Thanks to the Austin American-Statesman for publishing this article on February 16, 2019.
Under a nearly full moon shining through stray clouds, a nineteen-year-old drunk driver killed two teenagers one summer night years ago in Austin. He was arrested, pleaded guilty at his trial, and was sentenced to forty years in the state penitentiary system. When the incarcerating bullet-proof steel door slammed shut behind him, was that the end of the story?
Retributive justice is an important component of our social contract, aptly described by the phrase “You do the crime, you do the time.” The state, represented by legislators, cops, lawyers and judges, courts, jails, and state and federal prison systems, takes responsibility for assessing guilt and punishment when its laws are violated. Crime, therefore, is understood principally as an offense against the state.
Have you heard of the term “restorative justice”? In contrast, restorative justice theory holds that the person violated by a criminal act, not the state, is the principal victim. Restitution, consequently, is a relational transaction between an offender and their victim.
Some crime victims want no further involvement with an offender beyond the court’s decision rendered by the state-sponsored retributive justice process. Other crime victims, however, have a need for more. “The opportunity for a crime victim to find hope and resolution by repairing the harm done by crime – beyond what happens in the courtroom” is a good working definition of restorative justice.
Jesus instructs his disciples in Matthew 18 to deal with conflict face to face. If a sin or some type of violation splinters a relationship between two people, if at all possible, these are to seek resolution of the issue face to face. If necessary, other community members can help the two move toward rapprochement.
And where did Jesus, who was Jewish, learn this type of practice? From his own tradition that seeks to maintain an offender’s status of inclusion in the community, and commands offenders to offer restitution to their crime victims (Leviticus 6 and Numbers 5 are clear examples) to help preserve the well-being of the community.
The ninth of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous distills these biblical principles: “Make direct amends to people you have harmed wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”
From the guts of a Texas prison five years after that summer night drunk-driving wreck, the offender met face to face with the mother and father of one of the teenagers he killed. The program that facilitated this meeting is called Victim-Offender Dialogue, and the Texas criminal justice system was the first in the nation to offer such a program institutionally to victims of violent crime. Importantly, only crime victims can initiate the implementation of this program (which includes guided preparation), and a participating offender must admit complete fault and guilt in their crime, with no expectation of favor from the Texas parole board. This program is administered by the Victim Services Division of the Texas criminal justice system, which seeks to serve the needs of crime victims first and foremost.
The Victim-Offender Dialogue program is an example of high-level restorative justice practice. Other restorative practices are becoming more common, including “circle conferences” at middle schools that attempt to mitigate bullying and other offenses by bringing adversaries face to face in guided mediation.
There’s much more to the story of this Austin drunk-driving wreck and participation in the Victim-Offender Dialogue program by the offender and the parents of one of his victims. The development of the program – an incredible story in and of itself – and what the program did specifically for these three participants is the focus of my new book There is a Balm in Huntsville.
We live in an age of hyper-partisan divide where the demonization of others is accepted behavior and mistrust is rampant. Can purposeful encounters between adversaries bear fruit for peace and understanding? Many who have experienced the healing ways of restorative justice practices answer the question with a resounding “Yes.”
This is the second of two posts reviewing Robert Sapolsky’s Behave – the first post is linked here.
Neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky’s Behave (Penguin, 2017) is a long but rewarding read. The first half of the book – 300 pages – delves into the particulars of brain regions and their development, cerebral enzymes, and genetics. Rewards come to the reader who continues to the last half of the book. Sapolsky is insightful, and his colloquial writing style humors, entertains, and instructs.
Sapolsky’s purpose is to explain human behavior – why, how, and what.
As promised in my previous post, this post focuses on a juicy topic: the biology of political loyalties and tendencies. I love Sapolsky’s sub-heading (hardcover, p. 444) in Chapter 12 – “Hierarchy, Obedience, and Resistance” – that introduces the juicy section: “OH, WHY NOT TAKE THIS ONE ON? POLITICS AND POLITICAL ORIENTATIONS.”
Here We Go . . .
Sapolsky asks if there are “psychological, affective, cognitive, and visceral ways” in which left-leaners and right-leaners tend to differ. He answers by saying there are “fascinating findings” which he summarizes under the categories of intelligence, intellectual style, moral cognition, and psychological differences.
Even so, he posits an important disclaimer: rather than categories of stereotypes or essentialisms, what stands out in each group of partisans are internal consistencies which, he claims, are evident in both political and apolitical realms and have bits of biology undergirding them.
In the category of intelligence, he references a well-known study from the 1950s – one, however, not always verified by other similar studies – that suggested a link between lower intelligence and conservative ideology. (I told you this would be juicy.) Better supported, Sapolsky writes, is a link between lower intelligence and a specific sub-type of conservatism: right-wing authoritarianism. This link is a concern today just as much as it was in post-WW II Europe, when researchers and political scientists sifted through the wreckage caused by so many submitting to Hitler’s authoritarian ways. Right-wing authoritarianism, Sapolsky says, offers simple answers (to complex societal problems), ideal for people with poor abstract reasoning skills.
As for intellectual style, Sapolsky brings us to the dancefloor to help explain psychological studies that illustrate differences between conservatives and liberals. See the guy tripping over his feet while trying to dance? Partisans, asked to give a snap judgment of the lousy dancer, agree that the guy’s clumsy. But given more time to ponder the situation . . . liberals more readily entertain possible reasons for his lousy dancing (perhaps a physical ailment, or a father who disdained dancing) whereas conservatives tend to stick with their first instinct. Sapolsky says that “conservatives start gut and stay gut; liberals go from gut to head.”
