character was not Jewish in reality, so Spike Lee’s casting of him as Jewish was a vehicle for commentary on anti-semitism. Driver’s comments about being raised as a secular Jew who had not thought much about his heritage are a critique of passing, whether by blacks or Jews. The frisson between Stallworth’s blackness, which undergoes a transformation when he goes undercover to a Stokely Carmichael, by this time Kwami Ture, speech and Driver’s gradually emergent Jewish consciousness was a key feature of the film for me.

The film does not end in the Stallworth era Colorado Springs. Instead Lee cuts to actual footage from the “Unity” march for white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia. Included are several different perspectives of James Alex Fields Jr driving his silver Dodge Charger into a crowd of counter protesters and killing Heather Heyer. Following those news clips and cell phone videos are scenes from Trump’s infamous, “There were good people on both sides.” reaction to those events.

A profound scene, which interlaces with the Klan initiation in which Adam Driver participates as Stallworth, has Harry Belafonte sitting in a Huey Newton chair, telling the story of the  lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas in 1916.

The ongoing satirical edge of the film, begun with the Alec Baldwin short, lulls the viewer into the same sort of “oh these buffoons aren’t a serious threat.” mentality that pervades our cultural perception of not only the Klan but other white supremacists, too. Until, that is, we see Fields’ Dodge Charger smash into unprotected protesters. Until we see our President giving aid and comfort not to the victims but to the perpetrators. Then we’re forced to go back and consider Scarlett O’Hara wending her way through wounded Confederate soldiers and the blackfaced actors in the Birth of a Nation footage. We’re forced to consider that the America First shouts with the right arm salutes was not an artifact of an era now past, but with us now and not only with us now, but with us at the highest levels of our government.

The other turn that the movie makes is the implicit correlation between the America Love it or Leave it slogans embraced by the Klan and the same cultural tensions existing now. The era of the 1960’s lives on. Here’s a quote from a woman I know, an email she sent after I commented on a friend’s positive post about this movie:

Unless i have misinterpreted your comment on Ron S.’s FB, I didn’t know you are anti our country, our flag, and no doubt have always been. If so, how come you and the others are not moving to another country? Seems hypocritical that you all are still here. To me, this is not at all free speech ala the 1st Amendment.

 

Moral Minyan

Summer                                                                             Monsoon Moon

justice

Suggested to the woman who organized the immigration talk that perhaps the Beth Evergreen Social Action committee should be doing this kind of work. She passed my e-mail on to the Rabbi and to the chair of the Social Action committee. Lengthy response from the Social Chair chair amounts to, we do small things because they’re not political. Sigh. Same ol, same ol. Heard this all the time as a clergy in the Christian church, less so in the UUA. Say the word politics and you’ve touched the third rail.

Uncharacteristically, however, I intend to stay back from this conversation. I’ve got Jewish Studies Sunday Sampler and 6th grade religious school to prepare for. Perhaps the slight nudge will create a larger conversation. Hope so.

justice2

Kate and I are going to a protest at the Aurora ICE detention center next week. It’s led by the Moral Minyan*, a project of bendthearc. Family separation, though attenuated by the court ruling last week, remains a reality. Immigration is a distinctive American good, mixing our polity with new citizens from all over the world. It’s always been fraught with tension, with nativism, xenophobia, chauvinism, and, our record as a people with regard to persons of color is still miserable, but that French gift, Lady Liberty, with the poem by Emma Lazarus, represents the ideal toward which many of us strive. I believe most of us.

This notion that only a certain kind of person, usually white, can be a good U.S. citizen is racist at its core. The obvious rejoinder is the facebook meme of Indians confronting immigrants on the Mayflower. As Valentina said Tuesday night at Beth Evergreen, “Immigrants work hard. Immigrants pay their taxes, raise families.” Immigrants contribute to our national well-being and always have. In fact, immigrants created our nation.

justice obama

This current politics of meanness, of grudge-settling, of honoring foreign strongmen over our own government BY OUR PRESIDENT, the unleashing of the American id typified by the Charlotte rally and the way too many video clips of various individuals calling out persons they suspect of being “illegals” or “terrorists”, makes us all smaller. He who shall not be named is spending the capital accumulated since World War I which made this country a superpower. Shame on him.

