Mission Impossible

You can always tell Jehovah’s Witnesses by their tracts.  When I heard a tap, tap, tap on my front door the other day I was handed a flier and a cheery invitation to an important celebration (Easter).  The circumlocution used for the holiday made we wonder so I flipped over the tract and saw the familiar JW on the bottom.  I always treat religion at my door with respect because, well, you never know.  It’s this latter bit—the uncertainty—that has always given me pause when it comes to missionaries, domestic or imported.  Missionaries by definition believe their particular spin on religion is the only correct one, otherwise there’s no reason to convert others.  This is often the highest hurdle over which globalism must leap—the willingness to admit one might be wrong.

I could be wrong about this, but I have always considered the willingness to admit you might be incorrect as a sign of spiritual maturity.  I also know from my youth that that kind of uncertainty can drive you crazy.  We want to know we’re right!  But then, who doesn’t?  Those of us who think globalization is a good thing have failed to take into account just how difficult it is for many people to admit possible error.  For the vast, vast majority of human history we were separated from one another by natural boundaries.  Travel for leisure did not exist.  Within a local group beliefs would likely be fairly uniform.  Then you encounter others who might say, well, you’re wrong.  That’s seldom a welcome prospect.

More than air travel, the internet has shown us, as we connect, just how diverse a species we really are.  What about that missionary at my door?  For religions indoctrinated into one doctrine this can’t be easy.  I’ve had conversations with Jehovah’s Witnesses before.  There’s no convincing them they might be wrong.  Missionaries come with the assurance they’re saving you.  Rare is the proselytizer who’s there possibly to learn the truth.  As I think about it, after decades of attending church how many times has anyone wanted to have an in-depth conversation about belief?  Outside confirmation class, that is.  And even there, when most are either teenagers or older specialists in some secular business, discussing deep issues seems to make others uncomfortable.  When the missionaries come, I want the conversation to go both ways.  I’ve spent half a century thinking about these things, after all.  When there’s a tap, tap, tapping at my door, I wonder what tracks will be left behind.

Lingua Franca

The history of Israel and its neighbors has been appropriated deeply in the mindset of western cultures.  Both the British and Americans, for example, have thought themselves the “new Israel,” for once a people is chosen so all people wish to be.  I’ve been thinking about this in linguistic terms of late.  To get to the main point, we need to read a little history—it’ll be painless, I assure you.  Israel was a nation frequently conquered.  The imperial powers to the east, beginning with Assyria and continuing through Babylonia and Persia, overran the land.  This hostile takeover involved not only Israel, but its neighboring nations as well.  These early, violent attempts at globalization worked themselves out linguistically, in part, by the necessity to communicate in a common language.

In the broad sweep of world history, the conquering nation tends to impose its language on the conquered.  Think of Alexander of Macedon and the adoption of Greek as the “lingua franca”—the official language of empire.  Ironically—and this is what captures my attention—when Assyria overran Israel, it also conquered “Aram.”  (Aram was the area north of Israel, roughly what we think of as Syria today.  Their language was Aramaic, which is closely related to Hebrew.)  Instead of the Assyrian language being imposed on the defeated peoples, the invaders adopted Aramaic as the official imperial language.  Some of this may have to do with the fact that Aramaic, being alphabetic, was much easier to learn to write than syllabic Assyrian (known generically as Akkadian, along with Babylonian and its dialects).  It may have been the last time a conquering nation admitted at least some of the culture of the defeated was superior.  (Ironically, the Romans felt that way about the Greeks.  Those who have ears…)

Aramaic continued in favor even as the conquered adopted Alexander’s Indo-European Greek centuries later.  Lingering into Roman times many of the people of what was left of Israel were bilingual, knowing Greek and Aramaic.  The latter was the language of Jesus.  Aramaic later survived in the form of Syriac, but the area was overrun by Arab invaders and Arabic became the lingua franca.  Still, nestled in the middle of this linguistic history is that episode of the ascension of Aramaic to imperial levels.  That’s the thing about globalization—it’s an exercise in compromise.  Many distrust and hate it, and even today some sub-cultures fear they’re being wiped out by granting too much to those who “don’t belong.”  In some ways it’s an understandable fear.  Learning new languages is hard, especially for adults.  There is perhaps a lesson in the survival of Aramaic, though, that might still come in handy when cultures collide.

