Look Up

Walking along Columbia Road in the Columbia Heights section of Washington one summer afternoon long ago, a voice entreated me to “…look up.” In fact, it said “Brother, look up!”

I did, and saw a young woman beaming down at me from the window of a third-floor flat. I never for a moment thought the exhortation was meant as an invitation, and it was just as well I didn’t. “You should always look up when you walk,” she said. “Hold your head high.”

I smiled back, said okay, and continued on my way. I knew what she was trying to do, and was grateful, so I resisted the urge to explain I was not that guy, the guy she thought needed encouragement. Whatever had been on my mind that day at the moment she noticed me, not looking up was a momentary lapse.

I started to make all of that the subject of a blog post months ago, but other matters occupied my attention. When trying to decide what to write this month, I thought again about that day, but wasn’t sure I’d make it the subject. To help clear my mind, I took a constitutional through the ‘hood shortly after sunset. Serendipity provided my answer. As I walked along a block of P. Street, a woman approaching from the opposite direction stopped in the middle of the sidewalk just before we were about to pass each other and – out of the blue – wordlessly looked up into the night sky. That was enough of a sign for me.

At the risk of seeming a Luddite, my sometime desire to tell people to look up is completely divorced from any concern about pride or confidence. It is about the ubiquity of electronic hand-held devices and how they seem to make some people lose all sense of their surroundings. To be truthful, my desire at times is not to tell people to look up, but to scream it – particularly when they are headed straight for me. Yes, some have mastered the skill of human radar or sonar or whatever and can whisk right by without missing a step. Others, the more oblivious, require the more observant to move out of their way. As for me, I’m inching ever closer to facilitating pedestrian collisions.

Anyone with a computer has, by now, become acquainted with some variation of the internet meme of families or groups of friends photographed sitting around a table in some restaurant, each member of each group intently looking at his or her own cell-phone screen instead of at one another. On the subway, with its herky-jerky stops and starts, I have marveled at how people would rather check their phones with both hands instead of using one to hold on and avoid finding themselves on the floor. A friend recounts observing a woman, double-parked illegally, sitting in her car looking at her phone. A city ticket writer pulled up behind her and, apparently feeling magnanimous, beeped his horn as a warning – twice. It was to no avail. The woman did not seem to hear him and never bothered to look in her rear or side-view mirrors. She noticed, finally, when he stood at her car writing a ticket.

Many of us are becoming guilty of screen addiction, whether it is the one on our phones, our computers and tablets, or our televisions.You can decide for yourself how sad and disturbing or how inconsequential you find this, but I assure you there will be consequences. How can there not be? There is not one human-made thing in this world that did not have its genesis in a human mind. From our imaginations come much of our reality. Those imaginations are nurtured by, among other things, noticing the world around us: the cardinal sitting high up in an elm, the gargoyle guarding the entrance of an apartment building, the striking beauty walking right towards you, the sunbeams streaming through a break in the clouds that hover low over the city on an autumn afternoon. Just as important, if not more so, is the time spent with our own thoughts. Our minds and our lives, our art and our science, our culture and our capacity to create are diminished in direct proportion to the loss of that which sustains us spiritually.

We all can afford to slow down and look around. After all, though we don’t feel it and, therefore, don’t notice it, we are never not moving. The Earth is spinning on its axis at more than a thousand miles per hour, while orbiting the Sun at close to 70,000. The whole solar system is moving towards the star Lambda Herculis in the constellation Hercules at about 43,000 mph, while – at the same time – moving upwards at 90 degrees to the Milky Way’s galactic plane at nearly 16,000 mph, and orbiting the center of the galaxy at 446,000 mph plus. As for our galaxy, it’s moving through the universe at 1,339,200 miles per hour.

We are not pilots, only passengers (and, perhaps, crew). The least we can do is spend some time enjoying the ride. Just look up.