Justice theodore-parker-bend-the-arc-email1

Parker was a Unitarian clergy, an abolitionist, and an activist who kept a loaded gun at his desk in case slave catchers showed up. Be like Theodore.

 

*In Jewish tradition, acts of public prayer require at least 10 people to gather to form a minyan.

In this moment of political crisis, we’re calling on progressive Jews across the country to gather to form Moral Minyans for acts of public protest, solidarity, and organizing as part of a national network of Jewish Resistance.

People who become leaders of Moral Minyans have a variety of skills and experience levels. We provide trainings and support for activists in our network who are organizing their Jewish community in living rooms and in the streets.

 

Concentration Camps, in the U.S., Right Now

Summer                                                                      Monsoon Moon

florenceSad. Mad. Incredulous. Shocked. Mystified. Hurt. The Florence Project. Kate and I went to Beth Evergreen last night to hear Valentina Montoya*. She’s a mental health attorney for the project, which means that her clients are not only caught in the detention trap, but have serious mental illness as well.

Reading about family separation, shaking our heads, how can they? That’s one experience. Hearing Ms. Montoya talk about children in detention, five month olds, toddlers, blind children, physically and mentally disabled children, children who have no apparent medical care or educational opportunities, children who know their parents as mama and daddy, but don’t know their given names, children separated from their parents with no tracking or identifying system in place, one four-year old boy, for example, who refused to change his clothes because he was afraid his parents wouldn’t recognize him, that’s another.

florence2Ms. Montoya became too emotional to talk. Several times. She answered question after question from this audience of maybe 75 people, all outraged, most wanting to do something. Kate stood up and asked what kind of medical care did these children receive? Ms. Montoya said no particular medical care was available. That means diabetes goes untreated. Other chronic conditions, too. Another asked what kind of education the kids were getting? Ms. Montoya said, “The kids speak Spanish; all the guards and caretakers speak English.”

This was an especially poignant topic for Beth Evergreen. As Renee said, “I’m a child of holocaust survivors. I’m uniquely qualified to call these what they are, concentration camps.” I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it’s true. No Zyklon B. For now. But, as Renee said, “If they can come for them, they can come for me. Maybe next, maybe three, four down the line.”

Here’s a thing I’d not paid attention to in the news reports. The families separated in Florence, Arizona, a distant, isolated location for an ICE detention facility (not an accident) are asylum seekers. That means they came to a U.S. port of entry and, as required by our law, asked for asylum. These are legal immigrants who have fled horrific conditions of gang violence, local drug cartels, domestic abuse, government oppression and seek refuge here. Let me say that again, these folks are LEGAL immigrants.

The bad elf, Jeff Sessions, has done everything he can to undercut the law by, for example, offering a biblical rationale for family separation, trying to defund basic legal orientation services. DHS lawyers raise jurisdictional issues in immigration proceedings to obfuscate and extend detention proceedings.

florence4Part of the problem for legal projects like Florence and Rocky Mountain Immigration Advocates is immigration law itself. It’s a hodgepodge of laws, rules, exceptions that have accreted like barnacles over the years, making it an area of the law for which even its specialists can claim only partial knowledge. That means even willing pro bono lawyers are often not competent to help. This makes it even easier for mendacious buffoons like Trump, Sessions and DHS Secretary Kirstjen Michele Nielsen to throw forks and knives into the wheels of justice.

It was, all in all, a heart rending evening. Unimaginable suffering. Detention is different from prison. In prison you know when you’re going to get out. Detention is indeterminant. Until Sessions quashed it, each detainee used to get a bond hearing every six months. That hearing at least offered a review of your circumstances and a possibility of release. With that bond hearing eliminated, there is no legal requirement for a time certain when your case will be heard. If at all. This out Kafka’s Kafka. And, it is definitely, a first step toward Nazi area solutions for folks we don’t like.

