The Measures of Ourselves

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Midtown Manhattan viewed from Weehauken, NJ, photo by Dmitry Avdeev.

THE FOUNDATION AND THE MORTAR

Who are we? Can we suspend shouting long enough to reflect on who and what we in the United States aspire to be? By what social norms do we measure a person’s or a nation’s well-being? A culture’s shared values form the foundation on which a society is built. Every culture is both an inheritance and a work in process. Without thoughtful care, time and neglect eat away the mortar between the foundation’s bricks.

FOUNDATIONS OF A DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC

The Constitution represents the boundaries of that consensus. If we didn’t know it before, we know in 2019 that the constitutional republic we call the United States of America is no Eden. Lord knows, Abel’s blood still cries out from our history and Cain’s inexplicable, impulsive violence will stain our hands again. Repeatedly. Sin is like that. It crouches at the door as in the Genesis legend. There is no perfect culture or society. Although we miss the mark (which is what the biblical word ‘sin’ means) by intention or by inattention, it falls on each of us to reaffirm and refresh the cultural code and ethical norms by which we measure ourselves personally and collectively. These measures are not abstract.

TRADITIONAL CULTURAL’S MORTAR — NORMS AND MEASURES

  • Be respectful
  • Don’t call people names.
  • Don’t make fun of people
  • Be kind
  • Be honest/tell the truth
  • Your word is your bond
  • Deal fairly with each other
  • Show compassion
  • Empathize with those less fortunate than yourself
  • Be generous with your money
  • Help those who suffer
  • Be true to yourself, but be ready to compromise
  • Settle disagreements peacefully
  • Don’t get too big for your britches
  • Be humble
  • Do not show off
  • Be above board in your dealings with others
  • Love your family
  • Respect the individual right to religious belief and practice
  • Honor the principle of free speech
  • Protect a free press
  • Be courageous and patient

TUCKPOINTING THE MORTAR

stone mason tuck pointing the mortar

Check out the mortar. Is it holding? Where does it need tuck pointing? Re-assess traditional culture’s tangible ways of measuring the quality of human life. Delete those you consider outdated. Add other measures you believe should be added. Then look in the mirror. Look at your behavior. Look at what you choose to watch and hear. Think again about who and what you want us to be. See the mortar crumbling. But don’t stop there. Despair is no excuse. Get up and do something to repair the foundation of humankind’s best nature.

— Gordon C. Stewart by the wetland, September 16, 2019

Rubbing My Eyes: How Long, Lord? How Long?

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“Watching Dorian’s devastation of the Bahamas while being hit by an avalanche of tweets that treat tragedy as a television opportunity has left me speechless. Nothing from the White House connects the dots — the growing frequency of 100 year storms, floods, and fires (weather) — with an urgent call to act now on climate change. The planet’s lungs are on fire in the Amazon while the man who promises to make american great again shreds established regulations put in place to protect water, air, our forests, and soil. Meanwhile $3.1 B are stripped from FEMA and national security to pay for the wall for which we were promised the Mexican government would pay. I feel like the psalmist. ‘How long, Lord? How long?'”

Those words went up on FB yesterday, breaking a long silence on FB and here on Views from the Edge. That was before reading Katha Pollitt’s piece in The Nation. “Almost Everything Bad that Trump Did This Summer” details some of the Trump Administration behavior between June 3 and September 1, 2019.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, September 6, 2019

The Hoodie in the Hood

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The Hoodie at Four A.M. – Washington D.C.

It’s four o’clock in the morning. He’s wide awake, his mind swirling. He puts on the hoodie disguise to walk from his white house to the tenement in the ‘hood’ he’s visited before. He avoids the Secret Service and television cameras. He enters the building, takes a deep breath, and lowers himself to climb the rusting metal stairs to the fifth floor walk-up apartment in hopes no one will recognize him.

The tenement-dweller has been waiting for him since their last visit months before. The door is ajar. The tenement-dweller never locks the door. No one needs to knock. The homeless, “women of the night”, pimps, people on the other side of the law, and cops who enforce it, alcoholics and drug addicts, the opioid and heroin dealers, and people in high white places are always welcome here.

The Tenement-Dweller: the Man in the Hood

“Welcome, friend,” says the tenement-dweller. “I’ve wondered when you might come for another visit.” He points to the dumpster chairs — the folding wood chair with the missing slat and the torn red leather wingback to the left and right of the small cardboard box end table. The night visitor chooses the high wingback.

