Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Lessons for the Past Year from Rev. John Haynes Holmes

In pursuit of a master's thesis this week, I have read far more American pacifist literature of the 1940s than I ever expected to-- dwelling in particular on the work of John Haynes Holmes, the great Unitarian minister, renegade preacher of nonviolence, and social reformer. Holmes had his hand in every great left-liberal pie of the first half of the Twentieth Century, from the Social Gospel to the NAACP to the ACLU to the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Here was a man who never once deviated from the path of most resistance, proclaiming that "War is the great atrocity" even when the full heft of progressives, Popular Front-ers and fellow-travelers in the world of liberal religion was pressing down against him. I am not a true and thoroughgoing Holmesian in my ideology, but still, I can't help but feel -- especially when we look back on this year of universally-ascendent gangsterism and savagery -- that we need to hear again his lonely cry for peace.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Violence and Responsibility

The theme of this blog the past few weeks has been the importance of showing mercy, even to people who have done unconscionable things. And I suspect with regard to the particular crimes under discussion lately, this stance will seem to many readers far too lenient toward the guilty, and far too indifferent to the needs of victims. I hope I won't be read this way (if I'm ever read at all), because my hope has been to suggest a model of justice that makes both protection and support of victims and mercy toward the perpetrators central to its conduct. Even people who give me the benefit of the doubt, however, I suspect will feel on some level that such sentiments are just that -- sentimental, unfounded in any real experience of violence.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

More on the Rights of the Accused

It’s freshman year of college and I have been handed my first campus petition. I am thrilled. This, at last, is the vindication of years of waiting out the clock at my conservative Southern high school, in the hope that one day, I would finally be around fellow radicals and malcontents at some institution of higher learning. I am ready to join any revolution going; I will put my name to anything they hand me, and probably my phone number and home address too.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

"Do not follow the multitude..."

As I am set this week to participate in another post-Ferguson protest, I feel I have to express once again in some medium the fact that my conscience is somewhat ill at ease with my decision to do so. The larger message and goal of this movement seems on the one hand to be essential and timely. There may not come again in the near future a moment when there is so widespread and justified a revulsion against the abuses in our criminal justice system. And yet, I continue to worry with Kevin Drum that for the sake of conveying to people the larger truth of the systematic brutality and racial bias of that system, we are playing fast and loose with the reputations of potentially innocent people. I said in my last post on this blog that "I am not particularly interested in the question of whether the facts of each case should be subordinated to a larger social message-- because plainly, the answer to this is 'no[.]'" Unfortunately, though, the fact that something seems "plain" to me is not really a reason for regarding it as uninteresting; especially when it is not at last something that seems plain to a lot of other people. My inbox has been full these last few days of messages endorsing the protests that seem willing to subordinate the individual truths to the larger one. This troubles me a great deal, as it does Drum, and I feel I have to make some effort to stop it, if I am going to further involve myself meanwhile in the protests.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A Poem

Young People

A big bearded 20-something who
Is the loudest in the room
Is eating hummus and saying: “The oppressed demand a permanent revolution
“They must have blood!
“Kill the fascists!”
(At some point it emerges from the conversation
That he is studying for the priesthood.)

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Moral Witness -- or Moral Panic?

As Kevin Drum has pointed out, the news seems especially full these last few weeks of accounts of alleged criminal wrongdoing -- accounts specifically that share in common the quality of drawing attention to social injustices far greater than the individual cases. Yet in many (though not all) of these cases, the facts of the individual incident turn out to be morally complex in a way that was not immediately indicated by the news coverage. Drum confesses to a feeling of divided conscience as a result. I entirely sympathize with him, and am in near-total agreement with the conclusions he draws in his post. I am not particularly interested in the question of whether the facts of each case should be subordinated to a larger social message-- because plainly, the answer to this is "no," from a conscientious rather than consequentialist standpoint. But I am interested in how, if at all, one should respond in a public and permanent medium (like a blog) to criminal cases in which one does not have all the facts. There are cases, that is, in which silence must strike us as cowardice, when it might even seem a tacit endorsement of terrible actions, and this is partly what troubles Drum. But there is plainly cowardice too in rushing to judgment along with the crowd before all the facts are known. "Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil" (Ex 23:2) is a command that should be emblazoned on the masthead of every social networking site.

Sunday, December 7, 2014


6:30 PM
The train had pulled into the Harvard Square station, and I was battling with the front edges of panic that were creeping into my brain, like fingers of smoke curling beneath a doorway. There had been a prayer in front of the station for Eric Garner and for healing. Then we had gone underground to wait here at the side of the subway tracks. A group of law students pushed past me with surgical masks over their mouths that bore the words “We can’t breathe.” Looking at the legend gave me the brief sensation that my own throat was constricting. I suddenly had to face the fact that I had no idea what was going to happen on the other end of this train ride. Any protests I had been to in the past had been carefully orchestrated, staid, and populated mostly by the usual handful of middle-aged die-hards—“Unitarians, Quakers, egg-heads and old farts,” as Jessica Mitford would say. You could have brought a picnic lunch. This was going to be something else entirely—massive crowds, civil disobedience, angry police and Boston drivers staring on. My mind began quizzing itself on a dire crescendo of “What ifs.” What if something went very wrong? What if there was a medical emergency? What if I suddenly couldn’t breathe

Monday, December 1, 2014

An Immigration Crisis of Conscience

My previous post on this blog stated a view I very much believe to be true: that the mass deportation of undocumented immigrants is morally equivalent to ethnic cleansing -- and therefore that President Obama's deferrals of these deportations were admirable for the same reasons that any executive action to withdraw the threat of an ethnic cleansing would be admirable. I return to the point in another post today, not because I wish to retract it-- but because I wish to be very clear about what I mean by it. Ours is a polity of such inflated rhetoric and debased references, after all, that one's eyes can easily glaze over on seeing the words "ethnic cleansing." We have cheapened our own moral coin so much that hearing that a given policy is tantamount to a crime against humanity now entirely fails to shock. What I want to make clear in this post is that I use the term "ethnic cleansing" advisedly-- and not just because I was trying to find the loudest and most abrasive synonym for: "policy I happen to disagree with."