 

valentina-150x150*Valentina Restrepo Montoya was born in Boston to Colombian-immigrant parents. She earned her J.D. from Berkeley Law, where she advocated on behalf of asylum seekers, latinx workers, latinx tenants, and indigent defendants in criminal cases. Valentina clerked for The Southern Center for Human Rights, where she investigated language access to adult and juvenile courts. After law school, she joined The Southern Poverty Law Center, dedicating herself to litigation against The Alabama Department of Corrections for providing constitutionally inadequate medical and mental health care to prisoners, and not complying with The Americans with Disabilities Act. Prior to joining The Florence Project, Valentina was an assistant public defender in Birmingham, Alabama. She enjoys playing soccer, reading The New Yorker, practicing intersectional feminism, and rooting for The New England Patriots.

Choose Life

Summer                                                              Woolly Mammoth Moon

Installing solar panels, 2015

Installing solar panels, 2015

Here’s a surprisingly existential sentence from economic journalist, Annie Lowrey, “The way things are is really the way we choose for them to be,” she writes. Her new book, “Give People Money: How a Universal Basic Income Would End Poverty, Revolutionize Work, and Remake the World” (Crown),is considered as part of a New Yorker article, “Who Really Stands to Win from Universal Basic Income?”

UBI is an interesting idea, made more interesting by Nathan Heller who offers a good summary of its possibilities and pitfalls, and I recommend the read; but, I’m much more taken by that single sentence of Lowrey’s. Lowrey is, as Heller says, a policy person, so her comment in this instance refers to our economic reality. Our economic life is not a divine endowment from a class loving God, rather it is the sum of choices we make as a people, choices reflected in our laws, our deference to the wealthy, our moralizing (Calvinist driven in large part) of personal income and wealth (more, better person, less, worse person), even the choices we make as consumers. In sum we live in a created society, one that we can choose to recreate or even uncreate.

IMAG0912Why are we so reluctant to recognize that racism, sexism, homelessness, income inequality, white fear are the result of decisions we’ve made collectively and individually? I think the answer lies in ideas Arthur Brooks identifies as the bedrocks of conservative thought. Below is a portion of that article, Republican or Conservative: You Have to Choose.* NYT, June 25, 2018. Though it may surprise readers of this blog, I have considerable sympathy for these ideas.

They challenge the Lockean idea of a social contract among independent actors, a notion at best abstracted from common life. They challenge the fabric of a liberal political worldview. I agree that we are not wholly autonomous individuals. Heidegger’s notion of thrownness underlines this point by reminding us that our life begins in a particular time, in a particular place and in particular circumstances over which we had no choice whatsoever. Brooks says something similar, “…individuals emerge out of families, communities, faiths, neighborhoods and nations.” To this point, I’m with him. There are unique realities that shape us.

IMAG0913But, to sacralize that unique reality, “…conservatives have always placed tremendous emphasis on the sacred space where individuals are formed.” says Brooks, serves to deny its perniciousness, its damning of so many to lives of desperation, marginalized from both economic and cultural blessings. Once we emerge in the era, the family, the town or neighborhood or rural place, the religious or areligious space gifted to us, the nation of our birth, once we are over being thrown into circumstances beyond our volition, we gain the power of choice.

It is decidedly not the case that though thrownness may come first, as Brooks says “The order comes first.” that “…individual freedom is an artifact of that order.” No. Order is neutral, neither a moral good, nor a moral constraint. If the order into which we are born nourishes lives, lifts people into their best possible existence, then, yes, let’s sustain it. If, however, the order into which we are born is itself pernicious, damning us to poor education, inadequate nutrition, a lifetime of social doubts about our worth, then we must recognize the truth of Lowrey’s wonderful encapsulation of the liberal perspective: “The way things are is really the way we choose for them to be.”

