The Didactic Interview: Sofia Ali-Khan

To confront the existential horror of President Trump, I’m joined by my longtime activist friend Sofia Ali-Khan. We discuss our lives as progressive rabble-rousers, educators, and Americans. We sort through the problems we face and some concrete steps for action. Let’s get to work, everybody!

Links to things we discussed:

Here’s the song at the end, “Simply Are” by Arto Lindsay:

A Few Thoughts on Terrorism, War, and Motivation

I was going to relax and play Fallout 4 after school, but instead I wrote a thing about terrorism and ISIS. If you want to know what I think, here it is.

I don’t believe that there’s anything fundamental to Islam that predisposes it to violence more than other religions. I read the Koran a long time ago, and most of what I remember is how terrible the suffering will be for those who deny the glory of Allah.

Reminded me of the Left Behind novels, where all the sinners get bulldozed into pain and torture by a Romanian nuclear disarmament activist who moves the UN to Jerusalem. And the authors of those books insist they’re based on an orthodox reading of the Christian book of Revelations.

What’s the Problem?

I won’t deny that there are terrible things being done in the name of Islam, but that’s always been true about every religion — there’s even a Buddhist guy in Myanmar who’s calling for terrorism toward Muslims. Are there more violent acts carried out (intentionally) against civilians in the name of Islam than other religions? I don’t know, I haven’t done the math. Does it feel like it? Kinda. But the US also drops a LOT of bombs on innocent civilians with our flying robots — and Christianity is the dominant religion in this country. I know we’re not dropping those bombs in God’s name, but when you’re on the receiving end, that distinction evaporates pretty darn fast.. (Just as lots of conservative folks are ignoring divisions within Islam pretty darn fast, after WE got bombed.)

I think it’s important to remember that we’re at war with an ideology, not a religion or a culture or even just one death cult. (It’s certainly fair to use that term for ISIS.) We could wipe out ISIS, just as we could maybe eventually wipe out al’Qaeda, if we kill enough adults. But the ideology can spring up again and again and take new and interesting forms. (I mean, think about this progression: al’Qaeda –> ISIS –> ??? Could there be an even worse form of these same scumbags? Sure; things can always get worse.)

How Do We React?

So how do we fight an ideology? Well, that’s difficult. Destructive ideologies are pernicious because they can sculpt our perception of reality to their will. In other words: Once the lens of an ideology attaches itself to the third eye, it’s very difficult to pry it off. And because we pass everything we see through that lens, we come to ignore parts of reality that don’t mesh with our ideology — and most of the time, the ideology comes with a method to explain away the stuff that doesn’t mesh. (So for example with ISIS, they’re convinced that everything is a plot by “The Crusaders” — ie Christians — to destroy them, their religious purity, their families, their Islamic paradise.)

But the tricky thing about ideologies is that we ALL have them. I do, you do, everyone does. There are things you believe, way deep down in the core of your psyche, that influence how you see the world. And examining those things — to say nothing of adjusting or removing them — can be extremely difficult.

For example: Most people in the US believe that our government generally acts in the best interests of the world. Most Americans believe that we can be too aggressive, or insensitive to other cultures, but at the end of the day we’re out there all the time trying to use our power to help people and stop The Bad Guys.

But there’s a good bit of evidence to suggest this isn’t always true. And not just a couple of rare outliers, but a number of historic cases (East Timor, Guatemala, Iran-Contra) that demonstrate the reality that, from time to time, the US acts out of unconscionable self-interest and leaves corpses in its wake in the name of hegemony.

(Is it obnoxious for me to acknowledge the fact that I’m using some fancy words that some folks probably aren’t familiar with, like “ideology” and “hegemony”? Yeah, but I always want to encourage people to look that stuff up if you don’t know about it. Besides, the only way you’ll really get a sense for what they mean is to read stuff about them. Like Derrida. Don’t get me started on Derrida or his obnoxious, useless fan club.)

The horrible cyclical effect of our ideology is that we’re 100% convinced that we’re The Good Guys and our military only fights The Bad Guys. This can prevent (and sometimes does prevent) our ability to realize that we do some terrible things at times. (Some people believe that our military is ONLY or PRIMARILY used for “evil” purposes, but that’s the same simplistic ideology — only flipped.)

The worst part of THAT is that it means we’re likely to do things that prove the case that the ideology of ISIS is trying to make: The US military is The Great Satan. (Again, I want to make clear that i do NOT agree with that ideology.) So both sides keep playing by this tired old script book, and neither is able or willing to admit that our ideologies (and our egos) are what’s really at war.

Blood Will Have Blood, They Say

So how do we fight an ideology? Yeah, I was supposed to answer that. (We’ve been watching “Barton Fink” in Creative Writing, and I’ve been in “circular logic and dodging questions” mode for several days.)

