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Saturday, October 3, 2015

Dear Cousin Vinnie

Dear Cousin Vinnie,

We have argued a lot about politics and the future of our country. But I write this to say that I am sorry if I have been reactive to you in any way. I now believe that I understand you and your position much better and I want to respect both.

I am actually very grateful to you. I talk with many who would call themselves conservative and I have read and respect the conservative tradition in Anglo-American politics. But because of you I am in touch with a different kind of conservative which identifies with the new right in American politics. While I read materials by people who associate themselves with the Tea Party, Fox News, and so-called conservative talk shows, and watch them compete for political office, I seldom have a chance to discuss with them.

You know that my lifelong vocation has been community organizing, that is, pulling together people especially those who have been left out of political and economic power. This means people take responsibility for each other which often means struggling together against government and corporation policies and practices that hold them back. We have fought for fair housing, better air and water, educational opportunities, full employment, living wages, community services, and fairer progressive taxation. Saul Alinsky, who was one of my mentors, claimed that community organizing is a conservative enterprise because it builds on and supports traditional organizations, like families, churches, voluntary associations, to achieve a free and open society. Admittedly that is a very different notion of "conservative" than that of the new right.

My avocation is social ethics as part of a philosophy of mind in dialogue with neuroscience. In order to inform my ethics and politics, I read, write, and teach about how our brains have evolved to adapt to our environment through thinking, language, arts, sciences and other symbolic behaviors.

Recently I have been reading and thinking a lot about the brain and culture. One book, Wired for Culture by Mark Pagel, shows the genetic basis and evolutionary advantage of culture in humans. He  teaches that just as genes construct and use the organism (the genotype) to perpetuate themselves, so "memes" (words, symbols, models, images, produced by the brain for survival) form and use culture to perpetuate themselves. Another book, Brain and Culture by Bruce Wexler, shows that our brains are not just wired for culture, but also by culture.

When a member of our race (homo sapiens) is born, the brain has not yet stopped growing; this is why the first months of birth are so important. An infant that is not held, loved, smiled at and talked to, directed to things in the world, or is otherwise isolated will be extremely developmentally disabled. And even after those first months, the brain is still forming by acquiring language. But those synapses of the brain get routinized; and this is why, after the age of seven or eight, it becomes increasingly difficult to acquire a new language. The plasticity of the brain goes on as long as there is life; but by the age of 25 or so the brain is pretty much stuck in its ways--including its mores, belief systems, symbolic forms, attitudes and habits of behavior.

With its language, religion, narratives, values, belief systems, the culture into which we are born and reared actually molds our brains in certain ways. And in our culture-wired brains, we see and appreciate our world, we decide good and evil, we choose behaviors that we think are appropriate, and we interpret "facts.". (I am talking about humans with "normal" development, not humans that have been brain injured or deprived from human contact and assistance.)

Another thing that Wexler points out is that in its interaction with culture, the brain achieves an internal structure that is adaptable to the patterns of the cultural environment. That internal-external comfort gets stressed when a person is pushed into a new environment, e.g. by migration, by abduction, by changing times, and by being confronted with new cultures. This is the source of tremendous friction that expresses itself non-violently through denial or separation, or violently through attack on the opposing culture including its belief systems, symbols, and language. The Taliban destroying the great ancient Buddhas in Afghanistan, the building of cathedrals on the site of former mosques or vice versa, mass deportations, and even genocide arise from this conflict of cultures.

You and I are the same age and so born during WWII and raised in the US in the Post War era--the 1940s and 50s. We were shaped by much of the same culture. I bet you played guns, just as I did in Detroit. We fought Japs and Nazis, watched cowboys shoot Indians, lived in all white neighborhoods, and went to Catholic schools where we knew the authority of priests and nuns. In the Eisenhower 50s, according to Will Herberg, there were three ways of being American: Catholic, Protestant, and Jew. This was different than the earlier part of the 20th century when Catholics and Jews, especially those from Eastern Europe, Italy, and Ireland, were not considered real Americans by White Anglo Saxon Protestants and lived in their own ghettos. As many historians have documented, those immigrants at first were not white, but had to become so--no matter the complexion of their skin.

