Tag: community

The Future of Religion and Bowling

Quote of the Week:  What I want to happen to religion in the future is this: I want it to be like bowling. It’s a hobby, something some people will enjoy, that has some virtues to it, that will have its own institutions and its traditions and its own television programming, and that families will enjoy together. It’s not something I want to ban or that should affect hiring and firing decisions, or that interferes with public policy. It will be perfectly harmless as long as we don’t elect our politicians on the basis of their bowling score, or go to war with people who play nine-pin instead of ten-pin, or use folklore about backspin to make decrees about how biology works. –PZ Myers

This week, Spark! is letting the Quote of the Week sit on its own, since there is no need to add further thoughts to this one.  Reflect, and have a good week!

Image from Wikipedia user Mark Schierbecker: “PZ Myers presents his talk,’You, too, can know more molecular genetics than a creationist!’ at Skepticon in 2014.

Don’t Just “Like” Teachers, Help Them!

Yes, we are all about our slacktivism.  We “like” things on Facebook, “retweet” them on Twitter, and find other ways to spend three seconds at a time in dedicated support to a cause before we move on to something else.  Some of this helps to get the message out to others, and so this is not an entirely useless activity.  However, it is all too easy to think that these momentary (and cost-free) “supports” of a cause really do very little to actually support the cause.

Okay, enough guilt for the day.  This week is Teacher Appreciation Week.  You can “like” this or some other post or meme, “share” it or whatever else you wish to do.  But you can also spend just a few minutes more – and a little of your own money (how much is entirely up to you) – by going to Donorschoose.org and contributing to a classroom project.  The site will give you choices of project types, locations of schools; even specific schools and teachers and projects to support, what the projects are for and how much they need.  You can spend a few bucks or hundreds of dollars (or more), as you choose; finish funding a project needing only a little more help, or be one of many getting a project closer to having full funding, whatever you want.

Today, for a contribution that my wife and I sent to some Detroit schools (a 1st-grade math class and a 4th-grade history class), we got these thank-you cards and letters (you can also donate anonymously if you feel weird about recipients knowing who you are):

Thanks from Donorschoose Kids.jpg

Our nation is strengthened by education, our workers are more competitive when educated, our national earnings and revenues are higher, deficits and debts are lower when our people are educated.  You don’t have to bankrupt yourself to help out, or commit many hours out of your busy schedule.  But just a few moments on this site and whatever contribution you can afford will go a long way toward moving specific kids toward their learning goals, toward better lives, and toward a better nation for us all.  Help out, won’t you?  Thanks!

Headline image taken from a Twitter post.  Photo of cards and letters © Sparkpolitical, 2016.

Politics and Hatred

Henry Adams seated at desk in dark coat, writing, photograph by Marian Hooper Adams, 1883.jpg

Quote of the Week:  Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, has always been the systematic organization of hatreds. –Henry Adams

Often, when working up a Quote of the Week, I see some obvious connection between the words in front of me and the latest outrage from Trump or one of his Republican competitors.  It is easy – and some readers may already have done so – to see the “systematic organization of hatreds” that is expressed by Trump’s “whites only,” misogynistic dreams for a pre-Civil Rights America.  However it is harder to realize the intent of the words of Adams (he of the family of John and John Quincy, Charles, and other politicians and intellectuals) – especially the words, “whatever its professions.”  Unfortunately, hatred is not an exclusively conservative or Republican “value,” tool, or reality.

As a new blogger trying to build an audience and readership, I have joined the Twitterverse, where I “follow” and am “followed by” many on, more or less, the same side of the partisan divide.  I am disheartened almost every time I open Twitter to see the hatred expressed not so much by the Democratic candidates for each other (especially considering how closely the two have been allied in the past), but by those supporting one candidate or the other.  There is ample hatred, and the organization of such by unofficial and unasked “voices” of the two candidates, by Clinton supporters against “BernieBots,” and by Sanders supporters against “$hillary.”  The #BernedOut and #NeverHillary pages are active indeed with vitriol directed against both candidates from those acting as voices for the other.

And yet, when looking reasonably at the policy proposals of both Democratic candidates, there is (as in fact both have themselves said, multiple times – were anyone to bother to listen) more connecting their visions and solutions than separating them.  There is a difference more in how hard they want to hit the accelerator, than in which direction to turn the steering wheel.  But they both see the car taking much the same road, to the same direction – the construction of our “shining City on a Hill,” of a community of care and welfare, of a united community of diverse cultures and ideas.  And while, as the nomination battle deepens, both candidates (especially Sanders, on the losing end of the fight for delegates) have an interest in spotlighting their differences, they also (especially Clinton, already moving on to a greater contest with Trump and the other party) have an interest in keeping, as much as possible, those on the Left united rather than divided.  The candidates see, even if the less learned and more puritanical of their followers do not, that nothing will be gained for either of them if their two forces do not unite in November.

