Heard a wood thrush yesterday, or maybe several. Haven’t heard one in at least two years.
Wasn’t expecting or looking for it; which is the best way to encounter them. In fact, such a visitation was the last thing on my mind.
It happened at a trailer park in rural Robeson County, NC. Among Carolina’s one hundred counties, Robeson is the poorest and the most crime-ridden. I don’t go there for fun, or for nature’s wonders, but to see people who are important to me.
Just got a new blood pressure monitor. But this post is not about my blood pressure.
The old monitor gave out after several years: nothing but error messages. Amazon was ready with a new one, delivered the next day. Dropped from a drone? I was running errands when it landed, so can’t be sure.
The new one’s highly rated, and from the same company as the old one.
Out of the box yesterday morning. First step, put in the batteries.
Flipped it over, popped the cover open. Then I noticed this label, just below it:
Nothing remarkable. Except for this statement In tiny letters in the lower right corner:
That set me off. Not a flashback, exactly, but off on a (not uncommon) ADHD tangent:
I was born during a big war, World War Two. I have no real-time memories of it, but my childhood through the 1950s, in a military family, was saturated with its imagery: pictures, comics, books, movies, and then TV shows.
My father had flown bombers over Europe, barely escaped death many times, won medals, but didn’t talk about it. Still, the war, my “birth war,” was always there: fascinating, glorified, ubiquitous, and somber in ways I was too young to begin to grasp.
But it sank in. I expected, in high school, to follow my father into the Air Force.
Then, the Sixties brought Vietnam. And life, in the form of the civil rights movement and exposure to active nonviolence, took me away from the military, to the anti-war side, and among Quakers.
But that’s another story.
I didn’t start hating the military. But I soon began to learn, even from a “safe” distance, about the human costs of war.
The Vietnam lessons went on for about ten years, and yes, they were traumatic for me personally, even 8000 miles from Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City.
I’m not comparing myself to the millions of Vietnam veterans who never recovered from their firsthand war. But it undeniably had vast impact inside the U.S. Too, impact which continues, though I can’t even begin to fathom or chart the ways here.
The impact was general. It was also, I see clearly now, very personal.
One personal impact was on my spiritual life: I learned that the biblical adage about how we reap what we sow wasn’t just an old saying: it was a Truth.
That learning didn’t make me a “Bible believer.” It did make me a “Take-a-Second-Look-Maybe-There’s-Something-Useful-Here-After-All” Bible reader.
In that second look I uncovered another truth, in Psalm 146: “Put not your trust in princes”(or, in a modern rendering, presidents who promise not to get into a big Vietnam War during a campaign, only to do exactly that three months after winning the election.)
This piece of Truth I’ve had to re-learn several times since; and now that it’s already 2016 everywhere but the calendar, here comes another marathon refresher course.
If World War Two was my father’s war and the frame of my childhood, Vietnam was my coming of age war. And besides being haunted by the living testimonies of veterans and others at home, there are several numbers from it that also continue to haunt:
1-million plus, the estimated total Vietnamese, mostly civilians, killed in it. Two, or thee million more in a sideshow war launched on Cambodia, which loosed a genocide as “collateral damage.” And the unnumbered children and grandchildren of Vietnam disfigured by ongoing pieces of our war such as Agent Orange.
(There are many photos of some of them on the net, casualties of our war who were not even born til a generation after it supposedly “ended”; but don’t look at them if you are weak of heart or stomach.)
Thinking of that war, I often ponder some of what happened next: we were repeatedly told by our “Princes” of the day that we had to win it, because otherwise “Godless Communists” would take over, and impose an economic/political system that wouldn’t, couldn’t work.
The Hawks and wise Persons were right about that much: we lost the war, and after defeating the U.S., the Communists did impose their system; and behold, that system, especially the economic part, didn’t work.
So after running the Vietnamese economy into the ground, the rulers changed course and became, like the Chinese, a variety of authoritarian/corrupt crony capitalists. (Turns out they weren’t so “godless” after all; they shared the worship of Mammon with many of us.)
Now their economy works much “better.” Even the U.S. Government agrees, and we are now “friends” with Vietnam; many of our corporations are doing big business there. Like Amazon, for instance. Starbucks and KFC too. And yes, McDonalds. (Turns out the franchise is –surprise, surprise — owned by the son of a high government official; he also has degrees from elite U.S. universities. “Would you like fries and an Ivy-League PhD with that, sir?”)
