Hope for Syria?

My last post about Syria was critical of President Obama, but let me give the man his due. When presented with an unexpected diplomatic option, he went for it. The possibility that the Assad regime might put its chemical weapons under UN control really is a game changer.

I know this won’t end the Syrian civil war. But right now there is nothing that will end that war, short of barbarically slaughtering one or both sides. This could beginning a real diplomatic process that could lay the groundwork for meaningful peace talks.

Even if it does nothing to hasten the war’s end, it still takes chemical weapons off the table. It goes without saying that enforcement will be the hard part, but it’s a good plan with a good chance of accomplishing something.

And if Assad changes his mind and rejects the peaceful option, President Obama’s in a stronger position for having tried diplomatic options. I’m not saying that everyone will suddenly be on board, or even that I will, but his position will be stronger and the skeptics will be at least willing to listen.

And there are other options, even if this fails. New Jersey Congressman Chris Smith proposed a human rights and war crimes tribunal to hold both sides accountable.

He’s worked on the Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, and Rwanda tribunals, and he thinks a Syrian tribunal could be a “non-lethal way of holding people to account.”

There are risks with all these options, and nothing is guaranteed. But the chance to do more than just pile more Syrian bodies onto the pyre is worth taking.

Syria

This seems to be the week America talks about the tragedy in Syria. And today is the day Pope Francis II called for prayer and fasting for the people of Syria.

Lately, I’ve been focusing on some bad news in my own life (news I’m not sure I want to talk about here), so I haven’t written about Syria yet.

Most likely, President Obama is going to “solve” this by bombing the bad guys, just like he’s doing in Yemen and Pakistan. He’s proven he is perfectly happy to send in the drones, missiles and bombers, with or without a declaration of war.

He can do that with or without Congress ‘s approval. What is this gridlocked Congress gonna do if they don’t like it, impeach him? Not going to happen, especially not over a bunch of dead non-white, non-Americans.

It’s not as if there is any uniform sentiment in Congress. There are good arguments for and against intervention, after all. Right now, neither side in this civil war has any capacity to hurt us. Could that change? I don’t know.

What’s going on over there is an atrocity, and I know the rest of the world has to do something. But I’m not at all convinced that dropping bombs on an atrocity will make it less atrocious.

I don’t have a perfect solution. At this point no one does. But maybe this world would be a little better off if America was a little less ready to fight. We’ve been at war since 2001, continuously.

Most elementary school students and a large number of elementary school students have literally never been alive in a time of peace. Most high school students and some college students are too young to remember 9/11, or a time when we weren’t at war.

And back then, most of the Christians I knew were strongly pro-war. And I was, too. But I wonder if that was be right idea. I wonder if we might have served our country and our God more faithfully by being a voice of peace.

Maybe we should be that voice of peace now.  And maybe we should have a clear picture as to how American bombs are going to help the Syrians…before we drop them.

Adam West and the Meaning of Art

When I was younger, I never “got” the old Batman series. All I saw was the low-budget cardboard props and sets, the ham-acting, and the sheer silliness of it all. I thought it was dumb (except Julie Newmar. I always liked her).

But my Mom told me a story from when the show was actually running. 1966-1968, she was in college. Protests, counter-protests, and authoritarian crackdowns filled the news cycle.

The Vietnam War was escalating, and the news reports coming out of the media were little more than propaganda. If that many enemy soldiers were killed, week in and week out, there’d have been nobody left in North Vietnam to wave the white flag.

The shadow of the draft fell over every young man on that campus, and every young woman who loved a young man.

It was a tense time, even for a college student who only wanted to graduate, get married, and begin her teaching career. And there were a lot of students like that, male and female, who were, frankly scared.

But everyone would gather together around the dorm lobby TV (6:30 pm, I believe), to exchange the very real madness of their times for the surreal, campy madness of Adam West and Burt Ward.  Batman meant something.  That goofy, campy, surreal show really meant something.

In other words … Adam West was the hero the sixties needed, if not the one it deserved.

 

Empire of Static and Noise

Earlier today, I realized I’d been feeling washed-out and uncreative. This blog was lying fallow, and my fiction inspiration was as dry as California underbrush.

If I had a cause, a central idea, a unifying point to what I’m doing, then I would be so much better off. I’d have my writing drive back, my thinking drive back, my mojo back. But all I have is noise.

And so it occurred to me: noise. Maybe my main point for now is noise.

I don’t mean noise as in decibel levels, like the neighbor’s barking dog (though that’s certainly a part of it, just ask Schopenhauer or the New York Times. I mean noise as in “signal to noise ratio.” I mean static.

Like it or not, as modern Americans we live in an Empire of Static and Noise. Televisions blare from every corner. The instant gratification of a thousand status updates bubbles up through our phones like swamp gas.

Those same phones hold a variety of video games and grant access to a wider Internet filled beyond any one man’s imagining with articles, blog posts, and endless arguments across a multitude of forums.

