Building Trust

Photo by Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash

Perhaps the most insidious aspect of the Trump presidency was the four years of eroding trust.  People, it seems to me, no longer trust each other.  I’ve noticed it most since the reign of a pathological liar.  It’s kind of like a nation of children of alcoholic parents—trust is a real struggle.  I regularly deal with academics.  Now, critical thinking tends to make a person skeptical, at least to a degree, but it seems to me people would trust a very old, highly regarded institution.  Lately I’ve noticed that trust eroding in various ways, and that puzzles me.  If we can’t trust those who’ve done the heavy lifting of keeping a solid reputation for centuries, well, who can you trust?  It’s a real dilemma.  Maybe it’s because we had four years of equating “my opinion at the moment” with “facts.”  The damage will take many years to repair.

The basic way that civilization works is with trust.  We tend not to pay our money for something unless we believe it’s worth what we’re spending.  Skepticism, in appropriate measure, is a good thing.  So is trust.  One way that I often see this is in the hiring of contract managers.  Yes, there is such a thing!  Many younger academics now hire companies to make sure the publishing contracts they sign aren’t cheating them.  When I was in academia you simply went by the reputation of a publisher.  Everyone knew who had a good reputation because of, well, their reputation.  What a publisher represented was well known and respected for what it was.  Perhaps I’m mistaking the desire for personal advantage for lack of trust.

Companies sometimes engage in trust-building exercises.  Getting beyond someone’s politics to the person beneath seems to be a dying art.  Deep divisions are difficult to achieve when people trust one another.  Consider the anti-vaxxers who are now feeding the delta-variation of Covid-19.  They’ve been taught not to trust the scientists and officials who offer a way to ending this pandemic.  For free.  They even don’t believe the post-presidential interview with Trump where he encouraged (far too late) his followers to get vaccinated.  Trust has to be built slowly.  Over centuries sometimes.  One man’s selfishness tore down the modicum of trust that had been slowly growing since the 1860s.  Now uninformed skeptics think critical race theory is some kind of plot.  Trust isn’t a bad thing.  It is the only way to move forward.  Trust me on this.


The Heart of Memorial Day

The Memorial Day will be a somber one for the many people who’ve lost someone due to Covid-19.  Even as those who know that science can help to bring a pandemic under control have been vaccinated,  it is too late for millions who didn’t make it.  Memorial Day weekend, for many of us in northern climes, has been unseasonably cold.  Around here it’s been rainy too.  The official kick-off to summer seems to be a memorial to the long winter of 2020 and ’21.  It’s also hopeful, because things are starting to get better.  Having an organized national response helps, even as the Fascist Party is gaining strength.  “Memorial” means looking back.  Remembering the past.  I’m saddened, shocked, and distraught that one political party has refused to look at how insidious fascism is, and how it always starts under the guise of righteousness.  Remember this.

We tend to think of Memorial Day as a play day.  Indeed, the number of boats being towed as I’ve been out driving attests to the plans of many.  We’re ready for life to return to normal, but even that involves memory.  Remembering what was normal.  We have never been a fascist nation.  That’s not a memory but a sick future dream.  Those who attempt insurrection and then block any investigation into it can’t have the good of the nation at heart.  It should be a play day.  It should be frolicking in the sun.  Instead I’m wondering how we’ll ever stop this apparently inevitable evil that has taken over a country formed as a democracy.  Has it stopped raining yet?

Although I wasn’t close to him, my father was a veteran.  He fought for the cause of liberty, at least as it was understood before Trump’s America.  He was, according to his family, never the same after seeing war.  Bureaucrats, fat from the monies they pocket from special interest groups and lobbies, seem to have forgotten.  They’ve forgotten the frighteningly large national cemetery at Arlington.  They’ve forgotten that we fought to stop the very thing they are now promoting in their own country.  I’m sorry, Mr. Lincoln, these dead may have died in vain after all.  I had hopes of warm days and leisurely outdoor activities as the end of May rolled along.  Either that, or at least being able to get out and take care of all the yard work that’s been piling up over the past several weeks.  I wonder, will it stop raining today?


Plants Will Lead

The world just keeps getting weirder.  Although I very much appreciate—“believe in,” if you will—science, sometimes the technology aspect of STEM leaves me scratching my primate cranium.  What’s got the fingers going this morning is spinach.  Not just any spinach.  According to a story on Euronews, “Scientists Have Taught Spinach to Send Emails.”  There are not a few Homo sapiens, it seems, who might learn something from our leafy greens.  The tech comes, not surprisingly, from MIT.   When spinach roots detect certain compounds left by landmines in the soil, it triggers sensors that send an email alert to a human being who’s probably eaten some of their (the spinach’s) very family members.  I’m not denying that this is very impressive, but it raises once again that troubling question of consciousness and our botanical cousins.

