Choose Hospitality not Walls

My Turn                                                                                             August 30, 2017

Choose Hospitality, not Walls

Recently, a woman stopped me on Elm Street in downtown Manchester and asked, “Do you have a dollar? It’s all I need to make up enough money for a cup of coffee.”

This unnamed woman interrupted our dash to a sandwich shop for a strategy session to prepare for a meeting with our U.S. Senator. We were to plan effective advocacy against a bill to come before the Senate. Our presentation was to be based upon a humanitarian and justice foundation. I was mentally pacing out the steps of our approach to the issue as we walked by the entreating woman. I completely missed the connection between our urgency to advance our humanitarian case to the Senator and the immediacy of the woman’s request for a dollar.

The image of the woman seeking a cup of coffee stayed with me for the next few days. It brought back a memory of my years as a welfare officer in a small New Hampshire town. The people I had assisted taught me that behind every crisis requiring immediate financial aid was the critical need to have someone listen to their story and empathize with their suffering, anger, fear, and frustration with the entanglements and injustices of government regulations and social systems.

That memory morphed into missed possibilities of interaction with the woman who met us on the street. We could have invited her to walk with us to the sandwich shop to buy her a cup of coffee and perhaps a sandwich or a pastry to go with it. Or, I thought, we could have invited her to sit with our planning group and listen in on our conversation over coffee and breakfast. Perhaps she could even have contributed her understanding of injustice, abuse, and destruction of dignity to the issues that were motivating our advocacy concerning the Senate bill.

Or even more compelling, perhaps her story would have been important for our U.S. Senator to hear. We had been promised an hour. Giving up fifteen minutes of our time to the woman may have affirmed her dignity and ability to advocate for herself. As people of privilege, we have access to our Senator’s office and the ability to speak to the power of our U.S. Senate that may not be easily available to her.

I’m not asking us to condemn ourselves for walking by a person panhandling when we are on the way to work, shopping, or to pick up one of our children from school. (However, for those who are Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, as well as many other faith traditions, there is Scriptural precedent for stopping to give help). I use the story only to illustrate our country’s widening communication gaps among people with differing life experiences. Frequently people do not notice or even acknowledge the existence of other people living in different environments, cultures, or economic circumstances. However, when we do notice one another it is often when needs, values, or identities come into conflict. Every day we read in newspapers, tweets, and on Facebook derogatory labels attached to rival individuals and organizations. There is name-calling, suspicion, misunderstanding, and sometimes hate and violence. We hear them on radio and TV news as well as on entertainment venues and talk shows. They come from some of our nations leaders, hate groups, and occasionally from some more moderate advocacy organizations. I’ll not give credence to those labels by using them as examples here.   Unfortunately many of them are already imprinted into our consciousness.

This widening communication gap calls forth the worst within us. It revives old prejudices and misunderstandings about classifications of human beings. A recent United States map drawn by the Southern Poverty Law Center illustrates geographical divides, some back to the Civil War, that are being actively promoted by separatist groups. The White House is reviving the divide between Americans and all others: insisting on a wall between the U.S. and Mexico and creating barriers to immigration and even tourism. Legislative leadership, state and national, tends to pit economic considerations against human needs.

The pathway toward a more humane society includes advocating for legislation that breaks down the separation barriers of widening disparities in income, education, cultures, religion, ethnic origins, and the differences in accents and traditions of people living in rural and urban settings as well as from different regions of the country. It also involves courage and the risk of hospitality that welcomes together people from all strata of our society. Everyone is invited to the table: those who eat with spoons, or forks, or fingers, or chopsticks – with their left hands or their right hands. Our differences are real. Some people are very conscious of rank and respect, insisting on “sir and ma’am.” Others are more comfortable with informal expressions of equality. Some value avoiding conflict at all cost. While others value a good debate. Some always look for ways to give praise and support. Others are more economical with their compliments. Some are enthusiastic, boisterous, and chaotic while others are more comfortable in a climate of soft-spoken reason. Geography and personal history influence temperament as well as the status and meaning of our lives. Some speak slowly and smoothly. Others speak with clipped staccato consonants. Some values are almost universally accepted. Others are diverse and in conflict.

