Xenophobia’s Children

There are consequences, it seems, for not paying attention in school.  I have no way of knowing, of course, but I suspect most of us are taught that basic fairness is the social ideal.  Xenophobia is deeply embedded in the primate psyche, but to those who claim we haven’t evolved, there seems to be no way to convince them that “racial” differences are merely a matter of differing collectives separated by natural borders.  Over time traits favorable to the region predominate, and humans therefore have what seems to be a very wide array of potential appearances.  There should be nothing in all of this that suggests one group is superior to another.  Primate evolution, however, helps to explain but not to excuse.  Xenophobia is something from which we can evolve.

Fear is at the heart of any phobia.  In a society that measures the worth of individuals by their wealth, fear that another will take it is constant.  Perhaps, in a part of our souls we’d rather not acknowledge, we know it’s wrong to have too much while others don’t have enough.  It’s very cold this Martin Luther King Jr. Day.  In Manhattan on Saturday I saw many people on the street, those who’d met the wrong end of capitalism.  I’ve seen human beings shivering in Dickensian conditions in the twenty-first century.  I’ve known capable adults who couldn’t find work, even when they’ve tried.  We fear the street person.  We know that, but for slight shifts in capitalism, that could be us.

Xenophobia has come under threat with globalization.  We’ve made travel to remote locations affordable in order to spread capitalism to regions ready to be exploited.  And we see nothing wrong with taking from those who can’t prevent us from doing so.  Then we wonder why people just like us turn out to march in the cold.  Civil rights marches took place half a century ago.  Crowds thronged the nation’s capital seeking basic human treatment.  Fifty years later over a million women and supporters had to show up to make the same point again.  Fair treatment should not be a commodity.  Those who have fear the stranger.  Those who have don’t wish to share.  They claim the name of “Christian” and mock the very tenets upon which that belief system was founded.  It’s cold outside today.  As we huddle inside, we should have time to think.  It is a waste of a national holiday if we don’t at least ponder for a few moments what it is we celebrate.  And the real costs of xenophobia.

Stand Up


At first glance, we had little in common. In fact, of all the people in the room the only one I knew was my wife. We were gathered together to find ways to defend ourselves against our government. Those who normalize Trump and claim that his nearly 3 million vote loss qualifies as a mandate are blind. Those of us who have been complacent, believing that our government—even with obviously inferior candidates such as the Bush family offerings—was in the process of self-balancing have found the bar of the scales of justice broken. Founded as a democracy, we’ve “elected” our first dictator, who, if unchallenged, has already indicated that our civil and human rights are just chattels to be bargained away around the boardroom table. Once those of us who survive the next four years stagger out, I wonder if it won’t be time to establish a test to be president. A basic competency test.

For my job, I’m evaluated on basic competencies. An editor, for example, has to understand both the language in which the job is undertaken and possess a fair amount of skill in a variety of administrative tasks to perform adequately. Why doesn’t the most powerful job in the nation require a set of basic competencies? Things such as a basic vocabulary test and being able to point to foreign nations on a map? It may sound elitist, but I grew up in a working class family and although I’ve never run for political office, even I knew the value of legitimate education. Watching a politician surrounding himself by fact-deniers in a cabinet of untruth should demonstrate to even those who voted for him that we’ve put an incompetent politician in power. We’ve batted our eyes at a man we don’t know and have asked him to dance.

I’ve made it more than half a century without needing to be political. We now all have to become political. It’s distressing to see others my age saying “what can you do?” with a shrug of the shoulders. We can organize. We can resist. We can insist that the values that 3 million more voters showed in an historic win of the popular vote be represented by our government. This is not status quo ante. This is not just another political snafu. We all face a challenge to basic democracy and a level of untruth unprecedented even by politicians in the past two centuries. Don’t sit still. Get involved. Stand up for human rights, because your government elect has made it clear that it won’t.