Sapolsky hastens to say that right-leaners sticking with their gut doesn’t mean that they are incapable of going deep intellectually. Far from it: both liberals and conservatives are equally capable of presenting the other’s perspective, showing intellectual dexterity. Liberals, though, show greater comparative motivation toward entertaining situational explanations – the descriptor “bleeding heart” fits. Many conservatives, during the George W. Bush presidency, became comfortable with the term “compassionate conservatism” – in part, an attempt to address the criticism of cold-heartedness.
An interesting aside: Donald Trump, before becoming president, spoke often of going with his “gut feel.” He’s continued to speak in similar fashion as president. By this marker, Trump is a card-carrying conservative.
Differences between partisans in the category of moral cognition are revealed by their typical response to this question: Is it permissible to disobey a law? Conservatives, with their affinity for law and order, answer “No” because disobedience undermines cherished authority. Liberals, on the other hand, answer “Yes, if it’s a bad law” – authority subsumed to their affinity for fairness for all. Another question: Should NFL players be allowed to kneel during the national anthem? Conservatives, with their affinity for sacredness – “Never.” Liberals will allow for it, if they can be convinced that the reasons and circumstances undergirding the action merit it.
As for the category of psychological affect, Sapolsky says that liberals tend to be more comfortable with ambiguity than are conservatives, who tend to be more comfortable with structure and hierarchy. Are our best days ahead of or behind us? Generally more comfortable with novelty, liberals anticipate, with needed reforms, a brighter future ahead. Conservatives, generally more comfortable with that which is familiar, speak of the good old days that should be returned to – “Make America Great Again.”
What is the role of government? Liberals: to provide social services and education for its people. Conservatives: to protect its people, with a strong military leading the way. Apropos, Sapolsky sites a study that reports Republicans having three times more dreams involving loss of personal power than do Democrats. Conservatives, especially those with authoritarian sympathies, are more prone to “threat perception” – fears and anxieties about potential dangers – than are their political counterparts. Of the two, which group reports being happier? Despite their hopes for a better future, liberals, who are more discomfited by inequality, report increasing unhappiness as inequality rises. Conservatives, for their part, self-report no decline in happiness in the midst of increasing inequality.
This is All Quite Interesting . . . But, Is There Any Biology Behind These Differences??
In the first part of the book, Sapolsky details the workings of the insula cortex, a subpart of the amygdala. An important player in the brain’s “fight or flight” response mechanism, the insula detects threats and alerts the rest of the body. As an example, the insula (in most of us) activates when we see a cockroach. It also activates when someone from a rival tribe – a “Them,” not an “Us” – is detected in our field of vision or thought.
“Social conservatives,” Sapolsky writes, “tend toward lower thresholds for disgust than liberals.” Images depicting gay marriage and abortion, for example, activate the insulas of conservatives. But show images depicting petulant plutocrats and arrant aristocrats to liberals, and their insula-triggered disgust factor goes off the chart. “Political orientation about social issues,” Sapolsky comments, “reflects sensitivity to visceral disgust and strategies for coping with such disgust.” Biologically, liberals and conservatives (more so) rely upon disgust as a metric for determining moral behavior. Disgust, however, as Sapolsky warns, shifts generationally.
Sapolsky finishes up this section on political orientations and biology with a pithy summary: “If it makes you puke, you must rebuke.”
So, Where Does This Leave Us?
Sapolsky gives hyper-partisans reasons to step back, take a deep breath, and re-learn one of the main lessons that evolution teaches: diversity makes us stronger and helps us survive. Behavioral differences – including those displayed in political preferences – harken back at least to some biological wiring.
Nobody wants to have to sit at the Thanksgiving table while the prototypical crazy uncle goes on a political rant. Have Sapolsky’s Behave at the ready and ask that he give it a look-over before he comes back to the next family dinner.
This is the first of two posts reviewing Robert Sapolsky’s Behave – the second post is linked here.
Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers is one of my all-time favorite book titles – to boot, the book rocks. Robert Sapolsky, the esteemed American neuroscientist, writes that acute stress is a life-saver: a zebra sees a lion and runs like the wind. We humans are equipped with the same fight-or-flight response mechanism, and though we can’t run like zebras, we benefit similarly. Zebras and other animals have less brain capacity than we do, consequently they’re no good at worrying. We are capable of prolonged worrying which elevates our stress levels to chronic status, which in turn gives us ulcers, hypertension, and other life-threatening maladies. Whereas acute or momentary stress can be a life-saver, chronic stress is a slow killer.
The long-time Stanford professor originally published his book in 1994. It soon became a classic and I read its third edition in the summer of 2006, recommended from the book list of a leadership class I was taking. In the years that have since passed, I’ve referenced the book multiple times. I opine that there’s a connection between the increasing rates of pet ownership and social anxiety in the US. Most dog breeds are good with acute stress – it’s their job to bark when a stranger comes to the door – but, like zebras, they’re no good at achieving chronic stress levels. What a remedy for us to come home after a long day to a tail-wagger who’s happy to see us and whose beating heart warms and calms our own.
In 2017, Sapolsky published Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst. This big book of 675 pages (not including notes) touches on some of the same territory as Zebras, but Sapolsky enlarges his scope to include discussions on inequality and egalitarianism, the effects of poverty on health, the dichotomies of “Us versus Them,” the development of empathy and compassion within the determining powers of genetic code and environment, and – it doesn’t get much better than this – the biology of political orientations and loyalties.
