Masquerade

Since early times, masks have been used by human groups for various purposes. Indigenous groups have used masks in dramatic portrayals, often of a religious significance. Hollywood perpetuates a myth that masked priests portrayed gods to fool their audiences. Rather, indigenous audiences know that the masked performers merely represent supernatural beings; however, those beings are often thought to be present in a mystical way while they are being portrayed by their priests.

In the Middle Ages and into modern times, Christians have continued to produce Passion Plays, lives of the saints, and other dramatic presentations of religious significance. Rarely, though, do Christian performances rely on masks or assume a mystical presence of Christ and the saints. Instead, masks have been diverted among Europeans and North Americans to entertainment. Partygoers assume masks and costumes as part of their revelry. European traditions associate masks and costumes with Carnival, a pre-Lenten celebration also called Mardi Gras and Shrove Tuesday. Carnival is represented in such productions as An American in Paris and Phantom of the Opera. In North America, masks and costumes are associated more with Halloween, a time when children go door-to-door wearing masks and costumes and asking for treats, while adults frequent holiday parties in similar outfits of masks and costumes.

Aside from holiday parties, masks are largely associated with crimes and with crimefighters. In the movies (and sometimes in real life), robbers wear masks to disguise their identity while robbing banks, stores, stagecoaches, and homes. But many famous crimefighters, from the Lone Ranger to Batman, also wear masks to hide their identity. Their success capturing criminals and foiling crimes somehow depends upon remaining disguised, hiding their true identity behind their masks.

Meanwhile, in the nineteenth century scientists began to understand the role of one-celled creatures (bacteria, or germs) in causing illnesses, including infections, in humans, other animals, and plants. Washing hands and wearing gloves and masks became increasingly common in medical circles to reduce the chance of infection. Similar precautions have proved effective against viruses, which are even smaller than bacteria, but which often travel in drops of moisture produced by bodily fluids. Masks and gloves are familiar in hospitals and other medical facilities. Early in the twenty-first century, medical masks appeared more on city streets in east Asian cities as an attempt to curb various infectious diseases that had appeared in Asian populations.

This year masks have been recommended in the United States and most other countries to combat the spread of COVID-19. More than any other preventative measure, masks have become an emotional symbol of the virus crisis, of attempts to combat the virus, and of government overreach into the lives of citizens. Several months ago, wearing masks in certain situations was one strategy to battle the disease—others were washing hands frequently and thoroughly, avoiding or preventing large gatherings of people, remaining home as much as possible, and refraining from touching one’s face, especially eyes and nose and mouth, with one’s hands.

Washing hands frequently and not touching one’s face have always been recommended to reduce the spread of colds, influenza, and other diseases. Arguably, effective pursuit of these two practices could make other hygienic practices, including masks, redundant and unneeded. Instead, masks have become the focal point of discussions (often heated) about disease prevention. Closely related to the practice of wearing masks to prevent disease are questions about the government’s role in keeping citizens safe from harm—questions that have focused, in the past, on seatbelts, motorcycle helmets, sneeze guards over salad bars, and the like. Each episode reflects are larger social and political debate about freedom and safety, about individual choices and compassion for one’s neighbors.

At one extreme, some people are convinced that “masks save lives,” that refusing to wear masks demonstrates callous unconcern for other people, and that the government should require all citizens to wear masks and should punish all citizens who refuse to wear masks. At the other extreme, some people view mask requirements as the government’s greatest experiment in controlling the thinking of a population since we were all persuaded to change our clocks twice a year to “save daylight.” Many people fall into a middle category: they are willing to wear masks when required by an employer or a host (including restaurant managers, store owners, and congregations) but do not wear masks at home, in the car, or when walking outdoors.

Some stores post signs saying that they require masks but take no action to enforce that requirement. Others have their employees to ask people to leave if they are not wearing masks. Some restaurants require customers to wear masks while walking to their tables but allow them to remove their masks at their tables. Others have seating spaced widely enough that masks are not needed in the building. Some congregations ask all worshipers to wear masks, others make masks optional, and still others have some services when masks are requested of all and others when masks are optional. Businesses and churches seek ways to meet the needs of the largest number of people while offending or inconveniencing the smallest number of people possible.

As a few people are disturbed by seeing spiders or snakes or clowns, so a few people are disturbed by seeing masks—especially by seeing groups of people wearing masks. Little has been done to respond to these people’s concerns. A search on a popular search engine for “fear of masks” led to articles about helping children not fear wearing masks, but no acknowledgement that adults may also fear masks. Likewise, searching for articles (and they have been published) indicating that masks are not helpful and may even be harmful in overcoming the virus crisis leads only to articles attacking opponents of masks and offering arguments in defense of masks and of requirements to wear masks.

I’m in the middle position, willing to wear a mask if it makes someone else feel safe, happy to go without a mask if no one else expects me to wear one. I am concerned, though, that our trusted sources of information are leaning toward one extreme and away from the other. The more the opinion-shapers of our land promote the wearing of masks and disparage those who disagree, the more I wonder what other goals these opinion-makers are pursuing: perpetuating a climate of fear and worry, separating people from one another by encouraging us all to hide our faces from each other, giving us a petty reason to argue and disagree and fight while more important issues are swept under the rug. More than health and the control of disease may be at work when it comes to masks. If that is the case, the year 2020 may be an even larger watershed than we have already noticed. J.

