I describe myself these days as a “political atheist.” By this I mean I don’t believe in any political party.
Like you, I try to sort out what I believe about the moral and social issues that matter to me then vote for people who claim to believe in principles that (more or less) are in alignment with that.
Problem is, I don’t believe most politicians (of any party) truly give a rat’s ass about what you or I believe, want, or need. I just don’t. If the show were really about us (ordinary Americans) and not about power and greed (this refers both to the politicians who are busy preserving their gig and the ruling class who are busy preserving theirs), then things would be radically different.
All of the outrage over the lies spewing forth from High Office in 2018? I get it. I do. But let me pose a question.
Which do you find more disturbing: the lies that are so obvious a seventh grader can point them out, or the lies that are so carefully crafted and eloquently delivered that you’re applauding and wiping away a little tear as they reverberate in your ears?
They’re equally disgusting, yes? The clever lie is being delivered by a Statesman, likely one with a formidable academic background, and the obvious lie is being delivered by a delusional fool. At the end of the day, it’s the lie you believe that presents the greater danger, though both are a great offense.
Do you really imagine that “your party” and its leaders are the good guys and “the other party” and its leaders are the bad guys? You weren’t lied to about the Watergate break in? You weren’t lied to about what was really happening in the Viet Nam war?
Do you think your party’s leaders aren’t lying?
Do you believe what you read in history books is unvarnished truth? The whole truth?
What is CNN telling you? Or FOX news? You think there is no agenda, no pullers of strings, no money influencing “your” media while “the other guy’s” media is a pack of filthy lies?
Follow the money.
What do you or I know?
We know the story someone else is telling us.
By all means, fact check. By all means, call out bad behavior. Go ahead and be indignant.
But never forget that, within the framework of history, “your team” is as guilty as the other guy’s team. If we catalogue all the lies and crimes of our political leaders, neither party comes out looking saintly.
It’s the “lopsided indignity” that chafes me.
If you’re gonna hate one man’s misuse of power (and you should), you must hate the other man’s equally. Even if he’s better looking and more intelligent. Even if he accomplished things you thought were good. If you’re going to despise one man’s womanizing (and you should), then you must despise the other’s with equal fervor. Even if your guy was the leader of a cause you believed in. If you’re gonna hate one man’s approval of torture, you must hate the other man’s approval of Napalm. Even if your guy said a bunch of neat stuff and wrote a lovely book. One man’s collusion is another man’s drowned mistress. Don’t idolize these people, don’t make of them anything more than they are.
Be an equal opportunity hater of injustice, lies, and misuse of power. That’s all I’m saying, people.
The endless self-righteous political talk (from both sides, from all sides) is incredibly tired and terribly lacking in context.
“I don’t wanna live in a world of darkness, I wanna live in a world of light. I don’t wanna live in a world that’s heartless, I wanna live in a world of sight.” – Steve Miller
Yes, that’s right. All the best wisdom has been summed up in pop music lyrics.
Lexicon mystery: could someone explain the modern (as far as I know, it’s a modern development) habit of people dropping the letter “t” in certain words?
The first time I remember hearing this was in The White Stripes song, “The Hardest Button to Button.” Most of the time, when Jack White sings this phrase within the song, he drops the “t” out of the word “button,” so we get “buh in.” Thus, “the hardest buh in to buh in.”
Regina Spektor does this, too. In her song, “Fidelity,” she sings the word “better,” dropping the “t,” rendering it “beh uh.” As in, “All my friends say that, of course, it’s gonna get beh uh, gonna get beh uh…”
When I was in Pennsylvania a while back I was asked in a Dunkin Donuts if I wanted my iced tea “swee-ened or unswee-ened,” thus the removal of “t” from a description of tea, which must be some sort of linguistic irony that would make the King (of “King’s English” fame) get all flustered (if he were a real person and not just the name of a book published in 1906).
