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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

In Whose Machine Will YOU Be a Cog?

Rowing


When I was a college freshman, I rowed on the crew team for a brief time.

Before long, I realized that I couldn't memorize thousands of Chinese characters and plumb the depths of the writing of Flannery O'Connor and also exhaust myself every day out on the Charles, and the rowing went away. But before that happened, I developed a memory in my body of being in a boat with seven others rowers, doing everything I could to keep my oar moving in unison with theirs and also pulling for dear life against the water that felt thick and immovable as concrete.

Rowers in a shell move forward and backward with the movement of the boat on sliding seats; they wield long oars that have to move in unison in order to avoid colliding with each other. You don't just pull with your arms; it's a coordinated thrust of your entire body. The shell doesn't just move forward; if surges up out onto the surface of the water with every stroke, gliding at top speed.

It's exhilarating -- but also terrifying. Years later, I was reading a book about rowers -- Red Rose Crew: A True Story Of Women, Winning, And The Water by Daniel J. Boyne -- and I read a sentence that helped me understand that experience of being in a speeding crew shell, pulling for dear life on that oar, and knowing you just had ... to keep ... going ....

Once the boat went to full pressure, there was really no other option.

When everybody rows, you row too.

It makes me think of the inside of an internal combustion engine, and the way the components are moving out of each other's way just in time.

There's a joy to being part of a beautiful machine. But it comes with a price.

Watch this video to feel this sensation:





I thought of this again this past weekend when I went to see a film about drone pilots: Good Kill.

Among the many ways in which Good Kill succeeds is the way it makes it clear that drone pilots are cogs in a tightly controlled machine, and they have no room to exercise judgement or make ethical decisions.

Ethan Hawke portrays a former fighter pilot who has become part of the "chair force," operating a drone out of a cubicle in Nevada. Every move he makes is observed by his co-pilot, plus two analysts looking over his shoulder, plus (in the instances depicted in the film) his commanding officer standing behind his chair, as well as an unseen team of CIA operatives connected electronically from Langley, VA, plus who-knows-how-many other participants in the kill chain.


Good Kill: the order has been given


Without giving anything away, I can tell you that there are a series of events in the film that show the Ethan Hawke character struggling with just what a tightly controlled cog in the machine he is -- and looking for any little bit of wiggle room to be his own person.

Being a cog in a certain kind of machine is very appealing -- working with others, being super efficient, achieving synergy, having impact: teamwork. It's what attracts so many young people to consider the military.  These are many of the same people who find exhilaration in sports like rowing.

Films like Good Kill are essential for helping young people see what the military machine is really like. Sure: be a cog in the machine. But in whose machine do you really want to be a cog?


Related posts

The U.S. military is desperately trying to beef up the ranks of its drone pilots - to meet a "near insatiable demand for drones." There's only one way that's going to happen, and that's if we let our young people think that it's okay to sign up. The world of military service is more abstracted and foreign than ever. If ever there was a time that young people needed guidance from others about what military service might mean for them, that time is now.

(See Mothers Don't Let Your Children Grow Up to Be Drone Pilots)


A person may not feel that s/he is another Daniel Ellsberg ... or Paul Revere ... or Otto and Elise Hampel ... or Ai Weiwei ... or Bradley [Chelsea] Manning. But these are heroes we can aspire to emulate.

(See I am (I will become) Bradley Manning )








Consider the moment in the film All Quiet On the Western Front when the young soldier returns to visit his old high school. The soldier visits the class of the teacher who had goaded him and many of his classmates to enlist in the first place. Encouraged by his teacher to tell about the "glories" of being a soldier, he delivers a damning verdict . . . .

(See Back to School (All Quiet On the Western Front))

Sunday, May 24, 2015

GOOD KILL: Struggling to Bring the Truth of Drone Killing Out of the Shadows

Ethan Hawke in Good Kill
I saw the movie Good Kill last night.  I have five observations (below) but the most important thing I have to say is: anyone who cares about stopping drone killing should take a friend and go see this movie, and then do it again, and again. Here's why . . . .

(1) You can object to the frame of this movie -- US-centric, macho, militaristic -- but that's in fact where the public is starting from.