The pathway toward a more open, just, and peaceful society is not easy, particularly amidst the fabricated divisiveness flaunted all around us. The pathway begins modestly, in our neighborhoods and communities. It begins at the coffee shop or the bookstore, at the ballpark or during intermission at a concert, in the grocery store or the dentist’s waiting room. It begins by listening to each other for understanding, to nurture empathy, to create dignity, and to inspire advocacy for the well being of one another.

For me, the journey down the pathway to increasing awareness and hospitality opened up with the invitation, “Do you have a dollar to complete the cost for a cup of coffee?”

(Published:  My Turn, Concord Monitor (NH), September 18, 2017)

 

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“Race,” a False Absurd Construct

Recently I sat in the DMV waiting for my number to be called so I could to renew my license. Waiting with me were people with different shades of skin from diverse economic, ethnic, regional and country backgrounds.

To distract us from the long wait was an overhead screen displaying a series of slides. One of the themes was the organ donation check off option on the driver’s license application. One slide explained that matches for organ donations are not related to skin color or regional, national, or ethnic origin. Therefore matches for donated organs can be identified across the spectrum of humanity. It seems we are one people, worldwide! This simple affirmation concerning organ donation challenges the commonly accepted concept of racial divides and the hierarchy of white privilege.

However, the concept of “race” still dominates our social narrative. Historically, the concept of “race” was developed to establish a “white race” as dominant. The construct of “race” was from its inception, and still is today, about who has the right to privilege, power, status, and wealth, and who does not. It has become ingrained in our psyches. Contrived racial divides tyrannize us. The white privileged in our society decide who’s in and who’s out, who’s a criminal and who is not. People with dark skin are followed down store aisles as subjects of possible shoplifting. Their lives are at risk when they are stopped for a driving violation. We read stories of violent reactions to imagined threats from people who do not fit the privileged norm for skin color and clothing. People speaking with foreign accents or Arabic sounding language are feared to be terrorists. Many groups of people are considered untrustworthy as viewed by people with power and privilege.

We have checkpoints at border crossings and airports rife with similar mistrust. Our Congress has voted large sums of money to extend the wall between the United States and Mexico. President Trump has issued an executive order temporarily banning travel to the United States from six mostly Muslim countries. (The Supreme Court has ruled to put limitations on the ban until the Court can take up the case in their fall session).  Now he is attempting to revise U.S. immigration policy with rules giving priority to English speakers and those embodying certain values of the privileged. The lesson being learned, it seems, is that Muslims cannot be trusted and foreigners must be carefully scrutinized.

As an elder white male I live in this world of privilege. I can talk to the police without fear of being misinterpreted. I’m waved through border patrol checkpoints in Arizona. I’m frequently directed to the fast lane at airport security because of my age and profile as a white person of northern European descent. I can walk up and down the isles of any store without being followed. I don’t have to worry about wearing the right clothes to avoid appearing suspicious or dangerous.

However, in this social paradigm, we are all boxed into a contrived system of purity, superiority, and privilege for one particular group. The questions become, how black is black enough to relate to the pain in the cries that black lives matter? And how white is white enough to claim privilege and power? The answer to the second question is, any person with other than entirely white ancestry cannot claim to be white. The tradition in our society, and sometimes in the law, assigns all people of mixed unions to “races” defined as subordinate to the standard of the white privileged.

The way out of this box is to move into a new paradigm and live a place where racial constructs are an absurdity. It will be like moving from a flat earth society to a global community where there are no “pure” Native Americans, whites, blacks, Arabs, Asians… only human beings. It is time to embrace a future where people from different cultural, ethnic or geographical origins are free and encouraged to express openly the richness of their languages, cultures, spirituality, and historical origins without the stigma of coming from an inferior place.

Of course, while this paradigm emerges, continued support must be given to affirmative action and the “black lives matter” movement. A growing awareness of the absurdity of racial constructs will serve as a corrective to the white privilege from the old paradigm. Recognizing that there is no such thing as different races of people is a tool to be used pry away white privilege anytime it surfaces in jokes, fear, and social interaction or in access to education, equal justice, jobs, and housing.

The foundation of white privilege, like a house built upon the sand, will sooner or later fall. The reality of a common humanity is the way into the future of justice and dignity for all.   It behooves us to make it sooner.