Let’s take a look at each of these themes. The “last best” theme will be covered in the second post in this review.
Stratified, or non-egalitarian, societies are better suited at conquering and survival when times get tough. This helps explain their ubiquity in the history of civilization. Because of their stratification, mortality is sequestered to the lower classes. Essentially, the unequal distribution of wealth and access to resources translates to the unequal distribution of death.
Modern democracies – and the advances associated with industrialization – have balanced things out (somewhat) concerning life expectancy rates between the higher and lower classes, but rampant inequalities still threaten various markers of 21st century life in many societies: weakening social capital, exacerbating poor health, increasing crime and violence. Sapolsky points out, most tellingly, that “inequality means more secession of the wealthy from contributing to the pubic good.” Inequality, without the mitigating effects of egalitarianism, is self-perpetuating.
Which brings us to the dichotomization of Us versus Them. Evolution has equipped us with the life-saving ability to differentiate between friend and foe, and we all derive much happiness and joy from being part of “Us” groups – whether golf buddies, sorority sisters, or mates in a military service platoon.
But when not held in proper check, this same ability can produce, as Sapolsky says, “oceans of pain” – with white supremacy groups at the top of the “For example” list.
Sapolsky advises his readers to distrust essentialism – the idea, like stereotyping, that people groups are always defined by a fixed set of characteristics and traits. He warns that what we think to be rationality is often just rationalization. Because of our “automatic tendency to favor in-groups over out-groups,” our seemingly rational explanations about the behaviors of others are sometimes better described as evidences of tribalism.
The recent rise of authoritarianism – Trump, Duterte in the Philippines, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Morales in Guatemala, along with the long arc of rule by Trump’s buddy Putin in Russia – is a troubling trend for many of us. Sapolsky shows that this rise benefits from the deep roots that conformity and obedience have in the human family. It fits hand in glove with another tendency or conditioned response in humans: our natural like of hierarchies. Sapolsky: “Hierarchies establish a status quo by ritualizing inequalities.” (Hierarchies, from ant colonies to corporate employee structures, are capable of unparalleled performance and production. My purpose here, as is Sapolsky’s in Behave, is to focus on inequality.)
Unlike the chimpanzees and baboons that Sapolsky has studied for much of his life, we humans in democratic societies actually choose our (political) leaders. He sites studies showing that we elect leaders with more masculine traits – high forehead, prominent jaw lines – during times of war and younger, more feminine faces during times of peace. Another study he sites had children looking at pictured pairs of faces where they were asked to choose their preference between the two for a hypothetical boat trip. The paired photos were actually competing candidates from obscure political races, and the children were asked which one would be most competent as captain for the boat trip. Their skippers, 71 percent of the time, were the actual winners of the elections.
We have entrenched biases and preferences. We have the option today (exercised by many) to consume the media output most aligned with our positions . . . and, like we often see partisans do on TV, we end up yelling at and past each other. Rationality or rationalizing? Sapolsky, again, says the latter: “Our conscious cognitions play catch-up to make our decisions seem careful and wise.”
If we’re only watching Rachel Maddow or only Sean Hannity – we’re not doing much more than stoking our own fire. Rational deliberation comes not from “doubling down” but from consideration of different points of view.
As promised, we’ll go deeper with Sapolsky into the biology of our political loyalties and preferences in the next post. Stay tuned!
As this blog enters its sixth year, it’s time for a new look and a new name. As always, I’ll promote egalitarianism as a way to build up common good in the midst of increasing inequalities. A new addition to this blog will be a heightened emphasis on restorative justice based on the work I’ve done the past two years to write There is a Balm in Huntsville.
Restorative justice is defined as “repairing the harm done by crime beyond what happens in the courtroom” and also as “the opportunity for a crime victim to find hope and resolution.” Restorative justice practices – whether middle school students circling their chairs in a resolution conference, prisoners in a ministry program listening to crime victims tell their stories, or victim-offender mediation – share this important factor: the consequential act of face-to-face encounters between adversaries.
As the current age of hyper-partisanship shows no signs of restraining itself, restorative practices offer a way forward from the morass. Stay tuned.
Five years has produced more than twenty blog posts on books that I’ve read and reviewed. Consequently, I’ve added a new header page to the blog: “The T. Carlos Book Review List.” Check it out. Jane Mayer’s Dark Money, Thomas Piketty’s Capital, and Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth are but a few of the important books reviewed according to the themes of egalitarianism and inequality.
Additionally, this blog is now linked to my new author website, www.tcarlosanderson.com, in anticipation of Balm’s release date of April 1, 2019. Check it out for updates, reviews, and events related to my new book which weaves a double narrative: the long-term reformation of a drunk-driving teenager who killed two people; and, the development of the Texas criminal justice system’s victim-offender dialogue program, the first of its kind in the nation.
Expect new posts – or updated ones – at least once a month. Special thanks to my friends Brittany and Sae Cho who took the headshots utilized on my new website. They also took the pic featured above. I do have something to say (the microphone) based upon the social justice convictions of the Christian tradition (the cross) with the goal of positively impacting our shared life.
I appreciate your interest and your support. Please help spread the word as you are able: Egalitarianism – opportunity and access for rich and poor alike, blind to the advantages typically derived from social status, pedigree, and wealth – is a great biblical and American virtue worth fighting for. As long as we continue to effectively advocate for it, we’ll help minimize rampant inequalities and their ugly side-effects in these days and in those that follow.
