Grasping Thorns

“But he who dares not grasp the thorn Should never crave the rose." ― A. Brontë

Category: Nonviolence

Oops. Sorry, all.

So . . . I forgot to update my blog when I moved to writing for Bustle and then Daily Kos (a Dissident Voice is thrown in here, too). I imagined that everyone who read me here would read me there by following my Facebook links (like H&G’s breadcrumbs). But, some of my readers here aren’t as Facebook crazed as I am. 🙂

I’m still writing, though! Here’s a list of things I’ve penned, along with where to find me now.

April 28th: The Baltimore Riots Should Remind White People To Listen And Act — Not Judge Protestors

May 5th: Why Responding To Bigotry In Facebook Comments Matters

May 7th: On Mother’s Day, Remembering My Daughter’s Birth Mom

June 17th: God is Disappointed in You is a Book Every Evangelical Christian Should Read

June 18th: That Moment When Your Friend Finds a Bullet Hole over Her Son’s Room

June 19th: The Charleston Church Massacre and “Making It Right”

June 20th: Disturbing Conservative Commentary: A Compilation

June 21st: An Open Letter to Governor Haley

June 23rd: Dear Governor Haley, Part 2

June 24th: This is What “Discussion” Looks Like in America Today — And Why It Must Change

June 26th: Senator Pinckney, President Obama, and New Eyes for Seeing

July 14th: The Importance of Remembering “It’s Not About [Your Name Here]”

July 16th: A Mass Shooting Hits Home — Again.

July 19th: A New Southern Wedding Tradition: Yes, I Wish I Were Kidding

July 24th: It’s Our Fault People Are Dying: American Gun Culture and the Myth of Personal Responsibility

July 29th: Dr. Walter Palmer, Lion Killer: Meet Lawrence Anthony, Elephant Whisperer

July 31st: Last Night, I Watched Two Videos: Planned Parenthood’s and Sam DuBose’s

August 6th: Release Time Bible Programs Are Invading Public Schools. God Help Us.

August 15th: God Got A Dog: Another Book That Evangelical Christians Should Read

August 19th: Sacrificing Our Children’s Lives: America and Her Guns

September 4th: American Exceptionalism as Exceptionally Bad … Also: How to Make It Better

September 5th: Dear America: Stop. Painting. Bullets. Holes. On. Our Kids’. Heads.

In short, it’s been a bloody, busy summer.

If you want more fire for your rage-machine, start following my Daily Kos page.

love to all my readers. xoxo

 

 

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Selma vs. American Sniper is Peeta vs. Gale

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blue reaping dress (check); braided updo (check); mockingjay pin (check);

Buttercup (wrong color and disinterested)

Currently, I’m piloting a two-semester freshman English course at a state university that examines Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games as a cultural phenomenon. Most recently, we talked in class about how to engage with issues in American Sniper without being polarizing or alienating the opposing side of the debate – because there has been a lot of that in recent weeks. Some argue that the film glorifies war and creates an unrealistic portrait of Chris Kyle, the Navy Seal upon whom the film is based, while others (including Director Clint Eastwood and actor Bradley Cooper) call the film antiwar and an attempt to raise awareness about PTSD among veterans. I am less concerned with the faithfulness of the film adaptation to Kyle’s autobiography, or Eastwood’s authorial intent, and most concerned with audience response. Regardless of the argument Eastwood meant to make with the film, audience response has been both polarized and vitriolic, with fans of the film calling for the death of critics, and with critics of the film suggesting that snipers are “cowards” or “hate-filled killers.”

I presented this debate to my students and asked how The Hunger Games could help us make sense of it. Our consensus: “Two of the contenders for Best Picture are Selma and American Sniper. One is about nonviolent resistance, and the other is about violent resistance. It’s Peeta vs. Gale.” Although often annoyed by the fact that love triangles seem to have become part of the required formula for successful YA series, I think this particular Team Peeta vs. Team Gale situation is worth fleshing out.