Some people live to eat.  I’m one of those who falls into the other category—those who eat to live.  In my life I’ve gone from being a picky omnivore to being a somewhat adventurous omnivore to vegetarian to vegan.  I’m not sure how much more restricted I can make my diet if I leave out plants.  I’ve watched those time-lapse videos of trees moving.  They move even more slowly than I do when my back’s acting up, but they really do move.  If they had legs and speeded up a bit we’d call it walking.  Studies into plant consciousness are finding new evidence that our brainless greens are remarkably intelligent.  Perhaps some could have made a better president than 45.  I wonder if spinach can tweet?

People can be endlessly inventive.  Our thirst for information is never quenched.  Universities are among those rare places where ideas can be pursued and it can be considered work.  While I don’t think everyone necessarily needs to go on to higher education, I can see the benefits it would have for a culture.  Indeed, would we have armed mobs trying to take over because of a fact-based election loss?  I wonder if the spinach would take place in “stopping the steal.”  Hopefully it would fact-check more than those who simply follow the leader.  Consciousness and education can work together for a powerful good.  I’m not sure why Popeye’s favorite was chosen for this experiment, but it does seem to show that we can all get along if we really want to.  Maybe then we could meet in the salad aisle rather than out in the field looking for explosives.


Leadership

After four years it finally feels safe again.  We can celebrate Presidents’ Day, although now and forever with some trepidation.  Even as Republicans still protect the insurrectionist Trump, democracy has survived his tenure of horror.  Many Americans don’t realize just how close to Nazi Germany we came.  There are many who hold party above the good of the nation, something our founders, one of whom we celebrate today, feared.  The outdated safeguards of democracy, such as the electoral college, have been used more than once to “elect” presidents the American people did not want.  One guess as to which party this has only favored.  Democracy, we’re now being told, is fragile.  It shouldn’t be.  Only the designs of a party scheming for personal enrichment makes it so.

Today we can at least take a breather and be glad that we no longer have a bigoted, sexist, classist, racist incumbent.  We have a female Vice President of color.  We are on the long, slow road to recovery.  The senate, clearly recognizing Trump’s danger to the nation, voted to acquit him because Republicans fear not being reelected if they stand up to him.  Our democracy’s not out of the woods, even this Presidents’ Day.  Until the GOP learns to grow a backbone we’ll be in constant danger of collapsing.  Anyone with back trouble knows how it can stop you in your tracks.  Of course, once you’ve made a deal with the Devil, there’s no getting out of it.  Most Republicans could benefit from just a touch of folk wisdom.

When one party sides with armed thugs who’d have happily killed them if they’d been found just a little over a month ago, our grounds for celebrating today remain on thin ice.  The GOP, which has no moral compass left, has decided that bullies and armed bandits are the way of the future they’d like to see.  Although Trump lost both popular elections they’d still vote for him a third time and support him again if he incited another insurrection.  It’s Presidents’ Day but we’re still on the edge of a precipice.  When a political party refuses to learn from its mistakes, and indeed, tries to build upon them, our celebration of democracy must, by definition, be subdued.  We do have grounds for hope.  Efforts to get the coronavirus under control are starting to take effect.  We have a sane human being in the Oval Office.  Until the GOP disavows evil, however, we’ll continue to live in fear.

 


Power of Parables

Parables come in all sizes and shapes, horror movie-shaped, some of them.  In my perpetual struggle to catch up, I finally got to see Get Out.  One of the raft of well-made, intelligent horror films that have been released recently, it’s been out long enough that I suspect my spoilers will be well known.  The Armitage family, resident in upstate New York, has been kidnapping and using African-Americans to make up for the perceived weaknesses of their family and friends.  One of their main means of obtaining victims is through their daughter Rose, who brings her boyfriends home for the weekend so they can be hypnotized by her psychiatrist mother and operated on by her neurosurgeon father.  The reveal comes slowly, but the discomfort begins early on.