But all this does not get to the bottom of my pondering. I keep asking, mostly silently but sometimes aloud: couldn’t we have figured out a way to just back off and leave Vietnam alone? Let the Communists, if they won their internal war, try out their dingbat system, let it fail, and then skip ahead to the post-Communist part?
The part where they make inexpensive blood pressure monitors?
If we had, several million deaths there could have been spared. Many hundreds of thousands of American lives would have been spared too. Not to mention all the hundreds of billions of debt that financed this bloody foolishness, left for us and our grandchildren to pay, in declining schools, failing bridges, roads, etc., etc.
But of course, we didn’t back off. And since my coming of age war, there have been numerous other U.S. wars, the ones of my middle age and senescence, which are ongoing. It’s likely some will still be underway when I meet my maker, even tho I’m hoping to live a good many more years.
So for almost half a century, promoting & working for “peace” has been an active goal for me. But as an American in my time, it is war, big and “small,” overt and secret, that has enveloped and shaped my life. I didn’t want it that way. They say the Vietnam War ended 40 years ago this week. But I haven’t been able to escape it, or its spawn. Ignore it briefly, now and then; escape it, no.
All this tumbled through my mind as I slid the batteries into my new monitor, and got ready for its initial reading.
“Made in Vietnam.”
Maybe this post is about my blood pressure after all.
[Baltimore] Friends School seeks to live the conviction that there is that of God in each person. At Friends, we work together to build and sustain a community that is inclusive, respectful, and supportive of all people; we value diversity and cherish differences. . . . Quaker education is a pilgrimage–a continual seeking after Truth. The search for truth requires a willingness to listen openly to the ideas of others, even in fields of controversy.
Excellent. But this high-minded talk went out the window this week, after the school posted a link to a Washington Post article about one of its graduates, one Ryan Anderson.
Anderson happens to be a public spokesman for opposition to same sex marriage. He’s one of the bright young, right young things working for the conservative Heritage Foundation. He’s an Ivy-leaguer, a millennial, a Conservative Catholic — and a grad of Baltimore Friends.
Presumably Anderson’s alumni status at BFS was why the school posted his article — that and “a willingness,” as the Philosophy states, “to listen openly to the ideas of others, even in fields of controversy.”
But it turned out that this “willingness” was not universal. Within hours, the article was deleted, and in its place was soon posted a long, abject apology and self-flagellating mea culpa from school Head Matt Micciche. That statement also was soon deleted from the page, but can be read in full on a conservative site here. It said, in part:
While Mr. Anderson undoubtedly has the right to express such views, by posting this article we created legitimate confusion as to whether or not they were being validated by the school. And yet, the decision to remove the post, once I had heard the deep concerns it was causing, was not without conflict for me. I found myself torn between two seemingly opposed aspects of our School Philosophy. We believe, as we say in that document, that “Quaker education is a pilgrimage–a continual seeking after Truth. The search for truth requires a willingness to listen openly to the ideas of others, even in fields of controversy.” I take very seriously our responsibility as a school to encourage the free and open exchange of all ideas, from across the political spectrum. I firmly believe that we must support, foster, and celebrate divergent thinking to the greatest possible extent. There can be no “party line” in a truly great educational institution, no sense that there is only one acceptable view on any complex topic. We also affirm in our Philosophy that “Friends School seeks to live the conviction that there is that of God in each person. At Friends, we work together to build and sustain a community that is inclusive, respectful, and supportive of all people; we value diversity and cherish differences.” With this ideal in mind, the celebration of divergent viewpoints is not, and cannot be, without boundaries. When the views that a person espouses call into question the full humanity or the full access to human rights of others, based on their very identity, the active harm that the espousal of these views causes outweighs the opposing value of freedom of expression. My decision, in other words, places a priority on the very real and human sentiments of the actual members of our community (as expressed to me in the wake of our posting of this article) over the more purely philosophical commitment to the free flow of ideas. Those of us in the majority – in this case, the heterosexual majority -have the luxury of treating the debate about same-sex marriage as an issue of abstract ideals. That luxury is simply not available to those whose humanity and civil rights have historically been degraded in this area and many others.
I see two issues in this statement by Micciche, and in my view one is legitimate, and the other is a deeply troubling and problematic one.
