Sunday, August 17, 2014

A Black Mark

"All men are created equal."

You don't realize how hollow that statement sounds until you see a picture of a Black man left dead in the middle of a street, surrounded by White police officers. The vaunted "equality" Thomas Jefferson espoused was not real; at the time, if you were Black and a slave, some did not even count you as fully human, closer to a farm animal than a person. For the stirring words of The Declaration of Independence meant nothing to those bound in chains.

It took The Civil War to break the physical chains, but such a bloody confrontation could do nothing to break the mental chains that held many Americans to the belief that Blacks were sub-human, and had "no rights which the White man was bound to respect." Freedom in law did not equate to freedom in society. Slavery in fact was replaced by slavery in deed. Jim Crow was as much a slave master as any White plantation owner had been before the war.

The modern Black person is the bastard child of a system that took natives of the African continent from their homes, worked them to death, cut loose those that didn't die, and claimed they were free because it said so on a piece of paper. Hundreds of years have passed and though the Black person is not bought and sold in the public auction house, their lives are still just a commodity to the White world. It is, as if, turning Black people from valuable property into human beings reduced their value to zero in White eyes.

So it happens that Blacks are marginalized, stigmatized, and pushed to the margins of American society. Even now, after wars, civil rights movements, legislation, and court cases, a Black person cannot walk down a street without the nagging worry that their presence will trigger events that will lead to their death. Perhaps many put it out of their minds and go about their business thinking it can't happen to them...

Then along comes a Mike Brown, an Eric Garner, a Renisha McBride, a Trayvon Martin.

As so often happens, there is a Black person in the "wrong place at the wrong time," as if there are only certain places and times a Black person is allowed to exist within. Armed with only cans of iced tea, bags of Skittles, a wallet, a cell phone, and walking down the middle of a quiet suburban street, breaking up trouble in their neighborhood, or simply looking for help, they are the victims of White aggression. A society built on White value systems reduces their value to zero and deems it necessary that they die.

The death of an unarmed Black person at the hands of a White person engenders rage, and why shouldn't it? Shouldn't we be past this now? Skin color does not alter a person's humanity; we have known this for so very long. Yet here we are, in a world of computers, the Internet, global travel, and still the Black person is looked down upon by a nation that spilled so much blood to free their ancestors from the bondage it first put them in.

Why should anyone be surprised when the Black community rises up in indignation, shaking its collective fists in earnest rage at a system that refuses to treat them as equal, refuses to respect their right to exist, let alone be free. Do you honestly believe nightsticks and tear gas and curfews can simply anneal a wound so grievously deep and so constantly fresh?

The Black person lives, not as a person, but as a stereotype, for far too many segments of the American landscape. They are couched as shirkers, deserters, layabouts, thieves, thugs, and animals, even though American history is replete with a procession of educated, hard-working, fierce Blacks who were there from the start to build, maintain, and defend the nation that treats them in such an egregious fashion. Even now, they are holding communities together, working to build up from the depths into which they have been cast time and again. Wracked with poverty, they struggle and fight and claw to make a better life.

And then they die.

Is it not enough that we deprived their ancestors their freedom and liberty through our colonial aspirations and greed, that we now plunge the children of the African continent into a crucible, seeking to burn them away as an impurity in our society? Is our land, so steeped in the values of freedom and liberty, still so shot through with callous disregard for Black humanity, that it must shoot them down in the street? Where is the breaking point? When does America draw a collective breath and shout "ENOUGH!"?

The Black community cannot be expected to continually suffer the depredations of White culture in silence. We cannot tell them, constantly, to "just calm down" or "let the system provide justice," when it is their blood being spilled in the streets so regularly, because the system of justice does not punish the perpetrators of the crimes against them. What White person would hold their tongue or keep their finger from the trigger, when time and again, few if any of their brethren have been punished for murdering a Black person in cold blood?

There was no reason for them to die. Plenty of Black people do commit actual crimes, but that is weak justification for the thinly-veiled genocide we see every day. Our system of justice in America has been primed to accept the guilt of the Black person before their innocence, all law to the contrary. A White person can slaughter a dozen people with a gun and they walk away in handcuffs; a Black person can walk home from the store and die for lack of any offense. Tell me again about justice.