Released early in the Trump White House tenure, the movie is a study in an intense xenophobia that nestles somewhere between Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and The Stepford Wives.  It’s inherently uncomfortable watching Chris Washington, the protagonist, being treated as if his very presence requires constant comment in the world of white privilege.  He, of course, had misgivings before ever climbing into Rose’s car, but her convincing display of liberalism was enough to overcome his hesitation.  For me, watching the film made it clear that privilege is something assumed, even when it isn’t had in any explicit way.  The Armitage family and their friends are well-to-do but even if the setting were more mundane the message would still have worked—our culture imposes and reimposes its message of white superiority in subtle ways that the camera captures here.

Quite apart from its nature as a parable, Get Out is a demonstration of the social consciousness of horror.  Its reputation as a debased, low-brow appeal to all that’s unsavory to watch is misplaced at times.  While Get Out is uncomfortable it’s that way for a reason.  Were it not, it would lose its important message.  All privileged people need to be able to see through the eyes of those who are culturally disenfranchised, and although the “us versus them” mentality is problematic it has to be faced honestly and openly.  The very fact that a human construct like race could be used as the basis for a horror film in America raises questions that ought to make all of us squirm.  Setting the story in New York, where prejudice might be supposed not to remain only underscores how deeply its roots have grown.  Horror with a conscience is perhaps as much a vehicle for social change as it is a genre more honest than often supposed.  That’s how parables tend to be.


Insecticide

Although Halloween is more about spiders than insects, a real fear seems to be swirling around the latter.  For the second time in a year, a study has been published indicating a precipitous drop in the numbers of six-legged creatures worldwide.  This is alarming because everything’s connected.  Loss of insects means loss of vertebrates that feed on them and that leads to loss of species upon which we depend.  The problem with “humans first,” simply “America first” writ large, is that all species are interconnected.  The loss of one will lead to the loss of others—that’s the way connections work—until the entire picture changes.  And it won’t be prettier.  Even for lack of bugs.

Scientists aren’t sure of why this is happening, but the likely culprit seems to be global warming.  Temperatures are changing so rapidly that evolution can’t keep up.  And since those in political power don’t believe in evolution—America first!—they have difficulty seeing how global warming—a myth!—could possibly pose any threat.  Just ask the wooly mammoth.  The fact is that the very small frequently offer the answers long before it’s too late.  The problem is you have to pay attention.  And that attention must be not on America, or Trump, or Kavanaugh.  The Supreme Court is jobless if there are no people left.  We are part of an ecosystem, and the silence of that ecosystem is very loud indeed.   Decades ago Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring to warn of the dangers of pesticides.  In our short-sighted way, we responded by banning the most dangerous of them and turning up the heat.

We like to focus on the negative aspects of religion these days, but one of the overlooked benefits of it has been religions’ ability to shift focus.  Christianity, for example, has been an advocate of thinking of others before thinking of oneself.  Now certain elected officials seem constitutionally unable to think of anyone but themselves, but the fact is none of us would be here if it weren’t for the insects.  They work to keep our planet neat and tidy, even if we regard them as a sign of uncleanness in our houses.  Maybe not the lowest, they are one of the essential building blocks of the world we know and recognize.  And they are disappearing.  As Carson recognized decades ago, the loss of insects leads to a silent spring because the birds that feed on them will disappear.  And what about pollination—whose job will that become?  I suppose we could assign it to migrant workers, but we’re sending them away too.  America first will be America the silent and hungry.  Unless we listen to what the insects tell us.


Come Salem Away

It’s the season.  Here in the fast waning days of September we can already taste October and thoughts turn toward ghosties and ghoulies and their kin.  Susan Fair’s American Witches: A Broomstick Tour through Four Centuries is, as any book in the nation of Salem, a mere skeleton crew of a long and feared tradition.  As is true of most things in the last two years, this book takes on a poignancy that was perhaps unintentional since it was written for fun.  It is a somewhat uncanny combination as it is—witch accusations often led to (and perhaps lead to, far from official eyes) someone dying.  We fear witches.  Fair reaches back pretty far, going even to the point of discussing those (generally women) hanged on ships on their way to America because their shipmates thought them witches.

Salem so dominates our witch consciousness that we sometimes forget these other episodes.  Fair explores, along with snarky asides, many early cases outside Salem.  In fact, the sad chapter in our history where hearsay became fact—one can’t help but think of “fake news”—the mass, “legal” murders carried out in Salem, is part of a larger pattern.  Not surprisingly women feature as the victims in this unholy web of fear and piety.  The combination is a dangerous one and otherwise rational people sanction evil rather than confront what is a mere perception of evil.  Fair moves on, however, to discuss other witchcraft scenarios—the witches (fortune tellers) of New York, the murder of a “witch” in Booger Hole, West Virginia (did I mention there was snark?), and the hex murder of York, Pennsylvania.  All of these represent an underlying fear that won’t go away.