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the husband as Gale, before I turned him into Peeta (below)

Team Gale: Gale Hawthorne, like Chris Kyle, feels injustice acutely and sees the world in an “us vs. them” way. When their “district” (whether 12 or New York City) is bombed, they become integral parts of the war effort, seek retribution, and are impatient with anyone who asks hard questions about their plan of action. Maybe we shouldn’t bomb a District 2 stronghold when our fight is with the Capitol, not District 2 citizens (even if they’re more sympathetic to the Capitol and less so to the rebellion). Maybe we shouldn’t invade Iraq when our fight is with a terrorist organization separate from that nation. Gale’s response – “We watched children burn to death, and there was nothing we could do!” – bespeaks the pain, helplessness, and subsequent rage echoed by those who witnessed similar losses during the 9/11 terrorist attack. David Wong, in his funny, irreverent piece for Cracked.com, would say that prototype-Gale’s response is the “most automatic, unthinking reflex,” the “hit back” reflex, and that “growing up means resisting it”; Wong writes, “It’s the thinking part – the human part – that says to stop, resist the initial urge, and actually think about what action will make the world better.” Enter:

Team Peeta: Peeta Mellark, like MLK Jr., understands that “returning violence for violence multiples violence.” While he acknowledges that he will likely kill to defend himself in the games (an overt metaphor for war), because he “can’t go down without a fight,” he also shows that he is engaging in the type of thinking Wong promotes: “I keep wishing I could think of a way to … show the Capitol that they don’t own me. That I’m more than a piece in their games.” At the end of the first novel, Peeta, rather than Katniss, inspires the berry scheme (i.e. they will both eat poisonous berries rather than kill each other). Peeta’s commitment to nonviolent resistance is so subtle that most readers, along with President Snow, miss his revolutionary role completely. Yet, when the dual winner rule is revoked, Katniss turns her bow on Peeta. He throws his knife into the lake. Only then, with Katniss’s “face burning in what can only be shame,” does she think of the berries. Remarkably Peeta is only directly credited with a body count of three in the entire games and subsequent revolution: the first is a mercy kill (ending a fatally wounded girl’s misery in Book 1); the second is in defense of another person (Haymitch’s friend, Chaff, in Book 2); and the third is when he’s mentally deranged after being tortured in Book 3. And, no, we’re not even counting Foxface, since that was indirect and completely accidental.

What becomes most interesting is the fact that the other tribute-soldiers notice Peeta’s difference and dedicate themselves to saving him, and rightly so: he, in the end, symbolizes hope for a better way. In Catching Fire, Katniss only decides to trust Finnick when she realizes that he “knows what Haymitch and I know. About Peeta. Being truly, deep-down better than the rest of us.” She explains further: “Finnick took out that tribute from 5 without blinking an eye. And how long did I take to turn deadly? I shot to kill when I targeted Enobaria and Gloss and Brutus. Peeta would have at least attempted negotiations first. Seen if some wider alliance was possible.” Peeta is the baker, the artist, and – like MLK Jr. – the rhetorician. He is the person whose words have the power of an exploding bomb during his second Capitol interview, because he is able (1) to expose “at least for a moment, how horrific the whole thing is” and (2) to convince “even the most Capitol-loving, Games-hungry, bloodthirsty person out there.”

So where does this leave Gale Hawthorne and Chris Kyle? We can identify with their rage, certainly. When Katniss imagines what Gale saw, she “wants everyone in that mountain dead.” But then she replaces the images of burning children with the images of burning citizens and knows that this is horrible too; she says, “You don’t know how those District 2 people ended up in the Nut … They may have been coerced. They may be held against their will. Some are our own spies. Would you kill them too?” When Gale says he would, that he would similarly die for the cause (something that Chris Kyle also articulates in his autobiography), Katniss “know[s] he’s telling the truth.” But she also knows that this choice, admirably made by those willing to self-sacrifice, is “a coldhearted decision to make for other people and those who love them.” And, by the end of the novel, she realizes that despite Gale’s good intentions, his way brings about her sister’s death, the very thing she’s been so desperate to prevent. The series teaches us that we can understand Gale’s motivations; we can recognize his dedication to his family and all that is brave and heroic about him; we can even love him deeply. But we cannot love his way.