Nonetheless, there remains the problem of the “discomfort of thoughtful politics,” and the 140-character superficialization of Twitter politics definitely encourages sound-bite simplicity at the expense of thought, nuance, and depth.  The angry, unsure against whom to direct their anger, are on both sides of the political divide; and their anger and hatred are all too easily organized by political voices of both the Left and Right.  If we on the Left are to make a claim at being the more rational of the two sides, or to have the better solutions, we need to look past petty bickering and differences, and to redeem the greater vision of the City on a Hill, the goal of both traditional Democrats like Hillary Clinton and more radical voices like Bernie Sanders.  And if we are to unite the nation – and that means bringing the other side with us – we need also to look at real policy differences and solutions that recognize the fuller spectrum of American thought, and the realities of the American political landscape.  We need to organize, without organizing (or encouraging) hatred.

Headline image by Marian Hooper Adams (1843–1885) – Massachusetts Historical Society, Public Domain.

On Being Great Again, Or Good

Quote of the Week:  Patriotism is proud of a country’s virtues and eager to correct its deficiencies; it also acknowledges the legitimate patriotism of other countries, with their own specific virtues. The pride of nationalism, however, trumpets its country’s virtues and denies its deficiencies, while it is contemptuous toward the virtues of other countries. It wants to be, and proclaims itself to be, “the greatest”, but greatness is not required of a country; only goodness is. –Sydney J. Harris

Donald Trump shocks Americans by telling them that he wants to make our nation “great again,” implying obviously that the United States had some greatness that is now lacking.  It is easy to associate this clearly unpatriotic lack of faith in America with racism and xenophobia (implying, for example, that the US was great, until it went ahead and elected one of “those people” as its president for eight years).  It is easy to do this because of Trump’s heartless criticism of Mexicans and Muslims (and of the latter’s faith, Islam).  It is easy to do this because of the numerous Nazis, Klansmen, and fascists of all colors (so to speak) who have come out in open support for Trump.  It is easy to do this because, notwithstanding the candidate’s willingness to tweet and speak about all sorts of people on the cuff and without any “due diligence,” it took him something like 48 hours to disavow one of America’s leading white supremacists.  Attacking ethnic groups, dissidents, and women is not something the candidate needs to take any time to consider properly; but disavowing the country’s leading white supremacist was something that needed closer study, not being any kind of “no brainer” for our little Orangearschenfürher.  All of this shows what most Americans need to know about what “greatness” is missing and how to restore it.

But for those of us not raised from birth to hate “those people” or to misogynize at our morning Tea Party, it is clear that what we need is not for our nation to be “great again,” but for our country to be good again, like Sydney J. Harris suggests.  We need to remember John Winthrop’s exhortations to us to build the City on a Hill by embracing the liberal imperative to care for the poor, to house the homeless, to feed the hungry, and moreover to use the wealth of those at the top for that explicit purpose.  We need to remember that politics should be about caring for those needing medical care, not about politicizing issues.  When we attack Planned Parenthood for performing a legal operation (and doing so using only private funds, and not anyone’s taxes), and use the government to punish the organization – and the many women and men it cares for in other ways, using both public and private funds for the purpose – for offending a minority of Americans, we are not “good,” and we are not the nation that Winthrop called upon us to be.  When we attack people for not speaking English “properly” (ignoring the multitude of uneducated bigots who themselves have a limited grasp of our grammar and syntax, though it be their only language), we are not “good,” and we are not the nation that was built on the labor and the blood, sweat, and tears of immigrants, indentured servants, slaves, and refugees.

Our parents, grandparents, or other ancestors (those that came here willingly, anyway) came to this nation not because of its military strength, and not because we pick on the weak and leave the dying to meet their end.  They came here because we are a nation that has always promised to be better than that.  They came here because we offered them something better than the empires of the past, great only for their ability to kill and to disenfranchise others.  Coming to our shores for our “goodness,” rather than for our “greatness,” they built this nation – together with those who simply had no choice in the matter – into a nation that was able to grow past its dark side, and embrace the better angels of our nature.  We became a nation born of slavery that (later than most) discarded slavery; a nation dominated by men who (later than some) embraced suffrage; and a nation dominated by white Christians who (through a mountainous struggle) embraced the “Others” and welcomed them into our community as builders and partners.

To be “good” again, we need to put Trump, and his supporters, back into whatever corner of our national psyche we dragged them out of.  We need to put them back into the box in which we keep our pictures of “Whites Only” and “No Jews” signs, pictures of slaves’ backs striped with whip scars, pictures of the Trail of Tears, and of schools forcing Indian children to adopt white, Christian ways.  We need to mark that box “Ugly Things From the Past We Promise Not to Do Again.”  And we need to put that box into high-school history books with long lessons about how and why we got over those evil tendencies, how we are a better nation because we moved past the need to do these horrific things, and how we embraced our promise to be a nation of many peoples, many faiths, many languages and cultures, and many ideals.  We need not to worry about our “greatness”; but only about our “goodness.”