This breezy tour ends near the author’s hometown outside Burkittsville, Maryland.  Although it is widely known that The Blair Witch Project was fiction from start to finish, this tiny town has been beset by those who refuse to accept that reality.  Such credulousness should stand as a warning to a country even capable of electing someone like Trump.  We are a suggestible nation with many people incapable of independent thought.  We are natural believers.  At the same time we’re a people that sees no value in studying religion even as it destroys us.  It’s like that embarrassing relative we never talk about.  But people still come to Burkittsville nevertheless.  Fair’s book was written before the election that showed who we really are.  Although the writing is charming, it’s hard to laugh about the subject these days.  We have forgotten Salem and all it taught us.


Riveting

The days of angry white men backlash are hopefully numbered.  One thing this strange phenomenon of privileged males feeling under threat has brought to the surface is the long struggle of women for the basic acknowledgment of human equality.  Ironically, it took a horrible war to move the cause forward.  Rosie the Riveter became a fixture during World War Two, blazing the message that women could do the tough jobs men had always done, now that males were off trying to kill one another overseas.  These images of Rosie have found new life in the era of Trumpism that has objectified women in the crudest possible ways, because it’s, well, monkey-see monkey-do in the world of politics.  Just consider Brett Kavanaugh and try to challenge the point.

One of the more famous portraits of Rosie, back when Fascism was an evil thing, is that painted by Norman Rockwell.  A pugnacious Rosie eats her lunch with her feet on Main Kampf and her riveting gun in her lap.  (These days she would need to have her feet on an elephant rampant.)  Something about this painting always bothered me.  I could never put my finger on it.  It certainly wasn’t the confident look on Rosie’s face—she’d earned that and deserved it long before it became a reality.  Even the patriotism at that time was tasteful.  No, it was her posture.  There was something uncanny about it.  Then I learned that Rockwell had consciously copied Michelangelo’s Isaiah from the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Isaiah, according to that famous rendition (Isaiah has never been a popular subject for paintings, for some reason), has his head turned at that peculiar angle because an angel is whispering in his ear.  Instead of a riveting gun, he’s packing a nascent Good Book, but he is receiving a direct message from on high.  I like to think it might be “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord,” but then I’ve always been a dreamer.  Rosie, in Rockwell’s rendition, is prophetic.  She is proclaiming an equality which, inexplicably, coming up on a century later, is still unrealized.  Why?  The angry white man only recognizes God made in his own image.


Patriarchal Faith

One of the dynamics we see in present-day America is the worship of belief itself.  This is nothing new since faith is the “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”  It’s hard to trust in what you can’t see.  Trusting in trust may be tautological, but it’s also a natural development for something that evades proof.  If it goes too far, however, such religion becomes an idol.  Its teachings become secondary to its very existence.  Its rules, no matter how contradictory, must all be followed.  And those who believe are encouraged not to think too deeply about it since, if they did, this inherent inconsistency would be obvious.  The knee-jerk reaction of “the Bible says” is one such defensive measure.  I saw this all the time while teaching in seminary.

The other day I heard the melody of “Faith of Our Fathers” playing on the local church bells.  Interestingly, this is a Catholic hymn adopted by Protestants.  It’s kind of an anthem to this idea of worshipping the faith rather than the deity to which it points.  Consider the chorus: “Faith of our fathers, holy faith!/We will be true to thee til death.”  Originally a celebration of martyrs—those who found the courage to die in their steadfast belief—the hymn survives into an era when the perils besetting what used to be Christianity are less political and more scientific.  We live in a universe compellingly explained by science while politics has appropriated religion and counts on it to keep worshipping faith as an entity, regardless of distorted beliefs.  The hymn plays on.

Many public intellectuals are wondering about how evangelical Christianity could so easily divest itself of Jesus’ teachings and accept Trumpism.  Some have already begun to suggest that Trumpism is a “cult.”  (Religionists would say the proper term is “New Religious Movement,” since we no longer judge religions, no matter what forms of mind control they might prefer.)  The problem with experts on religion is that anyone can claim that sobriquet, bona fides or no.  Some of us have documented decades of official study of the phenomenon—those who paid attention in seminary and continued to pay for many years for a doctorate in this elusive field—but we’re are easily outshouted by those who take the words of this hymn literally, as they were meant to be taken.  Martyrdom comes in many varieties.  As I listen to the bells, I consider the implications.