The legitimate issue is what I have called the “Paradox of Universalism.” Such “universalism” is in the schools philosophical commitment to “build and sustain a community that is inclusive, respectful, and supportive of ALLpeople.” [Emphasis added.]
This is a noble sentiment, which one can hear in liberal Quaker meetings any First Day. But in practice it is very difficult to carry off; indeed, in my experience, it is unsustainable.
Why? Because if your group undertakes to include “all people,” how do you deal with those people who say, “Only the people I choose or who agree with me can be part of this group”?
If the group permits such exclusion-oriented people to stay, it will not be “inclusive of ALL” very long, because many will be tossed out, and others will leave in protest. (This is no abstract matter; it’s happened to many political, cultural and religious groups, including many among Friends, present as well as past.)
But if the group acts to defend its ability to include — maybe not ALLpeople, but a pretty broad range — then it will have to limit or exclude those who would make it arbitrarily “exclusive” according to whatever criteria.
Yet if the group sets such boundaries, whether of belief, speech or practice, then it has in fact given up the claim to be “inclusive” of “ALL.” It’s no longer universal, even in intent.
So there’s the paradox: many groups, especially those associated with liberal Quakerism, want to be “inclusive of ALL.”
But in practice, they can’t be; not when push comes to shove.
Most liberal Quaker meetings these days manage this paradox informally and by passive aggression: persons who are outside a local meeting’s de facto, usually unwritten limits, are quietly frozen out. But occasionally these boundary struggles break into the open.
So it was this week at Baltimore Friends School.
Why did Matt Micciche rush to, first, delete the offending Washington Post article, and then apologize so profusely?
I regret that by highlighting this article, we have caused pain to many members of our community, first and foremost, to our students. We have no greater responsibility than to continually strive to create a safe, nurturing environment for all the children in our care, and it is clear to me that leaving this article in place on our Facebook page is counter to that goal.
And later: “While Mr. Anderson undoubtedly has the right to express such views, by posting this article we created legitimate confusion as to whether or not they were being validated by the school.”
Posting the article “caused pain” to some. And reading a profile of Ryan Anderson somehow produced “legitimate confusion” as to whether the school “validated” (i.e., approved) of Anderson’s anti- same sex marriage views.
Here we get to the second and very troubling issue. The sentiments Micciche reports and explicitly validates are in flat contradiction to the other, and I would contend, more central part of the school’s philosophy, which (pardon the repetition, but it’s important) comes down to cultivating, “a willingness to listen openly to the ideas of others, even in fields of controversy.“
If Micciche really thought posting the article would leave the impression the school was endorsing its alumnus’s views, there could have been a simple disclaimer appended, for instance: “Ryan Anderson’s views in this article are his own, and not those of BFS staff or board.”
Or more positively, “We are posting this article in keeping with our commitment to ‘to listen openly to the ideas of others, even in fields of controversy,’ and because Anderson is a BFS alum.“
There is yet another dimension. Micciche also states in his apology statement that
I take very seriously our responsibility as a school to encourage the free and open exchange of all ideas, from across the political spectrum. I firmly believe that we must support, foster, and celebrate divergent thinking to the greatest possible extent. There can be no “party line” in a truly great educational institution, no sense that there is only one acceptable view on any complex topic. We also affirm in our Philosophy that “Friends School seeks to live the conviction that there is that of God in each person. At Friends, we work together to build and sustain a community that is inclusive, respectful, and supportive of all people; we value diversity and cherish differences.” With this ideal in mind, the celebration of divergent viewpoints is not, and cannot be, without boundaries. When the views that a person espouses call into question the full humanity or the full access to human rights of others, based on their very identity, the active harm that the espousal of these views causes outweighs the opposing value of freedom of expression.
And if Ryan Anderson or the Washington Post were thus “crying fire” or organizing events that posed a “clear and present danger” of actual violence, then I’d be first in line to call the cops.
But I am unable to find anything in the Washington Post article , or in Ryan’s reported statements there, that even remotely approaches such boundaries.
In the Post article, to summarize, Anderson points out that the Supreme Court, which is soon expected to render a decision on the constitutionality of same sex marriage, and he argues the court should leave such decisions to the states.
In doing so he repeats a familiar set of arguments about heterosexual marriage being ancient, universal and best for children. He has also co-authored a book, What Is Marriage, making his case at length.