Headline image via Google Image Search

An Education for the Future

Quote of the Week:  It has always seemed strange to me that in our endless discussions about education so little stress is laid on the pleasure of becoming an educated person, the enormous interest it adds to life. To be able to be caught up into the world of thought — that is to be educated. –Edith Hamilton

Recently, I was reading some remarks from a former teacher who posted onto Diane Ravitch’s blog, and the teacher was lamenting about (among many other things) the failure of educators to teach the value of education, and of learning, in and of itself.  This resonated with the words of Edith Hamilton, author of one of the most widely read books there is on European mythology.  Is it good or bad that we attempt to get children motivated to learn by emphasizing how hard it will be to get a job in the 21st century without an advanced education?

On the one hand, as poor as the education system is growing (and as miserly as our largely Republican-led school districts are about public education, and as powerful as corporate for-profit “education” is becoming in the place of public education), we need students to understand that they have to be proactive in learning, in taking their education seriously.  Students need to orient their learning toward modern skill sets – computer skills, math and science, and foreign languages (especially those to become significant in the upcoming decades, like Chinese, Farsi, Arabic, Spanish, and Portuguese).  But we cannot overvalue education as merely a meal-ticket.  Anti-intellectualism has long been a powerful force in our country, and is one that in this new century must either be overcome finally, or will overcome our nation once and for all.  Anti-intellectualism questions what value there is in education beyond what it can do to put food on your table; and fails to see the value in learning about culture, learning social sciences, and learning philosophy and aesthetics.

We are entering a new century in which social media is predominant in shaping thoughts: the 140-character tweet in place of the twenty-page manifesto.  The single line of response on Facebook to a two-phrase smarmy meme, as opposed to a full discussion on “20/20.”  The Instagram replacing the fully-researched and vetted New York Times article.  We are entering a world in which thinking is inconvenient and discouraged, particularly if its manifestation requires more than a sentence or two.  Complicated thought, and a fuller understanding of whatever subjects we are entering, is becoming a lost art and in its vacuum we are building a new venue for populist politics.  When pundits ask from whence this new Trump phenomenon comes, the answer is in part with this very problem.  We applaud a simple and ill-spoken man for “speaking his mind,” as he uses quick and easily fact-checked distortions of reality to convince an entire audience untrained and unused to complicated thought, and unprepared to live in a complex, globalized, and multicultural world.

The United States is losing the ability to train minds for the next century, and to transfer useful skills to the next generation.  We are entering a new world, in which global relationships are becoming more complex, more decentralized, more culturally aware and diverse, and more technical, all at once.  Engineering, languages, art and music, math and computer languages, and awareness of the climate effects of technology, are all going to be the main driving forces in determining who can compete in the next few decades; who can get the kind of job that supports a family, and who goes hungry and goes poor.  We need to prepare students for the new century not just with technical (STEM, or science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education, but with art, social science, languages, and cultural education.

As we prepare students for the new century, realizing that most of the old jobs found by our parents to raise us are no longer going to be the drivers of the new economy, we must also train our children – all of them, and most especially the poor – to value education not merely as a step to a paycheck, but as a value in and of itself.  We must teach the value of forming and arguing complicated thoughts; of reading complicated tracts; of considering arts and aesthetics beyond the things we may be exploiting for whatever work we seek.  If our nation is going to make it in the more competitive environment of the new century, our children need to be able to use computers; but they also need to be able to understand other cultures, people born into different environments, and complicated relationships between the human species and the global environment.  Our children need to understand art history and the concept of music.  Our children need to understand the difference between rhetoric and argument.  Our children need to understand the difference between verified fact and popular opinion.  And they need to understand that “scientific theory” does not mean merely someone’s vague and subjective guess, but an established explanation that has passed the basic test of experimentation and validation, and is an accepted understanding of the phenomenon explained.  They need job skills, and they need the ability to have a lengthy conversation in a coffee shop about Sartre.

To teach skills needed not just by individuals, but by our nation as a whole, we need to generate an enthusiasm for learning that goes beyond the job description.  We need to generate a population able to converse and compete with others globally, on subjects technical and aesthetic, objective and subjective.  We need students who seek learning because it makes them better people, not because it makes them (briefly) more seemingly employable.  Otherwise, we lose the strategic edge in competing globally, as greater human skill-sets are used to determine job security, as corporations move past simple requirements to greater social values (factors more easily implemented by human resources departments in an increasingly digitized and information-driven world).  Once we lose that strategic edge, we will have lost our ability to compete and we will have lost the economic foundation that enables us to have a stable political environment.  Once we lose that edge, our nation will plummet ever more quickly into populism, extremism, violence, and authoritarianism.  We will seek, ever more, the safety promised by “strong leaders” who ask only that we surrender our freedoms.  But we do not have to go down that road; and the alternative path begins with education, and with infusing into our children, and into our population as a whole, an enthusiasm for learning, for reading, for writing, and for thinking.  We need, once again, to be caught up in a world of thought.

