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While We Still Have Time

In spite of the grimness of the times in which we live, there is still hope. If you feel, like I do, that the usual discourse about matters of critical concern tends to be superficial, misguided, and false, then you might find some solace and inspiration here. I will try to offer insight and a holistic perspective on events and issues, and hopefully serve as a catalyst for raising the level of dialogue on this planet.

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Location: Madison, Wisconsin, United States

I was born in 1945, shortly before atom bombs were dropped on Japan. I served in the U.S. Army from 1968 to 1971. I earned master's degrees in Economics and Educational Psychology, and certificates in Web Page Design and as a Teacher of English as a Second Language. I followed an Indian guru for eight years, which immersed me in meditative practices and an attitude of reaching a higher level of being. A blog post listing the meditative practices I have pursued can be seen here.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Tribal Identity Crisis

The earliest identity I can remember is with my immediate surroundings - family, home, and the Woodlawn neighborhood of Chicago where we lived. I identified with the neighborhood so much, apparently, that at age three I wandered off, or as legend has it, ran away. It is one of my favorite childhood memories.

Two Chicago cops found me, and drove me around to see some horses - probably at a police stable - and bought me some ice cream. We were having a grand old time riding around in their squad car, then went to the district police station - most likely the one on South Cottage Grove Avenue - which had a lofty front desk, lofty to three-year-old me at least. My parents arrived shortly afterward and took me home. I still remember my older brother and sister saying to me when I got home, "You're really going to get it!" They were seething with jealousy. I didn't "get it." That time, at least. My parents were likely just happy to have me back alive and safe.

At age five I started Kindergarten, and thus began seventeen years of Catholic education. For the first couple of years it was mostly an adjustment process, getting used to mean women in black outfits telling me what to do, hitting me with rulers, pulling my hair and ears, making me kneel on my hands (in front of a statue of the "virgin" Mary, strangely), hurling insults. It wasn't until about third grade that I started identifying with Catholicism as a faith. At age eight I was cognizant enough of what religion meant, and the daily indoctrination started sinking in. I even aspired to becoming a priest for a short time.

I took Catholicism seriously, but looking back on it, I never liked it. I didn't connect with the liturgy, found it boring and tedious, and thought "Confession" was an exercise in humiliation and creepiness. I didn't like priests (or nuns). I had to manufacture sins to confess: fighting with my brother and sister, disobeying my mother and father, not doing my homework, etc. The idea was to subjugate yourself to some strange guy behind a screen, and give him the power of pronouncing your "penance" and absolution. It is no wonder that many priests got carried away with the power they wielded over the faithful. I was lucky. I flunked out of the altar boys, who were favorite targets of priestly abuse.

Anyone Irish here?When I graduated from a Catholic college in 1967 I also graduated from Catholicism. Everything was in ferment in those days. Priests and nuns were renouncing their vows and getting married, Thomas Merton was meditating with Buddhists, and, most influential for me, the Beatles went to India to meditate with a guru.

During my formative years I also identified with my "Irish" and "Scottish" heritage. These identities took longer to shed, and I still revisit them from time-to-time when circumstances give cause. I don't really identify as being anything, just me. After following an Indian guru for eight years, and pursuing various spiritual practices over the decades, I live with an attitude of deeper reality and practice. My inclination is towards various forms of Buddhism, but don't consider myself a Buddhist.

As well as my own life being partly a series of assuming and shedding identities, I became aware of the identities imposed on others. I still remember the first time I heard African Americans referred to as "The Colored."

It was in Champaign, Illinois (or adjoining Urbana), sometime in the summer of 1953. I spent a couple of summers there with my siblings in a big house (by 1953 standards) with three spinster great aunts from my father's side of the family. Cousins showed up at various times during the summer, along with other relatives. The house had belonged to my grandfather, who died the previous year. One day when we were walking around town one of "the aunts" told me a family of African Americans were "The Colored," and lamented that more of them were moving into the area.

