Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Legends and Legacies

Last Tuesday was 9/11, so I decided to save this one a week.

9/11 is only going to become more important as the distance from it to the present increases. The kids I see in schools everyday weren't even alive when it happened and so many young people have no living memory. As much as telling our stories can feel old, at times, it's important to help our collective memory.

The world is different now than it was, which is always true, but rarely do we have such definitive, recognizable transition moments as 9/11. The militant nationalism so prevalent in our society can be traced to that day and the ones following. Our obsession with safety and security are collective travails that extend from the emotional trauma of watching a nation that had never previously been attacked succumb to the kind of violence that's commonplace in so many countries around the world.

It's a real thing and we must, absolutely, with all our might, prevent it from becoming legend.

Legends lack complexity and context. When we were in Hawaii a few years back, we got to tour the Pearl Harbor memorial. What struck me most about the museum was the dearth of historical context. The US was competing with Japan for influence and control in the Pacific, and part of that meant limiting Japan's supply of oil. War was inevitable, because that particular US policy was an existential threat to their country. We can talk about tragedy - a surprise attack that cost a lot of lives - without negating the issues surrounding it's place in history. We don't tend to do that, though, we paint ourselves the innocent victims and the "other guy" as the bloodthirsty evil.

The speed with which we did that in 2001 is why 9/11 has much a troubled connection in my mind. We set out for revenge real quick. It didn't even seem to matter who was on the other end of our national fist. It got us into a lot of trouble and it shaped our society in really negative ways (beyond the governmental and economic consequences, which were nothing to sneeze at).

9/11 was a violent attack; all violence should be denounced. I don't like the distinction between civilian and military targets, because, as I said, all violence should be denounced - but 9/11 was certainly beyond even the commonly accepted rules of war: terror at it's very definition. The purpose of terror, of course, is to create a fear that grows, panic and overreaction that feeds itself in a cycle of expansion that ultimately gnaws at the roots of a society.

In that sense, the terrorists won.

That's why context is so important. We need to tell the stories of our experiences and emotions on that day. We need to communicate just how traumatic it was for people entirely disconnected from the lives lost, because violence has real consequences - when we do it and when we're the victims of it. We need to tell the stories to learn the lessons of how to respond to terror, how to control our very real and right fear and not allow it to eat us up and dictate our actions.

We need to keep 9/11 within the larger narrative of international politics, recognizing the out-sized influence the US has played in middle eastern politics and how quickly a religious narrative can be used to manipulate people and power. We need to keep perspective on the "good vs evil" dynamics and tell the story of 9/11 honestly - not filtered through the lenses we'd like it to fit.

Things have been sanitized that don't deserve cleaning. The impact of the clean-up on the fire and police officers, the rescue workers, both paid and volunteer - they're lionized in the stories we tell as they lie forgotten, suffering and dying as a result of their work. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary people in Iraq and Afghanistan died because of decisions our government made. Casualties of war are not just numbers on a page or phrases in a history book; they're real people - and there's many more of "them" who died than there ever were of "us." Such small numbers of "us" were ever asked to serve or sacrifice and we continually cut corners and pinch pennies to care for the hearts and heads of people who gave life and limb and family to fight angry, vengeful wars. We can't even be bothered to sacrifice the next marginally better drone or fighter jet to provide the medical care veterans across the country need.

Yes, I'm opposed to war and violence, precisely because they dehumanize and devalue life. It's all the more reason to support and care for those who've been victims of such war (and there are always many victims on every side of a fight).

I feel very different about 9/11 today than I did seventeen years ago, but that should also be part of the story. Reliving the vivid memories and emotional legacy of the moment as well as the changes it's wrought in us since that day, both individually and collectively. We need to recognize that while this is a singularly remarkable event, it is but one of many singularly remarkable events in our history and each come from somewhere and lead to somewhere. They fit in a larger narrative with both causes and consequences. While we may not be able to internalize all the complexities of experiencing such an event, we can understand why it happens and how we need to respond.

We can only do that, though, if we're honest - not just about the story we want to tell, but about the story that must be told. The worst possible way to memorialize 9/11 is to make it legend. The best thing to do is to keep it real.

May we all keep it real. On this day and on every one to come.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

My Kid's A Real Person

I am not naturally a risk-taker. I'm beyond risk-averse and I'm ok with that. Are there experiences I've missed out on because of unrealistic fears? Absolutely. Would I have ever been able to enjoy those experiences whilst being afraid? Probably not. Is this all self-delusional justification for my own wimpiness? Quite possibly.

