Clean Thoughts

Brainwashing, it seems, does not exist.  Many of us who remember at least bits and snatches of the Vietnam War and the subsequent fear of cults, grew up hearing the term.  Someone’s personality had changed after some kind of trauma—slow or fast didn’t matter, but it had to be slightly prolonged—so that they were no longer recognizable as their former selves.  Scholars began to work on this idea and found it lacking.  Since the 1990s, at least, we’ve known there’s no such thing as “brainwashing.”  When you get right down to it, there’s no such thing as a mind to brainwash since it’s merely an actual brain making up a story to keep itself from being lonely in this cosmic wasteland.  Anyway, there’s no such thing as forcing someone to think something weird.

Then enter Trump.  I know many intelligent, educated people who cannot see the stark, naked contradictions.  Nothing, it seems, can convince them that simply saying “no I didn’t” doesn’t make it all right (alt right?).  The fact that well over a thousand pending lawsuits stood against him before he laid his hand on that Bible and swore—let’s call it swearing—to uphold the constitution, seems not to have registered.  I’m reminded of being a kid and crossing my fingers behind my back and believing that made a temporary lie okay.  Thing is, most of us outgrew that.  As the evidence of criminal activity while in office stacks up until it teeters, the supporters shout that the truth is just a lie and Jesus love me, this I know.  Too bad brainwashing doesn’t exist anymore.  It might help to explain a thing or two.

Following the news is something for which I simply don’t have time.  Or the fortitude.  Faced with blatant criminal activity, the Republican Party launches countersuits saying that investigating a crime is itself criminal.  There’s no such thing as brainwashing, though, so you can sigh in relief.  Still, as I go through the day and headlines pop up, as they will, I pause and wonder.  Not that things were better when we believed in brainwashing—for what good does it do you to believe something that’s not true?—but I’ve become strangely nostalgic for Watergate.  I see the lawsuits piling up behind the intrepid base, unfazed by any baptism in reality, and think about the explanatory value of brainwashing.  Maybe it doesn’t exist, but it sure could explain a lot.

Belly Fires

A friend recently sent me a story from Smithsonian.com about how Evangelicalism arose partially in reaction to protests against the Vietnam War. Not that they were protesting it, but rather other mainline Protestants protesting drove evangelicals further to the right. Having grown up evangelical, I think I understand their strange reasoning fairly well. It was illustrated, for example, in a meeting of the Nashotah House board of trustees. Now, confidentiality rules—which I support—prevent me from providing details, but as you can imagine board meetings involved differences of opinion. I was a faculty representative (voice, but no vote), and I had a point to make. Being Episcopalian I politely and calmly raised my hand. At the same table one of the student representatives (voice, but no vote) was waving his arm like he had to find the nearest restroom, and quick. The chair called on him, ignoring my learned gesture. “He has a fire in the belly,” the chair said, “let’s listen to him.”

A fire in the belly. Not exactly an empirical—or even rational—reason to select one comment above another in my opinion. It was outward and dramatic gesticulation that caught the chair’s attention. Cooler considerations could be easily ignored. Nashotah House wasn’t exactly Evangelical. It was conservative, to be sure. What this episode taught me, however, is that society responds to those with bellies strangely warmed. Mainstream Protestants, for the most part, want comfortable faith experiences. Reason, after all, suggests decorum. Over 90 percent of the many, many mainline sermons I’ve witnessed have been staid and calm. Back in John Wesley’s day enthusiasm was an actionable offense in ecclesiastical eyes. Was the fire in the heart, or in the belly?

A little to the right…
L0006082 Self Portrait of Albrecht Durer
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Self Portrait of Albrecht Durer.
Finger pointing to left side of torso.
By: Albrecht DurerPublished: –
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

So, what does this have to do with the Smithsonian story? Evangelicalism is driven not by the head but by the midriff. John Wesley’s conversion account was famous for his statement that his heart was “strangely warmed.” An inveterate doubter of his own salvation, Wesley needed to be certain. His thermo-cardiac episode helped to comfort him in the face of the lapping waves of the lake of fire at his feet. Having been evangelical once upon a time, I think I understand this constant Wesleyan concern. The fear of Hell is never easily overcome. The Greek word for strong emotion can be translated “to feel it in the bowels.” Examined more rationally, we know what moving bowels lead to. We see it every day as Evangelicals drive all three branches of government. The fire in the belly wins over cooler heads every time.

