The personal blog of Frank Lesko. Award-winning writer. Non-profit entrepreneur. Activist. Religious professional. Foodie. Musician. All around curious soul and Renaissance man.

See also my professional blog: The Traveling Ecumenist.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Of Walls, Iron Curtains and Other Lessons from the Cold War

The Cold War was still going strong when I was growing up. The nightly news would regularly feature stories about the Berlin Wall and the infamous "Iron Curtain" that tightly hid the USSR and its satellites from the western world.

My dad would always shake his head and say, "They don't realize that the reason America is great is because we don't have to do that." Instead of forcefully trying to control all of its citizens like the USSR, the USA found that it was much more stable and powerful by granting freedoms.

The USSR tightly controlled and monitored its citizens. It severely limited travel and only allowed it by permission of the state. By contrast, the citizens of the USA never needed to be kept in. The fact that we were free to go meant that we always wanted to come back. It's a paradox. Or just common sense.

Free speech. Free movement. Freedom to even protest. It all made us stronger, not weaker. That was the promise of America. We didn't have to deplete ourselves trying to control everybody. The USSR eventually imploded partly because this effort drained it of resources that could have been used elsewhere. In addition, this effort severely stunted growth of its industries, its experiences and its reach. So not only did it deplete resources to do this but it prevented the growth of new resources. Double whammy.

We were better than this. There is little strength when you are curled up in a fetal position with a clenched fist and your whole body continually tight. A perfect example: Experts tell us that you are more likely to be injured in a car accident if you tighten up your body during impact.

Real strength is relaxation and being loose. Real control only comes with letting go. This is the spiritual lesson. I thought we knew this in the USA. This was one of the most glaring faults of the Soviet experiment.

This analysis is steeped in American mythology, as we were never quite as benevolent as this makes us seem. Nevertheless, there is plenty of truth here.

Now, we are in a period where many Americans are justifying building our own versions of Iron Curtains and Berlin walls: Trump's wall with Mexico. The so-called Muslim travel ban. These are nothing but replications of history's failed experiments.

I'm just so shocked because I thought we already knew this.

Further, I believe the risk these populations bring (Muslim ban, Latin American immigrants) has been overstated if not completely fabricated. I think what may be happening is two things: First, Trump is currently working to bomb and starve places like Yemen into oblivion and doesn't want refugees appearing on our shores. Second, Trump's base is motivated with stage 1 spiritual thinking, which means they love black-and-white thinking and they need an enemy to rally against. Appeals to authoritarianism make them feel reassured at some instinctive, reptilian level where logic cannot reach.

Why the current obsession with "citizenship"?

It's time to celebrate non-citizens, who are part of (and have always been a part of) our society.

The Supreme Court decision to uphold Trump's travel ban was made yesterday. Critics say it resembles too much the infamous Korematsu Supreme Court decision in 1944 to allow internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. They say both decisions allow a wholescale discrimination of people based on ethnicity or religion with trumped up (pun intended) irrational fears for national security. In other words, both a racism and a denial of human rights in disguise. Supporters of the ban say that it is very different because this ban does not target citizens.

So I'm left to ask: Why is citizenship such a big deal here? I don't understand the current obsession by some on the right with "citizenship." Non-citizens make up a significant portion of our society--and always have. The political right has been making this issue of citizenship into a golden calf. Just like in Ancient Rome, there were many people who made up Roman society besides "citizens." A lot of people contribute and have rights besides citizens. They are not the only people who matter. Citizens are not the only ones who have rights.

Who makes this country what it is? I know many people who live here who are citizens. Some are permanent residents (i.e. green card holders). Some are immigrants in various stages of immigration. Some are temporary workers. Some are here on student visa. Some are undocumented. Some are travelers, wanderers, hobos and homeless.

ALL of them enrich and enliven our society.

For example: Every single university in this country is substantially and significantly improved and enriched by international students. American education would not be the same without them. American culture would not be the same without them. Certainly our academic and technological achievements would be far diminished without them. Yet, they are not citizens. Many only stay a few semesters and some a few years. Still, they have a significant impact on our society, and we should respect them and their role in our culture for it. They should be treated as honored guests. The same holds for the other groups mentioned above. They all make us who we are.

Citizenship matters, but I'm very wary of attempts to make the dividing line between citizens and non-citizens too deep especially as we enter this scary phase in history where Trump has tweeted that non-citizens should not have the right to due process (i.e. human rights). The Supreme Court ruling yesterday is basically arguing along similar lines: It diminishes the rights of non-citizens. That's what it's really about. It dovetails into a larger cultural movement going on now to dehumanize and denigrate non-citizens and immigrants. It is widening the gap between citizens and non-citizens and in my opinion no good can come of this.

Citizens and non-citizens are going to have different rights to some degree and certainly different responsibilities as a matter of definition. But we must be very wary about making sure that whatever non-citizens lack in rights they make up for in a gracious welcome and hospitality by the rest of us to make sure no human rights violations occur. We should honor the place of non-citizens in our society and recognize the significant role they play in making us who we are. This is not happening right now with Trump's tweet mentioned above about denying due process to undocumented immigrants and in this recent Supreme Court ruling.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

White Americans and Meanness

Census charts show us that it won't be long until non-white people are the majority of the U.S. population. Personally, I can't wait. I just hope that when it happens the non-white populations do not take on the characteristics of white folks.