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.

Tintinnabulation

On a summer’s day when I can work with the windows open, I hear the bells of a local church.  We haven’t been in our current location long enough to know for sure, but they seem to come from the direction of the United Methodists.  Around noon each day they ring out hymn tunes to which I often find myself filling in the words.  These are traditional hymns that I’ve known from childhood, and there’s an easy familiarity about hearing them, although my own spiritual journey may have taken me in different directions.  The sound of bells is so pleasant, I think, that nobody really objects.  Then I wonder about what I thought.

Music in public places does impact other people.  Consider the heavy metal or rap booming out of a passing car with the stereo turned up too high for human consumption.  Or jazz in the park.  Music impacts other people.  What, I wonder, is the message those of other religions hear along with these old hymns?  Do they suggest more than the praise of the locals for their version of the Almighty?  Is there some subtle proselytizing going on?  Is the music for members of the parish only, or can outsiders hear it and be free of obligation?  In many ways this encapsulates, I believe, the conflicts rife throughout our nation.  Traditionalists who see nothing wrong with “white” Christianity spreading its message but who object to a mosque being built in their community would likely find church bells comforting, even if they personally don’t attend.  Those from the outside, meanwhile, hear a message of cultural superiority.

Some sects feel compelled to praise God vocally, often and enthusiastically.  Their religion insists they do so.  Hymns ringing from the steeple, even if they’re not exactly your brand, participate in that mandate.  The deity likes to be adored.    (Think Psalms.)  This specific divinity, however, isn’t alone.  Perhaps beyond the bounds of where these sound waves flatten out to inaudibility, there are others with religious beliefs often older.  They too have rules about how to behave.  They may not be friendly to those who come bearing a new message of a new truth.  Globalization follows in the wake of technology and no god beyond the laws of physics oversees tech.  Our smartphones have made the world a much smaller place.  In such tight quarters, sounds carry.  Church bells, innocent as they seem, may be heard as a war cry.  But I wouldn’t suggest such things on a day so pleasant that I can work with my windows open and listen to the bells.

Social Security

Security. If there’s one thing we can never get enough of, this is it. We look at the future with a mix of perspectives: it’s going to get better, or it’s going to get worse. We want to be prepared for any eventuality. The most recent issue of Wired landed at my door and the cover, apart from Leonardo DiCaprio, features the survival guide. Tongue-in-cheek, along with actual statistics, this feature article gives tips on surviving all kinds of potential disasters. From domestic terrorism to zombies. The zombie advice caught my eye. You can make a pretty effective club, it seems, from rolling up newspaper the right way, with a judicious application of duct tape. It may not help much in instance of domestic terrorism, but who can expect to survive everything?

DecWiredSecurity is fine and good, until it becomes an obsession. Here in the United States, we’ve lived with the belief that two oceans separate us from our most hostile enemies. For sure, we have our fair share of natural disasters: tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires, floods, even a volcano or two, but these are “acts of God” and we like to think that we can handle those. Our greatest fear, it seems, is our fellow human beings. Isolationism is convenient when we want to direct our own destiny, but when other nations get in the way, we like to extend the borders of democracy a bit. And globalization has opened the doors to all kinds of scenarios where security is at risk. Just try flying as a man with a beard traveling alone. I’m not so sure that facial hair is the greatest threat to the future that it seems to be. (Unless, of course, it is trendy stubble, as the picture of Leonardo DiCaprio shows.)

Security isn’t attainable. The future is always uncertain. There’s a rabbinic saying that a person can’t be satisfied today without knowing that tomorrow’s been taken care of. We don’t know what tomorrow might bring. Or even later today. We fear those who take their faith seriously, and yet the world grows more densely interconnected all the time. Some turn to their holy books to ensure that they are ready for tomorrow. Some even claim that those books tell them in detail what will be coming down the road. Others, I suspect, are gathering newspapers and rolls of duct tape. The future is, after all, what we make it.