Well, how did we defeat Naziism? I mean, yeah, it’s not dead — scumbags still paint swastikas on things — but it’s got 1% of the life it had in 1935. But the point is: Many people once believed that it would never be abolished. The frenzy in their eyes was too strong. They weren’t human! Same with the Japanese, right? But now we’re all good friends.

Would it take an actual war, like WW2? Even if that were possible (which of course it’s not), ISIS seems like a cockroach in its capacity to survive great physical assault, and keep going. (Heck, the absurd ideology of Wahhabism might even CELEBRATE such a thing.) And besides, I don’t think it takes wars to change ideologies.

But changing ideologies requires empathy, respect (of self and toward others), and compassion. So that guy in Paris explaining to his kid why the flowers are more powerful than the bombs — he’s absolutely correct. (Only in the long term! Kids, do NOT try to stop bullets with chrysanthemums. OH MY VARIOUS GODS! [Futurama, remember that?] I just spelled “chrysanthemum” correctly without looking it up.)

Because if we keep getting kicked in the teeth, and then kicking the other guy in the teeth, and then he gets mad because we just kicked him in the teeth, and so he kicks us in the teeth, and so on.. well, you know. Who kicked who first? Who cares! We go back far enough and it’s Cain vs. Abel (as we all agree, since it’s Old Testament, heh) and it doesn’t matter.

What matters is what we can teach the rest of the world about what it means to be a decent human being. And a decent family. And a decent community. And a decent city or town. And a decent state. And a decent nation. And a decent species. (The Chicago rapper Capital D said: “My father taught me — kid be a man, protect your family / But what if my family is all of humanity?”) THAT’s how you defeat an ideology. The ideology of fascism took a BIG hit from the Marshall plan. People tend to hate you less when you actually help them rebuild. (We haven’t done very well in Afghanistan or Iraq.)

Decent nations don’t ignore the horrors that ISIS is inflicting on its region and (occasionally) on the US and Europe. But decent nations ALSO do NOT ignore the horrors of its own drone strikes, nor do they ignore their moral commitments to the people suffering from war, hunger, poverty, and violence.

I demand a third way. (That’s my ideology, a refusal to accept only two ways of seeing a thing.) I insist that we CAN stand up for the rights of women, men, and children in every nation on Earth, without requiring the perpetuation of a flawed ideology of moral certainty in the form of military action and unenlightened short-term self-interest.

That’s what I think.

Didactic SynCast #97: Charlie, Chinny, and Chamillionaire

We’re on track to have a new show every month, but let’s just see how long that lasts, shall we?

DS#97: Charlie, Chinny, and Chamillionaire

Top Links

Current Events

Economics

Education

Killer Robots, Etc

Hip-Hop

Chamillionaire: Don’t Shoot

Didactic SynCast #80: East Timor

You asked for it, you got it. Here is my presentation on East Timor, from soup to nuts. It’s a story of bloodshed, atrocity, suffering, oppression, resistance, nonviolent struggle, peace, and hope. It’s how I met my wife and why I am who I am today.

DS #80: East Timor

As you listen, you are encouraged to watch the following slideshow and YouTube clip:

When you’re done, please visit these websites:

Why I Love America

Today is Independence Day in the United States of America. Tonight many people will be grilling meat outdoors and drinking heavily and setting off fireworks.

I love this country, but it is a conflicted love. This nation is such a complex and diverse and confusing place, a place that is sometimes beautiful and magnificent — and sometimes horrible and wretched.

The USA is my home, and I am eternally grateful for what it has given me. In the past I have forgotten the blessings this country has provided, and sometimes (like after 9/11) I have spoken too quickly and too narrowly about it.

Today I wish to speak slowly. I wish to explain how I feel, with words that are clear and careful. I want to take inventory of the multitudinous emotions and memories and facts and realities and mythologies and conceptions and mortalities in my American mind.

At times I will have to speak in generalizations, but I will avoid this whenever possible. Please note that “America” actually refers to a pair of continents stretching from Alaska to Argentina. In the following discussion it is short for “United States of America”.

Thesis: What I Hate About America

I try not to use the word “hate” if I can avoid it. I worry that some people might be upset by this word, and I want to clarify (again) that I love the United States of America. But just as I hate certain tendencies and habits inside of myself, so too do I hate certain things about this nation.