‘Tis the season of consumerist delights and gratifications. Chicago native Mel Tormé correctly crooned that “Christmas was made for children,” but the current age of excess and inequality encourages well-to-do adults to wish true their materialistic dreams. Numerous car companies showcase commercials where a spouse gifts a partner with brand-new wheels. Surprise! Ah, the new American Dream marriage: being able to make a $50,000-plus decision without having to consult your partner.
American-style holiday gift giving – focused on children – has been around about 150 years, necessarily coinciding with standard of living advances achieved during the Second Industrial Revolution. The depiction of American Christmas as an import of the St. Nick tradition from Europe is a convenient myth, no more than religious veneer on the American holiday season. More historically accurate is the understanding that today’s American Christmas derives from the ancient rhythms of rest and indulgence connected to Northern Hemisphere winter solstice.
The practice of misrule – common in Europe and early America – was a moment of social inversion centered around the solstice (December 21st) and its accompanying spoils of gathered harvest, freshly slaughtered meat, and fermented drink. Misrule gave social permission – during a few days in December and January – for the poor to enter the homes of the well-to-do demanding to be served with food, drink, and money as if the peasants themselves were the well-to-do. Misrule consisted of rowdy public displays of excessive eating and drinking, the mocking of established authority, and demands made upon the rich by the working class. Now bring us some figgy pudding . . . We won’t go until we get some – and bring it right here! The Puritans of New England – yes, it’s true – banned the celebration of Christmas in the mid-1600s not because they had issues with the legendary December birth of Jesus, but because misrule had a tendency to get out of hand. So bring it right here!
Misrule, a social bargain whereby peasants agreed to give their goodwill and deference to the wealthy and powerful for the remainder of the year, became domesticated in mid-19th century America: peasant and working-class folks were pushed aside as children became the season’s focus of charity and display of social inversion. Christmas celebrations would newly consist of private family gatherings inside homes; roving bands of young men pounding on doors and demanding the spoils of misrule eventually disappeared. Gift giving – ah, the memory of good St. Nick – was rerouted and the church was most pleased to be part of a toned-down, family affair focused on another child, the babe of Mary. Not all churches in mid-19th century America held Christmas services, but soon enough, the tide turned and the modern Christmas holiday emerged – the often-contradictory mix-match of the baby Jesus, consumerist greed, lights, excessive consumption, hymns and songs, a silent night, and an awfully noisy morning with gifts for the children (and some adults). Historian Stephen Nissenbaum astutely observes that “Christmas has always been an extremely difficult holiday to Christianize.” Absolutely correct – now more than ever!
There’s nothing wrong with owning a new and reliable car to get from Point A to Point B in style. The car commercials of this season, however, instill an alternative reality: possession supersedes function. Notice that hardly any of these commercials actually shows the promoted car in action, driven by the owner. What’s marketed and sold is not function but wished-for superlative status. During the Gilded Age – like today, another age of excess and inequality – economist Thorstein Veblen coined the term conspicuous consumption to describe spending by the richest Americans to build up their prestige and image. Veblen criticized conspicuous consumption as characteristic of a regressive society, similar to the stratified European aristocracies that many American immigrants had left behind.
St. Nick, tradition tells us, brought gifts and justice to needy children in the fourth century. We’ve strayed far from his example.
Is status determined by wealth and possessions or by service, commitment, and character? What we teach our children today – by propaganda, creed, and example – will determine the progression or regression of America society.
A patron saint is defined as a mythical and revered guardian figure of a people or country. Who, I ask, is the patron saint of the United States? George Washington? Since he is a relatively recent historical figure, he is subsequently disqualified – we understand Washington and others like him (Jefferson and Franklin) to be founding fathers. Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyon, or John Henry? We’re getting closer, but most American kids would recognize only one of the three, at best. How about Uncle Sam? He looks the part in red, white, and blue – but what more do we know of him than his finger pointed beckoning citizens to national service? To be a national patron saint, all – especially children – need to understand the details of the candidate’s story. Santa is the only one who qualifies; he, unquestionably, is the American national patron saint in this current day of commerce, materialism, and consumerism.
Santa – unequivocally an American invention – has an interesting history. It starts with St. Nicholas (270-343), a Christian bishop who lived in Myra – modern-day Turkey. He had a reputation for favoring children; he brought them justice and gave them gifts.
The date of his death, December 6, became his festival day. For centuries, various places in Europe revered the saint and practiced gift giving on his festival day. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves if we make a direct unbroken link from St. Nick’s December festival day and its practice of gift giving to the Christmas of today. More so, there’s a deeper connection between today’s gift giving and the ancient rhythms of indulgence (sometimes to the point of excess) during the winter months.
The winter solstice, December 21 – the shortest day in the Northern Hemisphere – has a deep and long cultural history. The celebration of greens and lights at the solstice, as is well-known, predates Christianity by millennia. The early church, not yet consolidated in doctrine and calendar, celebrated the birth of Christ on different dates throughout the year according to local custom. Constantine corporatized the church in 325, bringing conformity to its doctrine. Pope Julius brought consolidation to its calendar in 350 and proclaimed December 25 to be the festival day of the birth of Christ. The church understood its position to be strong enough to compete with Saturnalia and other pagan festivals celebrating the rebirth of the sun, covering over them, as it were, with the birth of the Son.