And the walls come tumblin’ down

A one-way thing cannot be “both” ways. If something is absolutely wrong, then it’s wrong – isn’t it? Can it be wrong only sometimes or only for some people? Such a proposition is for the realm of relativity, not for the absolute, and we here in the West seem to have determined – absolutely – that the terrorism of present-day jihadism is wrong. Yet, in our bi-polar fashion, we hold conflicting beliefs and send mixed-signals on the subject. We tend to think timing is everything.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is the founding and current caliph of Islamic State, the new caliphate established in parts of Syria and Iraq. He’s finding much of the rest of the world today is not in the mood to recognize the authority of a religious zealot, at least not one who seems as disturbed and disturbing as he. Our response to him has been to try to bomb him to Hell. We tell him, his followers and their sympathizers that the goals and tactics of his group, and of those like al-Qaeda and Boko Haram, are wrong. At the same time, we have spirituals (Joshua Fit De Battle Ob Jericho) glorifying that very behavior. We celebrate in song the birth of a nation that began with the slaughter of men, women, children and livestock in every town encountered by the killers – all on orders from God. Al-Baghdadi, who probably never has heard a Negro spiritual in his life, surely knows as well as you and I that Joshua is exalted in the Koran as well as the Bible.

We have a problem with what young Abu is doing to Shiites, Christians and Yazidis, but no such problem when reading, hearing or singing about what old Josh did to the Canaanites. Why? Some of us believe time changes things, that we can’t judge people of the past with the mores of the present, that it is a mistake for us to look at them through a modern-day lens. I’ve seen that thinking applied in various situations, most often in discussions about slavery and Jim Crow. I’m not one who has ever bought that line of reasoning. To excuse people’s behavior using that “logic” would be to discount or dismiss the lives of everyone who knew slavery and racial discrimination were wrong and worked against it at the time it was happening. Are we to believe there were none among the ancient Israelites who thought it was wrong to acquire coveted land through the extermination of its inhabitants? (In fact, in the book Judges, we find there were some. God, however, promises punishment for not killing everyone as instructed).

So, back to the question of “Why?” If it’s not about timing, why are we cool with what the former Hebrew slaves did in Canaan after their sojourn in Egypt, but not with what the militants today are doing in Syria and Iraq after their sojourns in places like Liverpool, Paris and Pittsburgh? After all, Muslims, just like Jews and Christians, worship and are spoken to by the God of Abraham.

Aside from anti-Muslim bias, perhaps the answer lies in what we think we know about those Canaanites. Here in Western Christendom, steeped in Judeo-Christian culture as we are, we are taught the Canaanites deserved to be annihilated because of their unrelenting wickedness. They were said to be a people who burned their children on the altars of their gods, and practiced sodomy, bestiality, and all sorts of vice. The writer of Leviticus tells us that “the land itself vomiteth out her inhabitants.” William Foxwell Albright, the man considered in his lifetime to be the dean of biblical archeology, wrote “The Canaanites, with their orgiastic nature-worship, their cult of fertility in the form of serpent symbols and sensuous nudity, and their gross mythology, were replaced by Israel, with its nomadic simplicity and purity of life, its lofty monotheism, and its severe code of ethics.” The writer of Deuteronomy disagrees with the good Professor Albright’s estimation. It wasn’t about how good the Israelites were, but how bad the Canaanites were. “Not for thy righteousness, or for the uprightness of thine heart, dost thou go to possess their land: but for the wickedness of these nations the LORD thy God doth drive them out from before thee, …”

Okay. Stop. Just stop. Now, consider this question: How will we appear to posterity, thousands of years from now, if the only surviving history of us was written by the likes of the Taliban? If we think we will come out looking any better than how the citizens of Sodom, Gomorrah or Jericho appear to us, we are seriously fooling ourselves. If we think the Old-Testament writers who told us of the fates of those three cities don’t share a mindset with the man now intent on taking Damascus and Baghdad, we are seriously mistaken.