“Can I get you something to drink?” asks the tenement dweller. “I have a nice variety of perfectly good teas. Not to worry; they’re from the dumpster, but they’re still in their wrappers,” he says with a smile. “Camomile is good for a restless night.” The night visitor nods his assent and watches his counselor walk past the rat traps to the Coleman stove and return with the kettle, an assortment of tea bags, two chipped cups, and a small plate of ginger snaps he’d put together for whatever guest might come that morning.

“There’s not much room on this table,” says the tenement dweller, pointing to the cardboard box with the small lamp between the chairs. “Would you mind removing that book to make room for the tray?” The tenement dweller pours the hot water into the cups, and, with a warm smile, gestures toward the tea bags and ginger snaps.

A Privileged Conversation

“Things haven’t gone so well for you since our last visit. You’re still wearing that hoodie! I like that! So … what brings you this morning?”

The night visitor removes his hood.

“I’m a stranger in my own house. I’m more alone than ever. My beautiful wife and beautiful daughter are upset about the thing at the border, and now the Epstein thing. And . . . yesterday the Scaramucci thing. And who knows what’s going to come out of Michael’s big mouth! I can’t even trust FOX any more.”

There is a silence before the tenement-dweller responds.

“Well, that’s a lot to carry.”

“It is. I’m weary and heavy-laden.That’s why I’m here. I’m taking you at your word.”

“I see. I’m glad you remembered, and I’m glad you came back to lay your burden down. But first, I need to clear the air a bit. You hurt my feelings when you attacked Elijah Cummings with those tweets about his district and his character. You called his district a rat and rodent-infested mess. Take a look around, Donald. What do you see? That’s where you are. Take a look at me. What color do you think I am?

“And all those people in concentration camps at the border, the wink-winks toward the gun lobby after all these mass shootings, and the cruelty of calling poor people fleeing for their lives ‘invaders.’ You know as well as I do that there is no invasion at the border. The people in those camps and the people in my neighborhood are as dear to me as you are. And now this thing with Israel and two Muslim congresswomen. It’s off the rails, Donald. If I didn’t know your need, I would have assumed you’d never put on the hoodie again.

The Book on the Box

“That book from the table, the one on your lap, I got just for you, Donald. I want you to take it home and read it.”

“I don’t read much. I’m a slow reader.”

“I know, and you hide it. You’re embarrassed by it. But it’s just the two of us here.  So, let’s do this. You don’t have to read the whole book. Just turn to the bookmarked page and read the highlighted sections I marked for you after our last visit. Read it out loud while we’re still together.”

Donald opens the book and reads aloud:

“The more insecure, doubtful, and lonely we are, the greater our need for popularity and praise. Sadly … the more praise we receive, the more we desire. The hunger for human acceptance is like a bottomless barrel….The search for spectacular glitter is an expression of doubt in God’s complete and unconditional acceptance of us. It is, indeed, putting God to the test. It is saying, ‘I am not sure that you really care, that you really love me, that you really consider me worthwhile. I will give you a chance to show it by soothing my fears with human praise and by alleviating my sense of worthlessness by human applause….’ The….experience of God’s acceptance frees us from our needy self and thus creates new space where we can pay selfless attention to others. This new freedom in Christ allows us to move in the world uninhibited by our compulsions….”

Henri Nouwen, The Selfless Way of Christ: Downward Mobility and the Spiritual Life

“You got this thinking of me? You think I’m insecure? You think I’m moving in the world compulsively? I don’t need praise, but look at the applause! They love me. They support me. I could shoot somebody in broad daylight standing in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue, and they’d still love me. I can do whatever I want.”

“Take the book with you, Donald. What I know that you don’t yet know is in the other sections I highlighted just for you. Applause is not love. If applause were love, you wouldn’t have disguised yourself. You wouldn’t have risked coming here. Love is something else. In the end, love is all there is. Think about that on your walk back, and read those pages over and over. Read them every morning before you think about tweeting. Only then will you not feel homeless.”

— Gordon C. Stewart, by the wetland, MN, August 16, 2019.

Toni Morrison to Dayton: “Just turn your backs!”

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Toni Morrison, the 1993 Nobel laureate and beloved national treasure Americans mourn today, wrote and spoke words fit for the crowd of people who will stand before the president today in Dayton, OH.

“Anger … it’s a paralyzing emotion … you can’t get anything done. People sort of think it’s an interesting, passionate, and igniting feeling — I don’t think it’s any of that — it’s helpless … it’s absence of control — and I need all of my skills, all of the control, all of my powers … and anger doesn’t provide any of that — I have no use for it whatsoever.”