But WWII and its aftermath changed all that. The development of highways and suburbs opened to all upwardly mobile white people--some of them fleeing the African Americans, Puerto Ricans, Filipinos, and Appalachians newly immigrating into the older parts of the city. I was raised in an all "white" (Jewish and Catholic with a few mainline Protestants) neighborhood and went to an all white school and church. (I never knew how that happened, and just accepted it as normal, until I went to school and work in Chicago.)

I don't know about your family life. My father was a Republican but more in the line of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Dewey, and Rockefeller--what many of your affiliates would call a RINO today. He was the first in his family to go to college (Marquette University) where he studied humanities and journalism. I like to think that that is why, even though he had his opinions which became stronger has he climbed to management in General Motors, he always encouraged dissent and other ways of thinking on my part. I felt appreciated and honored when he would deem to argue with me. Always respectfully.

He would playfully joke with my mother who grew up a Democrat and especially appreciated the New Deal with Social Security and government conservation job programs because she saw what the depression did to her family. (BTW way she got quite conservative in her old age, but mainly about churchy things.) My father respected the UAW with which he dealt with often and successfully. He also worked closely with government by first changing GM plants to make tanks and amphibians--and then changing back after the war to the tremendous boom that all that government spending caused in the economy, including the Marshall Plan, the GI Bill, the Social Security Act, the Highway's Act, and FHA, Public Housing, and the GSAs.

He was the first plant manager to find and promote a black man to foreman taking some heat for that from his bosses in Detroit whom he did not warn because they would have thought that it was too soon for that. He was a member of the Catholic Council for Racial Justice and strongly supported the Civil Rights Act, Voters Rights, and affirmative action. I also like to think that was because he went to a Jesuit university where he learned Catholic Social Teaching. We lived in a Jesuit--university affiliated parish. I went to a Jesuit high school and entered the Jesuit seminary where I got my fill of the humanities, science, and critical thinking.

As I say, I do not know enough about your family upbringing, but I suppose that you and I were nurtured very differently. So our brains are wired quite differently. We have very different values, religions, belief systems by which we see the world, by which we ascertain our "facts," and by which we choose our politics. And even in later life our experiences tend to nail down our opinions. For instance, you have a much different experience of labor unions and government regulation than my Dad or I had. Different frames, narratives, metaphors, even questions are in our heads.

We totally disagree on the treatment of immigrants and refugees, on affirmative action in housing and education, on universal health insurance, on government jobs programs. And that disagreement is not bad. It is part of the democratic republican system of American politics. Thanks to you I recently read a Republican fundraising appeal that accuses Obama of creating division in America among races, classes, and parties. The same day I read a Democratic fundraising appeal accusing the Republican Congress of dividing the country. Well, my response to both is that division and confrontation are not necessarily bad. Lincoln was accused of dividing the nation. So were Socrates, Jesus, Mohammed, and Martin Luther King.

I know why you dislike unions, why you want to minimize government, and why you want to stop providing benefits to the working poor including housing and health care. You see your image of America crumbling. It is no longer the America of the 50s, of white Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, ready to stabilize the world militarily and fight the enemy that competes with our hegemony.

Traditional institutions like male mastery, sexual difference, Judeo-Christian ascendency, unregulated market economy, Caucasian majority, American exceptionalism, and military might are threatened.  Science and liberal education are undermining absolutes in religion and morality. This is frightening to you. And fear provokes anger at those threatening what you hold dear. Those include me who supports gay marriage, gun-control, limitation of American military reach, citizenship for new immigrants who desire it, multiculturalism, diverse religious expressions (including Islam and atheism), regulated markets, redistribution of wealth towards equity, women's control of their bodies, reparations to the descendants of slavery and Jim Crow through affirmative action, family leave and early childhood education, government accountability to the working poor instead of the super wealthy, collective action to limit the damage being done to the planet, and free education and health care.