_________________________________

The historical context of “race” comes from The Origin of the Idea of Race

by Audrey Smedley
Anthropology Newsletter, November 1997

 

Politically Correct

July 27, 2017

From twitter and Facebook to discussions in meetings or among friends there are more and more people interjecting into their communications, “I may come off as abrasive and insensitive, but you just have to accept me the way I am. I refuse to be “politically correct.” I’m an honest person who tells it like it is.”  The implication seems to be that others are too cautious, too accommodating, and too willing to soften the truth for the sake of maintaining comfortable relationships.

Upon closer examination, it seems there are two sources for this aversion to the political correctness. One source erupts from a sense of superiority over others; often expressed by people with economic and political power. These people are convinced that they have the ability to be more effective and make better decisions than co-workers, political leaders, or the general population. In the name of honesty they feel free to label others inept and use images denigrating their character.

The second source is the opposite of overactive superiority. It is the feeling of powerlessness. It is fed by frustrations of economic, political, or social impingements on daily living. Sometimes it’s change that threatens dependable and trusted rules and established ethics. At other times it’s distress over inadequate health insurance coverage or a bill collector demanding money that’s been allocated for the basics of food, shelter, and the children’s education. A demand to work overtime may overpower the promise to be at a daughter’s school play. And at other times the power of a government official, a national corporation, or the cable company overwhelms. This sense of powerlessness may erupt into anger toward a stranger or an immigrant perceived to threaten job opportunities, local customs, or to compromise privileges of citizenship.

At these times, angry words, labels, and accusations seem like a good idea. There is a sense of power engendered through name-calling, invective, derision, as well as with ethnic, religious, racial, or gender slander. How good it would feel to let it all out! And there is always the alternative option of associating with someone rich enough and brazen enough to hurl derogatory epithets without consequences!

However, I would suggest that these actions of bravado and unbounded ranting and raving never trump empathy, humility, and clear thinking. In fact, “political correctness” may not be pejorative. It may simply mean recognizing and honoring people’s sensitivities and dignity. Political correctness invites people into discussion: listening to concerns, discovering differences, and seeking ways to create common understanding. It includes the hospitality of Mr. Roger’s neighborhood, or Sesame Street. It recalls the stories of Dr. Seuss or watching the recently released film, Zootopia.   Basically, it doesn’t take a college degree or accumulation of wealth or the credentials of a “winner” to initiate these concepts we learned as children. And what about that old adage, “Count to ten before speaking?” This approach is not naive, weak, or gullible. One of the ways to make America still greater is to resurrect impulse control, particularly control of the mouth! To make America still greater is to do the work of a good neighbor.

The world is watching. Handala, a ten-year-old Palestinian boy, shows up in every political cartoon of Naji al-Ali. Handala stands with his hands clasped behind his back, looking with the viewer’s perspective, at each political cartoon. He is watching depictions of injustice in Israel, Palestine, the United States, and around the world. He’s the constant witness to the suffering of oppressed people everywhere. Al-Ali says that Handala will not grow up or turn around until there is peace and justice in the world. He is the conscience of the world.

What might Handala see in our country: an entourage speaking out with belligerence, belittling others unlike themselves, and relishing the bluster of bullies? Or will Handala witness evidence of the making of a still greater America?  I hope he will see my college cross country coach who insisted that whenever we passed an opposing team member during a race we talk to him, encourage him, and challenge him to pick up his pace and run with us. The result was we all ran faster, made personal bests, and contributed to a great race for all of us.

And I hope he will see the small discussion group of Muslims, Jews, and Christians meeting monthly in Concord exploring ways of justice and peace for all people. Perhaps he will see the Palestinian college students living in the West Bank seeking nonviolent ways to claim dignity while under Israeli occupation. And he will see a group of New Hampshire church people joining Minnesota Representative Betty McCollum’s initiative to write to President Trump, asking him to appoint a Special Envoy for 440 Palestinian children in Israeli military detention.

Handala will see people from many walks of life forming food co-ops and farmers’ markets to access affordable healthy food. He will see the hospitality Concord citizens extend to our refugee community and the help struggling people give to each other.   He will also see courageous volunteers from our country serving in Doctors without Borders, the Peace Corps, and working with refugees in Lebanon.

