Tag Archives: social justice

Inventing Christmas

While not always classified among the most intellectual of writers, Charles Dickens was a complicated man. Able to conjure words that reflect emotions, often making readers laugh and cry, he was the undisputed bestselling author of his day. This holiday season the movie The Man Who Invented Christmas explores one of the probable reasons for Dickens’ celebrity—the resuscitory success of his first holiday novel, A Christmas Carol. The film was based on a non-fiction work by the same title, written by Les Standiford, subtitled How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits. As an author who found early fame, it might seem counterintuitive to those of us who’ve never found any that Dickens’ career would need rescuing. In the publishing world, fame has to be sustained since few books keep on selling and selling. And Dickens didn’t always help himself.

Dickens’ choice of Christmas as a theme was, obviously, driven by his own warmth regarding the season. As Standiford makes clear, however, it was also driven by money. Like many in today’s world, Dickens had established his comfort at pecuniary liability—he lived on credit. He also supported other family members and although he cared for the poor he often resented those who cost him money through irresponsibility. Christmas was a time when, he hoped, people might be encouraged to give. Some of that money, naturally, would go toward the purchase of his book. Although the story was secular, it gained the approbation of many in the church—it encourages thinking of others and being generous. Complicated.

As we get closer to Christmas this year, it seems that Dickens’ message bears loud and constant repeating. Here in the States, our government has taken on a decidedly Scrooge-like cast when it comes to the poor and unfortunate. Indeed, “bah, humbug” might well be the new motto of the Grand Old Party. Shown evidence of the guilt of the miser in chief they only claim that those who discover such truth are lovers of false truth, such as claiming that the poor really suffer with want. They close ranks to ensure that the downtrodden can never vote them out of power and claim that Bob Cratchit’s problem is that he’s lazy and Tiny Tim is a burden on the misunderstood wealthy who only ever wanted to help others. A huge difference is that Dickens knew his novel was fiction. This holiday season the ghosts visiting us will be the emaciated spirits of democracy past, present, and future, and that of human decency.

Someone to Blame

There’s many ways to look at monsters. A friend recently sent me an Atlas Obscura article “The Modern Lives of Medieval Monster Scholars” by Cara Giaimo. It seems that some professors of medieval studies have taken to monsters to help explain societal problems. The Middle Ages in the western world, of course, were the days before the Enlightenment began. Belief in monsters was nearly universal. Much of the world was unexplored and inaccessible. In those unknown places, there were monsters. The article goes on to explain that monsters thus provide a natural way to deal with uncomfortable issues such as racism and religious discrimination. Monsters are those who don’t look like we do, or behave (therefore believe) like we do. It’s okay to kill monsters.

This is a mentality that we see reemerging in the twenty-first century. Despite the fact that you can easily reach nearly any part of the globe and enroll in university classes to learn what other religions actually believe, instead we prefer to see others as monsters. People see monsters because they’re afraid. They’re afraid because they’re not educated. And the political system in which many of us live is designed to keep the average person down while the wealthy reap the benefits. It serves the interests of such an unbalanced society to send people on monster hunts. The enemy is anyone who is different—not the one who owns the company that owns the company that you work for. The owner’s just like you, only he has so much money he doesn’t know what to do with it.

I once asked one of my students why he was interested in a certain topic. His answer has stayed with me all this years: “who can say why they’re interested in anything?” While I was in seminary—before the days of the J. R. R. Tolkien movies—I was very interested in medieval studies. My thought process, however, goes back to origins. The origins of medieval thought were the Bible, the ideas of the Bible (for Christians) come from the New Testament. The New Testament comes from the Hebrew Bible. Where did the Hebrew Bible come from? And that journey led me back to monsters. Like my student, I can’t say why I’m interested. It may be that I’m afraid. And in such times as these fears seem to be entirely justified. In the eyes of some future, truly enlightened society, ours will be the New Middle Ages with all its monsters.

Justice for All

One of the perks of working for a publisher is author talks. I’ve worked for three publishers now, and the last two have made great efforts to bring authors to their New York offices to present their work, in a kind of dry run, to those in the industry. When an author (whose book will eventually feature on this blog, so I don’t want to provide any spoilers just yet) was to speak on misogyny this week, I quickly signed up for a seat. Perhaps it’s a lack of imagination, but I could never understand how one human being could ever feel superior to another. As a child with no father around, my experience suggested that women were the strong ones. Yet when out in society I saw men always stepping in to take charge. What was wrong here?