The Low Road and the High Road

High Road, Low Road

Quote of the Week:  He who would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself. –Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine’s words give us a lens with which to look at two diverging routes taken by American political forces.  On the one hand, we have the conservative low road, sinking our nation to its lowest depths of racism, xenophobia, and bigotry, taking us ever further away from our shining City on a Hill and the establishment of a liberal community of prosperity and care.  On the other, we have the liberal high road to the City, to using our wealth (as leading Americans since John Winthrop in the 1630s have urged us) to care for the poor, sick, and unemployed.  Paine informs us that while the low road allows us to apply our Constitution and other national principles only minimally, and only for established American citizens, the high road to the City requires a liberal application of constitutionality to all human beings, regardless of national status.

We have too long allowed our government (even under President Obama’s moderate hand) to traverse the conservative low road.  We have allowed our government to imprison, without charge and without any intention to prosecute, foreign nationals for an unlimited duration.  We have allowed our government to encourage other governments to torture and to evade American principles of legality and morality through machinations like extraordinary rendition.  We have allowed our government to target American citizens believed to be aiding foreign hostile forces, without providing the required basic constitutional protections to those citizens.  So it should come as no surprise when our government wants ever more invasive tools of espionage and oppression, as indicated by the latest court battle with Apple over cell-phone encryption.  It is no surprise that, allowing our government to forget our constitutional principles (and allowing the government to limit constitutional protections to established US citizens – and not even all of those), we now have an entire Republican party hostile to foreigners – immigrants and refugees, the very types of people who (together with slaves) built this country in the first place.  It is no surprise that a Republican candidate is having audiences replicate the Nazi salute as they swear allegiance to their Orangearschlochführer and as they loudly urge him to protect them from Mexicans and Muslims.  This is where the low road is taking us – away from our City on the Hill, and toward an ideological parking lot; empty, barren, and open for sale.

Instead, Paine urges us to take the high road.  Paine pushes us to build Winthrop’s City, a liberal community of care and ethics, and of prosperity and wealth.  Paine urges us to apply our Constitution to all human beings, not just established US citizens.  Paine urges our politicians to treasure all citizens – not just those supporting them at rallies (and unlike those like Trump openly mocking anyone not buying the cheap dime-store make-up job he wants to put on our national legacy and principles).  Paine urges us to remember that when foreign nationals at Guantanamo are denied constitutional protections, we are building precedents for our government to weaken and remove our protections here at home.  Paine urges America to remember its revolutionary principles.  Those principles can only truly shape our polity at home and the rest of the world abroad when we apply them as liberally as we can.  We must guarantee basic constitutional protections to all people, and not ask first where they were born, what language they speak, what faith they profess, or what citizenship they hold.

The Republicans, and extremist forces like Trump, will continue to take the low road away from our City on a Hill, and strive to tear our City down in favor of a parking lot.  We Americans must fight them at every step, and drive forward on the high road, to the City, to a greater community of care and wealth and social justice.  Else we establish a precedent that truly denies protection not just to some loosely defined “outsider,” but to our ideals, to our communities, and to ourselves.

The Honor of Teaching, and Responsibility of Citizenship

Colin Powell Academy in Detroit, Michigan, one of the many schools abandoned since 2009. Teachers at the remaining schools are complaining about deteriorating conditions © Joshua Lott

Quote of the Week:  In a completely rational society, the best of us would be teachers and the rest of us would have to settle for something less, because passing civilization along from one generation to the next ought to be the highest honor and the highest responsibility anyone could have. –Lee Iacocca

The one-time chairman of GM (and president of Ford before that) would certainly be appalled to discover the condition of the Detroit Public Schools today, the very opposite of the high pedestal upon which he preferred education to be hoisted.  With teacher “sick-outs,” and protests against Governor Snyder’s emergency management controls over DPS, and with schools closed and budgets out of money, the conservative approach toward privatizing and profiteering our education system (and a financial “bottom-line” focus rather than a student-centered approach) has wrecked our communities, and the prospects of our next generation.  Instead of being able to compete globally with children educated for the 21st century, Detroit school-children under the Republicans’ oversight are almost entirely doomed to lives of dependence, poverty, and crime.

When Republicans claim to represent “family values,” they are hard pressed to explain how policies which damn entire families to perpetual poverty and servitude support modern American families.  “Family values” should focus on the long-term sustainability of the family as a unit, including most importantly the economic prospects of the children.  Republicans merely use the term “family values,” however, to promote the interests of those at the top (and, of course, the racial composition of the elite) against potential competitors from the middle and bottom.  Therefore, in the Republican view, teachers should not get the best pay and our schools should not be revered as temples of learning.  Instead, teachers are “eating off the public dole.” Schools are merely used as areas to test a new permissiveness in gun rights, and as opportunities for the corporations supporting Republican candidates to run for-profit, low-achieving charter schools.