Until the endemic racism that plagues this nation is brought to the surface and dealt with harshly by an outraged citizenry of every stripe, expect Mike Brown to have more company.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

You Cannot Whip The Lion

You have caged the lion and consider yourself its master for having "tamed" the beast. It stalks about within its cage, it may glower at you, and howl, but it is in there and you are out here, and you are its master.

Then, one day, it lashes out at you. You feel the hot rake of its claws, hear the terrible gnashing of its teeth, feel the press of its rage.

And you whip it. Again. And again. And again. You force it back. You consider yourself lucky, but once more, you are the master.

Until it does it again. And again. And again.

The caged animal, bereft of home, cut off from the world it knows, unable to move freely, kept behind bars... you may drive it back a dozen times, but each time you erode a little more of the fear, turning hopelessness into rage.

One day, the lion will best you. One day, it will corner you. One day, in your self-assured rush to show your power over it, the lion will strike with all it has left, released of the fear of dying because it is already dead inside.

If you are an Israeli, and you have watched the rockets arc away from Gaza on your television, or heard the boom of them thudding impotently, you may think, sitting there in the comfort of your couch, that you are masters of the Palestinians. And it's true... as far as it goes. With each year, they are more hemmed in, more penned up, stripped of freedom to move, to be, to grow, and that can be considered mastery.

But then the rockets come.

Or Jewish boys die.

Perhaps you should ask yourself: are we truly masters here?

When you hold a people down, when you corner them, corral them, sanction them, that is not mastery, that is inhumanity. You cannot expect a people to be reasonable, to act reasonably, when they are squashed down into fetid and squalid suffering. You can "cleanse" your soul by claiming they brought it upon themselves, but who holds the keys to cage and who lives in the cage?

It is safe to say that most Israelis agitating for action have never seen Gaza, been behind its checkpoints, roamed its crowded roads and seen the camps. They have never smelled the desperation of a people trying to survive on the scraps that are flung their way. When you turn a people into a caricature, when you deny them their basic humanity, it is hubris to believe that peace is ever attainable, even though you can have it any time you want simply by dropping the whip.

Hamas gets its power directly from the Israeli Prime Minister and Knesset, when they hoarily declare the intransigence of the Palestinian people, and trumpet the need to, once more, "cripple Hamas' ability to commit atrocities." Hamas, dripping hatred for the Jews and the State of Israel, drag "their people" into the fight, to splash blood upon the ground, so they can lustily decry the violence, even as they launch more rockets. And the people of Gaza, more pawns than players, go along with it, because they are tired of being penned up. Israel obliges Hamas by dropping bombs on women and children in the pen, in the name of pacification and the end of "terrorism."

It is a cycle of violence that will know no end until Gaza is but a smoking hole.

I know, what right have I, the non-Jewish American, to criticize. I, too, sit and watch the rockets fly and the bombs fall from the comfort of my couch. The distance, though, allows perspective, and paints the scene so clearly, that my human heart is bursting with indignation at Israel for their ham-handedness and Hamas for its stubborn foolishness. The only people who truly suffer are a people who have done nothing but suffer for decades, while this dance of destruction sweeps around them and deprives them of life.

Say what you will, defend your side as you choose, but all humanity loses where we stand by and say nothing. So I will have my say, I will condemn the Israeli bloodbath in Gaza, I will shake my fist at Hamas for their naked cowardice, and I will implore Israel to drop the whip, because you cannot whip the lion forever and hope to live in peace.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Only Thing We Have To Fear

I let my daughter get away with a great many things.

Chocolate bars for breakfast. Endless hours on her iPad. I don't ask her to dress herself or feed the cats or any of myriad things someone her age could be doing. I take her to school every day, kiss her on the head, tell her I love her, and head off to work.

With a sense of foreboding.

I try very hard not to fight with her, but inevitably, when I put my foot down, there are heated exchanges. I let them cool off, then I apologize profusely.

I do all this for one simple reason: I don't want her last thought of me to be a negative one.

Oh no, it's not that I have cancer, or I'm planning on running off an leaving my family.

No. It's much darker.

74 school shootings in the time since the Sandy Hook Massacre have left me with the foreboding feeling that one day, I will drop her off... and that will be it.