I suspect part of the grudge the Israelites had against the Canaanites is something we would find familiar today. I’d be really surprised if part of the problem didn’t have something to do with certain features of Canaanite culture that had nothing to do with burning their children. I’m guessing it had more to do with the rights of women – in that they had rights. Women could own land, enter into contracts and initiate divorce. Horror of all horrors, women also could and did serve as Priestesses. The Canaanites also were not averse to science and learning, having been proficient in mathematics and navigation, and having developed the first alphabetic writing system. Their skill in shipbuilding and commerce made them a society able to afford the splendor of wealth. You get the picture.

The same type of folk who didn’t like any of that then do not like it now. Some may find it unconscionable to compare the zealots of today with those of the past. Some may simply find it uncomfortable. It may raise questions one may prefer not to have to answer. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, no doubt, sees himself and his kind much the same way Professor Albright saw the ancient Israelites with their, “simplicity”, “purity” and “severe code of ethics.” I have nothing against any of that – when voluntarily applied to oneself. Forcing it upon others is a different matter. When that happens, it’s time to fight – something the West and its Muslim allies in the Near and Middle East have been doing for some time.

There is more than one reason the fight remains yet to be won. Social, economic and cultural impediments to advancement, coupled with spiritual malaise, continue to be a powerful recruiter of those easily seduced by violence. We also should consider the possibility that our ability to fight and win is compromised by our thinking. Confronting savagery on the one hand while revering it on other hampers us, causing us to fight as if holding one hand behind our backs. Hypocrisy is not an antidote for zealotry.

Bliss

A buddy and I sometimes joke about the reasons the Universe has not seen fit to let either of us win THE BIG ONE. It is never because of the staggering odds against it. It is always because the Universe knows better. With him, It knows how much of his winnings would be spent on the storied bevy of buxom beauties. With me, the Universe knows how much I would spend making trouble.

My failure to win, thus far, has never prevented me from making a wish-list, and checking it twice. One bullet point reasserted its presence just a few days ago. When reviewing it, I realized just wanting to start that particular kind of trouble makes me (among a host of other problematic attributes) presumptuous; judgmental; culturally insensitive; meddlesome; and maybe just downright ignorant.

Ah! Ignorance. That is really where this story begins: high school English class and one of the most important writers of the last century – George Orwell. We were reading his Animal Farm. It quickly became one of my favorites. I thought I knew exactly what he was saying, and to whom he was saying it. It was years later that I learned otherwise. Until that point, I truly believed Orwell had written a biting, satirical allegory on the American Revolution, its betrayal, and its present-day aftermath. How wrong I was, and how glad I am to this day that I remained in the dark as long as I did. The dark allowed me to see our history from a wholly different perspective. It prevented me from falling into a my-country-right-or-wrong mindset. The dark made way for objectivity.

Finding out what Orwell was really up to proved enlightening. Though my high school years were in the midst of the Cold War, the only thing I knew about the Soviet Union was what I learned in school, read in the newspaper or saw and heard on the television. You can imagine how all of this was presented. It was probably only slightly less filtered than what the Soviet Union was presenting to its populace. At any rate, the man Orwell sought to shine his light on, the brutal dictator Josef Stalin, died when I was a one-year-old, and his policies and legacy were repudiated by Nikita Khrushchev (in word, if not deed) when I was four. Stalin was directly responsible for the murder of millions of his compatriots, responsible for the undermining of the Russian Revolution, substituting a fascism that always seemed to smother such revolutions like infants in their cradles. Orwell (like my wife’s father and uncle) had gone to Spain to fight against the right-wing fascists devouring Europe. He did so nearly a decade before the rest of the world realized it had to do the same. Imagine his disappointment in seeing a revolution he admired succumb to the fascists of the left. Imagine my surprise at learning this.

So, one of my what-I-will-do-when-I-win fantasies from my trouble-making list came to mind while watching the news a few days ago. There was a story about an academy for training butlers to serve the rich – in China. Yes, you read that right. It was not about Taiwan, not Hong Kong, but mainland China – The People’s Republic, communist China. The real estate mogul bankrolling the school, when asked about how such a thing jibed with Mao’s revolution, said she believed it was necessary to keep the good things Mao said, but not the bad. It was not clear in which of those two categories she placed repression. It was then I was reminded why I’m never awarded money to blow. My mind immediately took flight in one of my fanciful forays over China in an old propeller plane. (Since it is fantasy, I can do so without getting shot down by the Chinese air force). Anyway, I’m flying back and forth over the countryside, and I’m dumping copy after copy, countless copies of Animal Farm on the farms and villages and cities below. The people read the book, and like I so many years ago, they know exactly what Orwell is saying, and to whom he is saying it. After awhile, thanks to Powerball and the power of literature, the masses rise, the pigs catch hell, the revolution is made right.