Though "Colored" is an odious ascription, it is less obnoxious than some of the other names that were applied to descendants of our nation's slave past. I still remember one of the barbers at the shop where I got my hair cut at when I was a kid, who said, "When the jigaboos move in, that's when I move out." He was laughing when he said this. In a weird irony, his name was Africano. It was an Italian name, but hinted at something, er, darker. I didn't like the guy, and stopped going there when a barber shop closer to home opened. I didn't like the word jigaboo either, and obviously never forgot hearing it. Various other terms I heard growing up were coon, shinejig (short for jigaboo), burrhead, spade, ape, spook, sambo, and of course the all-encompassing nigger.

The official term for African Americans in those days was negroes, seen as a polite term then, but now is looked at as condescending and embarrassing. In 1966 Civil Rights activist Stokely Carmichael started using the term "black power," and negroes became a thing of the past. The idea of using the term black was to be more aggressive and proud about one's skin color.

Another aspect of referring to one's skin color was to establish identity as a distinct people. Since "Americans" of European descent are referred to as white, people of African descent, by calling themselves black, asserted their own independent selfhood.

This self-definition served a valid purpose of pride and distinctiveness, but it also served to widen the racial divide. Over time it has become for "whites" an easier term of condescension than colored ever was.

Just to complicate things further, the now official term among "leftists" for "non-whites" is people of color. Under this nomenclature whites are apparently people of no color, people without color, or people not of color.

Ignored in all this color identity is that no one is white or black. Or, more accurately, no one has white skin and no one has black skin. The skin color of people of African descent is of varying degrees of brown. The skin color of people with European ancestry consists of shades of pinkish off-white, peach or ivory, largely due to lack of pigmentation, revealing pale connective tissue beneath the skin. The actual color white is a mixture of all colors of the visible light spectrum.

Even if the color names black and white to describe skin color were accurate, they are not who a person is. No one is white or black as a being, any more than they are fat, skinny, short, tall, "gay," "straight," abled or disabled, young or old. These are descriptions of conditions, not of being. I don't sit around being white, and don't wake up in the morning saying "What a great day to be a heterosexual!"

We can get caught up in identities, and obsess about them, believing they are who we really are. Parallel to this is that we can fall into the trap of identifying others, and believing the assignations we bestow upon them are who they really are. Thus begins the downward spiral of "us" and "them." In its extreme it can lead to fear, loathing, violence and even murder.

"America" is supposed to be the great melting pot, where people of diverse backgrounds are blended together to create a harmonious whole. It hasn't worked out that way, but has worked well enough to create a tolerable level of cohesion of "races," ethnicities, religions, political persuasions, occupations and ways of living that exist nowhere else.

That is now all threatened. For the past several decades there has been an erosion of the tolerable cohesion, and it is reaching a boiling point. Grandstanding politicians are exploiting the divisions, and the worst of them, Donald Trump, has taken scapegoating of defined "others" to a new, more hateful and dangerous level. On Monday he called for a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. Other "Republicans" are trying to distance themselves from Trump, but their grandstanding is only slightly less odious than what he proposes, proposing Christianity tests for Syrian refugees, and calling Muslims "uncorked animals."

Words of hate are of course as "American" as the proverbial apple pie, but as David Masciotra writes in Salon, what enrages Muslims around the world is that we are killing so many of them, and in so many places in recent years - Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, Yemen. Some estimates of  Iraqis killed during our invasion and occupation are as high as 1,000,000. In Afghanistan total war-related deaths may be as high as 360,000. As of last January the death toll from Obama's drone strikes was estimated at 2,500. It is likely much higher now. In Yemen civilian deaths from drone strikes for the past year are estimated at 40, which seems relatively low, except that with our blessing Yemen has been turned into one large killing field. It is difficult to say with Syria, but civilian deaths from U.S. air strikes number at least in the hundreds.