(2) "Good kill." Wait for the scene when the protagonist describe an attack on a home containing the "target" as well as the target's wife and children. And then the attack, hours later, on the funeral . . . .


(3)  "It never ends." It's worth it to get people to this movie just for the one-minute long exchange about the rationale for the "war on terror."


(4) "Lawful orders."  The movie is all about being a cog in a machine where all you do is follow someone else's orders, and your thinking is not welcomed. Any kid thinking about enlisting in order to break out of the world they're "stuck" in should see this movie. (See In Whose Machine Will YOU Be a Cog?)


(5) You can object to the fact that the movie focuses on how hard it is on the soldiers. But if we expect soldiers to resist, don't we need to invest the time and energy to empathize with them, too?


I don't know if everyone in the movement to stop drone killing will agree with me about these observations. Drop a comment below -- pro or con -- and let the drone debate proceed!


TAKE ACTION

Take a friend 
and go see Good Kill.

Then do it again. 

And again.


Food for thought: what kind of movies are seen by LARGE numbers of people . . . ? http://www.boxofficemojo.com/weekend/chart/


Related posts


Grounded raises tough questions. I was hoping that the play would challenge the idea that killing people with drones is good. It's a reflection of the seriousness of this work that that is just one of the issues it raises; others include our society's willingness to destroy the people who we employ to "serve" ("serve our country," serve us in general), our culture's worship of violence / use of force, and the consequences of pervasive surveillance.

(See "Everything Is Witnessed": Searching for "the Guilty" in GROUNDED )


In Chicago on Good Friday, 2013 (March 29), a cast consisting of long-time Chicago antiwar activists was joined by a NY playwright (and defendant in actions against US drone bases), Jack Gilroy, for one of the events kicking off a month-long campaign of anti-drones events across the country: a performance of Gilroy's play, The Predator.

(See "The Predator" in Chicago - Good Friday, 2013 - "A Passion Play for the Drones Era")




Eventually, in large part due to Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, the United States was converted from a country in which a small number of people thought slavery needed to be ended into a country determined to act to end slavery. This literary work took the movement wide, and it took it deep.

Why is a novel an important tool for creative resistance?


(See Creative Resistance 101: Uncle Tom's Cabin )

Thursday, May 21, 2015

MEMORIAL DAY 2015: Can We Write Our Own Story?

In past years, I've reminded people that Memorial Day is a day, most of all, to renew our commitment to NOT waging war.

In 2012, in particular, I was thinking about this in the wake of the NATO Summit in Chicago: "THIS Memorial Day, Honor the Fallen: STOP Drone Killing!"

Instead of waiting for Memorial Day to come, and silently lamenting the useless loss of life and the fact that the world isn't turning toward peace, shouldn't we be publicly putting forward the headline we want to see on Memorial Day?

Here's mine:


The Memorial Day 2015 we want:
Obama, Putin in Direct Talks to End Nukes; "A Share Obligation to Prevent Disaster"
OBAMA: "We've heard the rest of the world loud and clear. It's time for us to disarm."
PUTIN: "We've heard the rest of the world loud and clear. It's time for us to disarm."


What headline would YOU like to see on Memorial Day 2015? (Add comments below!)


More . . . 

Key 2015 Events for Nuclear Disarmament Movement Organizers

5 Ways YOU Can Make a Difference on #NoNukesTuesday

360 Degree Feedback in New York (2014 NPT Prepcom and How the World Views the United States)

Reviews of "Thermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing Between Democracy and Doom" by Elaine Scarry

Obama Nobel Peace Prize - REVOKED!

Monday, May 18, 2015

Communion of a Different Sort: "The Last Supper" at the Block Museum

On the day that the jury in Boston delivered a death sentence in the Boston Marathon bombing, I went to see an exhibition called The Last Supper at Northwestern's Block Museum.

I hope everyone goes to see this exhibition.


Part of The Last Supper - exhibition at Northwestern's Block Museum


The Last Supper is a staggering collection of 600 plates that the artist Julie Green has painted with images and notations about the last meals of people put to death in states across the US.