Regardless, I am who I am - at least for the moment. I'm over-protective. My main aim in life, since the moment my daughter was born, was to let go. I have distinct memories of those being the first thoughts in my mind when I held her. "Your Dad is precisely the kind of person to wrap you in air bags and never let you leave the house." It was my fear - and my determination - not to be the guy I'm most prone to be.

I'm pretty proud of how I've done so far, although I do still want to shelter her; it's my natural state, after all. She sometimes revels in this. As a, thus-far, only child, there's a part of my daughter that enjoys having things done for her. As much as we challenge (read: force) her to do things for herself, we're still often in too much of a hurry to make her buckle her own seatbelt (and she's six, I know, it's embarrassing).

While I have always marveled at just how quickly she's grown up, I've still be unprepared for just how quickly she's grown up recently. It's not linear, but exponential. Last year, in Kindergarten, she'd make the occasional pun and her inferences blew me away. Now, as a first-grader, she's her own person entirely - smart, aware, and thinking with depth and breadth way beyond what's fair for a six year old. I've realized that the influences and ideas from which I might naturally want to shield her or be the one to present are already very present in her mind and in her life and she's dealt with them in ways I can only define as impressive.

I've spent a fair bit of time working with young people; the number one thing I've learned in that time (as I'm sure I've said here before) is that they always know, experience, and understand more than their parents would ever believe. What I'm learning as a parent is that my previous work with young people does not exempt me from that axiom. No matter what my expectations for my daughter's engagement with the world might be, they're going to fall short.

This is both terrifying and incredibly comforting.

I've never been a big fan of the emphasis our society places on safety and security. I think it's usually overkill and often exacerbates an atmosphere of fear over any kind of relief. As part of that, I've struggled with the vast array of "drills" they do in schools these days, to prepare for all kids of trauma. Last year, in Kindergarten, I thought I was told the school didn't do lockdowns, so I put off my worry. As first grade approached - and entry to the "big" elementary school - I mused, out loud, about how I might approach my daughter's school to perhaps surreptitiously take her for ice cream, or something, when those drills occurred.

She overheard the conversation and while I don't remember her words exactly, they went something like, "we did those last year, Dad, where we all sat quietly in the corner so people couldn't see us from the door - nothing will ever happen in school, but we have to make the teachers happy."
I don't know if that's how it was presented to them, but I'd like to think my daughter has both learned a thing or two about Christian social critique from her old man and maybe inherited both sound logical reasoning and a compassionate heart.

In the end, the whole experience has helped relieve some pressure. I don't have to work extra hard to make sure my daughter is her own person, because there's nothing else she can become. I'll have an influence on her - for good or ill - but from the moment she was laying there in my arms, screaming her giant, grossly-misshapen head off, whatever control I thought I might have was simply an illusion.

I suspect the sooner we learn that lesson, the better.

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

The Real Supreme Court

I was listening to a bunch of self-satisfied, out-of-touch blowhards (otherwise known as the US Senate, in this case, specifically the Judiciary committee) talk about the Supreme Court (and nominally Brett Kavanaugh) today. I didn't intend to listen, but NPR has decided to interrupt regular news coverage for the day and broadcast it live. Some of them were going on and on about how nominees keep saying they're not going to rock the boat and then get into office and try to swamp it. Some of them were talking about how credentials and experience should trump the kind of hearing they're wasting our money and their time on today. Most of them, though, are throwing around the term "rule of law" as if it were a room full of lawyers.

That's what gets my goat.

You may say that my one semester of Intro to Law as an undergraduate makes me unqualified to speak on such a matter, but I'd argue the fact I've covered the basics of law and government without all the extraneous nuance makes me exceptionally qualified to opine on a very broad, unspecific point: We have got to stop letting lawyers run things - especially the Supreme Court!

Were you aware that you don't have to be a judge to be on the Supreme Court? Would it surprise you to learn you don't even have to be a lawyer?
It's true. In fact the only real qualification is that one be appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate. That's it.
I've said for years that the first name on my Supreme Court list were I to ever find myself President and faced with a Court vacancy would be Jim Cameron - the guy who taught my American Political Institutions class in college. He's a constitutional law scholar, but more importantly a practical and caring individual, full of wisdom. Now, he's gotten up in a age a bit and retired from teaching, so perhaps I'll need to formulate a new list (you know, in the event we adopt my new election plan of picking a name out of a hat for every position and taking turns), but the point stands.

You don't need to be a great legal scholar to be a great Supreme Court justice, you just need a little intelligence, a lot of common sense, and a heart full of compassion.