[Interview with CBS radio host Don Swaim, September 15, 1987.]”
― Toni Morrison

anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind…. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up

Toni Morrison

Remember that Narcissus depends on applause and cameras. “Don’t get mad. Don’t yell and scream and lose control. STAND TALL and speak with single voice. JUST TURN YOUR BACKS when he speak!

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 7, 2019.

The “invaders” — a psalmic reflection

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The Power of Language for good and for evil

According to the New York Times, the Trump 2020 re-election campaign has run 2,000+ Facebook ads framing the national conversation by calling the migration at our southern border “an invasion”.

Introducing an exercise

It gets harder every day. The carnage is in full sight. So are the tweets. It’s depressing. In times like this a Psalm sometimes comes along that expresses the emotions. They laments. The anger at cruelty. Hope for something better beyond what we can see as possible.

Psalm 79: How Long, O Lord?

 O God, the nations have come into Your inheritance;
    they have defiled your holy temple;
    they have laid Jerusalem in ruins.

America today is not the sweet land of liberty of whom we sing. We grieve amid the latest ruins in El Paso and Dayton. We lament the human sacrifice that defile the good green Earth,Your holy temple, the inheritance of global grace.

  They have given the bodies of your servants
    to the birds of the heavens for food,
    the flesh of your faithful to the beasts of the earth.

They trade doves for vultures, and olive branches for military materiele on the streets of Baghdad and Kabul, El Paso, and Dayton, Virginia Beach, Aurora, Thousand Oaks, Pittsburgh, Annapolis, Santa Fe, Parkland, Sutherland Springs, Las Vegas, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, Burlington, Orlando, San Bernardino, Roseburg, Chattanooga, Charleston, Sandy Hook . . . . Mankato and Wounded Knee.

They have poured out their blood like water
    all around Jerusalem,
    and there was no one to bury them.

  We have become a taunt to our neighbors,
    mocked and derided by those around us.

The invaders call the tired and the poor, yearning to breathe free; the homeless, and tempest-tossed “invaders” — caravans of an invasion crossing the southern border. The vultures prey on fathers and daughters drowned and lying face-down on the Texas bank of the Rio Grande. In the name of national security they take nursing children far from their mothers’ breasts, separate families, and forget where they have placed the invaders’ children, while the authorities retreat to golf courses and sent their children to fancy summer camps.

Let the groans of the prisoners come before You;
    according to Your great power, preserve those doomed to die!

May the groans that hurt Your ears rouse the nation’s conscience to close the prisons and preserve all those White Nationalism dooms to die.

“National extremists are idealists. Racial and religious extremists are idealists. ISIL is idealist. American exceptionalism is idealist. . . . Idealistic terrorism lives to rid the world of evil as its adherents understand it, projecting evil as ‘the other’ while flying ‘the sore point’ in ourselves that we conscious animals seek to avoid.”

“Idealism and Terror,” Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), p. 33-39

Return sevenfold into the lap of [their captors]
    the taunts with which they have taunted You, O Lord!
But we Your people, the sheep of your pasture,
    will give thanks to You forever;
    from generation to generation we will recount Your praise.

“I’m ninety-six,” wrote Benedictine monk Sebastian Moore of Downside Abbey, introducing his last book, “and for most of my life I’ve been a monk. My life as a monk has been, for the most part, a search for God as real.”

Dom Sebastian Moore, OSB, Remembered Bliss (2014, Lapwing Publications)
  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 6, 2019

America’s silent colossal National Lie

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“The silent colossal National Lie that is the support and confederate of all the tyrannies and shams and inequalities and unfairnesses that afflict the peoples—that is the one to throw bricks and sermons at.” — Samuel Clemmons (Mark Twain).

The National Lie of white supremacy may lie silent for a time, but it doesn’t die easily. It was the unspoken lie behind the invasion and slaughter of people it called ‘savages’ to justify stealing America’s indigenous peoples’ continent and herding them onto federal reservation. The conquerers were white. The indigenous peoples were ‘red’. The invaders spoke English. Those they conquered did not. The same colossal National Lie rationalized the invasion of “the dark continent” to capture men, women, and children as slave labor to work the plantation owners’ cotton fields. The faces of the Lie wore white hoods, lit crosses on lawns, and hanged their former slaves from the lynching trees. And on and on it goes. It lives on in 2020, no longer silent, branding brown, Spanish-speaking migrants fleeing for safety “invaders” who must be stopped.

It’s a long way from El Paso TX to Dayton OH — a 22-hour drive through Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana. It took less than 13 hours for El Paso and Dayton to become twin cities suffering together “all the tyrannies and shams and inequalities and unfairnesses that inflict the people” while the lie of White Nationalism carries on.