There is a simple solution to this problem; but that solution has been available and avoided for years, especially in the state of Michigan.  It can be done, but it is difficult; and our citizens have long avoided implementing it.  That solution is a return to the City on a Hill, the building of a community of care and welfare, based on the financial strength of our wealthy (and a tax basis determined to use that wealth for the public good, as argued by John Winthrop in his sermon on the nature of a Christian nation in the 1630s).  That solution must be implemented either by the Democrats or by more progressive parties, as the Republicans are increasingly hostile to the formation of Winthrop’s vision of a Christian nation, of a City on a Hill, and of a community working together.  That solution requires liberals and progressives to vote, often and always; and to participate in the political process constantly (through letter/email writing, calls to officials, and self-education on issues and candidates).  That solution requires work, and an admission of individual responsibility for our community (something more than a “hobby,” more than an “interest in politics,” but an obligation of citizenship in a democratic society).  We can build Iacocca’s pedestal for education; but only if we choose to work for it.

Headline image: “Colin Powell Academy in Detroit, Michigan, one of the many schools abandoned since 2009.” Caption from rt.com; photo © Joshua Lott / Reuters.

Fighting Evil, or Growing It

Quote of the Week:  The world is in greater peril from those who tolerate or encourage evil than from those who actually commit it. –Albert Einstein

Einstein warned us that those wishing to perpetrate evil (like Hitler in his time, or Trump in ours) are incapable of operating without two additional forces supporting them.  First, they need supporters who themselves may be unwilling to “speak their minds,” but who also applaud evil men for unleashing the darkest monsters of our psyche, man’s tendencies toward suspicion and hatred.  And evil is equally dependent on those who stay silent and inactive; who work, raise their families, and die while remaining distant from greater events around them.

The United States is at a crossroads, much like Germany was in 1933.  A generation from now, Trump may have disappeared into the footnotes of history, unremembered and without having accomplished anything of substance.  Or, Trump can – if we let him – turn our nation away from its democratic principles and economic prosperity and onto the path toward authoritarianism and poverty.  We can remain a powerful and independent democracy; or become, as Trump’s supporters would have it, a third-world dictatorship and economic colony to China, India, Russia, and Brazil.  Although Trump’s supporters would bristle at that objective, that is where their course will lead us.  The twenty-first century economy requires ever more education and cultural diversity, and pushes into poverty and history ever more twentieth-century (and older) sources of income.  Those on the Left, like Clinton and Sanders, who want to steer our nation forward understand the vital importance education and cultural diversity will have in this new century. Their policies of the Left can help keep our nation free, democratic, prosperous, and powerful.  But Trump, and his fellow Republicans, call for the dismantling of education and other public goods that build our City on a Hill.  Trump’s opposition to education is hardly surprising coming from a mogul who himself shipped jobs to China, helping China (to use his own monosyllabic diatribe) to “win.”  Trump calls for ever greater debts to China through lower taxes (while increasing defense and other spending), and also increasing our provocation of China into military conflict (thereby also risking a nuclear apocalypse as well).  But the trumpenproletariat do not think closely about his policies any more than Germans in 1933 could see past Hitler’s own simplistic “solutions” to German problems.

Americans who value their nation must also value its principles, not merely its strength.  What makes the US “great” is not its military, but the inclusiveness of its society and ideals, the openness of its discourse, and the prosperity of its economy.  To keep our nation “great,” we need to keep it inclusive and diverse – pushing that envelope ever further as we go.  We need to welcome immigrants and refugees to help build our nation with us.  We need to keep our discourse lively and open – engaging each other, rather than staying in the shadows and allowing evil to grow unmolested.  And we need to transform our economy to a 21st century model – green, sustainable, information dominated, and supported by a massively expanded and dramatically improved educational system.

Most of all, to keep Trump from becoming our own nation’s Hitler, to push him back into the ash-heap of history, we need to fight – all of us – against evil where we see it.  We need to combat stupidity and simplicity of thought (the preferred growing environment of hatred and fear).  We need to bring more people to the battlefield of political discourse, and use our weapons of logic and facts.

Talk to your people – your friends, family, coworkers, and neighbors.  Explain your views.  Learn theirs.  Engage and combat the evil in front of you – before it knocks on your door and throws you into a paddy wagon.  We can stop this now, in its tracks.  Or we can watch TV, shut our eyes, and bring our nation to its knees and its end.  Which way do you want this to go?  Will you be the evil, or be its end?

Headline image via Google Image Search.

Growing a Family with Water in Flint

The Guys from Texas

While the city of Flint, Michigan waits for a long-term resolution for its beleaguered water system, as its citizens struggle from day to day for the most basic of needs, that of water, the people of Flint look eagerly to any support they can get.  For now, at least, the city is blessed with the limelight and the attention of our fickle media.  Help is coming in from across the state and across the nation; at least for now.  This is the story of four amazing men who joined in that drive, and built new family connections in the process.