I know you would vehemently oppose this "socialist" platform. This doesn't mean that either one of us is evil or stupid. I would hope that we can agree to disagree without name-calling or being disrespectful. I totally disagreed with George Bush on his decision to invade Iraq and on his taxation policy which did not pay for that war. I agreed with him on his immigration and prescription drug policies. I disagreed with Clinton on his welfare reform without full employment and his deregulation of the banks. But I reject the hate or disrespect that would make fun of pissing on a picture of any president or calling him Satan or traitor. Naming, blaming, and demonizing to me is a sign of weakness--but I see how it arises from the fear and anger of those old, white, men who see their nation and their ideals being destroyed.

I also realize that your fear, your discomfort with where our country and the world is going, and your expressed pessimism is grounded in a reality. It is your reality, not mine. But it makes me think. It cautions me to be less sure of myself and my own reality. I too am very disappointed by our elected leaders, including the president, who let partisan considerations trump effective action. But instead of blaming them, I want to take responsibility for what I can do in my own community to hold them accountable. I too want to limit government intrusion into privacy and I want government to support, not reduce, personal responsibility including work. My thoughts and positions are also born of my own way of seeing the world based on the frames, narratives, values, and beliefs which I have acquired. I need to challenge and constantly rethink them.

You are trying to hold on to something valuable. I need to acknowledge that and discover those values which I too share--like personal responsibility, local self-determination, freedom from government or corporate control. I truly believe that beyond our different cultures, we do share a common nature. That all persons have dignity and a "spark of the divine," a common cause and destiny that transcend all our formulations and positions. I think it is discovered in our capacity to think which involves listening, empathy, respect, mindfulness, and collaboration with one another and the recognition that we are all in this world together.

I also believe that while we are largely determined by our genes and memes, by nature and culture, we have the ability to progressively free ourselves from the determination of nature and culture by thinking, by questioning ourselves and our positions and by searching with others, especially those by whom we are most challenged, for a more universal viewpoint and shared positions. So the conversation among differing viewpoints and positions is vital. But when we stereotype, bad-name, and demonize persons the conversation ends. Relationships are broken.

So let's not do that. No more.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Pope on the Mall

I was down at the Mall at the Climate Change Rally with our church to hear Pope Francis’ speech. It was wonderful for me to be with so many others, young and old. This gives me great hope that together we can make a difference. 

The article below captures some of his important lines; but to me the most important part of the speech is when he cited MLK, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton as exemplars for the American Dream. 

In contradiction to the article below, he did not talk about or against same sex marriage—but the importance of the family. His example for reverencing life at all stages was a prelude to his urging to end the death penalty. (FOX News and pundits will not see it that way but I hope people watch this speech in its entirety). 

He talked FOR, not AGAINST. For life, for family, for community, for the earth. And for dialogue, over attack.. The only thing I heard him talk against was personal and social behavior that put economic gain,, first. 

I see him teaming up explicitly with Dalai Lama and other spiritual leaders to change the pernicious stories (the religious, economic, and ideological fundamentalisms) that are limiting our thinking and empathy.

The 10 Most Important Lines From Pope Francis' Historic Speech to Congress

In a powerful speech to a joint session of Congress Thursday morning, Pope Francis pushed the United States to confront several political issues that tend to divide Republicans and Democrats, including immigration, climate change, the Iran deal, Cuba, poverty, and the death penalty. His speech noted that politics "cannot be a slave to the economy and finance." He didn't chastise any political party, and he, not surprisingly, had a clear but brief reference to opposing abortion. But overall, his address had a progressive cast.

On climate change: "I call for a courageous and responsible effort to redirect our steps and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity. I am convinced that we can make a difference and I have no doubt that the United States—and this Congress—have an important role to play. Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a culture of care and an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature." (Democrats stood to applaud the pope's remarks on climate change, while many Republicans remained seated. The pope's message was more muted than his remarks on the issue Wednesday when he spoke at the White House."

On abolishing the death penalty: "I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes. Recently my brother bishops here in the United States renewed their call for the abolition of the death penalty. Not only do I support them, but I also offer encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation."

On abortion: "The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development." (This was his only direct reference to abortion in the speech.)

On same-sex marriage: The closest he came to addressing same-sex marriage was in a passage about the importance of family. "I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. "Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family. I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life." (This did not appear to be an explicit denouncement of marriage equality.)