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This is why Katniss chooses Peeta. This is why we must choose Peeta as well. We have only to scan the titles of news articles (e.g. “It is now common knowledge that US drones bomb civilian rescuers”) to know that we’re currently Team Gale and running up against the same conclusion. Less than two months ago, the Taliban attacked an army-run school in Pakistan, killing over one hundred children, as retribution for US-led bombings that have killed their children. The cycle continues. In light of recent events, Katniss’s words in Mockingjay  (Book 3) are haunting: “I no longer feel any allegiance to these monsters called human beings, despite being one myself … Because there is something significantly wrong with a creature that sacrifices its children’s lives to settle its differences. You can spin in any way you like. Snow thought the Hunger Games were an efficient means of control. Coin thought the parachutes would expedite the war. But in the end, who does it benefit? No one. The truth is, it benefits no one to live in a world where these things happen.”

Only Peeta’s words in The Hunger Games (Book 1) are encouraging – “I don’t want them to change me in there. Turn me into some kind of monster that I’m not” – because he is able to articulate, from the very beginning, what will be the primary concern of the novels. The hope, the dandelion in the spring, is that there are people like Peeta and MLK Jr. (and Gene Sharp, if you’re looking for a contemporary) who see the world with moral clarity and push us to be better, stronger and braver. I don’t know which film will win Best Picture at the end of the month. Both Selma and American Sniper are contenders, and both are about creating a more safe, just society. The difference is that one of those two victories was achieved through nonviolent resistance, and (Oscar win or no) that will always be the better story.

The Worst Memes on Facebook (at the moment, and possibly in the history of the world)

I haven’t written, at least publicly, in months. Work. Kids. And I may have started fostering dogs again — because with all the racism/torture/terrorism in the world right now, sometimes you just have to rescue a dog from a kill shelter.

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With newest foster dog Annie Cresta by my side, I’m tackling the five worst memes I’ve seen on my Facebook Newsfeed lately (which means, yes: they’re being shared by. people. I. know). They’re being shared by women who bring casseroles to new mothers and to widows and to anyone, really, who hints they’d like a casserole. They’re being shared by men who wave in a neighborly way and hum Christmas carols. They’re being shared by women and by men who have children, or at least seem to like children. So, clearly, they must not understand; and, since I can’t see such things and not respond (b/c “if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor”), here’s my two cents:

5) The “no mother should have to fear for her son’s life” meme. Actually, one of my students came across this on her Facebook Newsfeed and mentioned it during class discussion, but I’m sure that one of my 600+ Facebook friends is featuring it on their page too, because it’s the type of meme they’d love and the type that — yes, I’ll admit it — took me awhile to process before I even got it.

In the photo, a young black man stands with a couple of protestors while holding a sign that reads: “No mother should have to fear for her son’s life every time he robs a store.”

Me: “Of course not — because we don’t shoot people for stealing. If someone steals, they’re arrested for theft — not shot on the street.”

My student had to explain that the young black man was holding a different sign (one that read “No mother should have to fear for her son’s life every time he leaves home”), which was photoshopped to read the other version.

Oh.

So we talked about the ABC bike theft experiment (what happens when a white guy, a black guy, and a “hot” blonde girl steals a bike?) and whether the response to theft is consistent. Hint: it’s not.

And I talked about one of my friends in high school, who was around Michael Brown’s age when he stole gas from a local station (back when you didn’t use debit/credit cards for everything). He was busted, but he was white, and I watched and listened while people laughed about it, called him a rascal, and chalked it up to what seventeen-year-old boys do.