I've been all around the world and know people from all races and walks of life, and there is a meanness among American white folks that you just don't find anywhere else. I've never seen a group of people who had so much power and privilege and were just so cold, hard-hearted and nasty for no reason. Even when they are nice, there is a coldness that you just don't find anywhere else.

I know I'm considered white and most of the people I know are white and there are some fantastic, great people among us. But as a whole, we are a pretty miserable bunch of people, always walking around like someone ate our cheerios. Especially white men. My gosh! Mean-spirited, insecure, walking around with a constant chip on their shoulder... they don't even feel whole unless they are packing a firearm. What a way to live! I'm not blaming them as individuals, just saying the mix of culture and history has not produced a very good result.

A perfect example is all the Nazis trying to take over our country right now. What an unbelievably miserable bunch of people! I can't for the life of me see what is attractive about it, other than maybe "misery loves company"? Have you tried the smile test? You can't support most of Trump's policies with a smile on your face. if you can't, that says something, doncha think?

The ironic thing is that so many white folks (especially men) think that it's all the other races, ethnicities and genders who are "always complaining" but they can't see the obvious truth about themselves.

So for all the people out there who want to share in our power and privilege... are you sure? Maybe it's a privileged thing to even ask that question, but let me tell you it may not be as green on this side of the fence as it seems.


NOTE:  I originally ended this post with the line that went something like: "White Americans suck." It's not normally my style to think or write this way, but this post was written quickly and I decided to leave it in just to keep the original freshness of the piece. Besides, as a white American male, I feel a certain license to speak freely about my own group in a way that might be less welcome if I were to direct that kind language to a group that I was not a member of. Let's face it, our track record is pretty bad:  Colonization, ethnic cleaning of native people, slavery, continual beat down of immigrants and non-white racdes, rampant domestic terrorism of all types, and just a general chip on our shoulder which makes little sense in light of the well-documented privileges we have.  It's not far off to say, "look guys, looking at our history overall, as a collective group, we basically suck." It's a reality check that we need.

However, I read some feminist pieces that contain lines like "men suck" and I rarely find that helpful. There is real pain behind those words but my assessment is that it is not being directed in the most helpful or accurate way. The pain has become generalized to be directed to the whole population. Some get defensive, others can 't believe how anyone could be defensive in light of the real issues they want to address, and the conversation becomes all about the line "men suck" and the predictable responses. It might be more accurate to direct attention to male privilege, for example, and the fact that this privilege can manifest in all sorts of ways (in men and women), in ways that we know and in other ways that we don't know. 

Case in point: I discovered that the line "white Americans suck" became controversial with some folks. It was the defining line. Someone was trying to explain to me, and they said, "you know, the blog post that says 'white Americans suck.'" Instead of looking at the overall message of this piece that as a whole, our white American culture can stand to do some serious self-analysis to find out what is up our collective butts, people instead point to this line to distract from the real discussion that needs to happen. The message is hard to hear, so they want to control it somehow--get the author to stop, reign in the language and find some way to avoid the real topic. By using that kind of language, I play into their hands. So whether the line is meaningful or justified, the point is that it is rarely helpful.  Case in point:  I'm writing far more about the lie "white Americans suck" (which no longer even appears in the piece above) than the actually piece above.

But is there something about white American culture that we can say? Of course. If we couldn't define characteristics of a group of people, then the entire discipline of sociology would be defunct. We can and we have to talk about how we function as a group and overall features of how we function.

That being said, I'm often skeptical how much we can do to encourage people to talk about something that they simply don't want to talk about. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink, as the saying goes. some want to believe in the shadows on the wall and won't submit to a simple head turn to get another perspective. Plato's frustration over this can still be felt 2,400 years later, so it's not exactly a new problem in the human condition.  Still, I tend to believe that are better ways to bridge those divides than others, or else I wouldn't be doing the work I'm doing. 

We need to look no farther than Donald Trump to see the problems that occur when we break down our collective commitment to civility in discourse--and then call anyone a "snowflake" who dislikes it. In my own Lake County in Ohio, one of the County Commissioners--a devout Trump supporter, I believe--was complaining because he was called names at a public meeting and that his fellow Commissioners did not step up to defend him and throw out the offending party. The cognitive dissonance is astounding here, given the unbelievable, almost daily, profoundly juvenile insults coming with the Office of the President--but maybe Trump supporters need to play this out to see why it is a problem. Maybe it seems okay to sit among friends and complain about this group or that group (we all do that to some degree), but when this goes from private conversations to public, and when it is directed back at you, and when public discourse goes down the proverbial toilet, and when civility in the face of differences of opinions is gone, then we have a breakdown in how our society functions in a way that few people really want. But sometimes you have to play that out to remind ourselves why civility is important.