On Iran and Cuba: "When countries which have been at odds resume the path of dialogue—a dialogue which may have been interrupted for the most legitimate of reasons—new opportunities open up for all. This has required, and requires, courage and daring, which is not the same as irresponsibility. A good political leader is one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism. A good political leader always opts to initiate processes rather than possessing spaces."

On the refugee crisis: "Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War. This presents us with great challenges and many hard decisions. On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation."

On immigration: "We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners. I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants...Nonetheless, when the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past. We must resolve now to live as nobly and as justly as possible, as we educate new generations not to turn their back on our 'neighbors' and everything around us. Building a nation calls us to recognize that we must constantly relate to others, rejecting a mindset of hostility in order to adopt one of reciprocal solidarity, in a constant effort to do our best. I am confident that we can do this."

On poverty: "I would encourage you to keep in mind all those people around us who are trapped in a cycle of poverty. They too need to be given hope. The fight against poverty and hunger must be fought constantly and on many fronts, especially in its causes. I know that many Americans today, as in the past, are working to deal with this problem."

On the arms trade: "Being at the service of dialogue and peace also means being truly determined to minimize and, in the long term, to end the many armed conflicts throughout our world. Here we have to ask ourselves: Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society? Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood. In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade."

On religious fundamentalism: "We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism. This means that we must be especially attentive to every type of fundamentalism, whether religious or of any other kind. A delicate balance is required to combat violence perpetrated in the name of a religion, an ideology or an economic system, while also safeguarding religious freedom, intellectual freedom and individual freedoms. But there is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners."

Monday, September 7, 2015

Fast and Slow Thinking

Cousin Vinnie needs to read Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. We all should.

The key distinction Kahneman makes is, as the title suggests, between thinking fast which is System 1 thinking or what he calls "intuition," and thinking slow which is more effortful and reasoned.

System 1 is a jump to conclusion based upon previous experience, judgments, and habits. It is very useful for driving a car, simple math, confronting a dangerous person, and lots of other situations requiring a snap decision. It sure helps System 1 thinking if we have been well prepared, broadly experienced, i.e. an expert. But even then we often make mistakes if we don't have time and energy for System 2 thinking.

System 2 is a reflection on the conclusion jumped to in System 1. It requires time, that is, attention, intention, retention, maybe even detention, but for sure tension with one's own judgments. It is what we often call critical thought and action.

System 1 relies on the habitual, the emotional, and the unconscious. It leads to stereotypes which are sometimes true but so often in error or what we call rash judgments or prejudice. The decisions of System 1 come out of implicit frames, narratives, and rules that we have imbibed often without recognizing them. Kahneman explores all the "heuristics," "biases," and "cognitive illusions" of System 1 thinking and they are legion. They lead us to faulty judgments and decisions in business, politics, and economics that often endanger our world and our species and are doing so today. The biggest failing is not to recognize and accept that these heuristics are always operating in our head. These lead to overconfidence, mob action, terror, cruelty, and self destruction. For example, by accepting that capitalism is a rational process creates the myth of the "Econs," those that think the market is rational and free with all people acting in their self interest.

System 2 is not necessarily a corrective. It can be industrious and so what we usually call "thoughtful" leading to the "examined life." But it is often quite lazy and simply labors to provide rationalizations to what we have already concluded in System 1. It goes for "cognitive ease" in which System 1 unconscious factors are not recognized, but merely confirmed.

By seeing it in Cousin Vinnie I hope to also recognize it in myself. Cousin Vinnie just passes out judgments, usually without fact-checking them, that confirm his already formed opinions. He does not recognize the racism that through our institutions shapes all of our decisions in the US especially, but perhaps everywhere with our fear of strangers and perceived need for classes lower than ourselves.

He bases his judgments on his own traumatic experiences. For example, he took over his fathers business and tried to expand rapidly by getting a huge government contract. And he failed to make a go of it for which he blamed the unions and government (even though there are many examples of entrepreneurs like Ross Perot and Mitt Romney getting superrich through government contracts). He is against Mexican immigration because he correlates the decline of his middle class with the influx of Mexican workers in California and because he saw some Mexicans trying to get benefits that he felt he didn't have. He certainly has not considered thoughtfully the role that immigrants play in revitalizing the American economy. He would rather rely on stereotypes which he gets by watching one source for news and reading only what fits with his already determined judgments.