“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” — Mark Twain.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN

My People and the 19th Hole

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How we look at the world is a matter of personal experiences and how we integrate them. Each new experience confirms or changes how we see and what we see. Reading exchanges about Baltimore took me back to a shattering of perception at the end of a summer internship as a street outreach worker with Corinthian Avenue Chapel in North Philadelphia. The acknowledgements of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness take the reader back to “the Brothers of Opal Street”:

Last, but by no means least, is a group of men who would be shocked to find themselves mentioned anywhere but in a courtroom. “The Brothers of Opal Street,” as they called themselves — eight black homeless former inmates of Eastern State Penitentiary in North Philadelphia — had a farewell conversation in late August 1962, with me, a naive nineteen year-old street outreach worker. As we sat on the stoop of a boarded up tenement on Opal Street, they said good-bye with a startling instruction not to return to the ghetto. “Go back to ‘your people’ and change things there. Only when things change there will there be hope for the people here.”

What they called “my people” lived in the white western suburbs of Philadelphia. I have come to believe that last day on Opal Street was its own kind of ordination. This book is in memory of them.

Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), p. xiv

Opal Street was one-block long with no traffic. The far end of the street was boarded in the same way the street’s tenements were. At the far end was the yellow chalk outline of a body. Half way between the entrance to Opal Street and the police chalk mark sat the men on wood orange crates, passing the bottle or the jug to numb themselves against the world that had no regard for their dignity or the stories that had brought them there.

“‘Go back to your people and change things there” sent me home and off to college asking existential questions about who ‘my people’ were and what the relationship was between the manicured lawns, rash-free streets, and country clubs of the Mainline western suburbs and the “rat and rodent infested mess” I had left behind in North Philadelphia.

entrance gate to Mar-a-Largo

Some moments last a lifetime. Some experiences forever change what we see as much as how we see. It’s hard to see Opal Street over drinks at the 19th hole.

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, July 29, 2019.

Before the gods I will sing

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Many gods? More than one?

Why does the psalmist speak of ‘gods’ — “before the gods I will sing Your praise” (Ps.138:1) –as though there is more than the One the psalmist proclaims? Why does the First Commandment of the Ten Commandments say, “You shall have no other gods before Me”?

These ‘gods’ are real. They do not exist only in our imagination. They make their appeals to our human need and aspirations in the midst of time. Like the First Commandment, Psalm 138 recognizes the ‘gods as contenders with the One God of heaven and earth. It goes to the heart of the human longing for closer-at-hand gods, the imposters of God that charm us with their melodies and promises.

...before the gods I will sing Your praise.” (Ps. 138:1 NIV)

We live among the ‘gods’. We see them with our own eyes. We hear them with our own ears.

  • Children held in squalid ‘detention’ camps in the name of national security. Parents whose children have been kidnapped and lost in the name of national security. The multitudes walking on blistered feet in hopes of crossing the Rio Grande to safety. The asylum-seekers fleeing cruel regimes. They are all living under the siege of the ‘gods’, resistance to which is commanded the First Commandment.
  • I will sing Your praise before the gods. I will not sing in silence. I will not praise You in hiding. I will publicly defy the ‘gods’ that solicit my praise and obedience. I will place my hope and trust where it belongs. Before the gods that divide and terrorize I will sing Your praise.
  • I will sing Your praise before the gods of national security that kidnap babies, separate families, and stereotype those seeking safety as criminals, drug runners, rapists and terrorists.
  • I will sing Your praise before the gods and not be silent when my president deceives the public, announcing that asylum-seekers may now apply for asylum in Guatemala, one of the nations from which the poor flee for safety because of human rights violations, whose military we train and whose arms we supply.
  • I will sing Your praise before the gods of homophily that erase the American aspiration of e pluribus from e pluribus unum, leaving the unum of whiteness.
  • I will sing Your praise before the gods of my country’s original sins: stealing the continent from its indigenous peoples’, and stealing African men, women, and children to become slaves.
  • I will sing Your praise before the gods under which the constitutional checks and balances that protect a democratic republic from totalitarian rule are eroded.
  • I will sing Your praise before the gods of fossil fuel profiteers and a government that denies climate change, removes restraints protecting clean air and water, and scorns international cooperation necessary for responsible action in the face of climate change.
  • I will sing Your praise before the gods of greed that amass wealth, consolidate power, and skirt Congress to proved arms to Saudi Arabia in spite of an American journalist’s dismemberment and supplying arms for continuance of a proxy war in Yemen.
  • I will sing Your praise before the gods of racist nationalism that excite the masses — Mein Kampf, the speeches of Hitler, and strategies for the seizure of power — now echoing from the Oval Office and campaign rallies.
  • I will sing Your praise before the gods that divert attention from atrocities at the Southern border with tweets describing the congressional district represented by the Chair of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Oversight and Government Reform as a “disgusting rat and rodent infested mess” immediately following the Rep. Elijah Cummingspointed criticism of inhumane conditions for which the Trump Administration is responsible.
I will praise You, LORD, with all my heart;
      before the gods I will sing Your praise. (Ps/ 138:1 NIV)
 For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly,
      but the haughty he knows from afar. (Ps. 138:6 NRSV)