We like our lives like we like our hash browns: scattered, chunked, smothered, covered, and served with coffee at three a.m. And even if we don’t like them, that’s how we live them.

  • How much of what we experience serves not to carry meaning, but to obscure it?
  • How much of what we experience serves not to inspire or provoke new thought, but to scatter our attention so that we can barely think?
  • How much of what we experience serves not to challenge us to new levels of compassion and humanity, but to distract us from the hard questions?

A very wise man once said, “Don’t watch the hand with the wand. The trick is in the other hand.” How much of our lives is just a wand waving on a stage?

I can’t answer that for you. But the answer for me is, “Too much. Way too much.”

So that leads us to the question, “What do I do about it?”

The first thing, the absolute first thing I have to do is start self-enforcing an earlier bedtime. I’m not getting enough sleep, and so many studies have proven that’s bad for you that I don’t even feel the need to cite them here (the Earth is also round, and it orbits the sun, by the way).

Basically, sleep deprivation makes you stupid, and I’ve been neglecting my eight hours since at least when my daughter was born.

Beyond that, I’m going to have to take a fast from certain technology. I will have to use Facebook only to check important messages, and encourage people to call, text, or email me instead.

I will have to stop reading Slate and all online forums. I will have to stop following all those interesting links in the articles that I do still choose to read.

Will this be permanent? I doubt it, but it will have to be for a while, at least. Addicts don’t moderately use, and I’m pretty much addicted to new information and short, nonfiction articles.

I’m going to limit not only my “active” television watching, but my “passive” watching. If Katherine is watching TV and I’m just passing through, I’m going to have to force myself to keep passing through, not stop and “just watch this scene” … and be there half an hour.

I’m going to have to uninstall the games from my Kindle Fire. It’s great for media, and it has potential for productivity, but I won’t get anything done if I’m feeding Om Nom candy.

I’m going to have to clear out some space and time in my life for thought, for reflection, for praying and writing and daydreaming.

I think I’ll be smarter and happier. I think. Heh. At least I’ll be thinking again.

Argument Is War

St. Nicholas punching Arius as the Council of Nicea, 325 AD

St. Nicholas punching Arius as the Council of Nicea, 325 AD

I’ve been talking about Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (you can read my first post here). It’s been an eye-opener, seeing how (largely unconscious) cultural metaphors can shape the very way we think about topics.

The very first conceptual metaphor they discuss is: “ARGUMENT IS WAR.”

They back this up with the following phrases: (pg 4)
“Your claims are indefensible.”
“He attacked every weak point in my argument.”
“His criticisms were right on target.”
“I’ve never won an argument with him.”

This is how we speak of arguments. We don’t think we’re talking metaphorically, the way we would if we said something colorful like, “Man, I lost that debate big-time. I was Bambi, and he was Godzilla.”

But our unconscious metaphors are powerful, and they put limits on how we think about certain concepts. If we think argument is war (or similar to war), even subconsciously, then we think in terms of winners and losers. We think in terms of weapons and tactics. We think in terms of winning at all costs.

We certainly don’t think in terms of vulnerability, humility, and opening oneself up to the possibility of learning something new.

That’s why a person can be very educated, have witnessed or been a part of many debates and arguments, and still have a narrow, unchangeable set of views. I’m not just talking to conservatives, here. I’ve seen it from friends from both sides of the aisle.

Even before I started reading Metaphors We Live By, I’d been wondering if there was anything worthwhile in ‘winning the argument’ or ‘defeating our opponents.’ Especially in the sense of Christian apologetics (or worse, doctrinal debates between Christians).

I’d been wondering if all this verbal conquest and victory and domination wasn’t just as much a tool of Empire as physical conquest and domination were.

I’d been wondering whether it ever changed people’s hearts, or whether it just engendered enmity.

What if we could look at argument through different eyes?

What if we could see an argument, not as a war, but as a dance? (pg 4)

What if we could be grateful to the person we’re arguing with for taking the time to talk to us?

What if we could view an argument as a journey?
Could an argument be a path to travel from our current disagreement and separation to a place where we understand each other, even if we don’t agree?
Could an argument take us to a place where we understand each other’s positions much better than we did before?

That would require humility.
That would require that we lay down our need to be seen as the smartest person in the room.
That would require that we lay down our false certainty, and admit that we may not understand everything … even in areas of faith, which are deeply personal.

That journey requires patience, on the part of both parties.

It won’t work if somebody’s trying to “win.”
It won’t work unless both parties are listening, not thinking of their next riposte.

That journey requires that we re-humanize our opponents.

Argument isn’t war. Or at least it shouldn’t be.