After my recent volunteer experience, I went back to Flint on Saturday with my wife Tonya and our young friend Joshua.  This time, we ended up getting sent by the Red Cross to Crossing Water, operating out of St. Michael’s Catholic Church.  We spoke with Michael Hood, program director, who is sending support teams to Flint households to determine families’ needs and provide for them as best they can (Crossing Water was also the subject of another writer’s experience, which I re-blogged here). The group is currently working very hard to find people with the most urgent circumstances and get them some relief: disabled people unable to lift and carry cases of water, mothers of young babies that require clean water for mixing formula, undocumented people lacking the proper identification to show the National Guard workers checking residents through the water pick-up stations, home-bound elderly folks without access to the pick-up stations, etc.

While talking with Michael (in a room filled with eager volunteers, many also sent from the Red Cross), we met four young men (see photo above; from left to right):  Samah Haider, Wajahat Zaidi, Daniyal Taqvi, and Mohammed Bhayani.  These four men had arrived in the room through a very different path from the rest of us.  They had just arrived in a U-Haul truck filled with 12,000 bottles of water (300 cases, in six pallets), and they had driven up from Texas to help get water to the needy families of Flint.  I spoke later with Daniyal Taqvi, and learned how they had made their way to Michigan.

Earlier in the week, Daniyal had been watching TV, and he saw news reports of Flint children suffering from lead poisoning and going to the hospital with tragic complications.  That image truly brought the reality of Flint’s crisis home to him.  Daniyal is a board member of the Houston chapter of the “Who is Hussain” organization (an Islamic organization whose Michigan chapter has already contributed directly to Flint, with over 30,000 bottles).  As Daniyal explained to me, Hussain ibn Ali, the martyr honored by the group, died while suffering from thirst.  “Water is something that touches a bond with us,” Daniyal said.  “All people need water, and as a human being, it is my responsibility to be able to provide water to them.”

Already experienced in working together on food and water drives in Houston, Dallas, and Austin (for the homeless, and to help build the Muslim community), these four young men were able to use the Who is Hussain structure and other elements of Houston’s Muslim community to collect some $1,500 for Flint in three days.  But they did not just want to send money.  Daniyal explained that maintaining a human connection with the care that these men were providing, and with the community they were aiding, was for them a key part of that care.  During our conversation, Daniyal was close to tears as he described the love and human closeness that he felt with those of us who joined his team, and with those to whom he gave water.

As the four men made their way up north in a rented car, they had little idea of what was to happen on arrival.  Their way was eased by compassionate souls in the rental company, and in a bank helping with the trip’s finances.  Daniyal tells me that in both places, the companies waived various fees when they learned of the group’s mission, to help them get aid to the north.  However, despite this aid, and the money raised in Houston, the group wanted to dedicate the donations entirely for water; so all actual costs of the trip itself were borne by the four men as part of their own donation to the cause.

Never having been to Michigan in the winter, the team expected a frozen winter wasteland, and they were bemused by the unseasonably mild temperatures and the lack of snow on the ground.  They arrived in Dearborn, rented a U-Haul, bought 6 pallets of water from Sam’s Club, and drove to Flint.  After using Google to locate aid centers in Flint, the men got the email of an organizer at St. Michael’s church at 609 E 5th Ave; and the men finally found themselves in a room with Crossing Water’s Michael Hood, and with about 15 Red Cross volunteers, including my own little team, Jason Garcia and his family, and others.

Michael Hood’s phased operation (mapping out needs, and then getting water to those specific people needing it) was a longer-term and broad-based system of care, and our Texan friends wanted to get water into the hands of those needing it rather more quickly, and more personally.  They did, however, donate about a third of their supply to Crossing Water (two pallets; about 4,000 bottles in 100 cases).  As they began unloading cases onto the ground, we formed a daisy chain together to get the cases from the truck to the church, and into a storage area inside.  As we unloaded, cars driving by inquired about getting water, and we gave some of them cases of water as well.

Water Truck

Samah and Daniyal getting ready to unload the last of the two pallets for Crossing Water.  Photo by Jason Garcia.

Once the church’s storage room was full, Daniyal and his team-mates wanted to go into Flint neighborhoods to deliver water personally, their main motivation in coming all the way to Michigan from Texas.  We met a Flint woman who needed water; and she told us that her whole neighborhood needed water.  Soon a convoy was formed, headed by the Flint native’s car, followed by myself, the water truck, and a couple of other cars of Red Cross volunteers.  Other volunteers remained with Crossing Water to help with their canvassing campaign.  Meanwhile, our watering convoy descended on northwest Flint, in the area of Dupont Street and Martin Luther King, Jr. Ave.  We went door-to-door; some of us contacting residents to find out who needed water, while others did the heavy lifting and moved cases to those homes needing it.  The volunteers’ cars all had water as well (which we had all brought to donate), and we emptied out our car stashes while also taking cases from the truck.