A lazy System 2 engages in name, shame, and blame tactics which is typical of the unexamined life. But seeing the splinter in Cousin Vinnie's eye, am I neglecting the beam in my own? How do I make sure that I am questioning my judgments and am attentive to other ways of seeing the world?

I pose a question of Kahneman: Is there a System 3 Thinking?

I say, yes. If System 2 is reflection on what is being thought, System 3 is a reflection on reflection or what philosophers call "secondary reflection." It is what Kahneman is doing and what I am trying to do in these essays.

By probing further into the ways of thinking, by identifying the biases and illusions that influence us and make us think that we know, we are able to advance our thinking and action to new levels. This takes more than the attention, critique, and openness to change that System 2 makes possible. It takes an understanding of our understanding, a retreat into the solitude of meditation for creative daydreaming even sometimes into seemingly purposeless irrelevancies; and it takes study and experiment by putting our ideas out in action to be confronted by others. I argue that it also takes a sort of universal empathy in which all paths and viewpoints can be appreciated and integrated.

[BTW, some have asked me if Cousin Vinnie exists. Yes he does, but that is not his name. He is really a good guy; and he has taught me a lot.]

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Playing with Ideas

Theoretical astrophysicists just ended an international conference to solve the paradox of black holes.

But they didn't.

The problem is where does the information go as a black hole--like the one in the center of our galaxy--withers away. According to quantum theory which governs the smallest particles of matter, information cannot be lost. But according to general relativity laws which govern the largest bodies of matter, black holes are collapsing in upon themselves by their massive gravitational pull to become the smallest particles of matter while radiating out energy and so annihilating its information.

This discussion is important because it will help explain the origins of our universe in the Big Bang.

So scientists are trying to resolve the paradox by coming up with a super theory that covers quantum and general relative theories. Or something like that. Read the article.

Brian Green and many other string theorists think that the solution is in a theory that proposes a multiverse. That is, our universe may be just one universe among an infinite number of parallel or simultaneous universes. Listen here.

So does the collapsing black hole become a new quantum fluctuation into or big bang out to a new universe? Is every point, e.g. every bit of dark matter, in our universe connected to another universe? And so on ad infinitum?

Well, think about that. We occupy a small piece of geography on a very small planet revolving around a very small star far from the center of a galaxy of billions of stars that is just one galaxy in a million galaxies of a universe that may be just a point in another universe.

That's pretty humbling. Even more so when you compare our time and space with the times and spaces of all this universe and possibly many others.

And yet, any point on an infinite line, x, y, or z, or in any infinite sphere whether within or outside all other infinite spheres, is still at the center.

So I am and we are at the center of it all, expanding and contracting, reaching out and zeroing in, and can think about all this. Appreciate, celebrate, be grateful for this very tiny moment in which we big bang out to all in all. I am.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Why I Write

"I write entirely to find out what I am thinking," says Joan Didion.

Me too. Until it's out there I really don't know what I am thinking.

I write to explore what I am thinking. To pursue it, to criticize it, to pass beyond it.

I write to think about what others are thinking.  I want to absorb it like water to the veins; devour it like food to the flesh; inhale it like air to the lungs, and like oxygen to the brain.

Le style, c'est l'homme. Every time I read a good book I integrate the author's style and thus the author's person into my self and style. And so I write.

But should every thought be published?

No, but writing is the act of publishing if only to one other self. When I write I always have someone else in mind. I am that someone else made up of all the persons I have known whether in the flesh or in their art.

Other persons whom I encounter do not exist outside of me. They become me. The helix that I am, once double, then triple, is multiple and winds towards infinity. I only write for me but I am everyone I have ever met and yet to meet.

I like to write because I like to think.

