Category Archives: May You Live In Interesting Times

Getting Rid of the Editors

Most of us use at least one of them, even if we harbor uneasiness about their power. We log on to Google, Facebook, Twitter, and the other digital helpers. We connect with friends and families, carry out research, express our opinions, and follow the latest breaking news.

Thomas Friedman, columnist for The New York Times, acknowledged the good things digital media helps us accomplish. At the same time, he warns, it’s easier to abuse them because no one is judging their output for accuracy. (The Seattle Times, “Hold social media accountable,” October 12, 2017.)

The business model of the digital media, Friedman writes, aimed “to absorb all of the readers of the mainstream media newspapers and magazines and to absorb all their advertisers—but as few of their editors as possible.”

Some enjoy the freewheeling ride of social media. Some don’t like editors who tell them they can’t write certain things—demeaning those different from themselves or spreading false stories.

As Friedman reminds us, “An editor is a human being you have to pay to bring editorial judgement to content on your website, to make sure things are accurate and to correct them if they’re not. Social networks preferred to use algorithms instead, but these are easily gamed.”

Social media has connected us with different viewpoints and given us freedom to explore. They’ve also given us greater ability to spread untruths. Fake news was not invented in the digital era, but it spread its wings there.

To cope requires what is so often lacking in these times: self-discipline. Self-discipline curtails our temptation to treat news as entertainment, an attitude tailor-made for social media. Instead, if we are wise, we will exchange some of that time for reading hard news and analysis, gathered by journalists who are paid to investigate and kept to strict standards of what is true.

Today’s Glorious Autumn; Echos of Another Fragile Season

In western Washington State, we are enjoying one of the most beautiful autumns in several years. The maple tree across the street has retained that brilliant scarlet, known only in autumn, far longer than I thought possible.

I hold on to the beauty a bit tighter because of several novels I have read recently, set around the First World War. The years 2014 to 2018 mark one-hundred-year anniversaries of events in that war. Today’s authors have written a number of novels in that time frame.

A Fine Summer’s Day, by Charles Todd, is one of them, set mostly in the months just before the war began. The book sets the stage for the post-war Ian Rutledge detective novels about a shattered veteran returning to work for Scotland Yard after his traumatic service in that war.

Todd captures the bitter-sweetness of the spring and early summer of 1914, before the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, archduke of Austria-Hungary, began the blood-letting.

Young men and women fall in love and plan marriage. Fields are planted as they have been for millennia. Times seem as golden as the trees of this autumn.

Then the war came, a surprise to many Europeans, who thought the modern world had given up that sort of thing. Many of them were positive it would last no more than a few months. They believed their leaders were too wise to allow a prolonged conflict.

Unfortunately, a refusal to understand the limits of human wisdom and an inability to corral national pride contributed to an inhuman slaughter. It did not stop until an uneasy armistice came into effect over four years later.

I hope we do not take our blessings for granted. Humans still make foolish decisions.

From South Korea: “What Are the Churches in America Thinking?”

I don’t know how close North Korea is to actually sending a nuclear weapon to devastate some city on my own Pacific northwest coast.

I’m pretty certain, though, that North Korea could now, at this instant, use weapons, conventional or otherwise, to snuff out the lives of millions of South Koreans and perhaps Japanese as well.

While we deal with our own problems, serious as they are (shootings, hurricanes, wildfires), South Koreans wonder if their entire population will be obliterated in the next few seconds.

The conflict with North Korea is not a movie dramatization of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Leaders hurling street bully insults at each other are as helpful as gasoline on a California wildfire.

One visitor to South Korea, an American Christian leader, asked a Korean Christian what the churches in his country were thinking about the situation.

He responded: “We’re asking, ‘What are the churches in America thinking?’”

I Stand for the National Anthem, But I Respect Your Right Not to Stand

On Memorial Day, 1991, I stood with other Americans at the U.S. consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and joined them in the pledge of allegiance to our flag, flying over our mission in a foreign country. It was a “lump in my throat” kind of moment.

We had just come through the now barely-remembered first Gulf war. An alliance, led by the United States, had driven out Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Watching from next door Saudi Arabia, we were proud of how our country had handled the crisis.

The pledge and the national anthem are useful for such moments of patriotic feeling. They should not, however, be a test of citizenship or of respect for our nation or our military. They are simply one expression, useful for some, less so for others.

Some American Christians believe attachment to such symbols borders on idolatry. They refuse to say the pledge out of concern for their primary allegiance to God.

I respect their belief. I also respect the beliefs of football players who kneel or sit during the national anthem. One player said his Christian conviction regarding justice compelled him to act as he did. It was a non-violent protest, the sort of act American soldiers have died to protect.

We do not live in a dictatorship where school children assemble each morning to pay lock step allegiance to a great dictator. Instead, non violent expressions of concern for certain practices of our country are a sign of healthy citizenship.

God knows we have a few other things to worry about: North Korea, a hurricane ravaged Puerto Rico, and an opioid epidemic, to name a few.

Death by Small Cuts

Apparently, United States military forces now are going to stay in Afghanistan until we win the war there.