Recently, I heard a guest on NPR drop the “t” from the word “certain” to give us “cer in.” NPR. Where I thought, maybe, language was safe from such absurd frivolity.
What is this???? Is it regional? Did it start in pop music?
Who can I blame for this? Do you know someone who does this? Do you?
Truthfully, I don’t really care. I’ve just noticed it and find it amusing/puzzling/intriguing. I haven’t heard anyone address it.
These are the times that try men’s souls (and women’s, probably more with the women’s souls being tried, to be accurate).
If someone would just explain to me this horrifying language travesty, I’d feel so much beh uh. You know?
What would you do if you spent an hour in an art gallery, found an exhibition of work that astounded you, moved you, made you laugh and cry and think so hard that you were exhausted and elated by the time you’d seen all the pieces … and a week later you found out that the artist was a chauvinist jerk, or a misogynist, or guilty of sexual harassment? Can you still admire the man’s work? Or has everything he’s done as an artist become so tainted that it’s no longer worthy of a spot in the gallery?
Can you still enjoy a Harvey Weinstein film? A Woody Allen film? The work of Dustin Hoffman? Kevin Spacey? Bill Cosby?
It’s weird, isn’t it? The curtain gets pulled back and people we may have thought highly of turn out to be assholes. Or worse. Maybe they’re assaulters. Rapists.
Still, there’s this body of work out there: movies we love, television shows we love, albums we love, books we love. Has it all become shit in light of the moral failures of these men (let’s face it, it’s mostly men doing the harassing)? Does it depend on how great the failure is? Is there a scale?
While I would never, never, never attempt to in ANY way excuse these moral failings/crimes, I think there are issues here worth exploring before we simply relegate all of these creative works to the entertainment trash bin of history.
It almost seems a given that men who are driven to seek fame have intense power issues. And once they achieve it, once the adulation starts to puff up their egos, rises them to “rock star” status, is it really a surprise that they abuse their celebrity? Especially if they start getting treated like little gods who can do no wrong. Power corrupts, as we know.
Even folks we might be tempted to valorize can fall mightily. Right, Bill Clinton? JFK? MLK? Here’s your power and … whoops, you abused it. Whaddaya know? It takes a strong man indeed to react with restraint, remain faithful to his wife, when he has scores of young, beautiful women falling at his feet. (In Weinstein’s case–and others’ who are guilty of assholery–they weren’t “falling at his feet,” but rather they were vulnerable in the shadow of his perceived power.) The onus of responsible, moral choice remains on the man, clearly, but I don’t think it’s a great shock that the area of sex and sexual attraction is an Achilles heel for most men. Kingdoms, literally, have fallen.
Was it a mistake for us to have supposed these beloved (by many) figures were particularly good, decent, moral men? It seems pretty safe to assume that a fair amount of the art we enjoy is being made by assholes of varying degrees … but, in many cases, we just don’t know it. No doubt, there are authors of great works of literature written long ago who we will never know were abusive jackoffs.
We now live in an age where it’s getting harder and harder to have secrets. Hell, ya can’t even run a stoplight at 3 a.m. without some damn camera taking your picture. Phones with cameras are everywhere. News spreads Twitter-fast. And, while men still have way too much institutional power, the voices of women are, more and more, being heard, respected, and believed. Men can’t just dismiss women as “hysterical” and get away with a wink and a nod. These are all good things (except the red-light cameras) for most of us, but not so good for men who believe they ought to be able to behave badly and never be held to account.
The #MeToo movement is a hopeful sign of our times.
We’re likely at a cultural turning point. More and more diversity (of race, gender, and sexual orientation) in our world means ever-more diversity in our businesses, politics, and art. Sexism, racism, homophobia, ageism … these ideas have been falling out of favor in the wider world for decades and this will probably only accelerate. The kinds of values and attitudes that helped “create” men who thought they could touch any woman or girl they wanted because of their status as an actor or director or artist or politician are ever-diminishing. This, too, is all to the good. As it should be.