Eponine and Irony, part 2

This is the second half of a post which begins here:

Tolstoy and Hugo did not leave much place for God in their survey of human history. Tolstoy acknowledged a god who gives standards of goodness to guide people, but other than that, both writers pretty much focused on human endeavor apart from spiritual powers. The contemporary Illuminati is much the same. As many setbacks as they have survived, they still view themselves as benevolent powers steering humanity by their own efforts. For a glimpse of how they view themselves, one might read the Foundation novels by Isaac Asimov. The Illuminati greatly resembles Asimov’s Foundation.

A Christian can suggest that the Illuminati are dupes of the devil, doing his work without realizing what they are about. Seen through spiritual eyes, that is (of course) true, and the outcome of that battle is not in doubt. But the Illuminati say that they have no illusions about spiritual powers—which means, of course, that they have blinded themselves to the spiritual world.

The Illuminati hopes to convince the world that all religions are the same, that no religion holds any genuine hope for an end to evil and suffering, and that religions should violently compete with one another and seek to destroy one another. Their attack on Christianity is two-fold. One arm has converted most traditional denominational structures into political entities that focus on worldly struggles for justice. These so-called churches reject any idea of doctrine; they redefine family values to undermine the traditional family, and they further the Illuminati’s goal of eliminating individuals for the sake of humanity as a whole. The other arm of the same attack has established megachurches: organizations that claim to uphold traditional doctrines and traditional values, but that teach little doctrine, turn their backs on historic expressions of Christian faith and its expression, and again eliminate individuals for the sake of humanity as a whole.

The Great Depression and the two World Wars helped to build a modern world in which the Illuminati could flourish. Fear was rampart; trust in the government as “the only organization big enough to handle our problems” was unprecedented. Public schools taught children how to view the world. True, children in the 1950s were still given heroes such as Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford; but the podiums of their statues were already being undermined so their greatness would collapse in a generation or two. More and more, history was described as movements among people; heroes and geniuses were devalued. The Illuminati did not arrange to kill President Kennedy. He was suiting their plans admirably. But his assassination made President Johnson fearful enough to dance to their every command. The Illuminati promoted conspiracy theories for two reasons: to cause the few people aware of their existence to fear them more, and to cause the average population to scoff more at the idea that they exist. Every American leader who seemed capable of greatness was undermined: Nixon with Watergate, Reagan with Iran/contra-gate, Clinton with his own personal faults and weaknesses, and so on. (Presidents before their time survived far greater scandals without losing power, as have kings and emperors in most of the world for most of history.) The Illuminati effectively used the Cold War and its balance of fear for their own purposes. They did not expect the Berlin Wall, the Iron Curtain, or the Soviet Union to crumble; but, when they did crumble, other international crises could be found to fill the gap. Moving into the twenty-first century, the Illuminati did not expect any threat to disturb their system.

The Illuminati did not expect Donald Trump. He stepped from their own world, an entertainer who understands scripts and deep-laid plans. Although morally he is no better than the worst of the Illuminati, he emerged as a defender of the traditional family and traditional Christianity. Trump personally had nothing to do with the fall of Weinstein and Epstein; if anything, he was too closely connected with both men and their organizations. His personal popularity and the evident success of his economic and political plans stymied opposition from his political opponents, who were battling to overturn his presidency through scandal and impeachment even before he took the oath of office.

The Illuminati also did not expect COVID-19. They have used fear of other diseases—AIDS, Ebola, and Zika—to promote their causes in recent years, but the timing of the current epidemic generates “the perfect storm.” Blending fearful discussions of the pandemic, racial differences and confrontations, and the upcoming election, the Illuminati are able to transfer fear (and other strong emotions) from one issue to another. They are able to sustain ongoing fear, dread, and hopelessness in the general population. They are able to call attention to ongoing differences in society, promoting unrest with potential for a class war.

Moreover, the Illuminati have been inching to change education—elementary, secondary, and higher levels—wanting it to take place through online courses rather than in classrooms. Online sources of information and interpretation are far easier for the Illuminati to control. The current pandemic has sped society toward the latest revolution in education. First children were taken from their families and put into schools; now they are taken out of schools and put in front of computer screens. So long as a few decision makers can control information on the Internet, they will continue their effort to shape society, guiding mass movements that share the Illuminati’s reverence for science, education, and equity of all people while sharing also the Illuminati’s rejection of individualism, traditional Christianity, and the traditional family.

Their timing is not flawless. They may not be able to continue stoking fear for three more months (between now and the election). They may have already peaked generating support for a party-chosen bland candidate in preference to a people-chosen heroic candidate. As the weeks pass, voters might become increasingly aware of the plot that is working to shape and change the national direction. In November, the powers of the Illuminati may suffer a stinging rejection from those citizens they have tried to herd into their pens. Like Tolstoy and Hugo, today’s Illuminati may underestimate the ability of individuals to think for themselves and to overcome the current of mass movements. History is not in the hands of the faceless elite; history belongs to all of us. And, in the end, history is in the Lord’s hands and must serve his plans. J.