I like to ski in the Colorado mountains.
I like to kayak on the San Joaquin River.
I like to jog and run on trails and city streets.
I like to bike on the C&O canal trail.
I like to drink and eat with family and friends.
I like to hike in the Appalachian wilderness.
I like to walk in downtown Chicago or Paris.
I like to exchange hellos with passerbys.
I like to go to places I never went before.
I like to listen to U street jazz.
I like to experience dance and drama.
I like to learn in classroom and lecture hall.
I like to engage with others finding their power.
I like to be naked with my lover.
I like to feel the breeze and sun on my body.
I like to laugh and be with laughter.
I like to be in deep conversation with colleagues.
I like to text with my daughter and converse with my son.
I like to read satire, mysteries, and philosophy.
I like to play with grandchildren.

And I like to play with ideas. The delight of thinking, Nietzsche says.
And so I write.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Between Worlds

To Ta-Nehisi Coates:

I am erupting with reflections after reading Between the World and Me. I must release them before I explode. I wanted to address them to my 15 year old son, but he is now 38 and probably has heard enough from me. I told my grandson this morning that he must read your powerful memoir five years from now when he is 15.  He just returned with his siblings and parents from Guadeloupe, where his father was born, descendent of African slaves, with a tee shirt for me purchased from the new slave memorial there with the inscription "La memoire inspire l'avenir."

Our worlds are so different, you and I. I am old enough to be your father and, unlike you, registered by the census bureau as "white" or "Caucasian" despite my protest. Yet our worlds intersect dramatically.

I too was not born white; but unlike you I was made white by my parents, my neighborhood, my Catholic school, my church, and my nation. I did watch Tarzan and the Lone Ranger. I listened to Amos and Andy and Jack Benny's Rochester. Jesus was white and meek until much later when I witnessed the fall of Marcos in the Philippines and again when I met the Black Israelites on Chicago's Near West Side where I encountered the angry black Jesus. I learned the conventional, triumphant  history of the US until I read Howard Zinn, and then Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, and Richard Wright.

I grew up in a Jewish-Catholic neighborhood in Detroit. I remember descriptions of the Detroit race riots of 1943 that occurred five years after I was born. I remember when the kid next door made fun of a rarely seen black woman passing us on the side walk probably after cleaning someone's home. The kid who made fun, an Armenian whose family escaped the Turkish genocide, was almost as dark-skinned as she. But he was on his way to becoming white as most of the Irish in our parish had and as my parents from Italian and German immigrants had as well. All American Dreamers as you say.

I remember collecting funds for the missionaries in India and Africa there to save those poor, unfortunate people who were the white man's burden. Sometimes in my Catholic ghetto I felt that it was my vocation to do likewise. So I went to a Jesuit Novitiate. There we had one African American seminarian who left after one year. But we were taught Catholic social teaching and the importance of social justice for workers, the poor, and those left out of the largesse of our exceptional American society. Once when I was teaching in high school as a part of my training, I was commenting on the civil rights movement and the War in Vietnam and a student challenged me: "Mr Smith," he said, "you talk a good line, do you ever do anything about it?" He introduced me to a neighborhood of Black, Puerto Rican, and Appalachian people who were trying to organize themselves under the tutelage of Saul Alinsky in central Detroit. It was getting to know them when I experienced shame and anger. That changed my life.

When I went on for studies in Chicago, I decided to live first in the public housing community on the Near West Side and then in North Lawndale. That's where I learned what racism is and that I am a racist as is every person, black, brown, white, Catholic, Protestant, Jew, African, Asian, European, who is brought up in the United States of America. As you say so well, racism is the parent of race--not the other way around. And I learned that the US political economy is not only founded on racism, but still thrives on it. And I learned that so many of our wars are caused by the boundaries we defend against those "others" whom we fear will take away our things.

I saw in Chicago how urban renewal, even aided by the so-called war on poverty, appropriated lands for market development for rich people by clearing out poor people and warehousing them in fourteen story brick fortresses and blocks of closely built row houses. But it was especially in Lawndale where I gathered stories of upwardly mobile black families trying to escape a slum further east created a new one--or so they were told and thought. (Yes, as a young Jesuit, I worked with Clyde Ross whom you interviewed in your Atlantic article on reparations.) And I gathered stories of escaping white families who had weathered the immigrations of Italians, Greeks, two waves of Jews, and Irish even though "their kitchens smelled different," but who were told to get out fast as the last wave of immigrants from the South were moving in.