Human Race

PlanetOfTheApesMythFor reasons no one fully understands, Planet of the Apes touched a deep level of responsiveness in American society. I have to admit to having fallen behind a bit; I need to see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to be back up to speed, but nevertheless, I remember the television releases and airings of the originals, and even have gone through the entire series in the form of home theater offerings. One Saturday long ago on a visit home, I sat through a marathon of the entire five-movies sequence all in a day. It should be no surprise, then, that as soon as I saw Eric Greene’s Planet of the Apes as American Myth it went on my reading list. Race and Politics in the Films and Television Series, the subtitle read. I admit that I grew up in a conservative, but sheltered environment. Having friends who were African-American, although, admittedly, they were a small fraction of the demographic in my small town, I never realized that there was a problem. Not until I took history and social science classes in school. You have to learn things such as racial distrust.

Struck by Planet of the Apes when I first saw it, I had no idea that it was a racial tale. It makes sense now, in the light of Greene’s analysis. To a child fearing evolution as much as Hell itself, the movie was a kind of forbidden fruit, and by making it science fiction, there was no reason to suppose there was a message here. It was a powerful kind of captivity. I have watched the movie, and current adaptations, many times over. Greene does an excellent job of demonstrating that the movies came at a time of great racial distress. Civil rights, the Vietnam War, the fear of the Communist—xenophobia was perhaps at an all-time high when the apes invaded our planet. As the series goes on, the identifications become clearer and clearer.

But more than that, Greene pointed out some very obvious—in retrospect—religious symbolism in the movies. Some of it was so intentional that it was written into the script. Among the scenes from the life of Jesus, the movies borrow most heavily from Exodus. Moses figures abound. Even Charlton Heston, in his role as Taylor, was following up on the Ten Commandments. Holy families and sacrificial victims mark just about every stage of this dystopia, a world where trust is always far from any relationship with someone physically different. It’s about time that I watched Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. And after that, I need to go back to the beginning, and watch them all with renewed eyes. In the light of current events, also with the hope of a more just future.

Austin City Limits

Maybe it’s just because Texas feels like the brass buckle of the Bible Belt, but I had moral qualms about landing in George Bush International Airport this afternoon. Texas has so many worthy heroes, but in the land of Rick Perry, recent Republican politics is king. Not queen. But king. It felt like a work of supererogation to drive to Austin after a three-and-a-half hour flight to Houston, but Texas reminded me of Illinois with palm trees. And cacti. Well, okay, and longhorns. One could get culture-lash flying here from New York. Before I embarked I had visions of my rental car being a huge Cadillac with real steer horns for a hood ornament. I just couldn’t picture myself in a ten-gallon hat.

I sometimes wonder how religion could’ve come to divide a nation such as the United States. Founded on the principles of religious liberty, lately one party has been claiming the right to legislate morality for all, deeply polarizing a populace that should be able to accept differing viewpoints. Still, there are issues on which human rights insist there can be no compromise: women have equal rights with men, and have the right to self-determination just like men. It truly amazes me that such common sense can even become a divisive issue. If we could agree on even that, we’d have to declare it progress over the objections of the Religious Right. My thoughts wander that way when I tarry in the south. It’s really a pity. The people are friendly here and the landscape has its own beauty. Are we really that different?

I’m not altogether convinced that this isn’t just a case of prejudice masking as religious sensibility. Religions can be all too gullible when they feel their honors might have been impugned. While I regularly express my opinion here, I do respect nearly every form of sincerely held religious belief. None of us has all the answers, and it seems the height of hypocrisy to insist that anyone is right all the time. Nevertheless, my sojourn beneath the Bible Belt has me wondering about the origins of various religious squabbles. Or maybe it was the just the long drive along the “presidential corridor” after touching down at an facility that most websites still refer to as simply, Houston International Airport. Travel broadens the mind—it is, in fact, an excellent form of education. Maybe if we got out more we would all get along better.

From here we all look the same.

From here we all look the same.

King’s Highway

Sometimes I forget the beauty of the Bible. With its constant current of misuse in our society, it is sometimes easy to forget that, like an abused child, the Bible is not to be blamed for being the victim. As a civilization we owe a great deal to it, and even on its own, when we overlook the insensitive and sexist parts, it remains a literary masterpiece. Just over a year ago I visited a true friend I’ve known since high school. He is not a religious man, but in his living room, on a stand, stood open the Bible. It is more than a jingoistic symbol. Even the more we become aware of other great spiritual writings: the Rig Veda, the Tao Te Ching, the Gilgamesh Epic, we shouldn’t let the sublime messages from the Bible escape our notice. Even in this secular, workaday world, the words of the Sermon on the Mount often come to me, grand and resplendent. Parts of Isaiah still bring tears to my eyes. Writers from Shakespeare to Bradbury drew on its noble sentiments.