I’m not saying his mother should have worried about him getting shot. What I’m saying is that Michael Brown’s mother shouldn’t have had to worry about her son getting shot either.

*qualification: i’m less interested, here, in engaging with the finer points of this case (like the fact that wilson stopped brown for walking on the road rather than the sidewalk, not stealing cigarillos; or the fact that wilson said he was threatened) than I am in exposing some people’s disturbing tendency not only to appoint themselves judge-jury-and-executioner when a young black man is involved but also to flaunt, through photoshop and Facebook, that mindset.*

4) The “don’t like cops? the next time you’re in trouble, call a crackhead” meme. Two things:

First: As Jon Stewart points out, “You can have great regard for law enforcement and still want them to be held to high standards.”

Being critical — of the fact that neither the Brown nor the Garner case was deemed trial-worthy, when over 90% of cases that go before a grand jury end in indictment — is not the same thing as not liking cops. Pointing out that it’s a potential conflict of interest to ask local prosecutors (who work with police) to present evidence against the person who may be their Secret Santa is not the same thing as not liking cops.

Second: It’s annoying when people stereotype isn’t it? — whether they assume that you’re a bad guy b/c you have dark skin, or you’re a bad guy b/c you’re a cop. Okay. So, don’t assume “crackheads” (dehumanizing much?) — or, people who may be struggling with a drug addiction — aren’t capable of helping and doing good. Geez.

3) The “quick! which one is bb? Too late. You’re already dead 15x over” meme. This meme features a cop holding a real gun and a not-real gun, and they’re virtually indistinguishable.

YES. Cops have a dangerous job, are afraid, and are right to be afraid — not of people of color but of being shot. In 2012, 30 cops were killed in the line of duty.

We have a gun problem and need sensible gun control reform; as Matthew Yglesias writes, “This is true if you think Ferguson Police officer Darren Wilson should have been found guilty of a crime. But in many ways it’s even more true if you think he’s innocent of any wrongdoing. A system in which legal police shootings of unarmed civilians are a common occurrence is a system that has some serious flaws.”

The rub? The person who posted ^this^ meme is against gun control. She was posting it, no doubt, to defend the cop who shot 12-year-old Tamir Ricenot to point out the fact that maybe (just *maybe*) the NRA shouldn’t be blocking legislation like California’s Senate Bill 798 — legislation that would require not-real guns (air gun, airsoft and BB) to be distinguishable (as in brightly colored) from real guns.

409 people were killed by cops in 2012, some of them children. And that’s a problem for everyone: the dead people; the families of the dead people; and the cops, some of whom have to live with mistakingly killing unarmed kids.

Think that’s just what happens? Number of shots fired by police in Britain last year? 3. Number of fatalities? 0.

2) The “breathe easy. don’t break the law” meme. This little slogan is actually a t-shirt, designed by police officer Jason Barthel.

So . . . people can breathe easy, as long as they don’t break any laws . . . but, if they DO break a law (like selling untaxed cigarettes), they may be choked to death by police, and we should be okay with that.

If you do not understand why ^this^ is problematic, please reread #5 and/or go looking for your absentee conscience.

1) The 9-11 torture meme. Whether the meme quotes Rush Limbaugh or Dick Cheney, the argument is the same: torture isn’t defined by what we do to other people (e.g. beating, rectally infusing food, shackling, water boarding, etc.) but what other people did to us on 9-11. Never mind that at least twenty-six of the people we tortured in retribution were totally innocent. Never mind that every.single.person who is giving.the.thumbs.up TO TORTURE on Facebook (at least in my circle of friends) claims to follow the teachings of a man who consistently challenged the myth of redemptive violence; as activist Shane Claiborne explains:

“[Jesus] abhors both passivity and violence and teaches us a new way forward that is neither submission nor assault, neither fight nor flight. He shows us a way to oppose evil without mirroring it, where oppressors can be resisted without being emulated and neutralized without being destroyed.”