My parents never had this worry. Their parents never did. And so on. But I... I live with the thought, brought more prominently forward in my mind every day. The thought that my nation, the one I am so proud of, has gone so far off the rails that hundreds of thousands of people have access to military-grade weaponry and ammunition, and when the pressure of their torment reaches a fever pitch, they will wander into my daughter's school and kill her.

What does that say about us? What has our nation become that the almost daily reports of people wandering into schools and malls and military bases and shooting themselves and others does nothing to bring our collective blood to a boil? What does it say, that we throw up our hands and continue to let legislators backed by the fear-monger, gun-worshiping groups in this land run the show?

It says we are in trouble. Unless we DO SOMETHING. NOW.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Worth In The World Of Surety

No one likes the idea of a soldier failing to do his duty. We imbue soldiers with an aura of respectability and integrity that is straight out of a WWII Hollywood propaganda film. We overlook their foibles and failures until they are lain at our doorstep and then we wonder how someone like that could be in the military. The uncomfortable truth often leaves us to simply ignore them once their duty is done, as if they will magically fade back into the soil on which so many bled and died.
I don't know what to make of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, but I do know this: he did something I was unable to do, myself, in joining the Army and fighting in Afghanistan. Whatever personal flaws or failings he showed, he was there, he fought, and wrestled with what he was being asked to do, just as we wrestled with the war as it dragged on and on and on. His was a more personal interest than ours, for he stood in the teeth of the gale, and he saw the ruin it brought. We could only look from afar, knowing it all to be ill-conceived, but seemingly powerless to stop it.
The fact is, most of those now agitating for his head have not now, nor have ever had, the courage of their convictions enough to enlist to defend their home. They flail about, spouting the terms "duty" and "honor" like they are intimately familiar with them, when, in fact, they scarcely throw a glance in their direction at any time. They are willing to pound the pulpit to defend Constitutional rights, but cannot spare the time or their offspring when the hard, warm work of defending them is called for.
And the one chord I don't hear? If his compatriots were worried that he was a little "off," if they thought he might endanger the unit, why didn't they raise the issue with their CO? If they did, why didn't the CO take the concerns seriously enough to order Bergdahl out of the combat zone? If there's someone in your unit you don't fully trust, then why are they there? Maybe he wasn't cut out for combat duty. Maybe he was suffering the slow onset of PTSD. In any event, the road goes both ways, and if he failed his unit by his actions, they failed him by their inaction. But let us not pass judgment until all the facts are known, not just those spouted into a microphone.

Ultimately, that is what this is all about: conjecture and the need of some in our nation to be right. Not right in terms of factual accuracy, but in having their view validated as being the only true one. They see Bergdahl as they want to see him from moment-to-moment; before his release, they agitated just as strongly for that release as they do now to have him hanged. In fact, embarrassingly, many are having to try and cover up the tracks of their advocacy for his release, as if the hypocrisy were so easily erased in an age where, once something hits the Internet, it never goes away. Five years of vehement calls for action on Sgt. Bergdahl's behalf cannot now mysteriously vanish from time or consciousness. The hypocrisy is written and it is done.

The story of Bowe Bergdahl brings us face-to-face with the reality that now surrounds us - a vocal, energized minority in this nation wish nothing more than drag America back against the current of time to an era where things were black-and-white, where ignorant surety trumped change, where many set their heels in the face of change and pulled hard on the reins, hoping desperately to retard our progress as a nation. Their numbers continue to diminish over time, but we allow their voices to drown out those of us of more reasonable nature. We cede the field to them, allow them to impugn and denigrate everyone from our President and First Lady down to the poorest Americans, scooping up so many in between.

We stain a nation by leaving this whirlwind of inchoate rage to tear through the heart of it. We are a better people than these few who spew venom and bluster, whose words and precepts damn them as narrow-minded, foolish, and clownish. America, which prides itself on its place in the world, should not be allowed to devolve into the mire of ignorance because a fraction of us cannot tolerate change. This moment, and how we choose to deal with a single American soldier, may very well mark a page in a history book, where either it is written that we cast off the past and embraced the future fully, or the greatest experiment in democracy in the last three centuries finally came to an ignominious end. It is up to us to write that history for the better.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

"War" On Christmas

It's kind of hard to imagine a more idiotic idea.