But we who were raised to glorify warfare, to think in terms of conquest, have made the very exchange of wisdom a form of violence. The opportunity to learn has become an opportunity for ego-gratification and domination.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Metaphors We Live By

I’m reading George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By, and it’s really rocking my world. To sum up their book in one (terribly inadequate) sentence:

Metaphors are built into our language so deeply that they unconsciously guide – and even restrict – our thinking.

We don’t just write metaphors. We don’t just talk in metaphors. We think in metaphors.

Metaphors aren’t just for literature and poetry. Cultural metaphors go so deep

The Tower of Babel, Russian manuscript, 1539.

The Tower of Babel, Russian manuscript, 1539.

that we don’t even realize they’re there. We think we’re thinking about things “literally,” but our conceptual metaphors are built into the language. And they shape our thoughts without us even knowing it.

If we think “Time is Money,” (from chapter two) then it’s something we can budget, save, and invest. It’s something we must not waste. We’ve all heard and said those things, right?

But think of a culture that isn’t ruled by our industrial rhythms. To hunter-gatherers, time is what? I can barely imagine how someone who has no watch, no calendar, and no real concept of money, might conceptualize time.

Even the earliest hunter-gatherers had to have some concept of time: seasons change; day fades into night; babies grow up, grow old, and die.

But they might think of time as a circle, spinning from day to night to day to night again. They might consider their lives a part of that cycle (either through reincarnation or in other ways). Lacking money, they’d certainly not talk about spending or saving time.

So, what does this have to do with “Wrestling with the Angel?”

If our very thoughts are guided by our culture-specific conceptual metaphors, then so were our ancestors’… specifically our spiritual ancestors.

What were the conceptual metaphors of the writers of the Bible? Can we even really know?

They didn’t live in a post-industrial world. They didn’t struggle with “diseases of affluence.” They knew nothing of equal rights or democracy. And we certainly don’t live in – or understand – their world.

Is it enough to translate the Bible, if we don’t translate the underlying metaphors? Can even the best scholar actually understand the thought processes of a pre-industrial first century believer?

Can we trust the Bible?

Well, yes, but …

Yes, but … we must go beneath the surface. We can’t just read a passage (in translation) and say “God said it, I believe it, and that finished it.”

Yes, but … we can’t allow ourselves to get lazy. In Jesus’s time, Jews and Christians alike studied the scriptures, repeated them, prayed them, and knew the interpretation debates. Today, we’re used to instant answers and polarized parties. We want an ideological clan with all the answers more than we want muddy, messy, living truth.

Yes, but … we must approach scripture humbly, realizing we may be wrong, no matter how long we’ve believed something.

Yes, but … we must approach other people humbly, realizing we may be wrong.

Yes, we can trust the Bible, but … we should know better than to blindly, assuredly, trust ourselves.

Race is a four-letter word (Part Two: A Tale of Two Wal-Marts)

The whole country’s been talking about race lately, and I think we all know why. I’m certainly not immune to this myself.

Like most Americans (at least those of us in the “flyover states”), I simultaneously loathe and frequent Wal-Mart. I hate the ugly, run-down stores. I hate that the employees are underpaid and undertrained … and, as such, are generally very little help. I hate that the corporate ethics are more Machiavelli than Jesus.

But we have just sacrificed a large portion of our income so that the wifie can stay home with our little one, and that means we have to tighten our belts. I’m now in the same boat as the majority of Mississippians: I lack the economic privilege to get snippy about shopping at Wal-Mart.

I live within easy driving distance from two Wal-Marts, which I’ll refer to as “Highway 98” and “Highway 49.” For some reason, I usually prefer to go to Highway 98. I never gave much thought to “why.”

I was getting my list together to go to Wal-Mart the other day, and my first instinct was to go to Highway 98, even though it was farther away. Even though it didn’t carry some of the rarer items I like (KerryGold free-range cheese and butter, for example) that Highway 49 does.

And it occurred to me that maybe this was a matter of race. You see, the Wal-Mart on Highway 98 is a little newer than the one on Highway 49, but it isn’t really cleaner. It doesn’t have better selection. It’s not closer. But it is “whiter.”

Don’t get me wrong: in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, you’re not going to find any all-white or all-black establishments, other than a few barber shops (except for churches. But that’s a rant for another post).

But different parts of town and different stores have different apparent ratios, different unspoken “feels.” I think that’s the case with almost every town in America.

And I have to wonder if that’s part of the equation.

So what do I do? I don’t know if this is ideal, but I decided I wouldn’t darken the door of the Highway 98 Wal-Mart unless I was already out that way (it’s near Sam’s and Target and such) or I was after something Highway 49 didn’t have in stock.

Highway 49 is my Wal-Mart. Whatever reason I had for wanting to go to Highway 98, I won’t be acting on it.

I’ll always be white, and I’ll always have a white American’s viewpoint. I’m not ashamed of my race or ethnicity, but I will not insulate myself from people of other races or ethnicities.

It’s a small thing, really, the choice of which store to shop at. But maybe it’s a start.