Eponine and Irony

This summer I read, cover to cover, Tolstoy’s epic novel War and Peace. I also watched the movie musical made from Hugo’s epic novel Les Miserables. Both these great works from the nineteenth century contributed to my understanding of the underlying forces that are propelling our world and its communities in the mystical year 2020.

Tolstoy repeatedly and emphatically insisted that heroes and geniuses do not exist. We create them out of historic figures (or mythical figures) trying to understand history. Real history, according to Tolstoy, consists of movements among masses of people. Napoleon in his wars two hundred years ago was merely a chip bouncing on the waves of history. He had no more to do with the real history of his times than any other man or woman alive at the same time. Revolutionaries and street protestors, like those portrayed in Les Miserables, are equally impotent to shape the times in which they live. Hugo deliberately chose one of the most pointless and ineffective uprisings in French history—the June Rebellion of 1832—for his novel. Both Tolstoy and Hugo created fictional characters with meaningful lives and troubles to inhabit their novels. Both writers incorporated historical events as virtually meaningless background sights and sounds for their stories.

[With this innocuous beginning, I hope to have lost, by now, the more casual readers, along with those computer-generated searches that are designed to keep real thought and real truth from existing on the Internet. Indeed, some of those preceding sentences may well be copied and pasted into college papers handed in to professors for years to come. But my real Reader, if there is such a person, is advised to print a hard copy of this pair of posts. What I write and post today may well be edited or entirely removed in the coming days, and I might not be available to clarify or restore what I have written.]

Tolstoy and Hugo provide examples of a philosophy or world-view that has risen to dominate much of twenty-first century life. Behind this movement is a They or Them who really exist, although they are not formally organized as a single organization. One could call them the Illuminati, so long as one understands that they have no constitution or bylaws, no board of directors or officers, no membership list, no budget, no dues, no regular meetings, and no periodic newsletters. If they ever use a label like “Illuminati” among themselves, it is done with an ironic wink and grin. This Illuminati, like Tolstoy and Hugo, denies the value of individual accomplishment, of heroes and geniuses, of persons who mold and shape human history. When individual names (such as da Vinci, Rothschild, or Rockefeller) are attached to the Illuminati, the real Illuminati only chuckle in response. They lurk in the shadows, wanting no public recognition for their deeds. Yet, since this group includes the rich and the powerful, their influence extends into the lives of most people living in the world today.

They cross paths on the boards of large corporations. They see each other at gatherings of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Tri-Lateral Commission, and the Bilderberg Group. Their thinking is echoed by government officials around the world. Yet the Illuminati does not own or control any of these groups. They have uses for corporations, for governments, and especially for gatherings of people who discuss major issues and listen to one another to learn more about these issues. But the true Illuminati could not be extinguished by gathering and controlling people involved in the world at these levels.

The members of the Illuminati are rich and powerful. They all want to remain rich and powerful. In many ways, they compete with one another for wealth and power. They are not equipped to cooperate among themselves to run the world politically, economically, or in any other fashion. But they also do not believe that politics and economics run the world. They usually do not care who lives in the White House. Elections are, for the Illuminati, mere drama to entertain and distract the masses. In fact, most newsworthy events and most historic happenings are distraction and entertainment, neither caused nor controlled by the Illuminati, but used to achieve their deepest goals.

The Illuminati cannot control the weather. When storms happen, though, they find ways to use the aftermath for their own purposes. The Illuminati have no control over Mother Nature (or, if you prefer, God’s creation). They cannot start, spread, or eliminate diseases. When diseases happen, though, the Illuminati exercise their ability to focus attention on these diseases and their consequences or to distract people from these diseases and their consequences.

Their primary weapon is fear. Their primary tools are education and communication. What passes for news reporting in the current world is, in fact, an arm of the entertainment industry and not a service of communication for the world’s population. While they do not declare wars, fight wars, or bring an end to wars, the members of the Illuminati use past and present wars to shape public perception. Fear is their primary weapon: they are behind much of the fear that people have felt over the Cold War, nuclear weapons, environmental concerns, terrorism, climate change, street demonstrations, and COVID-19.

Because they deal in fear, the Illuminati do not want to solve problems of racial injustice, discrimination, or other factors that separate one group from another. Instead, they use their power over education and communication to highlight differences, stoke anger, and continue injustice. Government programs and privately-funded efforts that genuinely reduce injustice and promote cooperation are undermined; similar programs that continue injustice, damage cooperation, and generate further anger and fear are encouraged.

Like Tolstoy and Hugo, members of the current Illuminati are interested in broad movements among large groups of people. History and progress, to the Illuminati, are found in these movements. At the forefront of the powers that inhibit these movements are the traditional family and the traditional Christian congregation. The Illuminati encourages every opportunity that arises to undermine these two opponents. Removing children from their families to educate them in public schools was an Illuminati goal. Dominating the conversation in colleges and universities to turn students against their families and other traditional supporters of family was an Illuminati goal. Redefining the family to promote alternate lifestyles, even a rejection of biological gender, has been an Illuminati goal. Separating the joy of sex from the stability of marriage and family has long been an Illuminati goal.