When will we know that we have won it? Is it when the last terrorist is dead?

But what if our activities there increase the number of people who hate us and continue to feed terrorism networks? And what about the terrorists in Syria and Yemen and Somalia and a host of other nations? Are we going to fight wars there, too?

Two wars “against terrorism” have already ballooned our national budget beyond anything imaginable in previous eras. The costs of our wars are choking off investments even in those programs favored by both political parties, like infrastructure.

Perhaps this is exactly what our terrorist enemies have in mind. They will siphon off our national treasure by turning on many small spigots. They will tempt us to fight “wars against terrorism” in a dozen different countries.

They will not aim one single mortal blow. They will slash at us with many small cuts until our resources bleed away.

The attacks in New York, Washington, and the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, did not cripple us or threaten our infrastructure or render us helpless.

It was a despicable act against innocent victims that called for a response but not for endless war.

During our past conflict with a much more formidable foe, the Soviet Union, in the Cold War, our biggest mistake was going to war in Vietnam. Better if we had concentrated more on what finally did win the Cold War for us, an economy that benefitted most Americans and the growing inclusion of all classes of citizens.

U.S. diplomat George Kennon, writing from Moscow in the early days of the Cold War, advised his country how to win that war:

“Much depends on health and vigor of our own society. . . Every courageous and incisive measure to solve internal problems of our own society, to improve self-confidence, discipline, morale and community spirit of our own people, is a diplomatic victory over Moscow . . . the greatest danger that can befall us in coping with this problem of Soviet communism, is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping.”

You Don’t Have to Know Russian to Read Russian Propaganda; Try U.S. Social Media Sites

Reports are surfacing that Russian interests paid for numerous adds on Facebook before the 2016 U.S. election. These adds reportedly focused on divisive issues in an attempt to polarize the elections to Russia’s advantage.

Facebook says it has identified hundreds of fake accounts connected to Russian groups known for trolling on social media. Facebook says it is cooperating with U.S. investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 elections.

Social media sites have an obligation to weed out hidden political advertising masquerading as news. However, as the comic strip character Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

We are the ones who stopped reading newspapers and began depending on social media for our news. Too many of us ignored actual news gathered by professionals.

As long as we prefer to find our “news” from tweets and Facebook, we risk electing officials just as unprofessional and ill prepared to govern.

Hurricanes and Earthquakes: What Do We Care About?

Our overly active hurricane season illustrates how unprepared most of us are for natural disasters.

In our seismically challenged Pacific Northwest, studies indicate insufficient preparation for a major earthquake.

An extensive drill found that the region would be unable to cope with the three million or so survivors who would need food, water, shelter, and medical aid ( The Seattle Times, October 23, 2016).

“Everything we depend on to live our 21st century lives is going to be significantly degraded or eradicated,” one official said. “The needs are going to be immediate, they are going to be urgent and they are going to be overwhelming.”

These warnings are similar to those sounded as major hurricanes approach.

Smartphones and Facebook helped rescuers find trapped families in Texas, but electrical power outages, lost computers, and damaged cellphones begin to limit digital use.

What do we depend on when these fail us?

We depend on basic networks so often neglected in our wired age. We depend on families, neighborhoods, and face to face friendships. And also on the kindness of strangers.

Battle of the Handshakes

In Western societies, the handshake became evidence of a binding contract to buy and sell. It could also signal a truce or peace agreement between warring parties. Informally, it was a way of welcoming a stranger.

Like many other practices, President Trump has upended this friendly gesture of respect. In shaking the hand of recently appointed Supreme Justice, Neil Gorsuch, Trump appeared to want to pull Gorsuch off his feet.

Handshakes between President Trump and the leaders of our allies have descended to wrestling grips. Some appear to cause actual physical pain to Trump’s handshake partner.

As leaders have wised up to Trump’s apparent understanding of handshakes as another form of warfare, they have developed strategies to deal with it.

French President Emmanuel Macron gripped Trump’s hand as hard as Trump gripped his. Trump appeared to slightly wince while Macron grinned. Macron later commented, “One must show that we won’t make little concessions, even symbolic ones.”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, an amateur boxer, also came off well in the handshake match.

Since most leaders of our allies are younger than Trump, time would appear to be on their side.

What To Do When Neo-Nazis Come to Call

When far right protestors picked Charlottesville, Virginia, to hold a rally, Leah Wise, who lives there, wondered what her response would be. She finally chose to go to her church, St. Paul’s Memorial, the evening the rally took place. (“Dispatches from Charlottesville: What Happens When Neo-Nazis Are Outside Your Church Doors,” Christianity Today, September, 2017.)

That evening a standing room only crowd of all religions and colors came together. “We came because we were scared, or at least confused. We didn’t know where else to go. We came because we shared a call to social justice and we knew we needed each other,” Wise wrote.

While protestors gathered in the city, the church group sang “This Little Light of Mine,” clapping and stomping as though in some Appalachian revival service. Their reaction to the chaos outside their doors provided peaceful encouragement to those opposed to hatred and racism.