Those black families who moved in, even if they had a downpayment and a job, could not get conventional financing (the area was considered a mortgage risk by FHA and the banks), but had to pay twice as much as the house was worth and use a land installment contract that left them ownerless until the last payment was made and subject to eviction for missing a payment. It also meant they had to take in borders and defer repairs so that soon they were living in the same slum from which they had hoped to escape--and blaming each other. The white folks who were scared out were screwed too; but you know who they blamed--and still do.

I am doing some work in fast gentrifying Columbia Heights DC today and seeing long term black families being pushed out to Prince George County by a regional housing market controlled by wealthy financiers and would-be wealthy investors. Sort of a reverse carbon copy of the Lawndale practice. It just keeps getting more subtle. I have so many other stories in my experience in Chicago, Toronto, California, Cleveland, and Hawaii.

Fortunate and grateful I am that our children grew up in Hawaii where we haoles were a minority like everyone else. That kept them from becoming white. While attending college in Canada, my daughter met the man who became her husband born in Guadeloupe with a black African father. My grandchildren have US, Canadian, and French citizenship.

But having black friends, nephews and nieces, and son-in-law, campaigning to elect an African American president, and living and working in black neighborhoods are nice, but do little to counter racism. Nor does the knowledge that all humanity starts in Africa. It means nothing that I like black people and black communities as long as racism exists in my country. A country that was founded on slavery in an Empire made on slavery which ironically rejected slavery before my nation did. And my country still practices racism subtlety but effectively by controlling the "free" market and passing and policing the laws by which society can exert the violence that denies a person or a community dominion over their bodies.

Hilary Clinton recently in her advice to the leaders of Black Lives Matter was theoretically correct, but practically wrong. She is right to push the discussion from having a "good heart" to the policies and institutions that promote racism. Organize and use your power to change behaviors and gain respect. Forego being liked and changing hearts to achieve justice. But then who is she or any of us for that matter to give advice to these young people trying to build again a movement for equality. Yes, we can raise questions, but they should be to ourselves and as part of an inclusive search for justice.

I am no longer a member of the Jesuit order, nor even a Christian. Like you I accept and celebrate that we are our bodies and I no longer count on some supernatural entity, law, place, or reward.  However, I am grateful to the Jesuits for my social justice education and consider myself a companion of the Jesus of my imagination. I was taught to be detached from gaining wealth and I never felt the need or desire to pursue it beyond the basic needs of life. That took me out of the American Dream and for that I am grateful.

Whenever I am asked to identify my race or ethnicity, I refuse to put "white" or "Caucasian." I usually put "Euro-American" or "other." I do not want to be white even if the whole world says that I must.

I loved Hawaii, a land of minorities. I felt very welcomed; but I was never at home. The first Nation that was appropriated by first the British and then the Americans was very much in evidence. No matter how much I worked and earned, no matter how much of the land was used for US military bases that I supported by taxes in order to control the Pacific, I and my family were visitors of the hosts who were at home. And I never wanted to overstay our welcome. I was enraged to see so many native Hawaiians disproportionately filling the jails, fighting to sleep on the beaches, or turned out of their homes because of their inability to gain and pay US dollars.

Hawaii taught me to never be at home anywhere. I felt the same in First Nation territories (reservations!). I am now enraged that Senator McCain of Arizona, sanctioned by law but not by right, is taking public lands sacred to First Nations to give to Australian Mining companies. We moved a lot and I always felt that anywhere in this beautiful land from sea to shining sea, I am not at home. Every place I ever lived is land that has been appropriated, stolen fair and square. And not only native peoples but Mother Earth is rebelling. I sometimes feel at home in a national park hiking some wilderness path but only because, even then, I am on the move.

I am not at home even now in the place that I will probably die, chosen because I am close to my spouse, children, and in touch with a large network of friends with whom I am chez moi wherever they are on this earth. The advantage of living here is that I can hop the metro easily to add my body to the bodies of the First Nations, women, black lives matter, conservationists, voters rights advocates who come to the White House and Capitol to redress their grievances. In the cities of the world, DC, Chicago, Paris, London, San Francisco, Reykjavik, Nantes, I feel most alive and exhilarated, but not at home. I am not at home nor will I be in all this land as long as there are so many dispossessed persons with whom I identify.