 

*”Conservatives said we…think you’ve got human nature wrong. There never was such a thing as an autonomous, free individual who could gather with others to create order. Rather, individuals emerge out of families, communities, faiths, neighborhoods and nations. The order comes first. Individual freedom is an artifact of that order.
The practical upshot is that conservatives have always placed tremendous emphasis on the sacred space where individuals are formed. This space is populated by institutions like the family, religion, the local community, the local culture, the arts, the schools, literature and the manners that govern everyday life.
Membership in these institutions is not established by rational choice. We are born into them most of the time and are bonded to them by prerational cords of sympathy and affection. We gratefully inherit these institutions from our ancestors, we steward them and pass them along to our descendants.”

Say It Ain’t So, Bob

Beltane                                                                               Sumi-e Moon

20151022_101834Probably won’t be going back to Chainsaw Bob’s. Went yesterday to get my chain sharpened. They have a new deal, smart, where you leave your old chain and they put an already sharpened one on your saw. Supposed to save time. And it would if the guy putting the chain back on wasn’t trying to sell another guy a saw.

Gave me plenty of opportunity to peruse the new signs hung over the desk between the shop and the front. A picture of Hillary Clinton had these remarks. Hillary Chicken. 2 fat legs, 2 small breasts and lots of left wings. Next to it was a sign that read. Startling news! 25% of women in the U.S. are being treated for mental illness. You know what means? 75% are untreated! Under these signs a woman whom I assumed was Chainsaw Bob’s wife met customers, organized service and took money.

first-they-came-for-the-mexicans-and-i-did-not-10234171Sexism is still raw and unvarnished in many places, like racism on public display in Charlottesville, Virginia. Murica.

We live in our bubbles. The Big Sort, published in 2009, had the subtitle, Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart. Yesterday the Denver Post reported that the population of downtown Denver had increased by 3 times since 2000 to twenty-six thousand with 81% single, white and with an average age of 34. This is just a single instance of folks choosing to live among those similar to themselves in race, wealth and educational level.

This from Richard Florida and his excellent website, Citylab:  “Americans have not only grown more ideologically polarized over the past couple of decades, Republicans and Democrats are drawn to very different kind of places. Back in 2004, Bill Bishop dubbed the self-segregation of Americans into like-minded communities, “The Big Sort.”” Oct. 25, 2016

When I grew up in Alexandria, Indiana, during the 1950’s it was segregated by race, one black family in the town of 5,000, yet there were college educated folks living next door to factory workers who had, at best, graduated from high school. As a result, I have a blue collar sensibility that sets as deep in my character as the college-educated one I gained at home. Even this modest class diversity is rarer and rarer as suburbs and city neighborhoods, cities and rural areas grow more and more homogeneous.

electoral map

With a pussy-grabber in chief who sees good folks on both sides in Charlottesville, this sorted and ideological reinforcing America is ripe for a wave of extremism even more shocking than we’ve already seen. Trump’s approval rating is growing, still dismal, but moving up. The 30% or so of the U.S. who are his base may not seem like much, 70% are not his base, but Mao noted that only 3% of a country needed to be active revolutionaries for a rebellion to succeed. And he proved it.

What does this augur for our future as a nation? At a minimum it means a large percentage of the population will be unhappy with the government. At its maximum it could mean a white male populist revolt favoring Chainsaw Bob’s tilt to American politics. That’s close to where we are right now.

The Past is Present

Beltane                                                                        Mountain Moon

It was a beautiful day in the neighborhood yesterday. When Colorado throws out low humidity days, bright blue skies and warmth, not heat, the desire to play hooky from whatever it is your doing, even if it’s retirement, is strong. On these days Black Mountain is a tall, lodgepole covered green mass outlined against the blue, a few wispy cirrus clouds far above even it’s 10,000 feet peak.

TexasI’ve been reading a book by Lawrence Wright, God Save Texas. Wright is a writer for the New Yorker, a Pulitzer prize winner for his book, The Looming Tower, and a resident of Austin since 1980. His reporting, at least about Texas, has a wry sense of humor, expressing his obvious affection for the state without losing sight of its many quirks. I especially appreciated two points he made, the first about Texas culture and the second about Lyndon Johnson.