Why do we insist on having "the greatest legal minds of her generation" sitting in those robes? Well, they tell us it's because the minute arguments and facts of law argued over in these immense cases are so extraordinarily difficult to parse and understand, let alone decide, that people need to be extremely well trained and versed in the process. Of course, who is it that tells us that? Lawyers. Who gets to decide who those people might be? Presidents (often lawyers) and Senators (I believe still over 50% lawyers). It's sort of the same gilded wall people in my profession have built - that only theologians can really do theology. Well, you don't have to be a lawyer to be a good Supreme Court justice.
You just don't.

Why not? Well, because there are layers and layers of lawyers and judges working on the lower levels of justice who do know all that stuff and make really good decisions. The Supreme Court was never meant to be the ultimate arbiter of minute legal matters - the Supreme Court was designed to save the nation from the lawyers, to step in when the law clearly violates fairness or justice or the common good. We've got plenty of lawyers making and defending and parsing our laws. We don't need another layer of them in fancy robes with no expiration date.

What we do need are wise people who can find the few cases where the law failed us and make heartfelt changes for the common good. Sure, we're never actually going to agree on what the common good might be and these grandstanding confirmation hearings will continue ad nauseum, but at least, perhaps, they might be talking about things that really matter in a candidate for the highest office in the land: wisdom.

You might be surprised to know I'm generally progressive, especially on social issues. When it comes to individual freedom over corporate or government control, I tend to be willing to risk a little chaos to side with the little guy. It puts me more in the RBG camp than the other one.
Still, I think perhaps the most wise decision any Supreme Court justice has made in my lifetime was Chief Justice John Roberts letting the ACA stand. We all know his legal arguments were bunk - virtually indecipherable when it comes to logic, but clear as day when it comes to social awareness. He said "this law is a mess, but I don't want to be the guy whose Court invalidated the notion that people should have healthcare.
Congress and the voters will have to fix this mess, but it's a mess that we deserve (for any number of different reasons).

The guy did precisely what the Supreme Court is supposed to do. He knew that because, at least according to everything I've read, he was one of the greatest Supreme Court fanboys of all time. He knows what the institution is supposed to be and he knows his role as the head of it. We might not have the same inclinations when it comes to decisions, but I trust the guy understands his role. I wouldn't say that for some of the other justices (both conservative and otherwise) and I certainly wouldn't say that for most of the US Senate.

I don't want this to be a dig at lawyers. Not to be cliche, but literally, some of my best friends are lawyers. I get the importance of what they do and would never want to minimize it. I do think the Supreme Court is something different, though - it's a part of that "government by the people" thing. It's not about who can tie themselves up in the best legal knots - the kind of logic and wordplay I truly admire from lawyers - it's about how the decisions of that legal system effect the country as a whole. It's different.

I don't want judges to be elected or any old person in those positions. I'd just like for us to change our perspective on the Supreme Court a little bit. Just because it's the highest court in the land, doesn't mean it has to look like all the others - in fact, it really shouldn't.

In the end, we're not a nation of laws, as the lawyers so often like to claim, we're a nation of people. People and laws are different. I don't mind having lawyers on the Supreme Court - a great legal mind is a good thing almost anywhere - I just hope they (and the people who choose them) will be mindful that a great legal mind is not the most important thing for that particular position.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Where I've Been for the Last Month

In short, I spent 11,000 miles in a car - the majority of them driving - and spent some length of time (literally anywhere from ten seconds to a couple days) in all 48 contiguous US states. 3,000 of those driving miles involved a six year old in the car. The day before we got home (19 days after I left home), my wife asked if I was ready to be back. My response? "I feel like this is my life now."

After having been home for a week, I still wish it were.

I love driving and traveling. Now, the 97 straight hours or driving or riding or sleeping in a car would (and did) definitely get old, but doing 400-500 miles in a day, then taking a day off, then doing it again, became a comfortable rhythm on the drive back. We saw Craters of the Moon, Yellowstone, the Bighorn National Forrest, the South Dakota Black Hills (including Wind Cave, Crazyhorse Memorial, and Mt. Rushmore), along with the Badlands and some friends and family.

**Pro tip: The Crazyhorse mountain sculpture is several magnitudes bigger than Mt. Rushmore - see the Presidents first, so you're not underwhelmed.**

We drove 1700 miles in two different (back to back) 24-hour periods (and then followed those up with two more 1550+ mile 24 hour periods) in an attempt to set a World Record for driving all 48 contiguous US states. We fell short, partly from a little too much navigation gambling, partly from driver error, and largely because of a flat tire. It was still a tremendous experience and one we're already talking about doing again.