It warmed my heart recently to read Fidel Castro, Cuba’s unrepentant communist, is appalled by the Chinese. Despite his flaws, he at least remembers how his game is supposed to be played. Thanks to adolescent ignorance, Orwell helped me bear in mind how ours is supposed to be played as well.

Dismissed

Several years ago, in the now (I think) defunct magazine Human Behavior, there was an article about a man who – while just listening to NFL games – could tell whether a particular player was black or white. He couldn’t watch the games because he was blind, but by listening to sportscasters talk about great plays made on the field, he learned whites made them through skill, but blacks by luck.

He noticed. Most of us don’t, but that does not mean the message has not been received: the notion that the value of black men can be so easily dismissed. That sentiment – so rooted, so pervasive it no longer requires the malice originally attached to it – is perpetuated in ways large and small, passed from one generation to the next. Whether or not we realize we are taking in such subliminal suggestions, we are. It damages all of us, but it can kill black men and boys with impunity. The grand jury decision in the death of eighteen-year-old Michael Brown and the killing of twelve-year-old Tamir Rice are the most recent manifestations of this cultural virus. As if his very killing had not been enough, the devaluation of young Rice’s life was made clearer when a local news organization chose to investigate and report on his parents’ arrest records.

In the midst of these tragedies, I call your attention to an absurdity (in that you might find it absurd I would waste time even thinking about it). As stated above, the dismissing of value happens in small ways as well, but that is no small matter. It is still prejudice clouding our collective subconscious. This time it was presented in the form of an innocuous, network television advertisement for NBC’s singing competition program “The Voice”. As I write, eight contestants remain, including one woman and one black. Some ad guy or gal thought it would be cute to give them monikers for the few-seconds promo. So, there is the Soul Man; the Dreamer; the Hipster; the Heartthrob; the Tattooed Teacher; the Comeback King; the Stay-at-Home Mom; and the TSA Agent. If you were to make the obvious assumption about which one is the black contestant, you would be wrong.

(I have to digress. It’s about that whole “Soul Man” thing. That once meant being a black man, born and reared in Jim Crow America, who found solace in making a joyful noise unto the Lord in his youth, but gravitated toward secular song as an adult. You could hear every bit of that history in his voice – and more – when he sang, and when he sang he moved everyone who heard him. Yes, others who have grown up burdened by life in certain ways have had that experience infuse their art as well. Still others are mere mimics, good ones, but mimics nonetheless, and mimicry does not a “Soul Man” make).

Viewers of “The Voice” might decide for themselves what they think about that show’s singers, but they’ve already been given a nudge by the ad folk who seem to have decided how the audience should think. Despite their phenomenal voices and singing, the woman should stay at home with her kids where she belongs; the black guy should just be happy working for the TSA. No adjectives or superlatives for either of them.

Do I think the folk at NBC or its ad agency intended to denigrate the worth of that young man and convey that message to viewers? No. Am I being ridiculous to see it as an example of the prejudice the subconscious can produce? Perhaps, but I would be less so were it not for the undeniable examples of our history.

The last time I wrote about the differences in what people see when looking at the same thing was August 1, 2013. The subject was the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin. Here we are again, staring into a chasm seemingly too deep and wide to bridge. It makes one wistful for the clarity of blindness.

…and, on the third day…

It is a fact of human history that when we encounter a thing for which we have no word, we appropriate the word from those who do. It can be the word for an object or a practice, a color or a concept. An interesting thing about this phenomenon is that it does not necessarily occur in the manner that a clash of cultures usually does.

Historically, the backdrop for culture clash often has been invaders imposing their lifestyles on the conquered. Language, religion, customs and even dress are likely to change. This is why so much Latin went into the German dialect that became English, and why the Angles and Saxons adopted so many of the ways of the Romans. When, however, the victors are only mightier than the vanquished, but not more advanced otherwise, certain influences will flow in the opposite direction. This is why so much Classical Greek went into Latin, why so much of Greek thinking went to Rome.

The mighty, sometimes, are civilized by the meek, the restless made less so by the settled. The Hamites of the Nile Valley, the Semites of the Mesopotamian Valley, and the eastern branch of the Indo-Europeans (the Indo-Iranians or “Aryans”) of the Indus Valley all benefited from the civilized, indigenous peoples who inhabited those valleys first.

Why, in the world, am I even writing about this? It is because of an ancient word that confronts us every day, even more so during an election season. The word is “pundit”, conveyed to us through the Indo-European language known as Sanskrit, spoken by the Indo-Iranians who settled in what is now India. I say “conveyed through” because the Aryans had no word for who a pundit was or what a pundit did. The word is from Dravidian, the language spoken by the people who inhabited the land in which the Aryans were newcomers.

To be a pundit, originally, was to be a sage, a wise one. Many who have been given that title today don’t bother to even attempt to live up to its original meaning. Lacking all irony, some even manage the opposite. Wise or not, our pundits, for months now, have been telling some of us to expect the worst on election day. That advice, of course, is only for those of us who believe “the worst” entails a Republican takeover of the Senate. I’d like to think they are wrong, but the last time I convinced myself of that, I turned out to be the one who was wrong.

It was election night, 1980. During dinner at a restaurant with a friend, a busboy came out of the kitchen and announced Ronald Reagan had been elected President. I was stunned. It never had occurred to me this country could elect Reagan, even after he had impressed me with his convention speech four years earlier when he had lost the Republican nomination to Gerald Ford. That speech made me wonder how in Hell had that party chosen Ford over him. Still, I never imagined, four years later, that the country would choose him over Carter. Politically, my eyes were opened that night, and I’ve tried to keep them open ever since. I believe that is why I could look at John Kerry in 2004 and know he would never be President, that the country would – as crazy as it seemed – actually choose the man foisted on us by the Supreme Court four years earlier. I believe that is why, while watching the 2004 Democratic Convention, I saw the keynote speaker could be the country’s first black President – if such a thing were to ever happen.

So, here we are, three days until we find out if today’s “pundits” are correct. This time around, we don’t have the seeming wizardry of someone like Nate Silver, whose crunching of numbers in 2012 was so precise it made political prognostication look easy. He was widely dismissed by those who fervently believed Romney would defeat the President’s re-election bid, just as I had not believed in the ascendancy of Reagan.

For me, there will be only one consolation if the pundits are right this time. It comes from a wise man who said something that made me and many others in the room gasp audibly when he said it. The late Maharishi Mahesh Yogi of India, during a videotaped lecture, made the statement (quoting philosopher Joseph-Marie de Maistre, I’ve since learned) that “every nation has the government it deserves.” To hear someone suggest such a thing, particularly at a time when apartheid was the way of life in South Africa, was unnerving. Unnerving, but true nonetheless, as it will continue to be no matter what happens in three days.

Once more unto the breach

Unless you’ve been completely zoned out recently, you know the American-made mess in Mesopotamia has gotten messier, so much so that our cooler-than-cool President has become heated enough to dispatch bombers not only back to Iraq, but to Syria this time as well. Did he have a choice? What was the alternative? These are questions we will debate (but probably not definitively answer) for some time to come.

One premise that has been and will continue to be proffered is that we have no business involving ourselves in the Levant’s centuries-old, religious civil war. Let the original combatants have at it, let the victors take the spoils. The counter-premise is that we can’t be certain the victors will be amenable to our way of life, so we had better try and control the outcome as much as possible. Add to this all the hooey about “those Muslims” and “their Islam”.