But we still have the creative legacies of many fucked-up men; quite an archive of art made by assholes that’s unlikely to disappear in its entirety any time soon.
Films are not singular efforts. Weinstein may be an unforgivable monster, but if writers and actors and directors have made something memorable that happens to bear his name … do we refuse to watch it? Do we never watch “Rain Man,” or “Kramer vs Kramer,” or “The Graduate” again?
Tell me, where’s the line for you? How bad can a man behave and yet you are still able to admire the body of work he leaves behind? Is there a way in which you would feel comfortable separating the jerk from his work?
This is not me trying to convince you of anything. I, of course, understand that for any point I might make supporting my view there is a counterpoint tearing it apart. I’m not really interested in debates.
This is simply me telling you what I believe and why. Nothing more.
When I watch a show about animals or space, about life’s origins or the origins of the universe, I can get downright tingly. I can’t help being moved when I see the majesty of the heavens and the astonishing variety and complexity of life on planet Earth. Nebulae, the Aurora Borealis, spiraling galaxies, transparent fish, flying lizards, bugs that walk on water … these are awe-inspiring sights to be sure.
But, while watching these shows, I have never once thought, “Gosh, isn’t it neat what random forces can produce given enough time?”
I’ve heard the story where Matter is King. It starts like this: “Once upon a time, all matter was infinitely dense.”
That’s right, kids. Every bit of matter and space in this universe—you know, the universe that contains TWO TRILLION GALAXIES (this is 10 times more than the previously believed 200 billion galaxies)—was once so very teeny tiny that it couldn’t be seen. It had NO SIZE. Let’s not forget that each of those 2 trillion galaxies contains 100 billion stars, more or less.
So, there it was: all the matter in the universe just hiding out in nothingness, smaller than a single atom.
How’d it get there? Where’d it come from? Why was it so itsy bitsy?
No one can tell you with any certainty.
“It popped into existence from nothing, out of nowhere,” is one answer science gives. It seems to be the most plausible one out there.
Okay. So, this is different than Genesis 1 how? Oh yeah, no Creator. Now it makes SO much more sense.
The fact is, both of these ideas, the idea of God and the idea that everything came from nothing, require us to believe fairly nutty things that absolutely CANNOT be proven.
My God-view requires faith. Just as the everything-from-nothing-view requires faith.
Here’s where I admit that the idea of God is sort of whacky. I mean, if we’re going to approach it rationally, we have to ask where God came from, right?
Well, no. No, we don’t. If you’re going to propose that everything came from nothing (without any proof), then I think I get to go ahead and assume the existence of God without having to come up with an origin story.
For me, God is the one utterly inexplicable thing that makes everything else possible.
The First Cause of life must be living. The First Cause of consciousness must be conscious. The First Cause of intellect must be intelligent.
Look at the observable universe. It’s so bloody amazing.
Everything is made of invisible particles in constant motion. THAT is amazing. Your smartphone looks like it’s stationary, a solid object, but it’s composed of madly spinning particles, as are you, as am I.
That’s insane! Yet I believe it.
Interesting fact—I believe in atoms. And so, probably, do you.
But why do we believe in atoms?
Can you prove they exist? Not without an electron microscope, my friend.
Unless you’re a renowned scientist working at a super high-tech lab, you’ve never looked into an electron microscope. They cost nearly one million dollars, so I guarantee neither PoDunk High nor Big Town University have one in their science wing for you to play with on your lunch hour.
You and I believe in atoms because we read about them in a book, or maybe we saw some blurry image of one in a YouTube video. The truth is, we believe in atoms, even though they are entirely outside of our sphere of experience; atoms are an article of faith—a thing we believe in even though we can’t prove it. I understand that we’re confident that someone can prove it, but we can’t and that’s my point. We’re relying on the testimony of others, which requires faith.
Modern science, with all its impressive gadgetry and seemingly limitless cosmic imagination, still can’t give a satisfactory explanation of what human consciousness is.
When it comes to the question, “What is gravity?” our friends at NASA are forced to answer, we don’t know!
So, the most fundamental things we should understand about ourselves and the world we inhabit are fucking mysteries. Surprise!
Another thing, dear reader. I believe in God because of you. Yes, you. You are a freaking stunning, mind-blowing miracle.
Here’s something about you that maybe you haven’t thought of. You were inevitable. Just as you are. Your eye color, your height, your personality. Why do I say this?
Because YOU ARE. When the universe unfolded you were already an inevitability: all the conditions being what they were, this moment in time with you in it reading this absurd essay right where you are … it all HAD TO HAPPEN. Because it did.
I take it further and say, you are an INTENTION of the universe, of the God that forged your consciousness in the infinite past.
I believe in God because:
The “purely material” answers are unsatisfactory on every level.
Faith in God is no less crazy than the faith it takes to believe everything came from nothing.
The marvel and awe of the cosmic universe and this living planet make no sense without an intelligent being to observe them.
Everything about the observable universe is infused with intelligence, from humankind to trees to ticks, it is all bound together in an unfathomable symbiosis.
If this is the one and only universe, the odds that it would come up with you and me and all this life are as good as zero. And the fact that one of science’s answer to that dilemma is to suggest an infinite number of universes (so that, of course, one of them would have to result in us, right?), smells of desperation (and not a single one of those “other” universes can be demonstrated to exist).
A Christian, a Buddhist, and an atheist walk into a church.
That may sound like the opening line to a joke, but it actually reflects the reality of what’s going on in my church on any given Sunday.
My church has no religious creed or doctrine, it holds up no deity or faith as “the one and only truth for all humanity.” Those who attend are welcome to bring along the deity of their choice, just as they are welcome to bring their atheism, agnosticism, etcetera.
My atheist friends and acquaintances are very sure about what they don’t believe. They absolutely do not believe in any kind of god or goddess or spirit creating things or watching over the affairs of humanity. They do not believe in an afterlife. None of that should be surprising, as that would be the very definition of an atheist, yes?
What may be surprising to some, though, is that these non-believing folks are not in the least bothered by the fact that many of their fellow congregants do believe in God, or a goddess, or any of a variety of spiritual notions. For these atheists, it doesn’t inspire scorn, anger, or mockery. They’re not just okay with the faith of their peers, they respect, appreciate, and celebrate it.
Weird, huh? But should it be?
Is there really any good reason that modern believers and non-believers should be adversaries? I would propose that what they have in common matters so much more than what they don’t.
Our desire to love and be loved, our mutual searches for survival, connection, purpose, well-being, happiness, security, and pleasure—put simply, our shared humanity—ought to unify us to an infinitely greater degree than our various philosophies, religious and non-religious, divide us.
First, let’s tell the truth.
We all know that a lot of horrifying shit has been done in the name of some God or other. Witch hunts, crusades, wars, jihad … lots of bloodshed in the name of someone’s God. So, let’s not deny that truth.
Let’s also acknowledge that horrifying shit has been done by folks who wanted to outlaw religion: Mussolini, Stalin, Mao. Now, it’s a stretch to say these men were seeking to “spread atheism,” but it is certain their intent was not forcing people to believe in any religion’s God.
When we boil it down, deep evil is usually done in the name of power and greed—religion or non-religion are simply window dressing. That’s the truth about that.
Here’s another truth: people can arrive at either benevolence or savagery through both religious thinking and atheistic thinking.
Here, for example, is a theology that leads to evil:
My God is the only truth and all other ways of seeing the world are not just wrong but an offense to my angry, jealous God.
Therefore, if you do not follow my God I will have to kill you to make the world a better place. It’s my sacred duty. If I can’t convert you, you must die.
And here is an atheistic philosophy leading to evil:
Humans are nothing more than smart apes. Love is an illusion brought on by chemical reactions. Morality is nothing more than a social construct. The survival of the most fit (or simply my personal gratification, regardless of the harm it may cause to others) should be the only appropriate guiding principle.
Therefore, if misusing or even exterminating a person or an entire group of people (Jews, Tutsis, the infirm, the mentally inferior), helps to ensure the survival (or gratification) of the superior person or group, it is not only permissible, but wise. Any other way is self-annihilating sentimentality.
Here is a theology that leads to love:
Life is from God, God is love, and all people are children of God.
Therefore, the highest thing I can do is love life and people.
And an atheism that leads to love:
We get just this one shot at life, which makes it a precious gift of immeasurable value.
Therefore, the highest thing I can do is love life and people.
I have to admit, when I read social media “pile ons” where atheists are bashing Christians for being ignorant, backward, hateful hypocrites … it makes me very sad. Not because there aren’t Christians who fit this description (there certainly are), but because it is such a narrow-minded, thoughtless approach that discounts the millions and millions of magnificent, loving, compassionate, intelligent, luminous beings that would call themselves Christians (or Catholics, or Muslims, or Buddhists, or Whatever Religious Persuasion).
It’s not religious people that suck. It’s people that suck, some religious and some not.
In the same way, there are people you’re very glad to have as friends, neighbors, and co-workers because they’re kind, thoughtful, smart, funny … some of them are religious, some are not.
Being a human being on planet Earth is hard. Even under the best of circumstances, this life is going to beat the shit out of you many times, make you physically ill, disappoint you, and break your heart. Inevitably, it will kill everyone you love and, unsurprisingly, it will kill you as well. If a large number of people need belief in God to get them through this life, are we really going to fault them for it? And what about the many millions on the planet who will only know poverty and suffering until the day the die. How inspiring do you imagine they find atheism?
When can we start being grown-ups? When will we learn to live and let live, to find respect for one another—regardless of philosophy—to be a core value?
It shouldn’t really be so hard, should it?
If you’re angered by intolerant religious people, are you helping your cause by being an intolerant atheist … or have you become the enemy through emulation?
Look, I have a kind of faith but I have no problem with those who don’t. In fact, I think they’re quite courageous. Because they are facing life and heartbreak and illness and death simply on their own inner strength! No “teddy bear” of faith to curl up with at night. I don’t envy them. I couldn’t do it. I have no wish to try. But I do admire them for living their convictions, truly. Not just saying that.
I would just like to see them not act like assholes. Of course, I’d also like to see religious people not act like assholes.
Can we just do that, people? Would that be so hard?
Peace and love to all (flavor to taste with the philosophy of your choice, brothers and sisters).
The way we generally hear abortion debated, there seems to be an implied assumption that highly-intelligent, deeply-caring, profoundly beautiful people can’t exist on both sides of the argument.
This is simply not true.
Arriving at a position on this highly complex, nuanced, emotional issue shouldn’t be easy. If it is, then you haven’t thought about it enough. Once you dig in deep, once you pick your side—if you can’t spot any moral hypocrisy in your thinking (no matter which side you wind up on), you haven’t thought about it enough.
Because both sides are irrefutably right about some very critical things. And if you see no merit in the argument of your opponent? That’s right: you haven’t thought about it enough.
I am not a fan of the descriptors. “Pro Life” and “Pro Choice” are both misnomers, they both attempt to claim morally superior territory while, in fact, revealing their hypocrisies upon closer examination. But we’re sort of stuck with these terms, aren’t we? After all, we must respect how people “self-identify,” mustn’t we?
If we were to take the most radical Lifer stance, and ask the government to force every pregnant woman, girl, and child to give birth … it would be a moral catastrophe of epic proportion. That’s simply a fact. According to the World Health Organization, there are 56 million abortions a year, worldwide. Imagine all the children who would be born into extreme poverty; or into dangerous, drug-addicted or abusive households; or simply born to people who don’t want them, can’t afford to or don’t want to care for them. That’s a whole lot of babies suffering—does forcing them into the world really make you an advocate for children?