I'm willing to bet that if you drive or walk through any area in and around your home, you will see windows ablaze with candles, trees festooned with lights, inflatable Santas, candy cane decorations attached to light poles, and a massive panoply of other signs that it is Christmastime. I'm certain if you tune to your favorite radio station, you will hear at least a handful of Christmas carols, in every genre of music imaginable. Every store will be swathed in exhortations to come inside and fulfill your holiday shopping list.

So to anyone ringing the klaxon to rouse the troops to do battle for the soul of Christmas, I have two words for you:

Bah! Humbug!

I hasten to believe that most people who shriek affirmations about the death of Christmas are simply parrots, squawking out timeworn phrases and a liturgy of offenses toward the holiday which is meant to signify the birth of Jesus Christ. I say signify, because we have no idea when Christ was born. Even our whole means of numbering years is based on the false assumption that would could know exactly what year the Christian Savior was born in.

The holiday, Christmas, is a fabrication, built by the early Roman Catholic Church to coincide with the pagan rituals of the Winter Solstice, to imbue the season with more of God's power. It was a not-so-subtle attempt to nullify the strength of other belief systems, and make it seem like it was God's will all along that there be a celebration at this time of year. As centuries passed and Catholicism spread, the trappings of other belief systems and other societies became enfolded within the aegis of Christmas, leading to the holiday we see today.

Except the holiday we see today is a bastardization of the true spirit and intent of the original holiday. And no, it is not the secular, First Amendment rights waving crowd that has done this, but the ordinary person, by losing contact with the ideas behind Christmas. It is ironic that in 1965, one of the most beloved Christmas TV specials, "A Charlie Brown Christmas," bemoaned the commercialization of the holiday and the loss of focus on its meaning. Almost 50 years later, and the same special rings as true now as it did then.

If there's truly a "War" on Christmas, it is fought by those who use it to their own ends, to settle political scores, to weaken the separation of Church & State, to promote Christianity over any other religious belief system. It is the proselytizers and profiteers who have declared war on the holiday, not those of us who would see each and every one of us celebrate -- or not -- it in their own way. Christmas has become an economic engine, a religious meat-grinder, a political cause célèbre, for those who are less interested in its meaning and more interested in the leverage it can afford them.

Nowhere is that more self-evident than with the subset of the season's political propaganda, the "Keep Christ in Christmas" movement, engineered to be the modern version of the bony finger of Dickens' Ghost of Future Yet to Come. This popular screed may be seen on the bumpers of cars in the parking lots of big box retail stores the day after Thanksgiving, as people swarm and surge forward to secure the consumer goods which are the "reason for the season." It is seen in popular media, as we are told that by forbearing Christ on his sacred day we are somehow bad people; right after, we are told that the President, the poor, the Liberals, and the immigrants are responsible for our pitiful lot in life, and they should be shunned and smacked down.

The fact is: Christ is not part of the Christmas we know it now. The Christ born in Bethlehem eschewed wealth, spoke of peace and justice, and most importantly, implored us to help those less fortunate than themselves. While many find Christmas an excuse to perform the charity that they cannot be bothered with the other 364 days a year, the whole lesson of Christ's birth and eventual death is lost to them. They see Christmas and its trappings as meaning, in and of itself, never stepping too far away from the comfort of their preconceived notions. Anyone who does not share their view is branded a traitor.

The other fact of import, which those who holler so maddeningly about the "War" on Christmas often ignore, is that Christmas is only one small facet of Christ's life. Christ should not be confined to Christmas, anymore than to Easter. The idea the young Jewish rabbi promoted was that we must do good work among the people every day, not just when it is convenient or useful. The stories of the New Testament tell us of a man who preached the gospel of love and compassion, and expected his followers not to preach, but to do. There is no better way to honor the birth of Christ, his life, or his death, than to follow in his footsteps, spreading love and charity wherever we go. Christ must not be kept in Christmas, but in our hearts.

So when the phrase "War on Christmas" passes someones lips, assume they are confused, show them compassion, and turn their rhetorical swords into charitable plowshares. If we show them, by example, the true meaning of Christmas, perhaps they will tire of the fight.