We’re all earthlings

“Looking at the Earth (from space) for the first time, … you realize that hey, we live on a planet. We’re all earthlings. The only border that matters is that thin blue line of atmosphere that blankets us all.”

– astronaut Nicole Stott

 

At a period when polarization and nationalism seem to be increasing around the world, I feel the need to keep pushing for a more inclusive view of humanity. I heard Nicole Stott on the radio this morning, and thought I’d pass along her quote. Also, see:

“There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.” – Carl Sagan

 

Red States versus Blue States: Who Would Win a Civil War in the U.S?

“Nearly every government that goes to war underestimates its duration, neglects to tally all the costs, and overestimates the political objectives that can be accomplished by the use of brute force.”   

– The Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs (source)

 

Last week congressman Steve King, a Republican from Iowa, created yet another controversy by posting an image on social media that asked whether red states or blue states would win in a second U.S. civil war (the clear implication is that the red states would). Understandably, King received a lot of criticism for this, for contributing to a political ecosphere that is already steeped in heated rhetoric, in which real political violence has been on the increase. King has since deleted the image, but he is not alone. With anxieties and polarization growing, talk of a possible second civil war in the U.S. is still relatively rare, but I can’t recall another period in my lifetime where I’ve heard it with such regularity. Even Stanford’s Niall Ferguson has written about this.

Others have opined on King’s glibly pondering civil war as a sitting member of Congress, the fact that he overlooked the fact that his own state is “blue” in the image, his transphobia, or his timing (the post came just a day after a white supremacist killed 50 people in New Zealand mosques). I’d like to focus on the idea of “winning” a civil war.

First, a step back. The way that we initially frame a question has a big impact on our thinking. As the linguist George Lakoff wrote around the time of the First Gulf War, “metaphors can kill.” To frame war solely in terms of winning and losing (ex. an image of two boxers) does a great disservice to what actually happens during wars. Lakoff continued: “It is important to distinguish what is metaphorical from what is not. Pain, dismemberment, death, starvation, and the death and injury of loved ones are not metaphorical. They are real and in a war, they could afflict tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of real human beings, whether Iraqi, Kuwaiti, or American.” Certainly, the same suffering would apply to a civil war in the U.S.

In a similar vein, the former war correspondent Chris Hedges wrote in his book “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning,” that we should distinguish between “mythic war” and “sensory war.” Mythic war is deceptively seductive, offering people the chance to participate in some great noble cause, though people’s justifications may vary (to defeat evil, for freedom, for party, for God, for country, for one’s ethnic group, to avenge past wrongs, etc.). Mythic war’s perennial appeal resides in its apparent opportunity to help people find meaning by contributing to something potentially historic and bigger than themselves, particularly for the marginalized and for those who have struggle to find meaning in their lives. For these reasons, Hedges wrote, war can be an “addictive narcotic.”  

By contrast, sensory war refers to the on-the-ground experiences, the fear, the atrocities, the “blunders and senseless slaughter by our generals, the execution of prisoners and innocents,” ultimately revealing that – quoting Harry Patch – war is “organized murder and nothing else.”

 

Historical Lessons: How Destructive Would a Civil War Be?

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Thinking of Nebraska in a Blue State

Like always, I’ve been following all of the good and bad stuff in the news. Under the latter category, I’ve been thinking of the people in Nebraska who were affected by the “bomb cyclone” that hit there a few days ago. There’s a lot of bad in many places around the world, but I’m focusing on Nebraska right now because it’s been called a “historic” and “monster” storm, creating both devastating floods and a blizzard that have displaced an unknown number of people.

I do have another motive for highlighting Nebraska, and that is because it is known as one of the reddest of the “red” states in the U.S. By comparison, I live and teach in one of the most consistently “blue” areas of the country (and I guess I am personally more blue than red). But note that in reality, most states are purple. Anyway, this is a bit personal, but today I donated to one organization with the specific intent to help people in Nebraska.

I’ve never been to Nebraska, and off the top of my head I can only think of one person I’ve ever met from there. I’m not wealthy, and it wasn’t a lot of money. Nor am I looking for praise. Rather, I was just hoping that if I made this public, someone somewhere, maybe Nebraska, might see this as a tiny symbol of good will from a blue area of the country at a time when this country is so polarized.