In talking about the distinctive Tex-mex culture that underlies current Texas life, country-western music, big belt buckles, Mexican influenced food, German architecture and antebellum south architectural influences, and the six-flags over Texas history of the Lone Star state, he posits 3 levels of culture. Tex-mex is level 1, the ur-Texas. Level 2 was the invasion of corporate capitalism, homogenized skyscrapers, symphonies, art museums, theaters, shopping malls. Level 2 was an attempt to become more mature, more European, more east coast driven by immigrants chasing oil money. Level 3, happening now, is a return to level 1 while retaining the positive aspects of level 2.

ricoeurIt reminded me, the reason I liked it, of Paul Ricoeur’s notion of second naiveté in which a scholar of religion first distances him or her self from his faith as a result of academic work, then returns to the texts after that distancing with a second naiveté, an embrace of the former belief now informed by reasoned analysis. The result, in both cases, is something new, neither level 1 nor level 2, but an amalgam.

The second point was one about Lyndon Johnson. Wright, who was born in August of 1947, and I share some history as opponents of the Vietnam War and excoriator’s of LBJ. In fact, I remembered while reading this part of God Save Texas that the Hey, hey NRA, how many kids have you killed today chant has its roots in one we used against LBJ Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids have you today? Wright says he wishes we’d been gentler on LBJ. Me, too.

LBJ2Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR and LBJ would be my top five Presidents, no particular order. Yes, Teddy Roosevelt and maybe Eisenhower are in a close second tier. I disagree with historians who rank Truman and Reagan above LBJ. And JFK is overblown. LBJ gave a damn about those in the U.S. who had less. In a commencement speech at the University of Michigan on May 22nd, 1964, he “… called on the nation to move not only toward “the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society,” which he defined as one that would “end poverty and racial injustice.” Miller Center, UVA

He made real progress toward those goals.* In his legislative accomplishments LBJ recognized that we are not a nation of individuals only, but a community, one in which the privileged, whether by birth, race or wealth, share with those lives were not privileged: people of color, seniors, the disabled among them. Since Reagan the attacks on this vision of the U.S. have come hard and fast, until now that sense of common ground has all but eroded into a grim, mean, racist society. We are poorer, literally and spiritually, for it.

 

*“There were environmental protection laws, landmark land conservation measures, the profoundly influential Immigration Act, bills establishing a National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, a Highway Safety Act, the Public Broadcasting Act, and a bill to provide consumers with some protection against shoddy goods and dangerous products.

To address issues of inequality in education, vast amounts of money were poured into colleges to fund certain students and projects and into federal aid for elementary and secondary education, especially to provide remedial services for poorer districts, a program that no President had been able to pass because of the disputes over aid to parochial schools.” Miller Center, op cit

Burned Love

Imbolc                                                                              Imbolc Moon

ash wednesdayThe first day of Lent falls, this year, today. That means, as Allan Metcalf, the author of the article quoted below says, that we’re dealing with hearts and ashes. Makes sense to me that my 71st would fall on such a day. Since hitting three score and ten a year ago, I’ve passed into birthdays that commonly show up in the obituary pages. Ash Wednesday reminds us that we deconstruct, returning our enlivened elements. #Recycle Me as the green burial folks said.

This reminder,  a mark made from the ash of palm leaves used a year ago, would be good for all of us. It doesn’t have to come with the whole freight train of Catholic dogma. We could use soot from the chimney or ash from a burned log in the fire place.

yamantaka3

Minneapolis Institute of Arts

It invites comparison to Yamantaka. “Yamantaka is a violent aspect of the Bodhisattva Manjushri, who assumes this form to vanquish Yama, the god of death. By defeating Yama, the cycle of rebirths (samsara) that prevents enlightenment is broken.” Met Museum

The holiday of Easter, which comes at the end of Lent, celebrates a god who conquers death. We do not defeat physical death though Christianity posits that great wakin’ up mornin’ sometime in a future dimly understood. Mebbe so. Mebbe so.