No matter who we are, how much or little education we have, to what social or economic class we belong; no matter our race, ethnicity, gender orientation, religious belief, or what skills we have or lack, we have contributions to make for a greater America. We belong to a people of dignity, each contributing out of our great diversity of beliefs, visions, and hopes. By sharing our insights, our struggles and successes, and voting for people who work for justice and dignity for every human being worldwide, we can make America still greater. If this describes “political correctness,” sign me up.

 

 

alternative healthcare debate

March 15, 2017

The debate about the Affordable Care Act, the attempt to repeal and/or replace it, is an invitation to examine the core values embedded in the various assumptions of the discourse. Three values that have become apparent are: the primacy of financial considerations, an individual’s freedom, and the right to health care for every human being.

Financial implications, for example, are emphasized in the March 13, 2017 email issue of “The White House” proclaiming, “Americans were promised that Obamacare would bring down healthcare costs Americans were promised that Obamacare would not raise taxes on the middle class.” Senator Rand Paul said on Face the Nation, “we’re not going to vote for it” (Ryan’s plan) because it creates a system of refundable tax credits. In addition, the recently released Congressional Budget Office analysis focused on costs of insurance premiums and federal deficit reduction.

Representative Paul Ryan, speaking on CBS’s Face the Nation, March 12, 2017, advocated for the primacy of the value of an individual’s freedom. He seeks to eliminate any mandate on individuals to buy insurance saying, “People are going to do what they want to do with their lives because we believe in individual freedom in this country.” He proposes a plan where people are free to buy insurance in the private market. Also, National Public Radio interviews with people who are critical of ACA reveal a positive attitude toward acquiring health insurance but a resistance to any “mandate” telling them they must have it.

The problem with being guided by the primacy of economic considerations traps us in a debate about the value of a healthy human being and which of us has earned the right to be healthy. Adhering to the mantra of ‘individual freedom” leads us into a society where every person must fend for him/her self. Both of these approaches are divisive and contrary to the vision of freedom and justice for all. They ignore the reality that we’re all in this together. The freedom and health of each individual affects the freedom and health of our communities and nation.

However, there is a value that can serve us well in the debate about health care in our country. Senator Annie Kuster, in a March 10, 2017 e-mail, suggested valuing the importance of health care for every human being. She wrote, “I am ready to get to work to… find ways to help improve healthcare for every citizen.”  Logically extending her focus on improving health care for every citizen invites us to begin a serious discussion by first seeking agreement to value good health for all human beings, no matter who they are, their economic situation, or where they live.

Some cynics will suggest that it is the nature of human beings to center on individual and family fortune. For example, in the current debate of ACA some healthy young people say, “I don’t need health insurance so why should I pay for the coverage of those who are unhealthy?” However, there is another side of human nature that may be worth cultivating. Consider the times and situations that bring out empathy and care for others. How often have we observed the ways people rally after a natural disaster or a tragedy in the life of an individual, a family, or a community. People are energized and heartened as stories are told about volunteers contributing their time, skills, and money to support victims. People celebrate these situations as evidence that human beings are really good people supportive of their neighbors. It seems, in times of crisis the glorification of rugged individualism is subverted. The people of our country have a history of standing with each other. In the early years it took a village to raise a barn. Not so long ago, neighbors would help one another get the hay in before a thunderstorm descended.

It is time to refocus the healthcare debate based on personal economics and individual freedom values to the basic value of communal support for every person in our society. Contributing to this discussion can be the many stories and examples of empathy and commitments to helping others in need. In the course of the conversation the evolving nature of the human condition may surface. Could it be that rugged individualistic self-interest is giving way to communal concern? The task for elected officials and the American people will be to embrace this new possibility.

With this groundwork, the means of developing a healthcare system of economics that shares wealth and benefits and a society that recognizes freedom to be supportive of one another will begin to fall into place. Returning to the barn-raising example, once we agree that a barn is needed to shelter a given number of animals and store a given amount of hay, the details of the shape and size of the barn will soon be resolved. In the same way, when we agree we are together responsible to provide adequate healthcare for all people, the economics to make it happen will take shape. It will be a triumph for our basic cooperative human nature working for a greater America.