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The Mindless Menace of Violence

Robert F Kennedy made this speech “The Mindless Menace of Violence” on April 5, 1968, the day after Martin Luther King’s assassination. I pasted some of his words below, which are, sadly, as relevant as ever. We still have a long way to go. I know that this blog is tiny, and that it won’t make a dent in the massive, coordinated campaign of anger that exists online. These sentiments won’t reach the right people, and will persuade few minds. I’ve been online long enough to know that most minds are already made up, and some will find RFK’s words naïve at best, and at worst worthy of contempt. But I think they are necessary.

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It’s Not Too Late

With the news that Alexandre Bissonnette was sentenced to 40 years in prison, I wanted to go back to one of the more moving speeches I’ve heard in a while, which I don’t think should be forgotten. Bissonnette pleaded guilty to the crime of murdering six Muslim people and wounding nineteen others in a Quebec City mosque in January 2017. Shortly after the shooting, Imam Hassan Guillet tried to salvage something good from the horrific act, by describing the lives of the deceased and the loved ones they left behind, as well as Bissonnette himself:

“Khaled, Aboubaker, Abdelkrim, Azzedine, Mamadou and Ibrahima chose the place they wanted to live in. They chose the society they wanted to be theirs. They chose with whom they wanted their children to grow. And it was Canada. It was Quebec.… It is up to the society to choose them the same way they have chosen this society. They had their dream to send their kids to school, to buy a house, to have a business and we have to continue their dreams. We have to continue their dreams the same way they extended their hands to the others. It is up to others to extend their hands toward them.

Now unfortunately, it is a little bit late. But not too late. The society that could not protect them, the society that could not benefit from their generosity still has a chance….


The hands that didn’t shake the hands of Khaled or Aboubaker or Abdelkrim or Azzedine or Mamadou or Ibrahima, that society can shake the hands of their kids. We have 17 orphans. We have six widows. We have five wounded. We ask Allah for them to get them out of the hospital as soon as possible.


Did I go through the complete list of victims? No. There is one victim. None of us want talk about him. But given my age, I have the courage to say it. This victim, his name is Alexandre Bissonnette. Alexandre, before being a killer he was a victim himself. Before planting his bullets in the heads of his victims, somebody planted ideas more dangerous than the bullets in his head. This little kid didn’t wake up in the morning and say ‘Hey guys instead of going to have a picnic or watching the Canadiens, I will go kill some people in the mosque.’ It doesn’t happen that way.


Day after day, week after week, month after month, certain politicians unfortunately, and certain reporters unfortunately, and certain media were poisoning our atmosphere. We did not want to see it. We didn’t want to see it because we love this country, we love this society. We wanted our to society to be perfect. We were like parents, their kids [are] smoking or taking drugs and your neighbor says that your kid was taking drugs, I don’t believe it, my son is perfect.

We don’t want to see it. And we didn’t see it, and it happened.

Actually here my friends in Quebec, you know a couple of months ago, a certain period of time ago, someone came and put a head of a pig in front of the mosque. The [person] responsible for the mosque they said ‘No, it was an isolated act.’ Nobody is against us and we aren’t against anybody. They acted very generously and I am proud of them and this is what it should be.

But there was a certain malaise. Let us face it. Alexandre Bissonnette didn’t start from a vacuum. For political reasons, and what is happening the Middle East and unfortunately, for ignorance, a lot of things happened.

This guy was empoisoned. But we want Alexandre to be the last one to have a criminal act like that. We want to stop it. One of the definitions of madness is to do exactly the same thing and expect a different result.
If we do exactly the same thing, my friends, we will have exactly the same result. Are we happy with the result? Are we happy with six dead, five wounded, 17 orphans, 6 widows and a destroyed family which is the family of Alexandre Bissonnette and maybe his friends too?
We don’t want that. So let us change. I am getting encouraged with what we have heard from our Prime Minister and Premier, from our mayor yesterday, from a lot of our leaders, I am very proud and I thank them, and I am not surprised.