I realize that I view life through male lenses. I’m also aware that gender isn’t nearly as definitive as we tend to think it is. Biology fits us with bits and pieces, and some of those constructed somewhat like me assume this gives them the right to dominate others. And they say we’re better than animals. Better at what, I ask? No, this isn’t about chauvinism—a man stepping in to support weaker women. This is about justice, plain and simple. We’re all born human. Humanity is nothing without those of both genders as well as those somewhere between. What should separate humankind from the vicissitudes of nature is the inherent commitment to fairness. Life is harsh and not all receive fair treatment. Do not listen to the narrative coming out of Washington, DC! The father of lies dwells there. And yes, I mean “father.”

We used to take pride in having climbed above the mere animals. We have constructed something that used to be known as democracy. Lawmakers, while fighting against women’s rights in word, nevertheless tacitly supported them at home. Now our government has declared open war on women. Men who have no idea what it is like to be viewed as and treated like an object every single day of their lives are making laws to punish those who do. I feel as though the sky is about to crack open and that blind principle we call justice is about to shout “Enough!” That’s not, however, the way that nature works. It is only when women are treated equally with men that we’ll ever be able to call ourselves civilized. Or even human. Until that day we’ll hunker down in our caves and await lawmakers who have any inkling at all of what fairness, what justice, even means.

Self-Conscious

Cassini is no more. The Saturn-bound satellite was launched in 1997 when the earth was a very different place. As it’s four-year sell-by date passed, the little robot who could kept on snapping photos around the ringed giant and its moons. Remote controlled from three planets and an asteroid belt away, it was decided that the explorer had to be destroyed in Saturn’s thick atmosphere rather than contaminate one of the moons where life might someday be found. Yesterday the probe burned up on its way through Saturn’s perpetual cloud bank. This has led to many emotional tributes, even among scientists who believe Cassini was just a machine. It also shows us how little we really know about consciousness.

During the two decades that Cassini was in space, we’ve learned quite a bit about animal consciousness here on our own planet. Many are now finally becoming convinced that we share this strange quality we can’t even define with other biological entities. Well, at least the “higher” kind. And we can’t help but think that maybe our more intelligent machines possess it too. We treat them as if they’re alive and willful. That could be a case of our own consciousness projecting itself onto inanimate matter—that’s something consciousness is pretty good at too—but since we lack the ability to measure consciousness, we can’t know if it’s there or not. To hear the astronomers talk, we’re going to miss Cassini, a machine that outperformed expectations. Ironically, once we get machines off the earth they tend to do that, even without oil changes every 5000 miles.

Down here on earth we complicate consciousness with cash. Devising an elaborate economic system to demonstrate who can buy power in the White House and who can’t, we want to know who is more important than whom. It’s a simple metric. Bank accounts tell the truth, no matter what the level of consciousness—or even of sentience—that the account holder may have. And then we wonder why a nation that can send a satellite three planets away can’t even figure out that all races should be treated equally and fairly. Cassini was a collaborative effort. Different races, genders, and economic classes contributed to its remarkable voyage. Eyes around the country were moistened when its last image was projected to earth. We wisely decided to immolate our satellite before we could contaminate another world. Meanwhile on our own planet we’re barely conscious of what we continue to do.

American Caligula

In the days before the American Caligula, the Trump family disgusted average Americans. I mean specifically one of those whose songs are considered essential Americana. Woody Guthrie is perhaps best known for his song, “This Land is Your Land.” Many of us were taught to sing it in school, back when public education was still a thing. Some of us were taught that Guthrie was the Dust Bowl crooner who railed against social injustice. The lyrics to “This Land” are not celebratory, according to those who knew Guthrie. They’re a condemnation. But then, it’s just like later interpreters to prettify the words of a prophet. “A young lady will conceive,” for Isaiah meant the horrid crisis of Assyria’s attack on Jerusalem would soon be over. A couple centuries later it was made into an angelic birth announcement. But I digress. Guthrie often wrote and sang about social injustice. He was known to perform with the words “This Machine Kills Fascists” appearing on his guitar.

Photo credit: Al Aumuller/New York World-Telegram and the Sun, from Wikimedia Commons

Those of us who write are never far from our notebooks. You don’t always have time to write out in full form ideas that come to you like a gray matter receiver, often at the most inconvenient times. Recently it was discovered that Woody Guthrie wrote a song called “Old Man Trump.” The song castigates the racism for the Donald’s father whose Beach Haven was once Guthrie’s home. Beach Haven was built to house returning veterans of World War II. It was off limits to African Americans. Guthrie responded in the way he did best, with poetry. The story of and words to “Old Man Trump” can be found in a Washington Post story written by Justin Wm. Moyer during Trump’s campaign. Although Guthrie never wrote the music, the song has been subsequently recorded, and in the light of the last few days, needs to be widely played.