I have to honestly say that I am so staggered by The Last Supper that I don't know exactly what I think. Just a few reactions:

 . . . Clearly, the creation of these plates has been a supreme devotional act; we get to participate in a small way by looking at them and the stories they represent.

 . . . Sure, the statistics of the number of executions carried out state-by-state are provided in the introduction to the exhibit. But it sinks in in a different way when you see picture after picture after picture after picture . . . .

 . . . It is the bizarre ritualized nature of the last meal for the condemned ("anything you want!") that makes Green's project possible. These plates show the individual circumstances that put the lie to the idea that there is any state ritual equals state justice.

I'm tempted to show images of some of the individual plates here. But maybe that's too easy.

You go.

You see it.

You figure it out . . . .


Related posts


What would Christians think if someone proposed carving out a slice of their Sunday services to worship the God of Entombment? Wouldn't they think that was absurd? After all, if Christianity is anything, isn't it the religion of "UN-entombment"?

(See When is Christianity Going Back to Being the Religion of "UN-entombment"?)
 


Cook County Jail is the perfect example of the nationwide injustice that Michelle Alexander described in her groundbreaking book, The New Jim Crow: mass incarceration, focused principally one people of color, in which "crimes" (often related to drug possession or other low-level offenses) become the mechanism for entrapping people in a cycle of incarceration that is brutalizing and often begins a downward spiral of lifetime discrimination.

(See Free Them All )



A campaign exists to bring about a democratically-elected Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC) in Chicago. The campaign would involve the people in electing the watchers of the police, and put the ultimate control of (and responsibility for) the police in the hands of the citizens of Chicago.

(See Does a Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC) need to be part of a "new plan of Chicago"? )

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Wang Wen-hsing and the Unspeakable: Changes in the Family

Jia - "family"
When I lived in Taiwan studying Chinese language in 1979-80, perhaps the single biggest discovery was contemporary Chinese literature.

I've written about Taipei People -- the story collection by Pai Hsien-yung ... and my love of the stories of Huang Chun-ming. ... and my fascination with the stories and the choreography of Lin Hwai-min.  But the book I knew I loved before I even read it was called Family Change (also translated as "Family Catastrophe").

I loved it even before I read it because its title consisted of two characters I knew -- "family" and "change" -- and the meaning of the two characters combined was one I could immediately grasp.

I loved the fact that the little bit I knew about modern Chinese literature In particular, I thought about Family by Ba Jin -- one of the most important books of the 20th century. Family is about the contrast between traditional Chinese society's ideal of the family vs. the reality of contemporary Chinese family life. I loved the fact that before I even opened the book, I knew that it was part of a critique of the family that had begun decades earlier on the Chinese mainland -- a critique which itself built on landmarks of traditional Chinese literature centered on the family (most notably Dream of the Red Chamber) as well as on modern Western literature (most notably Ibsen).

Family Change by Wang Wen-hsing
I have a very clear memory of getting a copy of Family Change and reading it -- and by "reading" I mean plowing through, comprehending what I could comprehend and shamelessly blipping over whatever I couldn't. I remember lots of impressions that I could only piece together from context ("they're talking about some piece of furniture here, and it's made from bamboo because it has a bamboo radical, but ... ?"), and certainly lots of parts that I was mystified by and/or blatantly misunderstood -- but I also remember over and over again feeling that I completely understood the poignant, humorous, infuriating, embarrassing anecdotes that the book is made up of, anecdotes that trace a child's path from unwavering love for his parents to a state of infuriating frustration.

The frame of the book is the disappearance of a recently-retired father - he appears to have just wandered off one day.


Reality Check: the English-language edition

I went back recently and read Family Change in English translation (translated as Family Catastrophe by Susan Wan Dolling). I discovered three things.

My first discovery was that the poignant, humorous, infuriating, embarrassing anecdotes were just as I remembered them. Of course, there were details that I was only able to comprehend for the first time in the translation, but the gist was the same. And just as painful.

Nothing was as exquisitely painful, for me anyway, than the account of how the boy lost all confidence in his father when it was revealed that his father's readings of quotations from Confucius habitually misread a fundamental character used in classical Chinese. (The father read yue ("said") as ri ("sun").) As you can imagine, once the cracks in the facade are revealed, more and more faults start to appear in rapid succession.