In that first neighborhood, a resident told us about another nearby neighborhood needing water, and we found our way to a building with many elderly residents (many without cars and unable to get to the drive-through pick-up locations).  We formed another daisy chain, and unloaded a pallet’s worth or so into a central holding area that a building resident had identified as the best place to leave water where everyone could get to it.  While we were there, an elderly lady began crying when she talked to Daniyal, learning that help had come to her all the way from Texas.

Another resident told us about a government housing project, Aldridge Place, that was very large and very needy.  She agreed to show us the way, and our mobile watering army followed her there.  It was indeed a large complex, with numerous buildings and cul-de-sacs.  We simply dropped off a case at each door, knocking to alert residents, many of whom came out and thanked us as we worked.  As one resident saw Daniyal moving a case of water, she also began crying, hugged him, and said, “Everything’s getting better.”  Finally, with only a little water left in the truck, the Flint native who had led us to the project showed us to a last nearby neighborhood where we unloaded cases at each house that showed signs of occupancy.  At last the truck was empty.  We all thanked each other, hugged or shook hands, took pictures of the truck with our tired little army, and then called it a day.  (My family met up with our new Texan friends for dinner in Dearborn later in the evening, but that’s another story.)

Tired Relief Crew.png

A tired relief crew at the end of the day.

When I asked Daniyal what motivated them all to do such charitable work, he reminded me that we are all human beings, first and foremost, whatever else we may be.  He also felt it important that, with so much of the media’s attention focused on bad examples of Muslims, Americans should see the positive impact that Muslims and their faith can play in our society, with Islam’s own unique imperatives of charity and brotherhood.  His own organization, Who is Hussain, has organized other water drives in Flint, as well as peace rallies in the wake of last year’s darkest moments of terrorism.

Daniyal has come away from this experience with a deep sense of family connection with us in Michigan.  He feels new, profound connections with those like myself who followed the lead of these men and helped them fulfill their mission of mercy.  And he also feels a profound connection to those needy to whom he gave water, a meaningful and spiritual experience for him.  These men came to give; but they got back something that they felt distanced from in the north – family.  Daniyal was touched by the realization that “humanity still exists,” that while not everyone is equally blessed, those with more can share their blessings with those who have less.  Daniyal wishes now that everyone could do something like this at least once; to realize we are all part of a greater human family.  He, Samah, Mohammed, and Wajahat are proud to have given water to their family.

Flint is only one place in the US that needs help, as much as it lies on the headlines of today’s papers and internet sites.  My city in Michigan, or their cities in Texas, could be among the next places that need outside assistance, that need good people like these to come from other towns to help.  These men did not come here to help people that looked or dressed or worshiped like them.  They came here as people, to help other people in need, members of the same community of mankind regardless of petty differences.  They came here in the best tradition of their faith, and of the nation we all share, traditions that call for all people with extra resources to help those without.  This is the ultimate meaning of our City on a Hill, the building of a community of care and welfare.

Those politicians and extremists who call for restricting entry to our City of people in need of shelter (some of whom look precisely like these four amazing men from Texas) are not building our City, or defending our nation or what it stands for.  And they threaten the ties that build our nation – the ties between the diverse communities and cultures of our City.  Such ties will be needed more than ever as our nation’s infrastructure ages, as political rhetoric demonizes and marginalizes the poor and the different, as some Americans refuse to accept others as members of the same human race.  Instead of such politicians and pundits, we need more men like these four.  We need more men like Daniyal Taqvi, like Mohammed Bhayani, like Samah Haider, and like Wajahat Zaidi – they are the true builders of our City, examples of our best traditions, and leaders who give real meaning to our values.

With special thanks to Jason Garcia, Michael Hood, John Gleason; and of course our new brothers in Texas.

When So Few Words Cause So Much Harm to So Many

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” – the Second Amendment to the US Constitution.

And there lies the heart of the problem – or one of them, at least.  Today that poorly constructed sentence, with no connective phrasing indicating the relationship between the “well regulated Militia,” the “security of a free State,” or the “right of the people to keep and bear Arms,” would be edited until it actually made sense (unless, of course, it were posted as a meme on Facebook).  Is the right of Americans to own weapons seated solely, or largely, upon the intent of maintaining a people in arms against a foreign invader or domestic oppressor?  Or, as Justice Antonin Scalia argued in District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008), is there no necessary relationship, and does the Second Amendment simply promise unfettered rights to arms regardless of the “militia,” or the “security of a free State”?