The subsequent two weeks were spent with my family (my wife and daughter flew to Boise to meet me) - where we put an additional 3,000+ miles on the rental, experiencing some small parts of the West!

My favorite day was the drive out of Yellowstone - we went up to the Mammoth Hot Springs, which were as cool as anything in the Park, then headed out the Northeast Entrance along the Lamar Valley, which was packed with Bison (and a coyote!) (not to mention incredible views). When we left Yellowstone, we took the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway down to Cody, WY. This was what I believe must be quintessential Wyoming. The views were indescribable. Huge mountains. Big sky.

We drove down the mountain directly ahead, stopped to check out a bridge over an 800' ravine, then up the switchbacks you see in the foreground. The top was only about 8,000' - nothing like the 10,000' summit of the Beartooth highway you can sort of see off to the right (the one where they take those photos in the winter of a road with 25 foot snow walls on either side) that I greatly wanted to try, but will have to save for another day.

I've written before that I like hiking and driving, because the expanse of the universe comforts me. The feeling of small-ness and insignificance gives me great peace, when most of my life my brain is telling me I need to be better and do more. There's nothing like giant wildlife or expansive mountain views to help one understand the world does not revolve around them.

Even crazier, on a scale I'm still struggling to understand - even after barely scratching the surface of a National Park that's almost twice the size of our home state, we drove hundreds of miles through brilliant, amazing Wyoming wilderness (because there's almost nothing but wilderness in Wyoming) only to realize we never even left the top third of the state.

I have driven through large parts of Wyoming on other trips and a lot of the state is nothing like the majesty of the mountains (although I'm one of those people who finds a real, rugged beauty in the high plains), but it's still amazing to think that such a huge expanse of majesty exists - not only that, but there are two large states south of it, with similar mountain vistas, and another north, not to mention thousands of miles on either side of the border, as well. And that doesn't include the deserts of Utah and Arizona and New Mexico. Or California. Or the rest of the world.

It's a big country - and even though we saw more of it faster than all but a handful of people, there's so much we missed. Getting to go slower on the way home was helpful. We stopped wherever we wanted to stop and it was glorious. It definitely firmed up in my mind that once our cats have died, we should definitely spend our summers traversing the country like this. We'd probably have to stay in fewer hotels and more campsites, but it's an experience that just doesn't get old... even with a six year old.

I like accomplishing tasks, but it's also good for me to have some tasks that are basically impossible. I can't see the world. I can get to the highest point in a lot of states, but 50 is pretty doubtful - and after that there's a whole world full of high places. I can see all 50 states, but not all of them and for not enough time. The world is a beautiful mystery to be explored, but you've also got to balance that with the people around you; your own community is also an endless, beautiful mystery, and there's not enough time to explore that deeply either.

Perhaps, in the end, this trip has given me even more reason to believe in eternity. There simply isn't an end to everything good in the world and I have great hope there is also no end to the time we have to explore it. The paradox of eternity, though, is that while it seems, on the surface, to be reason for patience, it's actually a drive to urgency. We've got all the time in the world, why waste any of it?

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Soul of a Terrorist

I was reading TIME magazine yesterday and one of the columns referenced Trump refusing to call the Charlotteville terrorists terrorists. The complaint was that he instead humanized them and gave them souls. My first reaction was, "well, they are humans and they do have worth and value because they're humans." Then it dawned on me: we really don't have a societal way of explaining people who are so desperate they act out in violent ways. We've made "terrorists" into maliciously evil bogeymen, who are more comic book villain than human being. We simply lack an ability to denounce someone's actions without dehumanizing them.

I mean, we have the ability, but not in one word - not anymore. Perhaps Trump had trouble calling terrorism terrorism because he understood the humanity of the people behind the heinous acts. Well, not Trump, but perhaps a normal person, one capable of empathy and emotion, could understand the humanity and balk at labeling them terrorists.

We should be at a "people-first" place of description these days anyway, right? We should be beyond defining someone by their actions - a person who commits terrorism separates the action from the individual, at least a little bit. It helps us to value humans as humans before we judge their actions.

No doubt those blokes in Charlottesville were doing terrorism. Driving a car into a crowd is almost terrorism cliche these days. It's evil and intended to instill fear the same way a car bomb or a plane hijacking or a random shooting is. It shouldn't matter if it's Virginia or Paris or Baghdad or Manila.