I don’t find his talking points persuasive, and note that a long succession of judges has rejected them as well. I’m no lawyer, but my hope is that the Supreme Court will reject them this time around as well.
[BTW I first published an article supporting same sex marriage in 1988, and paid some dues around it. We’ve come a long way in 27 years, but I guess there are still dues to pay. The 1988 piece can be read here. ]
As for “boundaries,” a close reading of Ryan’s views as portrayed in the Post article turned up nothing even close to inciting violence against persons. The fact that some persons find the Washington Post article about him and his views “painful” is regrettable, but hardly the same thing.
For that matter, in the article several of Ryan’s opponents speak respectfully about him, dismissing his arguments, but lauding his civility and articulateness — characteristics one may hope were inculcated in him at Baltimore Friends.
And for pete’s sake, calling the posting of a profile of a school alumnus the equivalent of “validating” his controversial views is way over the top.
To be sure, it is to be expected that BFS will work to protect and nurture its students. But here I see things differently from Micciche. To me, “safety” and “nurture” are strengthened by taking seriously the BFS philosophy’s declaration that
Quaker education is a pilgrimage–a continual seeking after Truth. The search for truth requiresa willingness to listen openly to the ideas of others, even in fields of controversy.
To thus attempt to spare some persons the “pain” of reading a profile about a conservative BFS graduate is in my view to stunt the school’s efforts to help them learn how to “search for truth,” and to develop the resilience and grit to “listen openly to the ideas of others, even in fields of controversy.“
Persons thus prepared will be safer, better-nurtured, and can be expected to fare better in the diverse and often conflicted society they will face outside the school.
I believe Micciche was mistaken about the dilemma he faced: fleeing from the “pain” of disagreement was a shameful default on the Baltimore Friends School’s educational mission, not a choice between conflicting aspects of it.
It also suggests that the school’s “Philosophy” in fact is different from the stated one. In actuality, it is more like this:
At Baltimore Friends, we work together to build and sustain a community that is inclusive, respectful, and supportive of all people —well, at least many people.
We value SOME diversity and cherish SOME differences, but NOT all. . . . Quaker education is a pilgrimage–a continual seeking after SOME Truth.
The search for SOME truth requires a LIMITED willingness to listen openly to the ideas of others, EXCEPT in fields of controversy.
You know, I liked the original much better, paradoxes and all.
We Interrupt These Lenten Meditations for a Few Stray Words of Wisdom:
I’ve not read any of Saul Bellow’s novels, or non-fiction either.
But the following quote from a new book of his essays may force me to banish this ignorance. It comes out of his reflections on life & culture among the outwardly well-educated, usually solvent and seemingly liberal:
“People who have the best of everything also desire the best opinions. Top of the line.” He added: “As the allure of agreement — or conformism — grows, the perils of independence deepen. To differ is dangerous.”
That says so much in so few words, one can only add a few more of his stray comments:
An Exercise for readers devoted to “anti-racist” work: Here’s an 8-minute video taken by reporters from the Guardian, a UK paper, in Selma last week. They talk (and listen) to two leading “Neo-Confederates,” white southerners who are still devoted to the idea that the South should have won the U.S. Civil War, and failing that, southern states should seek to secede today.
Three Pictures for Today: First, John Kiriakou, CIA whistleblower who confirmed the existence of the CIA’s illegal torture program, just got out of jail, after serving two years in a federal penitentiary. This twitter photo says it all:
Well, not QUITE all. Kiriakou still has a million-dollar legal bill, five kids, one in college, no pension and no job. And he has one other major distinction: of those government officials who planned the illegal [as in violatingexisting U.S. federal criminal law] CIA torture program, organized it, carried it out, shilled for it, covered it up, lied and obstructed justice for it, the only one who has faced charges is Kiriakou, whose “crime” was confirming its existence to a reporter. More on John and his background here.
Now, to the second photo of the day:
Departing U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder was the federal officer ultimately responsible for the prosecution of Kiriakou and other whistleblowers about torture, government spying on citizens, and more. His record in this record is usefully , shockingly summarized here.
No doubt Holder did some good work in his tenure; but the record on civil liberties is going to make a rough chapter in the history books; and it ought to give him nightmares.
So Welcome home, John Kiriakou. And Eric Holder: here’s the third photo, a sign for you: