Six Foot Turkey is a mighty stream -- if diverted from its normal course it will yet find ways of breaching the dam, whether that is by sloshing over the top or seeping underneath it by subterranean routes. The last two months some of that gummed up verbiage has found its way into expression, believe it or not, through the church newsletter, where I, as a ministerial intern, have been allowed about a quarter page of monthly ramblings.
I am lucky to get that -- it was plainly the result of oversight -- but readers of this blog will have observed that it is not really in my nature to just come to the point. When I only have about 500 words and counting, however, this is exactly what I must do. So I take a roughly SFTurkey-sized thought and start sawing off limbs and extremities until we are left with basically the same idea, but expressed now in declarative sentences. With periods. Most of the time I am terrified of periods in writing, and will pull out any trick of punctuation -- dashes; semicolons: colons -- in order to delay having to arrive at one. But with only 500 words and counting, we have had to get acquainted.
After fitting the column to its Procrustean proportions, I step away and dust my hands -- and actually find I am not entirely displeased with the result. Maybe it's not so bad to just have to articulate an opinion for once without prefacing it first with a lot of waffling and wavering -- and cute alliteration. And it's not like all the SFT-like appendages are sacrificed to Procrustes in the process. In the first of these columns, you'll even notice that I managed to sneak in one of my superfluous literary quotations, which in 500 words is a lot like trying to get the proverbial rich man into heaven.
You can judge for yourself though. On the theory that the only particularly jealous guardian of my authorship rights is me, and that no one reads this blog, and that it is "better to ask forgiveness than," etc. I have decided to cross-post these monthly efforts on this blog as they come out. Below are the two entires so far, with a couple slight changes. The opinions expressed here will, I trust, not prove shocking and unexpected to SFT readers.
"Ten Thousand Refugees" (October 2015)
As I write, there are an estimated 60 million people around the world who have been forcibly displaced from their homes. Many of us are asking what we can do as a society to help. The other day, though, I learned something that made the reality of it all click in a way that it hadn’t for me before. I was talking with parishioner [who] mentioned a 1939 bill co-sponsored by Robert Wagner and Edith Nourse Rogers [...] that aimed to bring in 10,000 Jewish refugee children a year for two years. (This was obviously only a tiny fraction of the number who needed protection.) Under the weight of the resulting anti-Semitic backlash, however, even this modest resettlement bill never made it to a vote.
A chill went through me when I heard this. Here we are in 2015, debating whether or not to let another mere 10,000 people into the country who are in desperate need of protection, and we are hearing the same kinds of bigotry in response, but directed now against Syrians and Muslims. Last week, a man at a Donald Trump rally stood up and openly called for the expulsion and maybe murder of Muslim Americans. “When can we get rid of them?” he asked. Trump did not challenge the question – and he considers himself a candidate for the presidency! Politicians in Congress refer to “security concerns” about letting Syrian refugees enter the country -- a "polite" version of the same Islamophobia.
I can’t imagine what it would feel like to have nowhere in the world to go -- to have fled from gangs in Central America that threaten your family with kidnapping or torture, to have barrel bombs dropped on your neighborhood from helicopters by the Assad government, and, after escaping, instead of finding welcome and refuge where you arrive, to be hounded all over again by demagogues? It’s really a test of my faith in human beings to see this happen to so many millions – and in my own country at that. I can’t remember any other election year in my lifetime that played so openly on the worst aspects of human nature. I have to still believe that these kinds of hatreds are at root an expression of weakness and pain, and can be overcome by acts of love. The Donald Trumps of the world are truly “feeble tenants of an hour.” (Byron) They have opted to destroy themselves in the eyes of posterity for the sake of a few cheap moments of fame. There is ultimately something pitiable about such people—yet how many suffer because of them.
“Atrocity Stories” (November 2015)
Every time I turn on the radio I hear news of another atrocity: ISIS viciously persecuting religious minorities and planting bombs in crowded areas; Assad using incendiary weapons against his own citizens. Our government is guilty of atrocities as well. Saudi forces that are at present killing civilians in Yemen are acting with U.S. “logistical support.” At the beginning of this month, U.S. warplanes attacked a Medecins sans Frontieres hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, killing at least twenty-two patients, doctors, and nurses in the blast (ostensibly because Taliban fighters were firing from the facility).
Each time I hear one of these atrocity stories, my blood boils. Suddenly I feel up to launching some missiles myself. That anger comes from my feeling of powerlessness at what I am hearing. I am stumped, stymied, and like our own government I often can’t think of any possible solutions besides more arms and more fighters.
I wonder how many of the atrocities we read about in the news come from exactly the kinds of feelings I’ve just described in myself – the desire to retaliate, the wish to fight fire with fire. I recall that the U.S. government was by its own lights merely “fighting the Taliban” when it bombed that hospital in Kunduz. Assad and now Putin are “fighting ISIS,” they tell us. Each side claims to be just a little bit better than the side it is combatting. And for an instant after reading about atrocities in the news, we are almost ready to believe them. From our powerlessness and our anger in the face of injustice, we set out to look for “the lesser of two evils,” so that we can start shipping arms and missiles to whoever that turns out to be. As a result, unsurprisingly, we end up with exactly what we set out looking for: evil.
I have to believe that this is not really our only option. There is always a third option in the “choice between two evils” and that is the choice to do good. Think about it. Suppose that we didn’t bomb or arm one side or another in any of the world’s conflicts, but fed and sheltered the victims of those conflicts instead? What if the U.S. government took all the military assistance it devotes at present to corrupt and/or authoritarian regimes in Ethiopia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Honduras, and elsewhere, and spent it instead on resettling refugees, or on other forms of humanitarian aid? This may sound naïve, but I keep coming back to two numbers: 600 billion dollars, and 5 billion dollars. One of those numbers is the approximate annual budget of the US military. The other one is the annual budget of the entire United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Can you guess which one is which?
Let’s choose good this time. Let’s provide for the world’s 60 million refugees, instead of pushing still more people into exile by buying more machines of death. That’s the only hope I can see for a future in which atrocity stories are only heard on the radio when the topic is ancient history.
Just to acknowledge my plagiarisms of others in this post devoted so far exclusively to self-plagiarism, I should say that I may have stolen the title "Atrocity Stories" from a column by either A.J. Muste or John Haynes Holmes. I forget if I did, exactly, but the whole thing is at any rate highly Mustean and Holmesian in inspiration.
Another, darker note also has to be appended to the "Atrocity Stories" column -- which is that sometimes the news has a way of underlining in a pretty sickening way a point one has just made -- especially if that point has to do with pessimism about human conduct in war. As you may have seen, another MSF hospital was bombed yesterday -- this time in Yemen, and not by US forces directly, but by the Saudi coalition that our government is supporting. Another atrocity to add to the hundreds of Yemeni civilian deaths caused so far by the US's favorite "regional partner" in the Middle East.
Sometimes even the most apparently admirable military operations have a gruesome subtext. You may recall the hostage rescue operation from Iraq last week. It resulted tragically in the first US casualty in the war against ISIS, but it also led to the liberation of 70 people from ISIS captivity. These people almost certainly would have been killed or tortured, if US and Kurdish troops had not intervened, and it would be hard even for a more thoroughgoing pacifist than I am to wish this particular mission had not been undertaken. Among the freed prisoners, though, were a number of ISIS militants who being persecuted by their own forces under suspicion of being "spies." In an interview with the BBC, US forces involved said that these former ISIS fighters had not been freed with the others after the mission, but had been handed over instead to the Kurdish peshmergas. What will happen to them now? We don't know. We do know, however, that Human Rights Watch has found videos apparently showing Kurdish forces torturing prisoners accused of being in ISIS. Were these videos faked by ISIS to cast the Kurdish peshmergas in a bad light? HRW acknowledges the possibility, and ISIS has certainly shown itself to be sophisticated and mendacious enough in its digital-age propaganda to pull that off. Or maybe it means that yet another party to the conflict has an atrocity story to hide.
Putin meanwhile has certainly wasted no time in adding his name to the growing list of atrocious actors in the Syrian conflict.
But I am still rambling. This is the problem with only 500 words, and only publishing in newsletters. There is always something to add immediately afterward, or to edit or change. When you are in print only once a month it becomes extremely difficult to meet these needs.
I said above that it was a healthy exercise for me to have to abridge myself once in a while, and that's true. I still find however that I need sluices to collect the run-off, such as this blog provides. Even I wish I could find a way to shut up sometimes, that is to say; but this post is an excellent illustration of why that is so difficult. Writing is productive of more writing. It's only after you've said something that you can look back at it and see you said it wrong, or didn't say quite enough.
That's why you need a medium like this one, in which you can immediately change whatever you've just published, or tack on further thoughts the next day, instead of waiting for the next publication deadline a month later.
Seems like it would be hard to live any other way. I guess writers found some way of surviving in the days before blogs were an option-- somehow they managed to write for print only, with no power of instantaneous publication and editing at their fingertips, and not die in the process. I do note however some fairly high rates historically of alcoholism and suicide in the profession.