Before the gods: Jesus of Nazareth

One of them . . . tested [Jesus] with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:35-40 NIV)

Before these ‘gods’ — and so many more — I will sing Your praise.

  • So help me God, in the name of Jesus, Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, July 28, 2019

Truth-making and the Lie-making Machine

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Special Counsel Robert Mueller

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s appearance before Congress brings a sliver of hope that truth will prevail. Living in a surreal era where absurdity is the rule rather than the exception led me back to words from an earlier time and another country, the description offered by French novelist and absurdist philosopher Albert Camus (1913-1960).

Never before has the individual stood so alone before the lie-making machine. We used to wonder where war lived, what it was that made it so vile. And now we realize that we know where it lives, that is inside ourselves.

Albert Camus, Notebooks

If you see a turtle on top of a fencepost, you can be sure it didn’t get there by itself.

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, July 24, 2019

Criticism and Dissent: Why don’t you just leave?

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It’s almost always wise to take a deep breath. Step back as though you’re looking in from the outside, rather ‘objectively’ you might say, in order to see more clearly what’s happening.

“Why don’t you just leave/ go back where you came from?” has a certain logic and a history. Click HERE for the entire Wikipedia article on propaganda.

Ergo decedo (traitorous critic fallacy)

Ergo decedoLatin for “therefore leave” or “then go off”, a truncation of argumentum ergo decedo, and colloquially denominated the traitorous critic fallacy,[1] denotes responding to the criticism of a critic by implying that the critic is motivated by undisclosed favorability or affiliation to an out-group, rather than responding to the criticism itself. The fallacy implicitly alleges that the critic does not appreciate the values and customs of the criticized group or is traitorous, and thus suggests that the critic should avoid the question or topic entirely, typically by leaving the criticized group.[2]

Argumentum ergo decedo is generally categorized as a species of informal fallacy and more specifically as a species of the subclass of ad hominem informal fallacies.

In politics

Argumentum ergo decedo is directly related to the tu quoque fallacy when responding to political criticism. As whataboutism is used against external criticism,  is used against internal criticism.

Examples

Critic: “I think we need to work on improving Nauru‘s taxation system. The current system suffers from multiple issues that have been resolved in other places such as Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands.

Respondent: Well, if you don’t like it, why don’t you just leave and go somewhere you think is better?”

Critic: “Our office’s atmosphere is unsuitable for starting constructive conversations about reforms for the future of the company. A number of improvements are needed.

Respondent: “Well, if you don’t like the corporate system, then why are you here? You should just leave!”

A Personal Reflection

A Personal Reflection

Last night’s campaign rally in North Carolina sent chills up my spine. “Send her back! Send her back!” has a history. It paints criticism of the nation’s policies and behavior as unpatriotic. But patriotism (love on one’s country) is not nationalism. Patriotism is love of country. Nationalism makes the nation god.

We’ve heard these words before. I heard them used during the reign of terror fired up by Sen. Joseph McCarthy. II heard them in response to Ruby Bridges in Little Rock. I heard them from George Wallace and sheriffs, Selma, and Chicago. I heard them again when criticizing our policy in Vietnam War. Back then it was “America: Love it or leave it!” Now, as then, the cry to go home is not a criticism; it’s ergo deceto –a bullying response to criticism. Constitutional democratic republics assume a baseline of respect between and among people who disagree. No scapegoating. No name calling. No dismissal of each other as enemies, and a full, thoughtful discussion of policy and criticism. Wherever criticism is met with the traitorous critic fallacy, constitutional democratic republics are put to the brink of fascism.

Flash back: March 9, 1954: Dissent and Loyalty

We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. . . . (McCarthy’s actions) “have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it — and rather successfully. Cassius was right. ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.’ Good night and good luck.

Edward R. Murrow, March 9, 1954, CBS; Commentary credited with stopping McCarthyism.
  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, July 18, 2019.