Friday, August 30, 2013

Syria, King, and Violence

Listening to the drumbeat of war...or of something war-esque...I find myself struggling to see the point of it.

Syria, after all, is already a proxy war, as the forces of politicized Islam line up to assail one another.  It's not a manifestation of the "Arab Spring," in which good people of troubled conscience finally rose up against their oppressive despot.  That "Spring" was always something of a Western fantasy, an illusion masking a more complex and troubling reality.

Syria is now a sprawling, inchoate mess, in which there is no apparent side befitting the support of a republic.  Unlike the horrors in Bosnia, in which the intervention of the United States made a significant difference, it does not threaten to destabilize a region.  Syria is coming apart because the region is inherently unstable.  As the last of the standing secular Baathist regimes, it represents a worldview that is struggling for viability.

So they've gassed a town, which is a horror, although why several hundred dead from sarin is more of a horror than over 100,000 dead from shelling/shooting/beheading eludes me.  We must act, we say.  Military action is justified and inevitable, we say, although the "we" here seems paradoxically limited to folks on the far left and far-right neoconservatives.  The center of America...the sane sick of war and the lie of violence.

The most peculiar thing for me, however, has been the juxtaposition of our seemingly inescapable march to violent intervention with the celebration of the March on Washington this week.  Here you have an administration celebrating the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy.  Liberals lined up, speaking purple prose about justice and freedom and how we've not gotten there yet, but we're going to try.  And at the same time, some those very same human beings were preparing to throw a few Tomahawks into the bloody mess that is Syria.

What seemed missing there, honestly, was a recognition that Dr. King wasn't just fired up about racial injustice.  He also cared deeply and spoke...sorry, PREACHED...ferociously about the pointlessness of war and violence.

Here's an entirely representative quote:
And the leaders of the world today talk eloquently about peace.  Every time we drop our bombs in North Vietnam, President Johnson talks eloquently about peace.  What is the problem?  They are talking about peace as a distant goal, as an end we seek, but one day we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal we seek, but that it is a means by which we arrive at that goal.  We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means.  All of this is saying that, in the final analysis, means and ends must cohere because the end is preexistent in the means, and ultimately destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends.  "A Christmas Sermon" December 24, 1967
This was not a small or marginal part of his belief system.  King was deeply committed to the whole ethic of God's Kingdom.  The equality parts?  Absolutely.  But the radical nonviolence as well.

Honoring him while preparing for a self-evidently pointless act of violence is just plain odd.

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Squirrelly Case of Bradley Manning

Just when the world doesn't seem like it can possibly get any stranger, the Bradley Manning trial came to a close this last week.

A few weeks ago, I heard that the core of his a military lawyer...was gender dysphoria.  I thought, huh?  The whole Wikileaks thing is about gender dysphoria?  Manning wanted to be a Womanning, that messed him up, and so as a wreck of a human being, torn and shattered by this fundamental existential crisis, he made some terrible decisions.

True though that may be, this reads strangely.

I know as a good liberal I should now be deeply concerned about how this surfaces issues of justice and solidarity for my LGBTQ sisters and brothers  That's where all the broader media chatter is now.   Coverage in the leftist Huffington Post today, for instance, focuses on how "Chelsea" Manning's case highlights problems facing transgender Americans in the military.

Over on the right, FoxNews is today covering the outcome of the case in their health section.  Yes, the health section.  How does gender reassignment work, plumbing wise?  They report, as we decide.

But this "coverage" echoes oddly across my consciousness, because it feels like a convenient distraction, a dangled bit of shiny scandalous chatter-fodder.  "Squirrel!" cries the media, and we go chasing off after it, all else forgotten.

Manning's sexuality has become the conversation.  What is not discussed, not a tiny bit, not a jot, not a tittle, is the substance of what he did, the reason he's doing prison time.  The charges against him, to be blunt, didn't have a damn thing to do with gender dysphoria.

They were about releasing documents that showed the depth of the human toll of our actions in Iraq.  That included the overall projected death toll, covering up the killing of civilians and surrendering combatants, massacres by American forces, and our acquiescence to the systematic torture and summary executions conducted by our Iraqi "allies."