But unlike you, I never had to feel fear. My rage often turned to depression, the feeling of my deepest incapacities, but not fear. I never feared walking through strange neighborhoods. Once when I was coming back late at night to my apartment in all black, segregated Lawndale walking from the Congress El, I saw four or five youths walking on the other side of the street. I knew they wondered what I was doing in their neighborhood. They turned to follow me. There was an instant of concern, but I looked down the street, waved and said "hi" to an imaginary friend. They turned and went on their way.

A few of us do-gooders were once beaten by a very disturbed young man. And Mrs Kirk, a tenant organizer, once made me hold her little pistol when we went to rescue her daughter from an deranged lover. I never had an incident when waiting by myself at the bus stop in what others would warn me is a "dangerous neighborhood." I loved being in the black community of Chicago and felt as safe there as anywhere else. This led me to consider the fear in the white community. The fear of the Dreamers. And maybe my own fear that leads to my depression at times.

I just visited two cousins by marriage who are big into the American Dream and who clearly fear the black man and especially black youth. They assert that they are self-made, up by the bootstraps men. Both are in their seventies. Both had to overcome the disadvantages of their youth by becoming white. One made it big and is worth billions (though he works hard and long to make more). The other just made it and is only worth millions (though he thinks that he is poor and needs more). Both are strong Tea-Party Republicans. I see both with their guns, their guards, their guarded homes as fearful people, which they would strongly deny.

I see their fear of losing their whiteness which they worked so hard to gain. Yes, it is motivated by greed. But I think looking within myself and the whiteness that I cannot simply wish away that it is often envy that causes our fear. Why do we love and appropriate your music, dance, and sometimes writing? Why are we so fearful that you will get ahead without becoming white and earning your way like we did? Why are we so afraid you will get advantages that we or our children will not get? Why do we deny our racism?

I loved living in the black community and cannot stay away from the black community even now. It is not the Jesse Jacksons, the Barack Obamas, the Cornel Wests, or even the Ta-Nehisi Coates with whom I love to consort. It is the tenants of Columbia Heights Village, the kids in the summer youth program, the folk in the black churches and U Street nightclubs. It is because we are so very poor, so very lacking in your experiences, spirituality, and Soul. Remember Soul.

I see black kids and hispanic kids becoming white. And I grieve. Because to become white, someone else has to be colored. But most of all because by becoming white we lose our Soul.

I am very grateful for letting me overhear your letter to your son. And I know my son and daughter will overhear our dialogue as well and someday my grandson.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Hope--Friend or Foe

As the universe winds down, I come back to hope.

Hope is the last addition to Pandora's Box--the one that remained when all of the evils and pains and fears flew out at humans when she opened it. Was hope a grace or just another curse like all the rest? A way out and beyond the evils of the world? Or a frustrating trap which kept humans within them?

Hope invites and invents belief: the gods, God, religion, pleasure, self-worth, drugs, cosmetics, body beautiful, universal knowledge, boundless sex, eternal soul, health and wealth, legacy and immortality. And dashes them to dust.

Is hope another trick of the gods, of the genes, of evolution, and the brain? Another illusion like the conscious self, the knowable world, and everlasting love?

I don't know for sure. And sometimnes when I think that I am thinking most clearly and honestly I am on the brink of despair--and hope. Depression, like paranoia, becomes a heightened state of consciousness. But then again, so does bliss and hope.

Hope, fine friend, you lead us along promising us salvation--or at least some meaning and reason to hang in there with the experiment of human life.

But we won't of course, fickle friend. We die, the sun dies, the universe dies. All your enticments are vanities vanishing. So we hope against hope. Maybe in somewhere beyond--outside nature, outside reality, outside the universe, outside life itself.

Yet we are told "faith, hope, love--but the greatest of these is love.

The past orientation of faith,
The future orientation of hope,
Are not, except in the presence
Of love, right now, here, with you.