Parental missteps have a way of undermining fundamental Chinese values, such as filial piety.

Family Catastrophe - translation by
Susan Wan Dolling.
The second thing I noticed was something about how I have changed in the course of 30 years.  When I read Family Change in 1979, the anecdotes spoke to me, but I couldn't say on a conscious level why they spoke to me.  In particular, I grew up in a family without a father, so on a conscious level I was sort of naively reading along and going, "Oh, so this is what it must be like to have to deal with a father in the family."

In the intervening years, I've done a little bit of work to think about the difficulties of growing up in a family you love but also that you are desperate to assert your independence from. And so I now found myself smiling in recognition at anecdote after anecdote. (e.g. the son speaking to his mother, who has just come in to inform him that his father has disappeared: "He tapped his temples to punctuate his words. 'Do-not while-I-am-reading come-in-here to-disturb-me.'" Gulp! Guilty as charged . . . .)

Turns out that while I was loving Family Change for the way it explained to me what was happening in families in Taiwan, I was also (or mainly) loving the way it explained to me what was happening inside myself.

And this, in turn, led me to a third discovery. As much as I want to relish the particularly Taiwanese aspects of Family Change, the more compelling truth is the fact that Wang is telling a story that is common to all of us. Two aspects of the book brought this home to me.

One is a single recounting of the admonition of the father to the young boy:

"Shush, shush. Don't say such things. You must never talk like that outside the family. Do this for me if nothing else. Remember what I said, eh, Sonny?" His papa would thus warn him, in great fear for no apparent reason." (p. 114 of the Dolling translation)

"Oh yeahhhh . . . " I said to myself in a state of slow dawning. (Who among us didn't get this instruction growing up?) Is this why there are things that I still won't even articulate to myself?

The other is the accumulated descriptions throughout the book of the rituals of childhood. Bathing ... getting ready for bed ... having fingernails trimmed ... curing the hiccups ... taking family photos ... blowing bubbles ... favorite foods ... staying home alone ... family outing to a restaurant ... wrestling ... ... a new pen ... mending ... the first diary ... worship ... an outing with an older sibling ... bicycling ... shopping (and candy!) .... What one starts to understand is that they are not just instruments of control -- not just parts of the indoctrination to good behavior, compliance, filiality. They are also the building blocks of a happy childhood.

Somehow two things are true at the same time.


So now I have an assignment for myself . . . . There are story collections as well as a second novel by Wang Wen-hsing that are available at the Chicago Public Library (Chinatown Branch). It's time to dust off my Chinese and start reading again.

What I am wondering -- now that I've discovered the way Wang Wen-hsing holds up a mirror to me as much or more than he documents life in Taiwan -- is whether I am ready to bring more of these things about myself up to the surface.

Am I finally ready to speak of "the unspeakable"?



More about Taipei c. 1979 . . . .


Related posts

"Days for Looking at the Sea" is set in a fishing town on the east coast of Taiwan. It's about a prostitute who determines to have a baby, and so selects as the father a likely candidate from among her customers (most of whom are workers in the local fishing fleet), gets pregnant, and heads back to the tiny town in which she was born, in order to have the baby.

(See Days for Looking at the Sea )





I love to walk around North Pond here in Chicago and notice the asters as September stretches into October. They make me think of my mom . . . .

(See Asters for Eva )









Each story in Taipei People is about a person who ended up in Taiwan after the war. More than anything, the story "Glory's by Blossom Bridge" is about the destiny of so many men who came from the mainland to Taiwan: ending up old and alone.

(See Taipei People: Thinking of Home

Friday, May 15, 2015

NUCLEAR DISARMAMENT: Time to get ANGRY about US FAILURE!

It's the approximate midpoint of the month-long review conference on the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons at the United Nations in New York. Perhaps this is a good time to give everybody a head's up:

The US is FAILING in its obligation to disarm.