As for me, I’m with Yamantaka whose wonderful mandala hangs in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. It encourages a focused meditation on your own death so that the Bodhisattva can help you clear your mind of fear. That is the victory over death that Yamantaka offers, release from the fear of physical death. An ash mark on the forehead once a year is a start, but the Catholic one comes with strings created by texts. So let’s create our own and use it to recall our work with Yamantaka.

Splitters and lumpers

Imbolc                                                                           Imbolc Moon

splitters2Last night at Beth Evergreen three presenters, a University of Colorado Regent, a newly hired diversity specialist for Jeffco schools and an Evergreen woman, formerly a philanthropist and LGBT activist, now working in corporate social responsibility spoke about labeling and identity. It was, in some ways, disappointing.

Though the focus was on labeling, someone or something else (like census forms, school boards, the dominant culture) describes you, and identity, you describe yourself, the topic veered rapidly into a mode of doublespeak. It’s difficult to describe, but identity politics has become a minefield of careful positioning, trying not to cause offense, and further and further journeys into talking but not changing. Each person in the room last night, presenters and audience included, brought authentic concern and a willingness to be part of a solution. But, to what?

I kept thinking of the hoary argument in plant classification between lumpers and splitters. The same analytical dynamic plays out in many fields. Lumpers look for commonalities, seek to reduce the number of categories in any particular area of study while splitters look for differences, for nuanced distinctions that allow uniqueness to flourish. Neither approach is right or wrong, it’s almost a psychological tendency, I think, rather than a reasoned stance.

splitters3In identity description the nod now goes to splitters. As one presenter last night said, “I see gender like the stars in the sky, some may be brighter, more prominent, but there are many stars in the sky.” That’s breathtakingly broad.

A key word that emerged last night was fluidity. It basically means that the ground shifts frequently in this conversation, not least because people claiming their own identity often make different distinctions as they learn more about themselves and their community. There are, too, regional differences and age cohort differences. It’s a splitters’ paradise.

Here’s why it was disappointing to me. It felt like conversations from the mid to late sixties, though those were blunter in their focus. They were, at least at first, focused on civil rights for African-Americans, or Blacks, or Black-Americans. The power moves involved in labeling versus identifying were in bold relief. We’re not niggers or coloreds or darkies. We’re Americans with a particular historical background.

Remember Black is beautiful? Afros. Kente cloth. Angela Davis. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Last night was the contemporary version: male, female, bisexual, pansexual, transsexual, intersexual, asexual. Gay. Lesbian. It all felt depressingly familiar, as if we’d moved in time away from the sixties, but not in content.

beltane2017gorbachevThat’s not to say that “racial” distinctions were absent from the conversation. Not at all. Unfortunately. The strange, weird thing about this is that race is a nonsense category, not supported by genetics at all. So creating a splitters nomenclature for various “races” reinforces a non-existent and damaging conceptual paradigm. Of course, the culture, in diverse ways, uses race as a placeholder for attaching secondary characteristics to others. Of course it does. But how do we move away from that convenient slotting, or lumping of people based on skin color? Does it happen by emphasizing color? It cannot. Does it happen by ignoring the racist who does? No.

And that was the problem I had with evening. There seems to have no movement forward in the land of identity politics, only movement crabwise.

I did not ask my question, because it occurred to me on the way home, naturally. “Has identity politics by the left contributed to, even caused, the rise of populism now roiling our nation?” That is, have we, in slicing and dicing the particulars of personal difference blinded ourselves to the plight of working class Americans? It seems so to me.

A movement against oligarchy, plutocracy and autarchy must be first made of lumpers. These lumpers must find, express and celebrate the commonalities among those who suffer as a result of concentrated wealth, purchased power, dynastic ambition. Right now we have given away our power with a navel-gazing splitter mentality. Of course, we must be able to define and describe ourselves. Yes. But we must not only reach for the unique and particular, but for the broader and more universal. No political change can come without joining hands, so the more difficult, the more necessary task in the Trump era belongs not to the splitters but to the lumpers.

 

 

 

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