I was reminded, a few years back, that even hooey must be placed in proper context. A reader’s comment on a news website suggested that the purveyors of anti-Muslim bias should either acquaint or reacquaint themselves with the history of Christianity at the tender age of fourteen centuries, the age Islam is now. I knew what he meant. Years ago, research for an on-again-off-again project had me immersed in a bit of regional history. We don’t even have to go back to the Christianity of the 1400s. The English-speaking Christian world of the 1600s will do just fine.

The land on which this city sits was once home to the Algonquian-speaking Nacotchtank people. I don’t know if there was any religious animosity between them and the other Piscataway groups in the area, but by 1632 people well familiar with religious strife claimed the land for their own, courtesy of a royal charter granted by King Charles I of England. Thus was born Maryland, meant to be somewhat of a refuge for English Catholics chafing under the Church of England – the Anglicans. “Refuge” may be a bit of a stretch. In 1644, a Protestant uprising began a two year period known as the Plundering Time, when Protestant forces roamed the colony, robbing citizens at will and taking Jesuits back to England as prisoners. The Calverts (The Lords Baltimore), Maryland’s ruling family, regained control in 1648. The following year, the Maryland assembly passed the Maryland Toleration Act, mandating religious tolerance in the colony for the protection of Catholics and others at odds with Anglicanism.

In 1650, the Puritans, the Taliban of their time and place, revolted against the Maryland government, setting up a new government prohibiting both Catholicism and Anglicanism. During its time in power, the Puritan government persecuted the colony’s Catholics. Every original Catholic church in the southern part of the colony was burned down by mobs. In 1655, in an attempt to end the Puritan revolt, Lord Baltimore sent his Catholic army against the Puritan army in the Battle of Severn, thirty miles from where I now sit and write. The Puritans were triumphant, and remained in power until 1658 when the Calverts once again regained control and re-enacted the Toleration Act.

Maryland’s history even shows how religious and political upheaval an ocean away can cause turmoil here. What was known as the Glorious Revolution in England in 1688, the time when the Protestants William and Mary replaced the Catholic King James II on the English throne, led to the Protestant Revolution in Maryland. The Lords Baltimore lost control of the colony for the next twenty-five years, during which time the Toleration Act was permanently repealed, Catholicism was against the law and Catholics were not allowed to hold public office. (This is much like what we did when we invaded and destabilized Iraq, purging the Baathist Sunnis from the ranks of government and the military and driving them into the arms of what has become ISIL). There was no religious freedom in Maryland until after the American Revolution.

“Freedom” can be made into a relative term. It remains to be seen if anything approaching the “absolute” will emerge in the Middle East. Even the Maryland Toleration Act had its limits. It sentenced to death anyone who denied the divinity of Jesus.

Summer’s End

(This summer seems to have passed without ever making its presence felt. Here is a story about a past one.)

It was so hot,
Venus thought she’d better not
venture outside her door.
She piled ice into her biggest pot
and put it on the floor
in front of the fan.
“Got to keep cool, if I can.”

Venus sat still in her chair,
waiting for cooler air,
running wrinkled fingers
through gray hair.
Beads of sweat lingered
at her brow.
“Got to keep cool, somehow.”

Ten were dead already.
The killer heat had held steady
at one hundred, one degrees.
Venus had begun to feel heady
and weak in the knees.
She hadn’t felt good all that day.
“Got to keep cool, someway.”

Venus soon dozed,
nodding gently, eyes closed,
not thinking of the melting ice
or the threat it posed,
thinking only of how nice
it is in the coolness of dreams,
of how cool everything seems.

Venus dreams of long-past days,
of sunbaths and gentle waves
from late morn to early noon
on the shore of Chesapeake Bay.
She dreams of picnics in late June,
and of having to decide whether to go
with either this or that beau.

Venus sees her husband’s face,
laughing in some unfamiliar place.
He had been gone for more than a year,
taking a love full of grace
that lacked all fear.
He turns to her with an outstretched hand,
and she begins to understand.

The blades of the fan continued to spin.
Tepid water sat where ice had been.

c. 1982 g. r. adams