Then I started thinking about the various people who resort of terrorism, be they white supremacists in the US or Muslim fundamentalists in the middle east. Generally these are desperate people, folks who feel left out. They lack options, often economically. They lack opportunity for education, work, access, and exposure to the larger world. It creates a myopic world view that, When pressed against the wall or backed into a corner (especially when those feelings of fear and desperation are cultivated and exploited through media, religion, or tribal connection), violence is often a natural result.

People who are used to being powerless attempt to gain power by scaring those who seem to have more options. It's not hard to recruit people into these armies when you provide an outlet for anger and frustration. We can all find ourselves in situations we'd never choose if we give in to our emotions to thoroughly.

That word "terrorist" gives us emotional license to condemn not just ideas or actions, but the very people behind them - it encourages the kind of emotional commitment that produces people willing to commit terrorism in the first place. When we dehumanize others, we dehumanize ourselves. That is the way of the world.

I don't mean to condone or excuse violence and evil. It's inexcusable and awful and damnable and wrong. That doesn't mean, though, we have to call it unbelievable or indecipherable. We ask, after every terroristic tragedy, "how could anyone do this," but the truth is, we should be able to understand, even if we don't agree or approve. If we really can't imagine how or why people would resort to such violence, we're either far too sheltered or we're lying to ourselves.

This is the real problem. We're always quick to justify violence when its in defense of our priorities. Anger clouds things, to be sure. We do things in anger or fear that we might not otherwise do. That's always going to be the fly in the ointment, so to speak. But when we justify violence - any violence - we're giving someone else license to justify any violence.

We have "rules" for our violence as some balm for our conscience, but "rules" don't exist in war - ask any person who's been in one. Violence is not something we can handle in moderation. We, as a human society, are (sometimes) functional addicts of violence. We demonize the terrorists who take things "too far" so we can justify our relationship to violence. "I'm not like those folks."

Guess what? "Those folks" don't think they're like you (or me).

We can point out the differences between the world "they" want and the world we're trying to make, but they can do the same thing. I'm not saying those visions are necessarily equal or that one side isn't preferable to another - just that so long as we back up "our" notions of right and wrong with violence, we're never going to find what we're looking for (and neither are "they").

If you export or enforce your ideas with violence, your only idea is violence - at least it's the only idea anyone's going to hear.

I got to thinking what would happen if we provided education and meaningful work opportunities for the people who committed terrorism in Charlottesville. Set aside whether these guys were really oppressed or forgotten or even if they were really representative of the rural white-working class that's fueled our current political climate. Let's avoid that argument for a bit and just imagine we could provide free college or job training and a place to work for all the southern, western, rust belt, and appalachian folks who got Trump elected.

There would still be angry, entitled, and racist folks out there, for sure. You'll never get rid of them. You'll probably have less, though.

The one (probably unintended) consequence of fixing this one societal issue that we don't think too much about is that you'll have real trouble recruiting soldiers for the military. The biggest draw for young men to sign up and fight is a lack of options. Military service provides the very things a stereotypical US terrorist lacks. We can have all the moral arguments we want about "us" and "them," "good" guys and bad, but at the end of the day we recruit the same group of people (poor, uneducated young men with a lack of options), in the same way (appeals to religious or patriotic duty, economic opportunity, or plain fear), for the same thing (a violent imposition of general societal norms).

It makes even me uncomfortable saying it, but I also can't get around it.

Do we really have "better" morals or more humane rules? We denounce torture and violence against civilians, but our track record on those things isn't the greatest. We fear nuclear war, but we're the only country who's ever used a nuclear weapon on anyone.

I'm not saying the US is the same as terrorists, not at all. I'm against war, but I'd rather live in the US than under Nazi Germany or ISIS Syria. It's not so much the moral arguments than the ways in which we're prepared to make them. I'm just not sure where we got the idea that if we believe strongly enough in an idea we should be willing to kill for it.

It seems to me if we believe strong enough in something, killing should be the last thing we need to do to defend it. Dying, maybe, but not killing. If our beliefs are really true, they will win out. If truth can be killed off or destroyed or defeated, perhaps this isn't a world worth living in to begin with, no?

In the end, I guess, it comes back to human nature. We try to demonize the practitioners of the most extreme actions because we want to pretend that we're not capable of doing what they do, when we are. We're all capable of tremendous acts of evil, given the right circumstances. It's part of being human.

As much as we want to say we're all one big happy family, there will continue to be disagreements, maybe even big enough that we can't live together - we just have to avoid getting to a place where we believe those horribly, dangerously wrong people over there, don't deserve to live at all.

That's when we're really in trouble. That's when we become terrorists.