  • I hate the violent racism of America. The trans-Atlantic slave trade, the theft of land and murder of native people. The internment of Japanese people, the anti-semitism within our borders. Hostility toward Latino/a immigrants, stereotyping of other ethnic minorities.
  • I hate the male supremacy of our society. Rape, sexual assault, wife-beating, Hooters, and feminized poverty. The hatred and exclusion of sexuality that doesn’t fit into a narrow hetero-normative domain.
  • I hate imperialist US foreign policy. We supported the Indonesian occupation of East Timor for 25 years, which left more than 100,000 people dead. We supported the overthrow of Allende and Mosaddegh, democratically-elected leaders, to be replaced by murderous tyrants. Smedley Butler’s book War is a Racket should be required reading for anyone wishing to learn about US foreign policy. We invaded Iraq despite the lack of a clear and present danger, and caused between 100,000 and 1,000,000 Iraqis to die.
  • I hate the so-called “War on Drugs”. We have allowed a repressive and violent caste system to take shape under the auspices of fighting crime.
  • I hate the poverty and inequality all around us. In the richest nation in the history of the world, we allow children in six million households to go hungry. We treat medical care like a special privilege, rather than a basic human right. We allow desperate poverty to go on because we convince ourselves that the poor deserve to go without. We don’t care for our veterans, despite their noble service, when they return home. (In January 2011 there were 67,000 homeless vets in the USA.)
  • I hate American willful ignorance. 40% of us don’t even know the Vice-President’s name. It’s incredibly rare for me to meet a stranger who has ever heard of East Timor. Most Americans don’t pay attention to the events in countries like Afghanistan, where our sons and daughters are risking their lives every day. We have convinced ourselves that “American exceptionalism” means “We don’t need to know about anyone else in the world”. Sarah Palin was a serious candidate for the second-highest office in the land.
  • I hate the tyrannical power of large corporations. In the last ten years Wall Street has committed massive fraud and criminal activity, and yet we’ve seen only a meager adjustment of regulation and virtually no legal action. There is a long history of capital hurting and killing workers in this country.

I could continue here, but I won’t. Besides, I doubt too many other things could fit under the heading of “hate” before we need to switch over to “really dislike”.

But of course this is not the whole story, and shame on those who pretend otherwise. As Friar Laurence says in Romeo and Juliet: “Within the infant rind of this small flower / Poison hath residence and medicine power … / Two such opposed kings encamp them still / In man as well as herbs”. And nations.

Antithesis: What I Love About America

I could make a list here of a million things, and there’s no question that a complete list here would easily overtake the previous list. (Thus my ability to say, in the final analysis, that I love America.)

  • I love the American spirit of resistance. Harriet Tubman, John Brown, Harvey Milk, bell hooks, Cornel West, Winona Laduke, Hugh Thompson, Cesar Chavez. These people — and millions of others like them, whose names we will never know — stood up to the evils of history and showed who we can be at our best.
  • I love American democracy and the Bill of Rights. Freedom of speech, protection from unwarranted search and seizure, and free and fair elections. When I compare my political lot to that of most humans throughout history (and even at the present), I’ve got it pretty good.
  • I love the American spirit of individuality. Many other countries have a powerful emphasis on the collective will. I would not do well in such a society; my unique perspective on the world is dependent on an ability to express myself freely and protect myself from various harms. I love the emphasis on the value of each individual’s life, ideas, opinions, and security.
  • I love American art. Hip-hop is a uniquely American art form (with obvious roots in other cultures), and I love it with a deadly passion. Jazz soothes the soul and reflects so many beautiful things about our culture. Novelists like Toni Morrison and Sherman Alexie and Mark Leyner and Philip K Dick and Edwidge Danticat and Cormac McCarthy. Rock musicians like They Might Be Giants and Ministry and Consolidated.
  • I love the natural beauty of America. We have a breathtaking landscape in the US, including forests, lakes, mountains, prairies, beaches, parks, trails, and rivers. We’re incredibly lucky to be surrounded by so much abundant nature.
  • I love the American sense of getting better. For all of our faults, I believe Americans want to heal. We want to get over the hatred and violence of the past. We want to come together and forgive each other and move forward into a better tomorrow.

As noted, I could continue this list for hours. But I’m hungry and my head hurts.

Synthesis: US

For each of the above points, it’s very easy to say “Yeah, but..” (In many spots I forced myself to not continue with the stream-of-consciousness “on the other hand” monologue that’s constantly running through my head.) Hopefully I have demonstrated my willingness to admit the sunshine and the darkness of our nation, in the spirit of confronting — honestly, but with love — all the various facets of this country.

Because true love doesn’t blind itself to either truth. I don’t want my wife Diane to only ever tell me what I’m doing well, what I’m good at, what makes her smile. I want her to be honest and let me know when I screw up, let me know when she disagrees with me, when I do something foolish or ignorant. We can’t have one without the other — it just doesn’t work for a long-term relationship.

And I’m in a long-term relationship with the United States of America. I can’t sympathize with people who say “Oh, things are so bad I’m going to move to Canada” (or Costa Rica). Those of us who love our country — really love it — are willing to stay here and fight to make it better.

Further Reading

I want to give a special thanks to Garrett and Christie Crowell, who once gave me the gift of a comic book called US: Uncle Sam. It’s a beautiful representation of my complex feelings toward America. I will end with a quote from that text.

I won’t deny that mistakes were made — even if the history textbooks do. But I won’t pretend that mistakes never happened. And once in a while — sometimes very slowly — we made some progress.

I tried my best to make people take pride in facing the problems. You’re telling them to take pride in ignoring the problems.

Let’s face our problems, my fellow Americans, and take pride in our ability to overcome them.