So whether it is scapegoating Muslims within the U.S. or killing them around the world, it is safe to say that they are seen as the "other," and therefore their lives don't matter to us. At least to our ruling elite and a large portion of the population.

Tribalism, seeing one's own group as superior, "others" as threatening, the rest of the world as a free-fire zone - this reptilian brain approach to existence is reaching both a crescendo and denouement at the same time. As we approach the critical phase of human civilization facing both climate change and the unsustainability of the infinite-growth mass economic system, "otherness" will not be an option. The only question is how we move beyond the reptilian approach.

It's easy. Just give up identity. Or at least false identity. We aren't "Americans," "white," "Christians," or "us." I gave up identity. The rest of, hmm, us, such as we think we're an us, can do it too. Actually, it isn't so easy, but we have to do it. When you have to do something, a  way is found. Anti-Muslim hysteria is being fueled by "Republican" presidential candidates and "right wing" hate media. It is becoming obvious that this approach to public life is doing great harm, and is inhibiting our survival as a species. It will change. When the choice is change or die, change will be the preferred option.

To make it a little easier, our true identity, should we so choose, is within our own being. In yoga philosophy is is known as the Atman, or inner Self. In Zen Buddhism it is more difficult, no Self. I take that to be semantic - so subtle as to be beyond all conceptions of Self. Also so far down the path as to be practically irrelevant. The important thing is to give up external identity. Human survival depends on it. 

Here's a song. Let's hope this election season we don't get fooled again. One way to give up tribalism is to show a little respect. This tune is about the melting pot. Here's some Irish music. This song is from Scotland. Here's another Scotsman. The Beatles. John Lennon. Here's some music of Illinois. Here's a singer from Champaign. Here's a band from Champaign. In the 1980s there was an R&B group from Champaign named Champaign. They had a hit song.

Here's a band from Chicago. Carl Sandburg's Chicago. This band has some big shoulders. This band, surprisingly, is from Chicago. Here's an invitation to come to Chicago. This song is about a runaway. Here's another song about running away. Sometimes people leave with them old Chicago blues. Chicago bluesman McKinley Morganfield (Muddy Waters) knew how to shake his blues. He was pretty sure of his identity. This Chicago blues band was known from east to west. Jimmy Reed was a sometime Chicago bluesman. This is my favorite song by Chicago country-folk artist John Prine. Even Merle Haggard has a song about Chicago. This song about a Chicago tough guy was popular with many.

This song is about a train that goes through a number of towns and cities that have been part of my life. My grandfather was a conductor on this train, as well as others of the Illinois Central Railroad. Here's another Steve Goodman song, about longtime Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley. Marvin Gaye. The Rolling Stones. And, of course, this. Here's The Police, though not the Chicago Police. Frank Sinatra. Mel Torme and Tony Bennett. Here's Louis Armstrong.

Ali Akbar Khan, sarod player from India.

We'll all know who we are when the truth finally comes.

In a category by itself is Catholic music.  I have only dim memories of it.

We can't ignore that Chicago, its police force, its mayor, the president and the leading presidential candidate are all deeply enmeshed in a long-running scandal over the treatment of the city's African American population. The Chicago Police have always been corrupt and brutal, likely from the city's very beginning.

The added factor of "race" makes the situation more difficult, freeing the police to be even more corrupt and brutal. The cops who found me when I was three years old were pretty young, likely hadn't yet been dragged down by the system. Maybe they didn't stick around long enough to get corrupted. I've been wishing them well for 67 years.

Champaign is having its own problems with racially overzealous police.

Illinois is in international news for other reasons. A professor at Wheaton College was placed on administrative leave for making statements comparing Islam favorably to Christianity.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has recently settled with a professor it hired and then dis-hired, for $875,000, in a case that has cost it $2 million overall. The professor, Steven Salaita, had been offered a tenured position to teach American Indian Studies. His appointment was withdrawn because of statements he made critical of Israel.

R.I.P. Douglas Tompkins.