The Bible comes to mind when thinking of Martin Luther King, Jr. Our chronological spans overlapped by just five and a half years, but I followed him to Boston University School of Theology, walked the same corridors he did, meditated in the same chapel. Even then, some two decades after his martyrdom, his vision had not been fully realized. It still remains unfulfilled. At Brown University in May of last year, I was fortunate enough to be in the crowd when John Lewis received an honorary doctorate. His remarks to the crowd were humble, few, and profound. He said he never thought of the civil rights movement as a way to greatness. He was only trying to help. He admonished the affluent, the comfortable sitting on a hot Ivy League green, “Find a way to get in the way.” Injustice must come to end. The color, gender, sexual orientation, place of birth or financial status of no person should ever be used to judge her or him. With remarks I’ve heard about President Obama, most vulgarly on Facebook, we still have a long, long journey ahead of us.

In a day when the internet weaves millions of people into a fabric that should remind us we are all part of a whole, some still insist that their shading, location, or special pedigree make their part of the cloth the most valuable. Even as revolutions against injustice—something with which Americans especially should sympathize—take place in “backward” nations by using social media, we in the “first world” still judge one another by the origins of our ancestry and the mythical superiority of our skin tones. The greatest asset the United States offers to the world is its unique blend of people from everywhere. Our country demonstrates what can happen when people from every continent put their minds and wills together to work for the common good. This clashes with the biblical brand of separatism, I know. But even Isaiah, even if it is in his third incarnation, reminds us, “Also the sons of the stranger, that join themselves to the Lord, to serve him, and to love the name of the Lord, to be his servants, every one that keepeth the sabbath from polluting it, and taketh hold of my covenant; Even them will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer: their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be accepted upon mine altar; for mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people.”


Monkey See, Monkey Do

ConquestPlanetApesThe year was 1972. In the continuing saga of the Planet of the Apes, the fourth installment, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, addressed the civil rights movement directly. Caesar, the son of Cornelius and Zira, is the last speaking ape left in the past to which his parents had escaped. Inexplicably, the other great apes have all suddenly evolved by 1991—the year in which the story is set—into large sized, almost upright creatures whose population matches than of humans (almost). Initially purchased as pets since the cats and dogs had died off in the late 80’s, apes have been imported as slaves. They are given menial tasks and beaten mercilessly if they make errors. A deep fear pervades the establishment that these apes will try to take over. Breck, the governor of California, decides to find and kill Caesar, at any cost, while his deputy MacDonald tries to save him. When Caesar reveals himself to MacDonald, an African-American, he states that he especially should know what it means for a people not to be free.

Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated only four years earlier and although civil rights had made progress, there was still a long way to go. Still is a long way to go. As an affluent culture, we remain reluctant to share. We still see disproportionate numbers of African-Americans and Hispanic Americans forced to live in areas that the amorphous “white” population has fled. Xenophobia is one of the less noble traits with which evolution has endowed us. Even so, the classes we devise aren’t always helpful in determining who people really are. “White” can mean anyone from the southern tip of Chile to the tundra of eastern Siberia. On job applications now “Hispanic” is classified as “white.” I get the feeling that there’s a few unresolved issues here. The sense of entitlement did not begin with this generation. Those who have naturally suppose that they deserve. Caesar observes the unfair treatment and, down to the detail of the weapons the apes stockpile, leads a plantation-style revolt that overcomes a heavily armed command post. Gorilla warfare indeed.

In classic 1960s-70s style, Caesar grandstands after his victory. He was about to order Breck’s execution, but stays his hand in the recognition that even humans deserve to live. We do have to wonder where he might have learned about God, being raised by a circus trainer and in what is an otherwise completely secular society in the film. In any case, his final words in the movie place the apes on a higher moral plane than humans. “But now… now we will put away our hatred. Now we will put down our weapons. We have passed through the Night of the Fires. And who were our masters are now our servants. And we, who are not human, can afford to be humane. Destiny is the will of God! And, if it is man’s destiny to be dominated, it is God’s will that he be dominated with compassion and understanding. So, cast out your vengeance. Tonight we have seen the birth of the Planet of the Apes!” Maybe it’s all the dead bodies around, but I’m still having a little trouble with the “Destiny is the will of God” part.