Those leaks showed a pattern of behavior and action unbefitting the integrity of a republic.  We are imprisoning him to punish him for making that information available.

But that is forgotten.  Instead, the Manning conviction "narrative" becomes about sexuality.  Until we forget about that entirely too, which will be soon.  I give it two or three more days.

There was a time, back in the Soviet Era, when the official media of that benighted state would mask the truth by fabricating salacious and slanderous narratives about dissidents.  In the swirling madness of the 24 hour news and social media chatter cycle, that no longer becomes necessary to mask injustices.

Just find the sex angle, and let the "free" media go at it.


Thursday, August 22, 2013

Literally True

Over the last several weeks of time away, I found myself doing a whole bunch of reading, and one of the books in question was by the senior pastor of the local Southern Baptist outpost in my small town.   The book came out of his dissertation, meaning it was a wee bit dense, requiring me to chase it with a bit of taut and profane hard sci fi, followed by a splash of Amish romance novel.  My reading is nothing if not eclectic.

Reading that dissertation reinforced a couple of things.

First, for any oldliners still under the illusion that being nondenominational or...Baptist...might mean a lack of intellectual rigor, just a few moments with this work will disabuse you of that notion.  Having spent time in conversation with my Baptist colleague, he's one of the few folks I know who'll drop German theological terms into conversation.  Correctly, even.  

Second, while the focus of the dissertation was a now-obscure Westminster divine, the core theological exploration was actually still quite relevant.  What does it mean for a thing to be true?  And what does it mean to be "literally true?"

"Literally" is one of those words that is legendarily overused.  It's become something of a filler word in in contemporary chatter, a tacked-on term used to emphasize the veracity of a statement.

"I was, like, literally, like, so totally mad at her." "I literally fell off my chair." "I literally had a cow."

Beyond the reflexive use of that term, given the root meaning of that word in English, this is a rather peculiar thing.  "Literal" means having to do with the written word, and the meaning of language.  It speaks to a form of truth that relates to the veracity of language, the degree to which our monkey-jabber and chicken-scratchings do or do not point to the reality we're using them to approximate.

Which, of course, is the problem with that phrase as an affirmation of the Real and the True.  Language, for all my love of it, is not tghe thing itself.  "Literal" truth is a second order truth, a truth removed from the reality of things and the essence of being.

Which is why "literal" is such a peculiar term to affirm the true.

Because"literally" isn't.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Gun Totin' Amish Folk

Over the last few weeks, I've been traveling and vacationing, and the combination of time in aircraft and time at the beach has given lots of time to read.

There's been theology, the one Culture novel by the dearly departed Ian M. Banks that I'd not gotten to, and then a sequence of fiction and nonfiction books about the Amish.  The latter were as additional research for an ongoing novel project, and were both helpful and a bit confusticating.

Though I'd done research into Old Order communities as part of my senior undergraduate religious studies seminar at U.Va., that's old data.  I've also been doing online studies of both agriculture and home life, but wanted a bit of literary immersion.

The books...written either by former Amish or in consultation with active members...were helpful in that they will help me create a better mis en scene for the novel, trading the appearance of validity for a much more accurate representation of day to day Amish life.   They were "confusticating" in that they surfaced the wide variance in Old Order practices, which are as wildly different as the practices of other Christian communities.

One thing I didn't expect to encounter: the Amish are frequently gun owners.

They aren't, of course, at all interested in guns for self-defense.  Nor could they care less about the Second Amendment, which exists in its original intent for the purposes of collective defense, no matter what the SCOTUS might say.

An Amish gun...simple shotguns and hunting rifles, mostly, despite the entertainingly absurd picture above...typically serves the purpose of hunting deer or other creatures for food, or for ridding a garden of creatures that are consuming the produce that your family needs to survive.  They are tools, not instruments of violence.

This produces an interesting oddment.  An Amishman may have a shotgun, but if you break into his house, he will not use it to stop you.  The entire fear-driven dynamic of gun ownership in America means nothing to the Amish.