While this is an interesting constitutional argument, over 30,000 lives are taken each year by firearms in the United States.  Roughly a third of those lives are victims of apparently deliberate violence; while suicides account for the largest share of gun deaths each year.  The many Americans lost each year (equivalent to losing the entire Vietnam War all over again every 21 months) deserve much more than an “interesting constitutional argument.”  Furthermore, as national fears ramp up over an increasing wave of violence (the rise of mass shootings, the rise of police violence against civilians, and the fears of foreign terrorism), gun-rights advocates opposing further regulations and gun-control advocates seeking further regulations both cater to fears of those around us.  The gun lobby and those gun-owners who oppose regulation portray a multitude of apparent threats to themselves, and to their families and homes.  They also ally with more extremist elements expressing fears of the “Other,” and with an increasingly publicly acceptable bigotry against non-whites.  The gun-control advocates fear that they may be next to die to some crazed, Christian “holier than thou” shooter in their church, school, or shopping mall; or that their nephew with problems may be the next to use a weapon to end his life.

President Obama, tired of more than a year of almost weekly “thoughts and prayers” consolations to the nation for the latest shootings du jour, finally moved past a catatonic Congress to enact changes to gun sales regulation via the few powers available to his office.  Immediately, the predictable firestorm of reaction was raised against the President by those in the gun lobby who had eagerly awaited such action for seven years without satisfaction.  The tightening of existing regulations on the sale of firearms now seemed to them to be inaugurating the president’s long-awaited crusade to take away their guns.  Quickly the president rose up to the challenge of national dialogue, in a time when we Americans do not bother to actually listen to each other any more.  At a “town hall” meeting hosted by CNN in Fairfax, VA, the president took questions from representatives from both sides of the gun issue.  Although the NRA’s headquarters is located just down the road from the site of the “town hall,” that organization refused to contribute to the dialogue, preferring instead to steer the issue silently through campaign contributions.

The president attempted to connect with gun-owners and sellers, reminding them that each of them probably had to pass background checks themselves.  His executive order focuses on ensuring that everyone purchasing a firearm passes through the same process.  There was not a lot of listening in the hall that night, however; and the president had to repeat his insistence that new regulations would not result in anyone’s guns being taken away, or even make it more difficult for law-abiding citizens to acquire firearms.  When George Lakoff wrote about “framing” political dialogue, this was precisely what he was talking about.  People (on all sides of political and moral questions) create “frameworks” within which new information coming in must either fit, or be discarded.  New facts and arguments which do not connect with existing views of reality are simply discarded; not accepted or even noticed as facts or as being relevant, however well reasoned or argued.  Therefore, it does not matter how much the president reassures conservative gun-owners that he is not “coming for their guns”; since the NRA has spent millions of dollars convincing them that he is, that is their reality regardless of what the new executive order actually spells out, or what the president says to explain the language or intent of the order.

Unlike the gun lobby, however, the president made it clear that at least he was listening to  the other side.  He recognized that the Second Amendment (ambiguity notwithstanding) guarantees the right to own weapons, and that the right to do so is not going to go away.  Those of us who are not killed each year by gun violence are simply going to have to live with the most heavily armed national population in the world.  But, as the president noted, there are ways we can work to ensure safety, to keep weapons out of the hands of criminals and terrorists as much as possible.  At the “town hall,” at least, one side (the gun lobby) was “framing” the president’s words into an intent to take away their guns; while the other side (the president) was in fact listening and responding to their fears, even accounting for them into his executive order and his message.

There were more stalwart opponents of gun rights at the town hall, however.  Father Michael Pfleger of Chicago (a longtime acquaintance of the president) argued that in Chicago, it is easier for kids to get guns than it is to get computers.  He asked the president why gun ownership and control could not be handled like that of cars (legal, accessible, but heavily regulated, insured, etc.).  The president reminded the father of the public’s paranoia about the government, citing last year’s Texas freak-out over military maneuvers in a state proud to house some of the largest military bases in the country.  Were the government to take firmer steps, especially without Congressional support, the public outcry would simply escalate past the administration’s ability to get anything done.  The president’s executive orders and arguments now positioned him in the center, rather than on the left or right; with the left arguing for greater controls, and the right arguing for fewer controls (or at least against more controls).  The president showed a willingness to listen to both sides.  Nonetheless, in our divisive political culture, the conservatives view the president’s words and actions as being on the left rather than in the center, as those of an activist and opponent rather than as a mediator between two opposing forces.

There is a simple explanation as to why one side in particular, the conservatives fearing a gun-seizing federalist tyranny, wears greater blinders than the other.  As lawyer and blogger Jack D’Aurora noted, the answer is easy:  “follow the money.”  There’s gold in them thar frames. There is money and power to be made by keeping people afraid and “clinging to their guns.”  And until we work harder to push corporate contributions and moneyed political interest groups out of our representatives’ pockets, they will continue to sell us their products and their consequences.  Until we push the NRA and the gun manufacturers (some of whom have also been attacked by the NRA for attempting to improve gun safety, as the president noted at the town hall) out of congressional offices, we will have to live – or die – with an overarmed and under-listening population.

Headline image from a posting by Odyssey, via Google Image Search.