Nuclear weapons for everybody? or for nobody?
White House talks with Saudis focus on nuclear weapons.
(Image: Kevin LaMarque/Reuters)


I was reminded of this yesterday by an article in The New York Times: "Saudi Arabia Promises to Match Iran in Nuclear Capability" by David E. Sanger. The story suggests that Saudi Arabia is unhappy that Iran retains too much potential to get nuclear weapons. But what the Saudis are telling the US is, essentially, either everybody has them or nobody has them.  It's just a lot easier, diplomatically, to say, "We're talking about Iran here" than it is to say, "We're talking about you."

Look at the picture above from the White House meeting. Look at the faces. YOU decide: what do you really think is at issue here?

I have heard country after country after country express their frustration with US intransigence on nuclear disarmament.  The US (and other nuclear "haves") are bound by existing treaty obligations to move to complete nuclear disarmament. What's the holdup?

At the Peace and Planet nuclear disarmament events in New York in April, I heard Prof. Zia Mian challenge the audience to confront the fact that the promises that we have gotten to date from the US to eliminate nuclear weapons aren't being honored. We think we've made progress, but the truth is that we've FAILED.

So I wasn't surprised that between the time I decided to write this blog post and the time I turned on my computer, I had received an email from the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) saying,

"An overwhelming majority of governments have expressed great concerns over the catastrophic humanitarian consequences and the increasing risk of use of nuclear weapons, and are calling for nuclear weapons to never be used again, under any circumstances. . . . Meanwhile, a small number of governments – in particular those with nuclear weapons themselves – are vigorously opposing progress. . . . What we are witnessing in New York right now is that the will of the majority to move forward is being blocked by a small minority who is desperate to preserve the status quo."

ICAN is promoting a global ban treaty -- one that will be led by the countries without nuclear weapons (and especially without a history of using nuclear weapons!).

What are those of us in the US supposed to do?

[UPDATE May 18: David E. Sanger and William J. Broad report in The New York Times: "China Making Some Missiles More Powerful" that, after sitting on MIRV technology for decades without making use of it, China is sending a clear message to the US: It is improving nuclear weapons in a way that "can unambiguously reach the United States." Could it have anything to do with the steadfast refusal of the US to eliminate its own nuclear weapons? Is it a coincidence that this announcement is coming during the NPT RevCon?]

[UPDATE May 27: AFSC's Joseph Gerson in Truthout: "Obama Administration Sabotages Nuclear Nonproliferation Conference" -- the title of the article says it all . . . . ]


TAKE ACTION:


Get angry!

Then . . . 
Get involved.
Get vocal.
Get educated
Get political.
Get serious.

Related posts

2015 "No Nukes" Mobilizations are happening around the US and around the world.

(See Key 2015 Events for Nuclear Disarmament Movement Organizers )














In light of the upcoming review of the NPT (Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons) and the fact that organizations throughout the country and worldwide are organizing to press the U.S. to substantially reduce its stores of nuclear weapons, it seems like a good time to use social media to get EVERYONE on board!

(See 5 Ways YOU Can Make a Difference on #NoNukesTuesday )







How do you formulate a statement that can somehow convince the United States to eliminate its threatening nuclear weapons?  How do you formulate the 10th request? Or the 100th? Knowing all the time that the United States is in the position -- will always be in the position -- to say, "No" ?  At what point does it dawn on you that the United States will never give up its nuclear weapons, because it has the power and the rest of the world doesn't?

(See 360 Degree Feedback in New York (2014 NPT Prepcom and How the World Views the United States))


Elaine Scarry demonstrates that the power of one leader to obliterate millions of people with a nuclear weapon - a possibility that remains very real even in the wake of the Cold War - deeply violates our constitutional rights, undermines the social contract, and is fundamentally at odds with the deliberative principles of democracy.

(See Reviews of "Thermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing Between Democracy and Doom" by Elaine Scarry )











NOW THEREFORE, by the power vested in me, and on account of the actions on the part of the recipient today described, as well as others, I hereby declare the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize award to Barack H. Obama officially revoked.

(See Obama Nobel Peace Prize - REVOKED! )

Thursday, May 14, 2015

FAITH-BASED ACTIVISM: Are there any limits to its potential?

I've just come back from spending a day at the Illinois capitol in Springfield with 500 other faith-based activists from Chicago-area congregations that are members of the Community Renewal Society (CRS).


CRS in Springfield - April 12, 2015 - A powerful group.