Another person who shows us a way that oppressors can be resisted without being emulated and neutralized without being destroyed? FBI Special Agent Ali H. Soufan, or the guy who “elicited some of the most important confessions from terrorists in the war against al-Qaeda—without laying so much as a hand on them.”

To anyone giving a thumbs up to torture? You should read Soufan’s Black Banners — oh! and Jesus’s teachings too.

So ^those^ are the top (or bottom?) worst memes on Facebook at the moment. And I’ve had a couple of reactions to seeing them. My first knee-jerk reaction is to emulate my friend Mike, who wrote this oh-so-fabulous Facebook status update:

“Rather than respond to all of the disgusting comments I’m reading about the people in Ferguson, I’m just gonna do some spring cleaning on my friends list. If you’ve used the words ‘savages’ or ‘animals’ to describe the protestors/rioters/looters (whatever you want to call them), you’ve been removed. I’ll just continue to THINK racism still exists, rather than have you morons prove it to me on a daily basis. Good luck out there…..you’ll need it.”

But I’m going with the hope that those who have posted any (or all / shudder) of the five memes are confused, probably because they haven’t realized that the “thoughtful” commentary they’re hearing about these current, heartbreaking issues isn’t thoughtful commentary at all but propaganda. One way to tell the difference between a thoughtful commentator and a propagandist = their ability (or lack thereof) to empathize and identify with the “other” side.

Think Jon Stewart only goes after Christians for their silly war on Christmas? Watch him call down Freedom from Religion this past week for being just as petty.

Think Daily Beast, as a liberal news Web site, only glorifies protesters and vilifies cops? Read Michael Daly slam certain NYC protestors on Saturday for insulting Detective Larry DePrimo and Officer Conor McDonald, two men who he calls “civic treasures.”

Watch John freaking McCain address the CIA torture report with Jon Stewart applauding him.

And then, for Christ’s sake (which is not blasphemous — b/c I mean, literally, for the sake of Jesus and his Golden Rule), look at all.the.people who share this planet with you, give them the benefit of the doubt (i.e. actually listen to what they have to say), and then reevaluate your position (which, I promise, will not kill you).

Or, at the very least, stop being such a shitty person on Facebook.

Dear Obama: please consider revisiting Harry Potter, the Hunger Games, Emma Lazarus’s poetry, and — oh yeah — the fact that you won a Nobel PEACE prize.

[BEWARE: MOCKINGJAY, PART 2 SPOILER]

I’ve been reading a lot about the Syrian crisis. I even made the mistake of flipping through a slideshow detailing the aftermath of the chemical attack in August. A disclaimer warned that the images were “graphic,” but I found myself wishing that they had been more explicit in their labeling (i.e. “graphic: dead children”). I have yet to work up the nerve to watch the video in full, although I have seen devastating clips.

I do not think that we can stand idly by, to quote Elie Wiesel, in the face of such atrocities. But I agree with David Sirota, who, in his article “4 Essential Questions Before We Rush to War,” validates the “do something, anything” response while reminding us that a military attack is not the only “something” we can do:

“[T]he human rights atrocities in Syria are real, and should be offensive and horrifying to anyone with a pulse. So the ‘do something, anything!’ impulse isn’t ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative.’ And it isn’t silly, stupid or war-mongering. It is simply a sign that you are human.

What can be silly, stupid and war-mongering is to assume that the ‘do something, anything!’ impulse is proof that one course of action — a military attack — is the only proper or humane thing to do.”

Given our recent history (i.e. Obama’s five-year Middle Eastern drone war in which an estimated 500-800 innocent civilians have died) I have serious doubts about whether or not a military attack against Syria even qualifies as “proper” or “humane.” As my friend, Phil, pointed out in a recent Facebook status: “I just question whether precise and surgical violence is even a thing. If anything in the world has unpredictable consequences, it’s a bomb.”