Historian Stephen Nissenbaum (The Battle for Christmas, Knopf, 1997) astutely observes that “Christmas has always been an extremely difficult holiday to Christianize.” Absolutely correct.
Protestantism’s penchant to not revere saints meant that St. Nick didn’t make the trip to the New World neither with the Pilgrims, the Puritans, nor northern European immigrants (Nissenbaum says that American Christmas as an early 19th century Dutch import is an “invented tradition”). As a matter of fact, Christmas celebrations in early America had more in common with the ancient celebrations related to the rhythms of harvest and the solstice than they did with church teaching. In the Northern Hemisphere, the weeks preceding and following the solstice (what we moderns call November, December, and January) traditionally have been the time of gathering in harvests, slaughtering for fresh meat, and enjoying the products of fermentation, beer and wine. We Northern Hemisphere moderns who purchase fresh apples from Chile in May might have difficulty understanding this ancient rhythm, since we are able to procure most whatever we want any time during the year. Even so, let me ask you to entertain a few questions: Do you have a tendency to put on a few pounds over the winter holiday season? Have you ever signed up for a gym membership in January? December was and is the time for excess – eating, drinking, giving, celebrating, leisure – a time to enjoy the labors of year-end and a time for misrule.
Misrule, historically, was a moment of social inversion when the wealthy and powerful deferred to their dependents and poorer neighbors. Practiced in Europe and early America, misrule gave social permission – during a few days in December and January – for the poor to enter the homes of the well-to-do demanding to be served with food, drink, and money as if the peasants themselves were the well-to-do. Misrule consisted of rowdy public displays of excessive eating and drinking, the mocking of established authority, and demands made upon the rich by the working class. Now bring us some figgy pudding . . . We won’t go until we get some – and bring it right here! The Puritans of New England – yes, it’s true – banned the celebration of Christmas in the mid-1600s not because they had issues with the legendary December birth of Jesus, but because misrule had a tendency to get out of hand. So bring it right here!
One of the unwritten rules of misrule, however, was the continuation of a social bargain. The peasants, satisfied with the brief turning of the tables during misrule, were to offer their goodwill and deference to the wealthy and powerful for the rest of the year. If you’ve ever received a Christmas bonus at a job where you felt you were underpaid, you can see that misrule is still with us. It’s the misrule bargain: accept your once-a-year bonus and do not grumble about your low pay for the balance of the year – a gift given in exchange for goodwill.
Misrule became domesticated in mid-19th century America: peasant and working-class folks were pushed aside as children became the season’s focus of charity and display of social inversion. Christmas celebrations would newly consist of private family gatherings inside homes; roving bands of young men pounding on doors and demanding the spoils of misrule disappeared. Gift giving – ah, the memory of St. Nick yet alive – was rediscovered and the church was most pleased to be part of a toned-down, family affair focused on another child, the babe of Mary. Not all churches in mid-19th century America held Christmas services. That began to change, however, and the societal move away from excesses so ingrained into the season by climate, culture, and practice was gaining momentum – until, that is, Sinterklaas took on American shape and form.
Sinterklaas, Dutch for St. Nicholas, became Americanized awfully fast. The Dutch version of St. Nicholas was transformed significantly to become the American Santa Claus: stripped bare of all religious symbolism and enhanced according to the traditional seasonal excesses. No mitre, but a cap; no shepherd’s staff, but a whip for his reindeer; no crosses, but gifts galore. The cleric red vestments were replaced by a snowsuit, covering an extensive paunch. As a matter of fact, depictions of Santa show his belly growing larger and larger as the mid-19th century gave way to the Gilded Age (1870-1900) and its proliferation of excess.
James Farrell (One Nation Under Goods: Malls and the Seduction of American Shopping, Smithsonian, 2004) calls Santa the most appropriate icon for an affluent society. Santa made his first Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade appearance in 1924, and then became comfortably ensconced into malls when they came to prominence in post-WW II America. Malls in America: where else would Santa, the very embodiment of consumption’s blessings for the youngest members of our society, be more apropos? The united values of consumption and materialism are effectively reinforced in American malls. The domestication of misrule moves forward, as the bearded and bellied commercial icon par excellence looks into the eyes of a child and all but promises her that her material dreams will be fulfilled – with a similar misrule social bargain – as long as she behaves.
Ol’ Claus by Ferrell’s estimation is the national “symbol of material abundance and hedonistic pleasure.” Even so, the big old man has a religious aura – he’s supernatural and omniscient, somehow all-knowing of our activities, good and bad. In Santa’s kingdom, the nice receive pleasing gifts and the naughty get a second chance. And just like that, with a twinkle in his eye, he gives his divine-like blessing upon our materialistic American Christmas. More Americans exchange gifts during the season than make traditional religious observance. What St. Santa represents – commerce, materialism, consumption – qualifies as the dominant religion of the land.
In my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good I argue that this dominant religion or ultimate concern (to use theologian Paul Tillich’s phrase) has for the most part been a good religion that has fed, clothed, sheltered, and employed millions – lifting many of these from the grips of economic poverty. But when this religion goes too far, and becomes an end in and of itself – the religion breaks bad and the societal common good suffers. Our unexamined proclivity to trust in economic growth as the healer of all our ills is misguided; economic growth has done its good work for American society, but we’ve reached a point of diminishing returns. Further gains in income and wealth for affluent societies don’t give its citizens the improvements once seen in the societies’ earlier and less affluent days. Since 1980, economic gains in the United States, going mostly to the richest Americans, have unfortunately helped exacerbate social problems related to inequality: mental illness, teenage pregnancy, obesity, incarceration rates, and (decreasing) upward social mobility rates. Many of these problems directly and indirectly affect American children, one out of every four of them living in poverty in the richest country in the history of the world.