Because it uses the entertainment industry to attack traditional families and traditional Christianity, the Illuminati has long endorsed anti-family behavior within that industry. As a result, children and young adults have succumbed to predators hidden within the industry for years. Public embarrassment of child stars emerging into adulthood has been the norm, not the exception. Charges against Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein are only the tip of the iceberg—surrender of a couple of egregious examples for the purpose of maintaining the nefarious structure to which those men belong. The victims of this structure are not people singled out for programing by a massive conspiracy; their tragedies are the inevitable result of a view of life that places personal pleasure and profit ahead of appropriate human relationships—and that plans to train the rest of the world to do the same.

To be continued… J

The dream of landing a man on the moon

When Neil Armstrong and “Buzz” Aldrin walked on the moon fifty-one years ago, it appeared that the world was beginning a new Space Age. Several more teams of American astronauts returned to the moon—one team, Apollo 13, suffered from technical difficulties and had to return without landing on the moon—but since that time, the space program has not advanced as expected. Space stations were formed, and shuttle missions were launched. Computerized machines were sent all over the solar system to record information and report back to Earth. But the science fiction stories that seemed ready to change from fiction to fact did not come true. Colonies were not living on the moon by 2001. No one has gone to Mars or to any other planet. Space stations remained tiny capsules orbiting the Earth—no vast city in space has been developed to launch travelers to the moon or Mars or any other destination out there in space.

Why has space exploration faltered since the grand successes of the Apollo missions to the moon? Noble talk of exploration being worth any cost and any risk has not led to glorious deeds. Explosive growth in computer technology has been devoted almost entirely to earth-bound endeavors, especially in the areas of communication and entertainment. Competitive juices of the Cold War no longer fuel programs to open new frontiers and to go where no one has gone before. Our dreams may be as big as ever, but our investment in those dreams has dwindled.

In the 1960s, Dick Tracy communicated to headquarters with his watch and Maxwell Smart kept in radio contact through his shoe. Now most of us carry or wear devices that facilitate communication, take pictures and videos, allow access to libraries of digitized information, and permit us to play games any time and any place. Our cars cannot fly, but we can start them from inside the house and have the heat or air conditioning running while we finish getting ready to leave. We know where we are and how to get where we want to go with exact precision—precision that everyone from government agencies to advertisers can use to keep track of us all the time and to know what topics we are researching and what questions we want answered. We can buy and sell at the click of a button, and our financial information is available to us (and to many other people) any time and any place.

Our hunger for space travel was fed, not by the Apollo missions and the space shuttle, but by the Star Wars franchise and its many companion stories. Faster-than-light travel is no more possible now than when Gene Roddenberry imagined warp engines for the Enterprise. Time travel is still limited to one day at a time into the future. Meanwhile, nature has not yet been conquered on this planet: it can still hit us with a storm or an earthquake or a plague, seemingly at will.

This is the future, or at least it was the future when Neil Armstrong recited, “That’s one small step for [a] man; one giant leap for mankind.” What now remains in our future remains to be seen. We will face more challenges; we will encounter more adventures. New technology will surprise our children as new technology surprised our parents. The tools we use today will amuse museum visitors fifty years from now. No one can guess when the human spirit will rise again to look at the stars, to explore new frontiers, or to solve the problems that stymie us today. So long as there is a future, though, we still have a chance to dream. J.

Racism without race (part four)

Governments create and enforce laws that limit and prohibit discrimination based upon culture, gender, age, and other factors. Bigotry and prejudice are not so easily controlled by law. Laws are passed against communication which calls for violence against groups of people on the basis of their culture or other status. As free speech does not permit anyone to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater (although shouting “Movie!” at a bonfire is not as harmful and therefore not illegal), so free speech does not permit anyone to advocate hurt or harm to other individuals or groups of people. On the other hand, communication that expresses disapproval of certain cultures or other minority groups without calling for violence can and should be permitted as free speech. Bigotry is more easily recognized as harmful thinking when it is openly expressed in the marketplace of ideals than when it is driven “underground.” As past expressions of bigotry and prejudice can be shown to be illogical and silly under contemporary standards, so present and future expressions of bigotry and prejudice can be revealed for their failings in the same manner. Censoring present expressions and editing former statements that left their mark in history does not advance the process of justice and fairness. Open and honest conversations on such topics, conducted without malice or anger (as difficult as that goal might be to achieve), accomplish far more than restricting freedom of speech, altering the historic record, and demanding that every past and present communication meet certain arbitrary standards of justice and fairness.

Voluntarily and involuntarily, millions of people have migrated over the centuries, carrying their cultures with them. Sometimes people maintained their own cultures secretly while pretending in public to blend into the majority culture. Sometimes majority and minority cultures shaped one another, often in subtle ways. Migration will continue to happen, as people seek better lives for themselves and their families. They seek safety from enemies, better jobs, more access to food and to clean water, freedoms offered by certain governments, and many other good things that are lacking in their homeland. Governments exist to protect their citizens; opening the borders to all immigrants is not a responsible option for any government. But monitoring and regulating immigration, establishing and enforcing laws regarding immigration, is a responsibility of every government. Such laws are less the result of bigotry and prejudice than they are the result of the government’s duty to protect and defend its citizens.