Things Being Equal

Gun violence is out of control. While experts dither and bicker about whether this or that act was done by “terrorists” they choose to ignore that gun violence is terror, no matter who’s pulling the trigger. The world in which bearing arms was declared an amended constitutional right was a world of muzzle-loaders. Like in those movies where someone took their shot, missed, and has to reload, feverishly pouring gunpowder down the barrel while the enemy closes in. Firearms were obviously deadly, but limited in their capabilities. All things being equal, it is easy to understand why such a right would be granted. Almost nothing is equal any more, however.

Consider this: weapons are now sold that can rapidly and repeatedly fire rounds that, in the wrong hands, can kill many people before anyone even has the time to react. These guns are useless for hunting, and their only purpose is to kill other human beings. We have been manufacturing them and selling them for many years and laws are such that most people could, if they choose to participate in the insanity, stockpile such weapons against a day when they will actually be used for their intended purposes. Consider also that the government, strapped for money to funnel to military causes, has shifted and narrowed the definition of mental illness so as to “normalize” people who would have, under other circumstances, been in institutional care. Add to this the increasing globalization that has effects that psychologists and sociologists are only now coming to see build stresses and strains in brains that evolved to be among their own “kind” and to distrust the “stranger.” And these stressed minds have easy access to powerful firearms. Who has the right?

I grew up in a different world. Yes, the Vietnam War was going on, but those who returned were exhausted by and despised the violence to which they’d been subjected. The pointless killing of others was culturally and personally just that: pointless. Fast forward half a century. Now we live in a world where seeing violent death represented is a daily occurrence. Even in simulation it is realistic. Mass murderers make videos presenting themselves as so heroic as to inspire followers. We no longer trust religion. We no longer trust the government. We no longer trust the American Dream. Wealth is bottled up where it can’t be reached and guns are distributed like candy. Are all things equal? Hardly. And yet those running for the highest office in the land worm for ways to keep the gun lobbies pleased. If we could only go back to muzzle-loaders and the time it took to reload—time in which even an unbalanced person had to think about what he, or now she, was about to do. Equality has, unfortunately, become as much a fairy tale as the right to bear arms.

400px-Manual_of_the_Musketeer,_17th_Century

Frozen Few

It’s that time of year, neither winter nor spring, when ambivalence is in the air. Gray skies with just the first damp aromas of a change in the season, followed by another snow storm and icy winds custom-made in the arctic. So we turn to movies. Frozen is continuing to make headlines and break records. And although the critics voice strong opinions, ambivalence about a powerful message still rocks a society that can’t decide if a woman director having success is an anomaly or an idea far past its time. Stories about the animated feature crop up on the internet on a daily basis, five months after its theatrical release. Some claim it is the most Christian movie in years while others claim it has homosexual marriage at its core. The queen doesn’t need a man and the world’s most conservative, progressive society is in a muddle.

Perhaps I’m just showing my age, but I noticed what I thought was an older child in the sauna when Anna first meets Kristoff. The movie didn’t give me any clues as to his being a gay partner to the shopkeeper, although it’s none of my business if he is. Disney movies have had subtle clues to a kind of radical equality that I’ve noticed over the years, from Edgar’s license plate that reads RU-1 in The Aristocats to two masculine creatures sharing a pad in Monsters Inc. I even remember some people staring suspiciously at Ernie and Bert while the insanely ambiguous Teletubbies were faulted for carrying purses and dressing in primary colors. (Even Judas Iscariot kept a purse, according to the Bible.) A good, empowering story is suspect if we think something more is going on when the lights go out in cartoon-land. Our culture can seem to think of little else beyond mores and how to enforce them.

Globalization has repeatedly demonstrated that there are many different ways of being in the world. And yet, when worlds collide the more conservative culture inevitably makes claims on its more “progressive” neighbor. We see this happening as the church in Africa, now larger than the church in America, drives social policy through denominations that somehow feel guilt at promoting equality. Perhaps proselytization is, at the core, of our fear of difference. What if the other guy is right and we are wrong? Read that back into all our misguided ancestors and we feel chilled indeed. How far do we really trust objective truth? My guess is that ice ages have come and gone that have forged the truth of the moment. Only when the cold faces us do we really admit just how slippery truth might be.

The beauty of ice.

The beauty of ice.