It’s naturally based in history that the Northern Hemisphere’s season of winter solstice and accompanying holidays come with a touch of excess celebration, leisure, and the sharing and consumption of material goods. The grand majority of us look forward to and appreciate the December/January holiday season. It’s good to have a change of pace and break from that which the rest of the year consists: work and necessary routine.
Santa, the quintessential icon and patron saint for a highly consumerist society, tells us quite a bit about our own character and identity as a society (and what it is we teach our children). Does it all boil down to this: If we have enough stuff we’ll be alright?
This blog post and others on this website are representative of my views and writing in Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, distributed nationally by ACTA Publications, and available at Amazon or any other bookselling venue.
Fifty-four years ago on this date, December 9, John Coltrane recorded A Love Supreme at Van Gelder Studio in New Jersey.
John Coltrane released his masterpiece A Love Supreme in February 1965. For those of you unfamiliar with Coltrane’s work, A Love Supreme is as fresh and timeless today as it was more than fifty years ago. Accessibly melodic, Coltrane’s exuberant tenor sax fuses with McCoy Tyner’s teeming piano chords and riffs to produce an unparalleled thirty-three minute session of ascendant and flowing grace.
Give it a look and listen here:
Coltrane’s road to A Love Supreme was anything but straightforward. An incredible talent, he often travelled a wayward path. The hungry ghost of addiction haunted him; he was booted out of Miles Davis’s band in 1957 for continued heroin use, including a near overdose. The close call propelled him to clean up, however. From the autobiographical liner notes of A Love Supreme: “During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life.” His calling was “to make others happy through music,” which, he claimed, was granted to him through God’s grace.
Coltrane was raised a Christian, and he also sought out other faith traditions after his epiphany. His conclusion: “No matter what . . . it is with God. He is gracious and merciful. His way is in love, through which we all are. It is truly – A Love Supreme – .”
Yes, Coltrane’s credo – like some of his music later in his career – is a bit vague and esoteric. Let me put the credo in other terms, more accessible: love is a sufficiency all its own. In Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, I detail the societal desire and drive that is never satisfied with enough, always seeking “just a little bit more.” Love is the antidote to the pursuit of more and more; it helps us to be grateful, to relax, to rest, to enjoy, to share, and to know what and when is enough. Love also helps us to do great things – busting our tails in the process – for our neighbor and the common good. Love covers it all.
John Coltrane died of liver cancer in 1967, having completed only 40 years of life on this earth. Forgive the obvious cliché – his music does live on. Coltrane biographer Lewis Porter (John Coltrane: His Life and Music, University of Michigan Press, 2000) explains that Coltrane plays the “Love Supreme” riff (four notes) exhaustively in all possible twelve keys toward the end of Part 1 – Acknowledgement, the first cut on the disc. Love as sufficiency – it covers all we need and then some.
The conclusion of Coltrane’s liner notes: “May we never forget that in the sunshine of our lives, through the storm and after the rain – it is all with God – in all ways and forever.”
May A Love Supreme reign for another 50 plus years, and then some. Amen.
Just a Little Bit More is available through Amazon, and wherever books and ebooks are sold.
A version of this article has been printed in a handful of Texas newspapers on their Op-Ed pages, notably the Austin American-Statesman on December 11, 2018, and the Houston Chronicle on December 24. Special thanks to ministry colleague Jim Harrington, former Director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, for collaboration on this article.
The story of a pregnant woman, on the road and needing shelter, is retold and reenacted throughout the Americas every December. Raised in a family of European descent, I heard the story in detail each winter of my Midwestern childhood. It wasn’t until adulthood in Texas, however, interacting with Latino communities, that I delved deeper into the story’s themes of exclusion, welcome, and sanctuary.
Originating in Mexico more than 400 years ago, “Las Posadas” (“The Inns”) is the Latin American reenactment of Mary and Joseph seeking shelter. US citizens—many familiar with the biblical story—are faced with a reexamination of societal values, because of heightened political polarization which threatens our ability to deal with societal problems. Whether or not you are a religious adherent, I advocate digging deeper into this story as a way forward.
Demonization of the other is currently accepted behavior in our society—whether seeing a caravan of migrants as a hostile force; nonchalantly accepting as normal our entrenched inequality, including the callous assumption that anyone who is poor is lazy; or, dismissing our unconscionably high rate of gun killings (massacres and suicides) by calling the majority of actors “mentally unstable.” We know from recent history—from Germany in the 1930s to Rwanda in the 1990s—that demonization of the other is a deadly ideology. The majority of problems that our society suffers from does not originate outside our borders but from within them, creations of our own decisions and values (or lack thereof). “We, the people” means that we are responsible for dealing with our problems in a proactive and cooperative way. Demonization of the other is a convenient cop-out which allows us to point fingers at others outside our borders and, within them, at each other. Rather than solve problems, it exacerbates them by the misallocation of political energy and societal resources.
Religious leaders (including those of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian communities, and those of other faith traditions) have the responsibility to lift up their voices, as did the prophets who came before. In America, it’s not the purpose of religion to support the state, but to keep it honest and to call our leaders to accountability when they deviate from the commonly-held values of our faith traditions.