Seeking equality does not mean making everyone the same. Culturalism can continue to convey pride in each person’s heritage. We can celebrate the differences that make each culture unique—differences in language, in food, in clothing, in music, and in many of the other elements of life and civilization. Saying “my way is good” does not have to be the same as saying, “My way is better than your way.” Saying “my way is good” can lead to saying, “Your way is also good.”

The bigger problem includes descendants of migrants who have not achieved equality—economically, politically, and socially—with the majority culture. Education of the entire population about diverse cultures is of some benefit, but education alone will not create equality. In the United States, we can use cultural holidays—including Chinese New Year, St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, and Juneteenth—not as paid holidays nor as reasons to drink beer, but as times to learn about other cultures. Summer street fairs, cultural gatherings in parks and museums, broadcast specials about various cultures on television and the Internet—all of these contribute to a solution against bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination, but they cannot solve these problems on their own.

Our goal is to lift all ships, not to sink some ships for the benefit of others. Statistically and historically, white privilege has existed and does exist in the United States. Attempts to counter white privilege over the last sixty years include laws against discrimination, desegregation of schools, busing of students to distant schools, and “affirmative action”—legally setting quotas of minority representation in student bodies, work places, and other arenas of public participation. All of these practices have been controversial. They seem to work in some situations, but they seem to worsen bigotry and prejudice in others. Better answers include guaranteeing high quality public education in every school and every neighborhood, enforcing laws against discrimination without setting quotas for hiring, and providing opportunities for the poor (regardless of cultural background) to have equal opportunity for advancement through job training and community-strengthening programs.

 The problems of bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination did not appear overnight, and they will not disappear overnight. In some ways, hiding these problems under the label “racism” only makes them stronger and harder to fight. To affirm that all people are “created equal” and are “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” including “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” allows us to study our society, to identify inequalities, and to address them effectively. “Black Lives Matter” can be more than a slogan: it can be genuine work to make life in America fair for all Americans without disintegrating into class warfare, into the determination that, “to give this person more, that person must receive less.” By strict definitions, racism does not exist. Yet by greater awareness of bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination—all of which do exist—Americans can continue working toward the goal of equality for all people, a goal upon which our country was established from its very beginning. J.

Racism without race (part three)

All three problems—bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination—occur apart from cultural differences. Age, gender, and economic status also provide opportunities for bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination. But when those problems are associated with differences in appearance, language, or other cultural aspects, they tend to be lumped together as racism. Laws can be created and enforced that counter practices of discrimination—and this has been done in many countries, especially during the last sixty years. Bigotry and prejudice are much harder to outlaw. Public education and other means of communication can overcome some tendencies toward bigotry and prejudice; but these problems are connected to human nature at its worst, and human laws are not always able to overturn sinful human nature.

Bigotry stems from pride, from the attitude that, “I am right, and I am good. If you are different from me, you must not be as right, and you must not be as good.” Such bigotry already existed in the ancient world. Egyptians viewed their African and west Asian neighbors with scorn, acting as if, “If you aren’t Egyptian, you are unworthy of respect.” Greeks considered the use of the Greek language as a measure of civilization: people who spoke other languages rather than Greek sounded to Greeks as if they were saying nothing more than, “bar-bar-bar-bar-bar,” and so they were called “barbarians.” Ancient Chinese culture similarly viewed China as the center of the earth and everyone else as living on the barbarian frontier.

If each culture had its own geographic region in which to live under its own government, bigotry and prejudice and discrimination would be smaller problems. For the most part, only travelers would be vulnerable to these problems, and they would be free to return to their own homes. Historic reality indicates that people are always moving. The Bantu people began north of the equator in Africa; generations of migration made them the predominant culture of central and southern Africa. Indo-Europeans began in what now is Ukraine; some traveled south to India, and others traveled west to Europe, generating a plethora of cultures in these places. Xiongnu (Huns) and Turks began in east Asia; to escape the growing power of the Chinese Empire, they traveled west and south, bringing their cultures into south Asia, west Asia, and Europe. Many generations ago, Asians crossed from Siberia into Alaska and, over time, created five hundred distinct nations in the western hemisphere. More recently, Europeans and Africans and Asians have migrated into the western hemisphere. (Between 1500 and 1800, more Africans than Europeans crossed the Atlantic Ocean to dwell in the western hemisphere. The European migration was largely voluntary, but the African migration was largely involuntary, caused by the slave trade.) Germanic tribes and Asian tribes crossed borders into the Roman Empire, not wanting to destroy the Roman Empire but wanting to enjoy its benefits. Later, the Norse (or Vikings) settled in the British Isles, northwestern France (Normandy), Sicily, Iceland, Greenland, and even a corner of Canada. Other Norse established a trading post in Europe which became the city Kiev; Moslem traders who met the Norse in Kiev called them the red men or “Rus,” beginning recognition of the civilization called Russia.)