Let’s admit, also, that it’s an unfair gender equation. Women bear children. Men/boys may populate a small island with their seed then run off and do as they please. The sufferers in a world of forced births would be girls and women and their babies, the more disadvantaged they are, the more they suffer. As always, the wealthy fair better under duress. Additionally, the men too often will not be held accountable for their actions.
All of that is irrefutably true. And those truths are why I am forced to be a Choicer. But, trust me, I see my moral hypocrisy all too clearly. Because there’s something else that is irrefutably true.
There are no geneticists debating whether a fetus is a living human being. We call it “human reproduction” because that’s what we’re doing. We’re reproducing humans. Not gizzards or asparagus. Humans. We know this. The zygote is a living human being at its earliest stage of development. This is not a religious argument. It’s science. To say otherwise is to construct a fantasy in order to soften a harsh reality we’d prefer not to face. I say this, remember, as someone who is Pro Choice. I’m just not going to lie to myself about the science to make me feel better. (By the way, there are Pro Life Atheists, some of them famous, in case you were wondering.)
What we’re debating is not the humanity of a fetus, we’re debating whether the right of women to “have free agency” over their bodies and their futures supersedes the right of conceived children to be born. As a culture, we’ve decided (by law) that it does.
So, when I say I’m Pro Choice (which, again, I AM saying), I’m saying that I accept that a human life is being taken (because that’s science, not some emotion-driven flight-of-fancy). I’m also saying that this evil is less than the evil of 56 million unwanted babies being born to 56 million women/girls/children who aren’t ready to be mothers. Here, then, is my moral hypocrisy: as a good liberal, who claims to be a voice for the voiceless, I am saying that it is morally acceptable to take the life of the most vulnerable humans on Earth … because the alternative creates an even greater evil, an even higher level of human suffering. In other words, the only thing worse than having legal abortions available as a choice would be NOT having legal abortions available as a choice. This is hard for me to swallow, but I don’t see us changing human nature any time soon, so it is a conclusion I can’t escape, and it makes me Pro Choice at the end of the day, whether I like it or not. Being Pro Choice also, for me, addresses the fact that a significant percentage of pregnancies involve rape, incest, severe pre-natal deformity, danger to the mother’s life, or other extraordinary mitigating circumstances.
I understand the indignation and revulsion Choicers feel when they see angry people holding signs with graphic photos of bloody fetuses. The easiest thing to assume is that they are a bunch of ignorant, holier-than-thou, finger-pointing, religious hypocrites who want to shove their morality down the throats of everyone else. We see them as people who claim to prize “all the little children of the world,” while doing nothing whatsoever to help the suffering children already-born. We see them as self-righteous a**holes. And some of them are just that.
But I would propose that many, many Lifers are simply men and women who have concluded that abortion takes a human life, and their consciences won’t allow them to be okay with that. I don’t find that incomprehensible at all. I don’t find it offensive. I don’t feel this negates their intelligence or compassion or decency. I do think that people that reach this conclusion need to genuinely grapple with all the moral issues related to unwanted pregnancies. They need to ask themselves what they intend to do to help the (theoretical) 56 million and, more importantly, the children and single mothers who are here, now, suffering all over the world. If they’re doing nothing, their claim to care about babies rings rather hollow, doesn’t it?
By the same token, Choicers ought to genuinely grapple with the fact of what it is we are doing as a civilization, what the ethical bargain is here. What the unpleasant, haunting truth is. It should never be glossed over. If we see no reason to grieve … we haven’t thought about it enough.
There is something both Choicers and Lifers would celebrate: a world where unwanted pregnancies were a rarity. (56 million—that’s not rare. It’s incredibly sad and revealing.) Reasonable, compassionate people from both sides could unite over this common ground and focus on the one thing they agree on, focus on how to make it a reality to the extent that resources and human nature allow.