Rabbi Josh Whinston of Ann Arbor, Michigan, helped organize a prayer protest outside the prison-like Tornillo, Texas tent camp where our government detains hundreds of unaccompanied minor children. In similar courageous fashion, Brownsville Catholic Bishop Daniel Flores denied access to surveyors tasked with border wall construction on his church’s property in Hidalgo County. For this leader, construction on church property would severely restrict his church’s mission to serve all its neighbors.
The best of our traditions mandate that we live together by just laws that establish subsequent order. Religious teachings help infuse our social contract with compassion: feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, demand equal treatment for all, welcome the migrant, and enter into purposeful dialogue with those whom we disagree. The only question about these practices is how we do them, not whether we do them.
After the birth of Mary’s baby in humble circumstances, the story continues with the family having to flee for their lives because of the murderous intent of a ruling tyrant named Herod. The refugees cross a border to find shelter and hospitality—again.
On January 6—Epiphany—many Texans of Mexican heritage will gather around a King’s cake, called “Rosca de Reyes,” in search of an embedded miniature plastic infant boy, representing the baby Jesus, hidden in the cake. The knife that cuts the cake represents Herod and his murderous plan. The gathered ones, however, will do their best to protect the innocent child from tyranny and death.
We don’t make America great by demonizing other people, but by welcoming and befriending vulnerable persons—that’s the message and challenge of this popular Christmas story.
Happy Thanksgiving . . . I mean, Happy Black Friday Eve.
Daaammmnnn – I’m doing my best to adjust to the new reality, but I’m having some trouble.
I’m so deplorably old-school. I just can’t get the hang of the new lingo or the new way to roll.
Gathering together with family and friends around the table and enjoying turkey, ham, Tofurky (that’s vegetarian tofu-turkey for you extremely old-school types) and all the trimmings, toasting the day of gratitude with some nice oaky California Chardonnay . . . I now realize this description represents a by-gone era, like a black-and-white Jimmy Stewart holiday classic.
Today – early twenty-first century – “Thanksgiving” is increasingly about getting ready for Black Friday Eve and Black Friday, the biggest shopping days of the American calendar year. Turn on the football games if you must, but get ready to go! Shop!! And for our hard-working Americans, go and get the Walmart, Target, and the plethora of mall stores ready to rock, stock, and roll! Push away from the table and do your duty!
This is our time.
Or, at least it used to be.
We’ve seen commerce-based Christmas commercials on TV before Halloween for years now. I’m not knocking commerce; buying and selling defines the modern world and provides goods, employment, services, and meaning for the vast majority of us. Market activity is a good thing – unequivocally. We’d rather the youngest generation – able, creative, and impressionable – become integrated into the world of commerce than one of other-worldly disinterest and hate, which in extreme cases, can lead to terroristic activity.
Even though commerce is a great civilizing force, it ultimately does not make the world go round. The words of a Jewish prophet from long ago, “Life does not consist of the abundance of possessions,” cut against the grain of commerce’s ability to dominate. Maintaining balance and perspective in the midst of all the pots, pans, smartphones, sofa chairs, and cars that surround us requires either poverty or discipline.
Thanksgiving Day 2011: Walmart, Kohl’s, Target, and Best Buy annex the holiday for commercial purposes by opening their doors at 10 p.m. That very night “customer versus customer shopping rage” is reported and responded to by police in at least seven states. This year, Walmart and Target are hitting the airwaves unabashed with advertisements inviting shoppers in at 5 p.m. for Black Friday Eve. J.C. Penney – on the bring of extinction – opens its doors at 2 p.m. Yes, it’s just slightly ironic. Kudos to the checkout aisle workers who, upon handing shoppers their receipts, crack a wry smile and go subversive: Have a good Black Friday Eve holiday weekend.
Not all Americans are falling for the ploy. The pushback to maintain Thanksgiving as holiday without street fighting at the local big box retailer is gaining momentum. Increased internet commerce mitigates the big box stores’ physical lure. And that really cheap 40″ LED television on sale for Black Friday? It truly is cheap – made exclusively on the cheap for Black Friday and only sold on Black Friday.
On the positive side of the ledger, REI, the national outdoor equipment store, is leading the way by being closed on Thanksgiving Day and Friday – #optoutdoors.
Two exemplary theologians of our day – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Dr. Walter Brueggemann – have done excellent work lifting up the classic teaching of biblical Sabbath. Sabbath is time to give thanks, slow down, take inventory, breathe deep, and get away from some of the distractions of everyday life. I’m looking forward to Sabbath time this Thanksgiving with family and friends. And then I’m going to sleep in on Friday . . .
This post touches upon some of the connections in American society between football, military service, and violence. Special thanks to Vietnam-era veteran Arlin Buyert (USN) for permission to reprint his poems “Big Brother” and “‘Oh Say Can You See’.”
God bless Mack Brown, the former head football coach at the University of Texas. His sixteen-year tenure exuded victories on the field and classiness off it. He, by all appearances, treated players the right way; there won’t be any legit “tell all” books coming out anytime soon exposing a dark side of the Brown era. He shepherded a minority of his players on to the NFL, while maintaining during the last half of his tenure a 70 percent plus graduation rate – pretty good for a major college football program. Part CEO, PR master, and recruiting glad-hander – he eventually was done in by his own success. Longhorn partisans took umbrage at his 30-21 record during the final four years of his reign, and it was time for him to go.