One civilian casualty is too many; and, when it’s on our own soil, we seem to understand this. When pursuing the Boston Marathon bombers in April, we were indeed precise and surgical. Can you imagine if we had bombed the area where the terrorists were hiding? We didn’t consider that an option, and rightly so. If the terrorists are on other soil, though, we are much more indiscriminate (e.g. consider another bombing in April, in the Kunar province of eastern Afghanistan, that left 10 children and 2 women dead).

If there is anything I’ve learned from teaching both the Harry Potter and The Hunger Games series in the college classroom, it’s that repaying violence with violence threatens our humanity. This is nowhere more eloquently expressed than Book 7 of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, when Harry finds himself in the middle of a full-fledged war against Lord Voldemort and is criticized for using a nonlethal disarming spell against his attackers. His mentor, Lupin, scolds “Harry, the time for Disarming is past! These people are trying to capture and kill you! At least Stun if you aren’t prepared to kill!”

Harry replies, “I won’t blast people out of my way just because they’re there . . . That’s Voldemort’s job.” Although Harry’s penchant for mercy becomes, as Lupin explains, his “signature move” and therefore makes him more vulnerable to recognition and capture, Harry knows that the alternative — becoming unrecognizable to both others and himself by employing lethal force — is a much more frightening and sinister option.

[SPOILER: Mockingjay, Part 2] By the end of The Hunger Games series, Katniss realizes that District 13’s rebel leader, President Coin, is as corrupt as the Capitol’s President Snow. And, to her horror, she understands that the great evil she’s spent her life trying to prevent (i.e. her sister’s murder) comes to pass, because the rebels — in their fight against the violent monsters of the Capitol — become violent monsters themselves, relentlessly devoted to “winning,” even when their own are caught in the crosshairs. 

This week, Jon Stewart returned to The Daily Show after a summer hiatus and sharply criticized the President for recommending a military attack against Syria, not because it would make the situation better (see: “Military Experts Cautious about Effectiveness of a US Attack On Syria”) but because the President does not want to seem weak. Stewart plays a montage of people, like Paul Bremer (former US Ambassador in Iraq), cautioning the President against “weakness” before exploding: “Oh, right. We have to bomb Syria because we’re in 7th grade . . . Why does holding back look like weakness? Isn’t it maturity? It’s like when a guy is picking on Clark Kent and he doesn’t do anything even though he knows he can throw that guy into the sun.”

Strength can and should be dissociated from violence.  We should condemn Assad’s actions. We should consider, as Sarah Van Gelder explains, “strengthening the ability of the ICC [International Criminal Court] to hold war criminals accountable by signing on and ratifying the statute that created the court in 1998” and/or “calling for a United Nations embargo on arms, military supplies, and logistical support for both Damascus and opposition forces.” In short, there are ways to hold Assad accountable and deter war crimes other than military strikes.

But: perhaps most importantly, we should focus our energy and funnel our resources into aid for the refugees and those assisting them [note: them = not only the refugees but also the civilians (or wanna-be refugees) still trying to get out of Syria]. According to UNHCR, Syrian refugees have topped 2 million with more on the way.

If only America were known less for military attacks and more for Emma Lazarus’s words, inscribed on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” (By the way: my husband, Scott, thinks that we should establish a nonviolent branch of the military dedicated to aid, kind of like the Peace Corps but with all the organization/resources of the US military.)

Let’s speak such words of Lazarus-like comfort to the Syrian people, rather than words of violence to mad men. The latter can be in charge of a country of themselves, while we help those in need and refuse to play with the bullies — lest we become bullies too.

P.S. And, maybe, we’ll become so energized by helping the Syrian children that we’ll be able to remember “all the children,” as Charles Blow enjoins, and help end the atrocities of hunger and poverty and gun violence too.

P.P.S. If you decide to play with the bullies, President Obama, Kirsten Powers suggests you may want to consider returning that Nobel Peace Prize. Actually, she thinks you should return it already, b/c of all those drones. Personally, I think Narayanan Krishnan should get every good-person award available, including most Nobels.