But all I am saying, we should start changing words into actions. We should build on this tragedy. God gave us a lemon, let’s make lemonade out of that. Let’s make lemonade. Let’s build on this negative and have a positive.

Let’s go from today to be a real society, united. The same way we are united today in our sorrow and in our pain, let us start today to be united in our dreams, our hopes and our plans for the future.


Let the future that our friends planned for their kids, let us build this future ourselves too. In this way we will respect their memory. Revenge will do nothing.”  

 

Hate Seeps In

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” – Nelson Mandela

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In 2014, Stanford anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann conducted a cross-cultural study of people with schizophrenia who experienced auditory hallucinations, such as hearing “voices.” Not all people reported having the same experiences, however. People in Ghana and India said that their voices tended to be positive and benign, even playful and entertaining, and that these voices often came from God, spirits, or family members. By contrast, Americans said that their voices tended to be more violent and hateful, and they were more likely to perceive the condition as a disease. Luhrmann proposed that Americans’ emphasis on individual autonomy could predispose them to seeing voices as an “intrusion” on their self, whereas Ghanaians and Indians were more likely to interpret their voices as relationships. 

The point is that culture can have profound effects, even for a condition like schizophrenia. There is a tendency in a biomedical model to perceive health and diseases solely as physiological conditions, but it is important to remember that we are situated in a grander context beyond just the individual body. Something similar may happen with inebriation. As Craig MacAndrew and Robert Edgerton wrote: the way that people in any society “comport themselves when they are drunk is determined not by alcohol’s toxic assault upon the seat of moral judgment, conscience, or the like, but by what their society has taught them” (1969: 165). Just as patterns around alcohol consumption itself may be socially molded (how much to drink, and where and when), so is behavior while intoxicated. There is no single way for a brain to respond to schizophrenia or intoxication; rather, they are influenced by the ecology of ideas in which they find themselves. Ideas seep in.

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Weapon$ over Civilians

President Trump’s made some more controversial comments this week, this time in a statement downplaying the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which the intelligence community said likely came at the behest of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Instead, he emphasized that the United States would maintain its business relationship with Saudi Arabia, including the importance of KSA’s oil supply and their desire to purchase weapons from the United States.

President Trump’s made some more controversial comments this week, this time in a statement downplaying the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which the intelligence community said likely came at the behest of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Instead, he emphasized that the United States would maintain its business relationship with Saudi Arabia, including the importance of KSA’s oil supply and their desire to purchase weapons from the United States.

I’ve seen a lot of public criticism of these comments, and rightfully so, but they seemed to focus primarily on Trump’s willingness to overlook the ability of a head of state to order a murder of a single person. However, I wanted to focus on a bigger problem, which is the cold calculation of the desire to profit from the sale of weapons and military equipment. He wrote:  

After my heavily negotiated trip to Saudi Arabia last year, the Kingdom agreed to spend and invest $450 billion in the United States. This is a record amount of money. It will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, tremendous economic development, and much additional wealth for the United States. Of the $450 billion, $110 billion will be spent on the purchase of military equipment from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and many other great U.S. defense contractors. If we foolishly cancel these contracts, Russia and China would be the enormous beneficiaries – and very happy to acquire all of this newfound business. It would be a wonderful gift to them directly from the United States!

I’m not that naive. I understand that the sale of military equipment is a business. In this case however, the crass prioritization of profit is happening at the very same time that civilians of Yemen are dying by the droves, to a large extent from weapons sold by the U.S. to Saudi Arabia. An estimated 85,000 Yemeni children may have starved to death as a result of the war (so far), with the wider population on the brink of famine. It is a pattern of war that civilians consistently bear the brunt of it all, dying at a higher rate than combatants.

A 10-year-old Yemeni boy suffering from severe malnutrition. (Photo: Ahmad al-Basha/AFP/Getty Images)

It seems to me that the celebration of military contracts worth billions of dollars while the very source of that profit inflicts incalculable suffering on actual lives is extremely callous and obscene. The emphasis on the injustice of letting people get away with Khashoggi’s murder is well-placed. But I think there could be much more emphasis in our public discourse that American companies are profiting by inflicting pain and death on innocent people. It is dirty money.