Civil Rights and Science Fiction

I remember reading L. Ron Hubbard’s science fiction before the Church of Scientology was widely known. Not surprisingly, the religious movement began in New Jersey – a state where anything seems possible (except finding a job or having a stable government). Over the weekend, however, a New Jersey Star-Ledger story noted that some former members of the Church of Scientology are trying to sue their religion for violation of labor laws and unreasonable pay. Lawyers predict such a case cannot win in court, and I personally wonder how such cases of enforced labor differ from other brands of organized religion that require that extra push from their members. Doesn’t the church reserve the right to demand, voluntarily of course, that citizens forfeit their legal rights?

When I was young and naïve (instead of being old and naïve, as I am now), I took my first teaching job at Nashotah House. I was not yet thirty. It was, of course, a conflicted situation: a bunch of men living in the Wisconsin woods trying to maintain a monastic presence nestled between the sinful cities of Madison and Milwaukee. (And a few women, always the minority of the student body collective.) One of only two non-clergy on the faculty, I was surprised when, in response to what was an unreasonable administrative demand I was told, “When you signed your contract, you gave up your civil rights!” I’m not a lawyer, but I learned an important legal lesson – never mess with the saintly sorts that make up the church administration. Religion is big business. And religious bodies can afford big lawyers.

I feel sorry for the plaintiffs in this legal dispute, but they are in a wide and vast company. Organized religions are human constructs, and human constructs will always favor climbers. Climbers who reach the top will always build fortresses to protect their personal interests. In the church they’ll call it ecclesiastical authority and trace it right back to Jesus handing Peter some metaphorical keys. No, the church is not above the felonies and misdemeanors that secular courts just can’t judge. Potential members should read the contract, including the fine print. And don’t be taken in by the bits that sound like science fiction.

Inventor of new worlds

Important Days

A few years back, during that nightmare called the Bush Administration, a petition was going around to try to prevent the United States from going to war in Iraq. A phone petition was put in place to encourage those against the war to telephone the White House and peacefully make their convictions known. I decided to call in. Since I worked at Nashotah House, I had forgotten that Martin Luther King Day was a national holiday (the seminary did not commemorate it). I telephoned the White House from my office only to receive a recorded message stating that the offices were closed because it was “President’s Day”! I hung up astonished. Our own government did not know what day it was (in retrospect, not such a surprise —).

A couple of years later while I was working on my book of holidays for children, I recalled the incident. It still strikes me as very odd, given the importance of today’s commemoration. I am including below my brief write-up for Martin Luther King Day from my still unpublished book:

One of the few national holidays in the United States to honor an individual is Martin Luther King Day. There are only three individual based holidays – Washington’s Birthday and Columbus Day are the other two. Martin Luther King Day is observed on the third Monday of January, and it had a hard time making it through the government process of becoming an official holiday. It seems like old prejudices die hard, since the bill proposing this holiday was introduced in 1968 but was not signed into law until 1983!

Martin Luther King Day is the only national holiday commemorating an African American individual. While school kids are probably just grateful for a day off so soon after the Christmas holidays, this holiday stands out as important for many reasons. Perhaps the main reason is that the United States were united around the idea of freedom, a basic right for all in this country.

Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929. His story of a courageous, non-violent challenge to unfair practices in the United States is an inspiration to all who care about justice. King was a Baptist minister and a main leader of the Civil Rights movement. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for his example of peaceful protest; King was the youngest person to have ever been awarded this honor. He was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Even so, this holiday was not officially observed in all 50 states until 2000.

The federal government (pay attention!), that is, the government over the whole country, has the right to set holidays. Anyone who works for the federal (national) government gets the day off. Individual states, however, can decide if they will observe the date as a holiday or not. That is why some state workers get a holiday off while those in another state do not.

The United States stands for equal rights for all citizens. King stands as a symbol for that belief and his life shows that sometimes it takes everything you’ve got to make sure that the right thing is done.

Another factoid about this holiday is that it shows just how different holidays can be from one another. Some are fun while others make us think.