People, and groups of people, move from one place to another. Diverse cultures encounter one another because of this migration. Sometimes they blend, forming a third culture. Sometimes one culture dominates and the other survives as a minority. Occasionally, the majority culture stifles and exterminates the minority culture. When domination of one culture over another or extermination of a culture takes place, the reason usually is bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination on the part of the prevailing culture.

If all people were good at heart, each loving their neighbors as they love themselves, cultural conflicts such as bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination would not occur. Culturalism would be beneficial, as each person learns and celebrates his or her own culture; at the same time, each person would be curious enough to learn about his or her neighbors’ cultures. Because human nature includes an evil trait of selfishness and self-centeredness, bigotry often takes the lead on both sides when two cultures encounter one another. Pluralism—when two or more cultures coexist in the same place without strife, without one dominating and the other being stifled—is historically rare. Yet pluralism—coexistence with mutual tolerance and respect, with interest and curiosity regarding one another’s culture—is an ideal. This ideal is worth struggling to achieve in a world in which rapid communication and transportation have made encounters of cultures more common and more likely. J.

Racism without race (part two)

The same textbook that insists that all humans belong to the same race and then uses the term “racism” also presents a complete definition of “nationalism.” Nationalism is a political philosophy of fairly recent origin. It contains the belief that people of the same nation should have their own government. “Nation” is further defined as common language, common religion, common customs, common history and heritage, and (usually) a large enough population in a common area to make self-government practical. During the nineteenth century, nationalism caused several governments on the Italian peninsula to combine, creating the modern nation Italy; nationalism caused dozens of German-speaking people under different governments to combine, creating the modern nation Germany. In the same century, nationalism tore apart the Ottoman Empire and the Austrian Empire, creating such nations as Egypt, Greece, Hungary, and Serbia. During the twentieth century, nationalism led to the independence of most European colonies that had been established in Africa and Asia. The most controversial struggle of nationalism in recent times is that of Zionism, granting a separate government to Jewish people. While the Jews share a common religion, history, heritage, and customs, they were scattered throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa. Still, by the middle of the twentieth century, a modern nation called Israel had been established in western Asia to which Jews migrated from all over the world.

“Culturalism” is a label I use, though it is not found in the textbook. I created the term to describe people who continue to identify with a common culture, or nation, even though they do not place themselves under a single government in a single geographical area. Many Jews do not live in Israel. Many countries with a single government still do not consist of a single nation. The United States is an example of a pluralistic country with citizens who identify themselves by various cultures: Irish, German, Italian, Polish, Jewish, African, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and more. Even with their diverse cultures, all these people live as loyal citizens of the United States of America. Many of them vote, and some run for public office. Others serve in careers that benefit, not only themselves and their families and people of their own culture, but all of their neighbors regardless of culture. Frequently, people of a common culture will identify a holiday that unites their culture within a pluralistic society: Chinese New Year, Saint Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, Juneteenth, Oktoberfest. More often then not, Americans of other cultures will participate in these celebrations—sometimes as an opportunity to learn more about their neighbors and about different cultures, and other times merely as an excuse to drink beer.

Nationalism and culturalism can be good things. In the past, they have created new nations, whether through combination or separation of groups. They help individuals to form an identity within a community of similar individuals. They provide opportunities for people to learn about each other, to celebrate the distinct aspects of their language or religion or history or heritage, and to entertain one another by the diversity of human experience and expressions. They preserve cultural heritages and help them to survive globalism, the linking of cultures which erases borders but which risks turning the entire world into a homogenized McDonald’s/Walmart/Disney franchise.

But nationalism and culturalism become bad things when they are used to develop and reinforce bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination. Bigotry is the assumption that, because two cultures differ, one must be superior and the other inferior. Prejudice is the assumption that, because an individual belongs to a certain culture, that individual most possess all the traits of that culture (including those traits falsely applied to the culture under bigotry). Discrimination is action based upon bigotry and prejudice, denying opportunities to people of certain cultures such as jobs, freedom to live in certain areas, and even protection under the law of the prevailing government. J.

Racism without race (part one of four)

Biologically, all human beings belong to the same race. Although theorists over the years have tried to identify anywhere from three to twelve races, DNA evidence confirms what mixed families have shown all along—we are all one race. The holy writings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all agree that every human being is descended from Adam and Eve. Nonreligious scientists also agree that every Homo sapiens sapiens living today has a common ancestor whom those scientists have nicknamed “Eve.” Various other theories about ancestry have been proposed, ranging from the thought that a small percentage of people alive today have Neanderthal ancestors (based on interpretation of DNA samples) to the thought that a percentage of people alive today have extraterrestrial ancestors (based on various blood types). Even outlier notions of the origin of contemporary humanity, though, concur that all humans today belong to the same family tree and do not come from different races.

The textbook I use to teach World Civilizations to college students mentions the unity of the human race more than once. Only on one occasion (surprisingly) has a student asked in the classroom why the same textbook refers to conflict between different groups of humans as “racism.” If we are all the same race, how can racism exist? The answer to this rather profound question is found in the history of labels and also in the still-common misperception that several human races coexist.