But they probably won’t. Because they’ll be too busy not hearing each other.
Last week, I heard a story on BBC News Hour that I wish I hadn’t. It was about a mass killing in a small village in Guatemala. The incident happened decades ago, though I don’t recall having heard about it before.
The newscaster—in his matter-of-fact tone, with his authoritative British accent—spoke of acts so brutal that I cried as I heard them described, moaned as if I’d been wounded. I had to choke away the visceral emotion because I was driving, but the story shook me up for some time afterward. The magnitude of the violence done to men, women, and children was/is just so incomprehensible. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could come to the place where they could do such unspeakable things.
I’ll give you the (abridged, edited) Wikipedia version. Warning: if you don’t know this story, prepare to be disturbed … don’t read it if you are hyper-sensitive to the suffering of others.
On the 6th of December 1982, during the de facto presidency of General Efraín Ríos Montt, around 250 people – including women, the elderly, and children – were killed in Dos Erres by commandos working as government forces as a part of the government’s “scorched earth” policy.
In the early afternoon, the Kaibiles separated out the children, and began killing them. They bashed the smallest children’s heads against walls and trees, and killed the older ones with sledgehammer blows to the head. Their bodies were dumped in a well. Next, the commandos interrogated the men and women one by one, then shot or bashed them with the hammer, and dumped them in the well. They raped women and girls, and ripped the fetuses out of pregnant women. The massacre continued throughout 7 December. On the morning of 8 December, as the Kaibiles were preparing to leave, another 15 persons, among them children, arrived in the hamlet. With the well already full, they took the newcomers to a location half an hour away, then shot all but two of them. They kept two teenage girls for the next few days, raping them repeatedly and finally strangling them.
This is such a heart-wrenching story. It’s crushingly sad. I could hear the weeping and the screaming and the pleading of the villagers (especially the children) as they witnessed these horrors and begged not to be killed. Yet the hammer blows were delivered, the bodies mauled, the corpses tossed in the well. One after another, as if they were no more than garbage. The “how could any human being do this to other human beings” question kept gnawing at me as I tried to get those heinous images and (imagined) sounds out of my mind.
Fear, I suppose is the only answer that makes any sense (truthfully, the reality of this incident makes no rational sense, but it happened so I suppose we are forced to analyze it, try to understand it). One assumes this General Montt was a man to be feared. One assumes it was made clear to the soldiers that if they didn’t exterminate everyone they would be killed, maybe their families too. Did they have to use sledgehammers? (As a matter of degree, shooting seems like it would have been a more “humane” style of execution, though still abominable.) Perhaps even the raping was part of the “scorched earth” policy. Or did the soldiers just do that because they could? No one could stop them. No one was going to survive to give testimony.
Of course, as appalling as this incident is, it pales in comparison (in terms of magnitude) to the Rwandan genocide, or the atrocities committed by Europeans against Native Americans, or the systematic extermination of Jews during the holocaust, or the American enslavement of Africans.
How can people do such things to other people?
One of the steps that leads to genocide is the reduction of “the other” to less-than-human status. Give them a name that robs them of humanity: cockroach (against the Tutsi), savage or redskin (against Native Americans), Untermensch or “subhuman” (against Jews), n-word (against enslaved Africans). In Mein Kampf, Hitler called jews “parasites,” he said, “The Jew is a planetary bacillus.”
It’s easier to mistreat or kill a cockroach than a person.
On being “named,” author Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “And I saw that what divided me from the world was not anything intrinsic to us but the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named us matters more than anything we could ever actually do.”[i]
Mass killings happen for different reasons in different social and historical contexts but, at the bottom of them all—aside from simple, good-old-fashioned bigotry—is a drive to gain or preserve dominance over land and resources. In other words, it’s about power.