Republican leaders, still hoping to profit from Trump, refuse to outright condemn his open and obvious racism. “This Land is Your Land” was written to protest just this kind of privileging of one “type” over another. It took some time before Romans realized their third emperor was insane. They may have know earlier, but there’s a social embarrassment to admit that the most powerful man in the world is off his rocker. Insanity and racism may not be the same thing, but neither is acceptable in a world leader. Ryan Harvey has put “Old Man Trump” to music and has made it available to the world. Give it a listen and think about where we are.

The Big Chill

It’s cold. It may not be Alaska, or even Wisconsin, but I can’t feel my fingers and the temperature hasn’t risen above freezing all day. New Jersey doesn’t get the incredible chills we used to experience in Wisconsin, but I’ve been outside going on two hours and I really need some warmth. And it’s not just me. At least a couple hundred of us are out here and it’s not for the Super Bowl. It’s for justice. We’re rallying at the beautiful courthouse of Somerset County, in solidarity with our Muslim Americans, protesting the latest actions of our own government. Some of the people here are old enough to remember Hitler. Others are young enough that they have to be held. We are from countries all over the world. We are saying “No!” to the evil that is coming out of Washington.

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Those who voted for Trump out of a sense of fiscal conservatism were sorely misguided. This was a hostile takeover of what used to be a democracy by people who rely daily on alternative facts. Who make up massacres that never happened. Who claim that their personal billions have made them victims. Who believe that men have a God-given right to determine what women can do with their bodies. Who state that men who aren’t attracted to women or women to men are somehow deviant. Who openly mock the disabled. Who resist Black Lives Matter. Who can’t tell you one of the five pillars of Islam but can tell you that they’re all wrong. A government that’s over the people, despite the people, and against the people. Self-serving, self-enriching, and self-satisfied. A government where party has become more important than the welfare of the nation. A government that lost the popular vote by nearly three million, and those were only the ones who bothered to get out to vote. A government that lays its hand on the Bible and lies. That prays for itself, not for the good of its people.

That’s why I’m out here in the cold. I’m standing in a crowd that, like those who gather at airports, courthouses, and city streets, is saying “Enough!” The abuse of power is taking advantage of what you can “legally” claim without regard for the will of those you represent. Representative government fails when it fails to represent the people. We don’t want to be out here freezing our fingers, noses, and toes. We’d rather be comfortable and warm at home. As chilly as it may be in New Jersey tonight, it’s colder in the heart of this country and unless we the people do something, Hell itself is in real danger of freezing over.

Women and Men

I’m going to the Women’s March in Washington, DC next weekend. At an organizing meeting yesterday it occurred to me that someone might ask me why. Why would a white, male, straight, employed-with-health-insurance person bother to go through the disruption, effort, and hassle of getting to the capital to protest when I personally stand to lose little? That question has stayed with me and although I haven’t articulated an answer, I’ve never questioned the decision either. So why am I going to a women’s event?

I am a son, a husband, and a father. The son of a mother, the husband of a wife, and the father of a daughter. Having been largely raised by a woman on her own, I came to realize early on that all the good I experienced in life was because of the effort of one woman fiercely determined to help her boys get ahead in life. Without the help of a man.

I am married to a woman who has had to face prolonged periods of my unemployment because an institution run by men dismissed me for standing up for minorities. As I have struggled with my career since then, often she has earned the lioness’s share of our household income. When I couldn’t find full-time work we relied on her steadiness to provide our healthcare.

I am the father of a daughter. She is part of the future and I can’t sleep at night if I don’t do everything within my power to ensure that her world is better than mine. A world where women share completely equal rights with men. Get paid the same as men for the same work. Aren’t forced to be biological slaves because men often act without thought of consequences.

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Today is Martin Luther King Day. I’m not an African American, but I believe the same truth applies. All human beings deserve equal rights. If those of us who personally stand to loose nothing do nothing one thing is certain—everyone loses. A friend implied, back in November, that this election was simply a matter of fiscal conservatism. That wasn’t the ticket on which the rails to electoral success were greased. It was a ticket of racial and gender superiority. A message of entitlement. Pulled by a locomotive of caucasian testosterone. Why am I going to Washington next weekend? Because I believe that the only way to be truly human is to recognize, respect, and resist any efforts to relinquish the rights of any person who calls this nation home.