Things Remembered

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Freedom. Independence Day is our celebration of liberty. Yesterday I happened to find myself at Bethel Woods, the out-of-the-way location in New York where Woodstock was held. Probably no one in 1969 realized just how formative Woodstock and its message of peace, love, and music would become for American culture. Those of us who came of age in the ‘70s learned about it as recent history (I was only seven at the time and, I’m sure, would’ve found the whole thing somewhat unChristian had I been here then). Much has changed in the intervening years. Not many peaceful events get so much airtime any more. Upwards of 400,000, basically unpoliced, youth, gathered in Bethel, New York, for three days of music, chaos, and peace. The Vietnam War was still draining our nation of its youth and murdering its idealism. Fear of the other, racial inequality, and male superiority were part of the context that led to the need for Woodstock. Freedom was free.

Often on this blog I reflect on the sacredness of place. Events that take place in a location leave their impression on the land. Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, the current administrators of the property, have left the field largely intact. As my wife and I stood at the top of the hill and tried to imagine almost half-a-million people here, it was strangely quiet. The nearby museum had plenty of music playing, but standing where it actually happened, there were only ghosts of an event studied in school and which, even today, kids can generally identify. I couldn’t have named every act that played the concert and, although the music was clearly important, it was the gathering that is most remembered. Self-governing youth getting along in an area so remote that still today you have to drive a couple miles to find even basic necessities, sent a powerful message. It was an event that, I fear, can never be replicated. The snake has spoken.

Nearing fifty years later, we’ve become so paranoid that anyone who looks Middle Eastern is under suspicion. Guns, which children of the sixties shunned, have proliferated and may now be carried, wild-west style, in many states. A fear-mongering candidate bellows fascism before the Grand Old Party. Remember, Nixon was president during Woodstock. I may have lived hundreds of miles from here, occupying myself with the matters that seven-year-olds find so pressing. But Woodstock happened. By the time I got to Woodstock, everybody else had gone. I see others milling about the museum, slightly older than me. Perhaps some of them were here for the event itself. We all seem to be searching for something here. The festival had its problems, for sure, but with a sincere belief in freedom, it makes the pre-seventies United States feel like a strangely foreign county. How do we get back to the garden?

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.

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Shepherds and Sheep

Photo credit: Spencer Means, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Spencer Means, Wikimedia Commons

The murders in Charleston this week are part of an epidemic. The members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church join, unfortunately, a growing list of victims of hate. Not only hate, but that subspecies of hatred that calls the unstable to attack in a church, or synagogue, or mosque, as if to defy the very gods with their misanthropy. Growing up we used to be taught that any place of worship is sacred. Then we believed it was because God had made it so, but now it is clear that sacred space is made so by the intent of those who worship. We find places where we believe we’re safe from the trials of the everyday world. A place where God will look over us. A place, dare we call it, of sanctuary. Sanctuary is a concept that has gone extinct. As children we all knew of the concept of “home” in chasing games—the place where you were free and need not worry about someone coming after you. Amnesty was granted at the cry of “olly olly oxen free.”

In the biblical world, we’re told, those in danger could flee to the temple and grasp the horns of the altar and be safe. It wasn’t that someone couldn’t be pulled off, but it was that an inherent respect attended sacred places. No place is sacred any more. Hatred has a way of overriding what we all recognize as civilization. Well-armed youth and a culture of hatred have never led to peace. Xenophobia may be natural, but it can be disarmed through education. Unfortunately, in this country at least, education is not valued. In fact, in the culture wars, those who have the most sympathy for those who commit hate crimes will be among the first to cut education spending. It’s a luxury we can’t live without. We need to teach the meaning of sanctuary again. We need to teach the meaning of love.

Human beings shouldn’t have to rely on sanctuary to be safe. No matter what our racial heritage or gender or orientation, we are all simply people trying to make our way in the world. As a child I knew “olly olly oxen free” meant that nobody would try to tag me if I came out from hiding. I was also taught that the word “hate” was as bad as any swear and that it should not be said. While my mother was teaching me the virtue of love, we were sending young men to kill foreigners in Vietnam. I grew up with no doubts as to which was the superior way. One way leads to life and peace, the other to constant fear and death. The people of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church have told Dylann Roof that they have forgiven him. They are offering sanctuary to one who has done nothing to earn or claim it. They, like children, lead us.