I'm enjoying looking at the pictures of the day, thinking back over what we did there, and musing on some questions that have been bubbling up recently in the course of participating in several different faith-based activism initiatives I'm involved with.


(1) What's the right way to talk about power?

CRS members - penetrating the inner sanctums of power.
I'm on board with the idea that power is not a bad word. (I'm also quite fond of the word "effectiveness," too, by the way.)

And that means I'm on board with using "organized people and organized money" (i.e. power) to do good.

And yet . . . .

How do we wield power without forgetting that we follow teachings of Jesus that say that there are values that are more precious than power?



(2) How much of Christian life should consist of social activism?

In the Rotunda: one part rally, one part prayer service.
I have been very back-and-forth about this.

In the past 5 years or so, I have generally felt that the answer is: "as much as possible."

However, I am feeling more and more that a better approach would be to spend significant amounts of time in worship and spiritual development. I have come to believe, in fact, that those activities are a prerequisite for keeping my heart really well-directed when I'm involved in social action.

And then most recently . . .


(3) Isn't the foundation of both social action and spirituality the act of listening?

As is often the case, the real action was in the side conversations.
A turning point for me was a conversation I was involved in about a year ago, described here:  That, together with several subsequent conversations and studies, have led me to ask the simple question: "What would happen if I made myself available to listen?"

I've thought a lot in the past about listening as a means to effective social action.  I'm thinking about it now more as a means to love.



(4) Where's the leverage?

There's an argument that when faith-based activists show up, they benefit from carrying (at least by implication) the authority of their congregations and denominations with them.  This is, of course, more true the more that a significant cohort from the congregation or denomination shows up.

A major focus of the Springfield day was police accountability --
a campaign that many area groups are focusing on now . . . .
But I wonder if there isn't an opposing argument that carries equal or greater weight: when groups of activists include members who come from a faith-based perspective, even if just a few, there is significant opportunity for the hope, commitment, and love that infuse so many faith-based activists to become a guiding light for the rest of the people they are working with.

In other words, the best sign that faith-based activism is powerful is the spirit it provides in abundance to all groups that may be in need of it.


(5) How far should we go?

Die-in in the Rotunda to protest Rauner budget cuts.
The thing I liked about our first public witness on Palm Sunday in 2012 -- "Occupy Palm Sunday!" -- was that it was informed by the spirit of the Occupy movement, i.e. it was all about asking questions about what holds us back, what we could accomplish if we were to venture out, and what cues we are to take about this from Jesus' ministry.

Our Palm Sunday public witness in 2015 -- with the input of activists at ARISE Chicago -- helped us push the envelope as part of the #Fightfor15 campaign to get McDonald's (and others) to raise service workers' wages.

The New York Times (and McDonald's) took notice, and it felt like our efforts to challenge boundaries was well-fitted to the needs of the situation.


Related posts

I believe that once the Church comes out of the closet -- that is, once we start speaking quite openly about the difference between the world as we find it and the world as we believe God wishes it to be -- there is no way this old world will be able to stay the same.

(See Let the Church Out of the Closet )









Can there be any more clear illustration than the one at left to remind us that the work of the Church is liberation?

(See Christian "Church"? How about Christian "Liberation Organization"? )









I believe when Jesus broke the bread and poured the wine and said "Remember me this way," he was much more interested in encouraging us to keep having conversations -- conversations that really matter -- with others . . . and finding ways to be in relationship with our neighbors  . . . all the while reminding us "never underestimate the power of food"  . . .

(See Get Outside Your Comfort Zone and Have A Conversation Today (Welcome to the Ministry))



Faced with chorus of voices saying, "Isn't it time for you to tone it down? Can't you be more reasonable? What is it you want, anyway?" Jesus kept right on doing what he was doing. And that was a sign to us about how to live our lives . . . .

(See WWJD? Occupy! )







Pastor Mitri Raheb emphasizes that people who are Christians, and people who care about Palestine, and people who fall into both categories, all need to care about the problem of Empire -- because that is the context in which Jesus found himself and because that is the context of Palestine.

(See How Shall We Live in the Face of Empire? (Reading Mitri Raheb) )