Humans can be sorted into different groups according to numerous differences: skin color, hair color, hair texture, facial features, average height, body build, and more. These physical distinctions are hereditary, so a mother and father with dark skin will generally produce children with dark skin, and so on. At the same time, though, differences between the DNA of two siblings (children of the same mother and father) might outnumber differences between the DNA of one of those children and another child whose physical distinctions, as listed above, are entirely different. Again, the existence of mixed families confirms the biological fact that all humans belong to the same race; inherited variations are not marks of different races, but only of different genetic backgrounds within the same race.

But, if we are all of the same race, how can racism exist? Racism is a combination of bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination, three terms I will soon (tomorrow) define. As a catch-all term, the word “racism” is unfortunate in its persistence, being inaccurate about what it describes. Although bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination can all be identified in ancient history (and can be found in all parts of the world, even in ancient times), the modern concept of racism is closely linked to nationalism and culturalism, both of which I must define first (tomorrow). J.

Tearaway stabilizer

Originally, I was going to call this post, “Things Other People Have Already Said.” But this weekend, while I was having a conversation with a member of my family who sews, when she repeatedly spoke about “tearaway stabilizer,” my first thought (in the spirit of Dave Barry) was, “That would be a great name for a rock band.” My later thought was, “that would be a great name for a post I keep not posting because it does not contain a single original thought.” So, here we go:

  • It is very strange to put on a mask to walk into a bank in order to deposit a check. Something seems entirely backwards about that procedure.
  • Social distancing is a fine idea, one which I wish would have caught on years ago. When I shop at Walmart, I would prefer to maintain a six-foot distance between me and any other customer. Of course, many customers do not even try to let that happen—especially in the produce section. Someone could devise a great video game in which a shopper tries to acquire five items from the fresh produce section without coming within six feet of other shoppers.
  • Walmart has tried to make their shopping lanes one-way by posting stickers on the floor and signs at the end of aisles saying, “Do not enter—one way” and “enter here—one way.” Many people fail to notice these signs; or, if they fail to notice them, they fail to obey them. My son pointed out that, if the problem were that some customers were not noticing the signs, no more than half of them would be going the wrong way. When—as often seems the case—roughly two-thirds of the customers are going the wrong direction in any given aisle, some other factor appears to be in play.
  • Self-quarantine and social distancing are not, as some people have suggested, the fulfillment of introverts’ dreams. For one matter, many introverts have been confined along with family members or roommates who have no understanding or sympathy regarding an introvert’s need for quiet time and personal space. Many introverts have been deprived of shelters outside the home which met their need for time and space reserved for themselves. For another matter, constant exposure to news items about the virus, about social distancing, about wearing masks, and about political connections to the virus and responses to the same exhaust introverts, particularly when seemingly every family conversation diverts within a few minutes to those same few topics.
  • Any grand conspiracy theory that tries to put blame on the virus, its spread, or the economic and political consequences of virus and response, overlooks the clear evidence that human beings as a whole are incapable of forming and maintaining such conspiracies. The Watergate scandal is a perfect example of how self-interest and incompetence combine to destroy any grand conspiracy. The virus is nothing more than a pandemic comparable to bubonic plague in Asia and Europe six to seven hundred years ago, smallpox and measles in the western hemisphere four to five hundred years ago, and influenza around the world one hundred years ago. The potential for pandemic exists every year, and the last fifty years have been remarkable for the ability to contain and control potential pandemics as they made their appearance in the world from time to time.
  • For Christians, COVID-19 is a pestilence like those described in the Bible, a call from God for sinners to repent and to turn back to him for protection and salvation from evil. Unfortunately, many Christians have been quicker to identify and repent of the sins of their neighbors rather than identifying and repenting of their own sins. One Christian calls this pestilence God’s judgment upon anti-life measures, anti-family measures, confusion of the two genders established by God in creation, and other “liberal” sins. The next Christian calls this pestilence God’s judgment upon racism, intolerance, failure to assist and protect the oppressed and the poor, and a power structure which continues to favor the rich and powerful while victimizing widows, orphans, and foreigners. In other words, even while identifying pestilence as a judgmental act of God, a great many Christians see the specks in their neighbors’ eyes and disregard the 2x4s protruding from their own eyes.
  • For atheists, COVID-19 is a mirror reflection of the human/animal’s reaction to infection. As we develop antibodies to resist bacterial and viral infections, so the world around us develops “antibodies” such as bubonic plague and COVID-19 to resist humanity and its scourge upon the world as a whole. When an animal population becomes too numerous in a particular region, illnesses combine with predators and food shortages to thin the population. The current pandemic is Mother Nature at work, and nothing about how it happens should surprise us.
  • In either case, basic compassion for one another and care for humanity as a whole call upon our brightest thinkers to seek immunizations and cures for this virus. Trying to resist the pestilence, whether natural or God-sent, is no worse than putting a broken arm in a cast or wearing glasses to improve eyesight. As people disagree among themselves about the details of a proper response—and many responses to the virus have been counterproductive and even harmful—we seek to work together and to communicate with one another for our common good. The enemy is the virus; we are dangerously mistaken when we turn against one another and treat our neighbors as our enemies.
  • Finally, removing and destroying statues because they depict people whose opinions were common in their lifetimes but are rejected today—including opinions regarding slavery, race, and justice for some rather than for all—misses an opportunity to educate ourselves and our children about history and about human nature. All our heroes (aside from Jesus Christ) have been sinners who were faulty in some areas. They were right about some things and wrong about others. Interpretative panels next to such statutes, panels that identify both the accomplishments and the failings of the people represented in these statutes, would accomplish far more good than removing these statues. And the panels can be updated from time to time as opinions about right and wrong, good and bad, acceptable and unacceptable continue to change.
  • J