In other commentary, Danny Westneat (The Seattle Times, “Stop Feeding the Neo-Nazi Beast,” August 16, 2017), cautions against shouting matches with the protestors or attacking them.

New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote: “Fight fanaticism with fire? No, with modesty and moderation,” (as quoted in The Seattle Times, August 20, 2017).

“Progress is not made by crushing some swarm of malevolent foes; it’s made by finding balance between competing truths—between freedom and security, diversity and solidarity,” Brooks wrote.

When the times are out of joint, dysfunctional groups take advantage of fear and uncertainty. It’s doubtful these groups will go away any time soon.

Moving society in the opposite direction—step by step, election by election, good work by good work—requires long term commitment. The missionary preacher Paul summed up this kind of activity in his letter to the Ephesians: “Be angry, but do not sin . . . ”

Life after Hate

“Oh, honey, you’re so much better than that.”

Such was the comment of a restaurant waitress, an elderly African-American woman, to a young man after she saw the swastika tattooed on his hand. Her concern pricked his conscience. Eventually he changed the focus of his life from hate to helping others.

This story is mentioned in “Confessions of a Former White Supremacist” (Sojourners, August 2017) by Jason Byassee. The article chronicles the journey of the former white supremacist, Tony McAleer.

McAleer is co-founder of “Life After Hate,” a group working to free those bound by the hate of extremism.

McAleer’s life illustrates why some fall into the extremist trap. His father neglected his son physically and emotionally. Growing up, McAleer often was bullied. Joining a hate group was a way to cope. It provided him with the identity he lacked. His anger “rotted into neo-Nazism.”

Eventually finding himself the single father of two children, McAleer realized that he was responsible for lives other than his own and began a slow process, through counseling, toward improving his life.

His therapist was Jewish, a member of a group McAleer had been taught to hate. Yet, he helped McAleer to love himself.

Hating those who hate—despising them—only feeds their own self-hatred, to see themselves as unlovable. Instead, loving them and calling them to love themselves can be one step toward abolishing the hatred that claims the hater as its first victim.

Dr. Strangelove Rides Again

Each anniversary of the day the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima (and later another on Nagasaki) in August, 1945, news media display images of the aftermath. The blasted landscapes, devoid of humans, have always sobered us. Other images of burn victims and sufferers from radiation sickness increase our horror.

This year, those images haunt us even more, as a small dictatorship revives the fear of nuclear annihilation. Ironically, North Korea lies not far from those unfortunate Japanese cities, the only ones to suffer from nuclear weapons.

It seems absurd. Those of us who remember fears of a nuclear holocaust during the Cold War may also remember the movie Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, a black comedy starring Peter Sellers, dealing with those fears.

We also remember the joy that erupted when the Cold War, we thought, ended. The United States and the Soviet Union signed a treaty and actually began dismantling some of their nuclear arsenals.

Whatever faults the two superpowers committed during the Cold War were redeemed by one fact: Though both had nuclear weapons, neither used them.

Was it the fear of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD)? Perhaps, but through it all, people of differing political persuasions and forms of government worked and hoped for the abolishment of this Dr. Strangelove kind of weapon.

Now, like a sudden resurrection of our Cold War nightmare, we fear the madness of North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un. Unfortunately, our current president appears to enjoy some of Kim’s tactics, the two trading insults like leaders of adolescent street gangs.

In the background, almost on the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, the United Nations Security Council passed a bill calling for sanctions against North Korea. The fact that the fifteen members of the council voted unanimously for the measure indicates the seriousness of North Korea’s threat.

We can only hope for the success of this slow but less deadly way to rid the world of Kim’s weapons.

One Immigrant’s Confusing Experience

Luma Simms is a Christian Iraqi who settled in California with her refugee family in 1978. According to her story in Plough Quarterly (Winter, 2017), she has pleasant memories of her early years in Iraq with grandparents and family members.

Other memories are not so pleasant. The family suffered discrimination because they were different—they were Christians, a minority.

However, her first memories as a school child in California were not pleasant either. She could not speak English, and local foods, like peanut butter, were strange. As before, her school mates saw her as different and sometimes taunted her with names—“Luma Puma Montezuma.”

She learned to read English and devoured books like Charlotte’s Web. Then the Iranian hostage crisis caused her family to try to hide the fact that they were from the Middle East. “Just say you’re from Greece if anyone asks,” her parents told their children.

Of those times, Luma says, “The internal turmoil of those years has never left me. It has shaped me and informed how I view human identity and immigration.”

She contemplates the devastation in her birth country by two Iraqi wars, invasions led by her adopted country, the United States. She calls on the U.S. to aid in healing and rebuilding the country.

But the U.S. must not, Luma says, attempt to build another people and society, as in Iraq, in the image of itself. “Bringing freedom to a people starts with respecting them as a people in their own right.”

Luma ends her article by describing how she, a daughter of God, has synthesized the two worlds she knows. “I am a daughter whom he brought from the East. It was in the West that he recreated me . . . and gathered me into his kingdom, where all his people become one.”