Are you a Hutu who doesn’t want to share political power or scarce resources and economic opportunity with your Tutsi neighbors? All you have to do is slaughter them (800,000 slain in 100 days), so you won’t have to.
Don’t want to share the land with the native population when your ships arrive at their shores? After they’re nearly wiped-out by the diseases you brought with you, you can see to it that the rest are eliminated or neutered as a threat through murder and dislocation. Then you can relegate them to a tiny spot of their own land and think of it is a kindness. Over the course of 500 years, you will have reduced their population from 10 million to 300,000.
Think that Jewish people are pretty much the reason for every bad thing happening in your country and the world? Set up an assembly line of mass murder. You can kill 11 million in a few years’ time if you really try.
Are you a European settler needing to get some back-breaking work done, but you don’t want to do it yourself? Go get yourself millions of black bodies from across the ocean. Beat them, rape and murder them into submission. Keep this going for 250 years, so you can build your so-called Democracy. The UN estimates 17 million of those black bodies died over that time period as a result of the slave trade.
We read these statistics and they boggle the mind. So many dead. So many murdered. In the end, it boils down to the seizing of power through dehumanization, subjugation, terrorizing, and murder of “the other.” Make them an object of fear, of disgust. Make them an obstacle to dominance. Pave your road to progress with their blood and bones.
With Dos Erres, Rwanda, the mass-elimination of Native Americans, the holocaust, and American slavery, we see varied combinations of violent bigotry according to skin tone: brown on brown, black on black, white on red, white on white, and white on black. This is human evil, the powerful oppressing the weak.
Examples of “man’s inhumanity to man” are far from limited to these. There are so many more. It’s hard to think about the harsh realities of all the violence in human history. Genghis Khan, Mao Tse Tung, Stalin, Idi Amin, the Khmer Rouge … all played their part. As did ordinary people who helped by carrying out orders or voluntarily aiding in the oppression and murder authorized by those in power.
Violence against, and oppression of, certain classifications of people is not limited to “long ago and far away.” Police brutality against African Americans is still happening. Institutionalized racism is still happening. Read the news. All across our country, and around the world, there are oppressed people groups. Nor is discrimination limited to the sphere of race. We discriminate against women, Muslims, albinos, the differently-gendered, homosexuals, those with disabilities … the list goes on and on.
How can we stop these injustices?
It seems like it ought to be so simple. The answers could be written on a message in a fortune cookie or on a postcard.
We’re all the same race: the human race. All of us have the same, intrinsic worth. All should be treated the same, given the same opportunity for education and economic success. Martin Luther King said it: judge people “not by the color of their skin but the content of their character.” Jesus said it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” It’s not hard to articulate the answers, but it is hard to implement them. It’s hard to give up privilege and power.
It comes down to the human heart. Mine. Yours.
Can we see our own prejudices? Can we see how we contribute to racism by denying it, ignoring it, minimizing it?
I’m speaking to myself. I’m speaking to my white* friends, family, neighbors, and countrymen.
I have to wake up. We have to wake up, recognize the indelible and cruel injury we have done to our brothers and sisters of a darker hue. See that we have not sought to understand or empathize with those with different sexual orientation. Admit it. Out loud. Ask forgiveness. Extend a hand. Be part of a movement that insists we are all the same, a movement that seizes the mechanisms of established power and ultimately, permanently, bends the arc of our future moral universe toward justice. A justice that truly applies to all.
These are starting places. This is the easy stuff. But if you let the reading change how you think and feel, even just a little, then you can say the journey forward has begun.
I’m still in these first steps. And I was moved to write this. This is my beginning.
*There is no white race. There are light-skinned people of many ethnic backgrounds. Whitness is a construct we have used to empower a majority based on an artificial unity relating to shared skin tone. This seems so obvious, yet it took Ta-Nehisi Coates to make me see it clearly.
[i] Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me (Kindle Locations 1280-1282). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.