Keep your soul diligently

We’ve all seen those memes on Facebook and other places where the letters of each word are scrambled, but the first and last letters are kept unchanged. Sometimes these memes are accompanied by statements such as, “Only intelligent people are able to understand this message.” Actually, most adept readers are able to read them; as we learned to read, our brains developed shortcuts that recognize words even when the internal parts of the words have been changed.

But, by the same token, sometimes we mistake one word for another. The slip-up can be amusing, such as confusing “immorality” and “immortality.” Usually a second glance fixes the misreading. But this morning in my Bible reading, I faced a misreading that indicates just how overwhelming our current virus crisis has become.

I was reading Deuteronomy chapter four. I got to verse nine, which says, “Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your hearts all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and to your children’s children.” This is a trustworthy saying. But when my eyes first scanned the verse, my brain changed the beginning to, “Only take care, and keep your social distancing.”

Of course a second glance fixed the misreading. I suppose the words “take care” only added to the tendency to expect s…l d……..y to be “social distancing.” But my mildly amusing experience only shows how overwhelming this virus crisis has become, that I even expect the holy Word of God to command social distancing.

My experiences with the virus crisis are like those of most people. As an introvert, I don’t mind keeping my distance from other people. Three times a week I take a two-mile walk through the neighborhood. I do what I was taught as a child: I walk on the left-hand side of the road, facing the traffic. But now, with social distancing, if someone is coming toward me on the same side of the road, I cross to the other side to avoid that person. I’ve always wanted to do that. Now, not is it not rude to cross the road to avoid people—it’s recommended.

I’m very much blessed to have three jobs that all paid me my regular salary while I worked from home. Every week I write a sermon, and every Saturday I email it to the members of the congregation. Our church musician presents a concert of church music on Facebook every Sunday. We mail in our offerings, and my check comes in the mail. My history class was changed from classroom to online. Some students dropped out, and a couple have fallen behind on the work, but several are faithfully taking their quizzes (open book, since we don’t have the classroom discussion before the quiz) and—I expect—writing their essays that are due next week. But my full time job at the library raised the biggest concerns. How can a library function when the doors are locked and the workers are told to stay home?

The first week the library was closed, we were told that it was like snow days—we would stay home and be paid. The second week, they began encouraging us to do tasks at home that were somehow job related. Since I am an archivist, I began sorting and arranging the family pictures I brought from my father’s house several years ago. After they were arranged, I even started putting them on Facebook and tagging family members. I also explored the family genealogy. More than half the people who visit our research room in the library are doing genealogy—some in great depth, others just getting started. I’ve always been able to guide people to resources, but now I have much more experience in genealogical research and will be more helpful.

By the third week, we had a process of reporting how we were spending our time “on the clock.” But after that, the library decided that 75% of our hours had to be of direct benefit to the library system; the other 25% could be for learning and wellness activities. Some library branches began experimenting with curb-side services. Four branches are providing free meals to neighborhood children who usually get fed at school. My department remains locked up; but we are taking turns being in the building to answer the phone and help patrons.

Last week, with the phone-answering system in place, I was invited to return to my desk and continue processing archival materials. I must wear a mask everywhere in the building except at my desk; I must wash my hands frequently and wipe down surfaces often. This procedure might last for the rest of the summer.

Since it is losing some money—parking and meeting room fees, and overdue fines—the library director decided that he would reduce or eliminate some positions temporarily to save the library money. All positions will be restored when the crisis is over. People in eliminated positions retain their health insurance and other benefits but must apply for unemployment. Those who are reduced will—if the state government allows—work only part-time and receive unemployment money for the hours lost. I have been placed in the second category.

I do not feel comfortable with the likelihood that I will be receiving unemployment compensation for ten weeks or so. It’s not that I don’t need the money. It’s that every person thrown into the unemployment system is added to the financial burden that taxpayers like me and my children will be reimbursing for years to come. I disagree with the library’s decision to lower its costs by putting its workers temporarily into unemployment. In fact, I cannot help but view this as a cynical political ploy to deepen the crisis (and the feeling of crisis) at the expense of the current administration.

We will all get through this together. Stress and anxiety are high right now. (I spend little time on social media precisely because I rapidly tire of all the talk of virus and quarantine. It makes me shaky and queasy.) Meanwhile it’s important for each of us to take care, and keep our social distancing… I mean, keep our souls diligently. J.