I’m not the only commentator to have noticed the increasingly cozy relationship, in the past few years, between football (major college and professional) and the military. Fighter plane flyovers at the beginning of games have been around for a while, but ceremonies honoring service men and women at games – in large part due to the fact the US military has been at war since 2001 – are now commonplace. The tragic death of Arizona Cardinals football player and US Army Ranger Pat Tillman in 2004 cemented this relationship in our current day. And this relationship is a natural one; scholars have argued for years that football is not only an extension of military combat, but a good substitute for war. [Michael Mandelbaum’s The Meaning of Sports, Public Affairs Books (2004) is especially noteworthy.]
Since I live in Austin and pay some attention to football, I heard Mack Brown many years of his tenure proclaim – mostly during rushed twenty-second halftime interviews – “We support the troops,” “Thanks to the troops,” or “God bless the troops.” Yes, yes, and yes. Mack Brown wasn’t and isn’t the only football coach to say so, conveniently, during the weekend games on or around November 11. But, wait a minute. The troops and their plight deserve much more than passing or canned accolades as the coach runs to the locker room. Coach Brown no doubt meant what he said, but it was also part of the PR recruiting show intended for millions on national TV. How deeply do we support the troops? Numerous veterans hear “Thanks for your service” as the four quickest words of patronization, wondering if the ones uttering said gratitude have the remotest clue about the fragmented shards of a soldier’s soul that are ripped out and left for dead in a war zone. As a nation, we are undoubtedly guilty for the way we casually accept war and inadequately treat the PTSD many of the troops develop and bring home as result of combat situations.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Wood calls attention to PTSD and something else he calls “moral injury” (originally coined by clinical psychiatrist Jonathan Shay working with Vietnam vets some twenty years ago). To be clear: Wood claims, in describing moral injury, that troops in battle have not necessarily committed a wrong. Moral injury “is a relatively new concept that seems to describe what many feel: a sense that their fundamental understanding of right and wrong has been violated, and the grief, numbness or guilt that often ensues.” Wood calls moral injury the signature wound that Afghanistan and Iraq veterans deal with – a “bruise on the soul” that has lasting impact on the individual and his or her family.
Arlin Buyert’s poem Big Brother, dealing with a war two generations previous, poignantly describes some of the angst and brutal consequence of moral injury.
I was ten years old
when we took Bobbie
to the courthouse in Orange City.
Dad and Mom wept
as he boarded the Greyhound
bound for boot camp.
After graduation, Korea,
Third Infantry Division.
Two years later
someone else came home:
quiet and brittle as a dead tree,
non-stop Old Gold cigarettes,
quivering fingers, drunk
in his 1949 Ford, in the ditch,
a ditch that held him forever.
Mom cried again,
Suicide, tragically, among military personnel (active duty and veterans) is near double the general population rate. Twenty military personnel per day take their own lives, according to 2014 data. Ray Rice, the former NFL running back, was initially given a slap on the wrist for slugging to unconsciousness his then fiancée (now wife) Janay Palmer; later he was both suspended and scapegoated by a league that cashes in on a level of violence, although regulated, raw and primitive. Colleges and universities with football programs have higher rates of sexual assault on campus than those without. Military institutions are plagued with misogyny and the mistreatment of women; both institutions are guilty of not taking proper care of all of their veterans (both use the same term for retired participants) – especially those injured in action. Both institutions target recruits that are young, able, and not yet risk-averse – the pre-frontal cortex in the human brain, inhibiting risk-taking, is not fully developed until the bearer of that young brain reaches twenty-five years of age.
I don’t write this piece to ridicule either institution; the military is necessary in a diverse and conflicted world, and football is a loved diversion – and, again – a desired substitute over actual war. If you’ve not read Chris Hedges’s War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (Public Affairs, 2002), I urge you to do so. Hedges worked as a journalist, covering wars from Central America to the Balkans, and he famously describes war as a drug – potent, lethal, and exhilaratingly addictive. War, he claims, gives us meaningful purpose in a world besieged by seemingly insignificant pursuits. It can be, however, a seductive purpose. “Each generation again responds to war as innocents. Each generation discovers its own disillusionment – often at a terrible price.”
Of course we support the troops. Yet in gratitude for their sacrifice and service, perhaps it better we purse our lips, remembering that we have been endowed with two ears and only one mouth. Two ears to listen; two eyes with which to see and better understand the experiences of our fellow brothers and sisters. There are no easy answers. But there are experiences that instruct and inform. We need to pay better attention – Wood’s piece on moral injury is must reading.
War has been around a lot longer than football. Whereas football is derived in part from war and its battle scenarios, we risk confusion when we look to football as being instructive or indicative of war. War is not like football, a bigger and badder version. To the contrary, war is burdened with much more gravitas, obviously, than football ever will be. We Americans invest a lot of time, effort, and energy into our teams following their travails and successes. The least we can do to respect the troops: put in just as much if not more time, energy, and effort learning about the realities of war, and how those who fight our wars are affected by them.
“OH SAY CAN YOU SEE”
As preamble to high school basketball games
it felt fine.
As highlight of Memorial Day at cemetery,
it roused my youthful joy.
As crown jewel of Saturday parades in boot camp,
it drummed shivers through my blood.
As “bombs bursting in air” became my bombs bursting a village in Vietnam –
I can sing no more.
I saw too much.*
* “Oh Say Can You See” – War Poems by Arlin Buyert
Chapbook, 39 pages.
Buyert Books, 2014. Reprinted with permission.
Order directly from Arlin Buyert, $10 (no charge for shipping) by email: email@example.com
This blog post was originally published on this website November 18, 2014.