PTSD

In a recent post on BBC Health, James Gallagher discusses ancient Assyria. What can ancient Assyria have to say about modern health, beyond the occasional liver model used in haruspicy? Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, of course. As Gallagher notes in his article, PTSD was diagnosed after the Vietnam War. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t in existence long before then. In fact, it stands to reason that if people experience it now, they likely experienced it during traumatic events then. War is among the most horrific and tragic activities in which humanity engages. Men, in the days of Assyria, sent to kill other men in the hundreds, and thousands, could not have walked away from the battlefield unchanged. There are those who seem not to suffer, but the majority of us know that, no matter how just the cause, it is simply wrong to kill others. On a massive scale it can only be worse.

Trauma

Trauma

Multiple stresses, I would contend, go undiagnosed. I have known those who’ve experienced significant loss—a job, for example, in an economy that makes future prospects dim—who begin showing the same kinds of symptoms. They are, of course, not diagnosed with PTSD, but are simply told to either buck up or go see a shrink. “Pull up your socks,” as they say in the UK. I wonder, though, if it is that simple. People throughout history have been capable of inflicting great stress on one another. Sometimes it becomes so normal that we don’t even recognize it. The forcing of loss and resultant terror of future deprivation is a daily affair. The civilization we’ve been is so complex almost to demand this kind of horror. We may not be sent to the battlefield to kill others, but we are daily faced with situations that cause us great pain, often for prolonged periods. And we wonder why people aren’t satisfied.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I have no doubt that the level of stress faced by those who survive war is severe. I don’t make light of it. Being a pacifist, I do believe there is a solution to war that involves education instead of fighting, but I don’t in any way suggest that those who suffer aren’t suffering in reality. They are. Sometimes they can no longer function in society. We institutionalize, cut funds, then send them out on the streets. This is nothing new. As Gallagher points out, soldiers in antiquity weren’t professionals. All healthy men, apart from the one-percenters of the day, served in armies on a rotating basis. One thing, however, has not changed over the millennia. War today remains as unnecessary as it was then. If we could turn our attention to improving the lot of the 99 lost sheep, the one already found might, to its surprise, be much better off if all were accorded ample care.

A Toy Story

As a life-long pacifist, it might seem strange that I find myself waxing sentimental over a military-themed toy. You see, I just found out that G. I. Joe is turning fifty. For those of us who grew up in the 1960s, G. I. Joe was the acceptable “boy doll” (now, technically, “action figure”) that all the guys had. Some of us had several. We didn’t have much money, but Christmas always gave an opportunity to accessorize Joe with either the latest developments (life-like hair in a buzz cut, pull-string vocalizations, “kung-fu grip”) or the many vehicles that could be purchased separately. As the Vietnam War wore on, Joe turned his interests to science and humanitarian causes, but boys like to anthropomorphize as much as girls do, and Joe continued to get himself into many bizarre adventures. At least in our apartment he was known for fighting dinosaurs, robots, medieval knights, and even General George Custer. Joe was a fighting kind of guy. He had guns and gear and shoes that were almost impossible to remove when you wanted to change uniforms (only when Mom was out of the room). So G. I. Joe has been around for half a century now. I can’t remember childhood without him.

G. I. Joe often had near fatal encounters in our home. One of them, the talking one with life-like hair, suffered a severe war wound that left his bottom half completely dissociated from his top. I don’t think we kept the lower abdomen and legs—there was something slightly unnerving about plastic buttocks—but I did keep his top half, the talking bit. It shocked me when my Mom asked if she could take him to church. We were a “Bible believing” family since it was the days before people much talked about Fundamentalists. My mother was a Sunday School teacher. (Thus my early amazement at the magic of flannelgraphs, still primarily used for religious teaching.) We didn’t believe in evolution, and we certainly thought war was a bad thing. I did wonder, though, why Mom wanted to take a toy to church, particularly a dismembered, violent one.

Being the son of the teacher did have some perks. I knew enough to read my Bible and learn the lessons, but we were not given sneak previews for Sunday School. Seeing the trailer might make actually attending superfluous. So when Joe went to church I learned why: people are not animals. The pull-string voice box, although the sounds emerged from holes in his perforated chest, was proof. People talk, animals don’t. We didn’t evolve after all. The other kids were seemingly impressed by my evangelistic Joe. Who would’ve thought that “G. I. Joe, U.S. Army, reporting for duty” could have ever converted a lost soul? On Ebay, I see, some of these vintage talkers can fetch up to $600. Mine, I’m sure, ended up in a landfill somewhere in rural Pennsylvania where, I have no doubts, he is still preaching to the other toys about the dangers of evolution.

The ultimate adventure...

The ultimate adventure…