You won’t have a name when you ride that big airplane

Posted by Sappho on July 14th, 2019 filed in History, Music

I first learned the song “Deportee (Plane Wreck Over Los Gatos Canyon)” as a child, many years after Woody Guthrie wrote it. You may know the words, or at least the refrain: “Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye Rosalita, Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria! You won’t have a name when you ride the big airplane. All they will call you will be, deportee.”

You may know at least a rough outline of the incident that inspired the song: In 1948, an airplane crashed near Los Gatos Canyon, and all on board were killed. A newspaper relating the story of the crash gave the names of the pilot, first officer, and stewardess, but listed the passengers as merely deportees. Woody Guthrie wrote a poem lamenting their anonymity, a poem that was later set to music by Martin Hoffman, that became the song “Deportee.” The song has been performed by many, including Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, etc.

But I only just discovered this performance of “Deportee” by John McCutcheon. And I learned something new. The dead have their names back. Many decades after the song was written, and after the 28 Mexican agricultural workers had gotten their anonymous burial in a mass grave, several people, at the same time, had the idea: perhaps these people don’t have to stay anonymous. Perhaps they can be known by some name besides “deportee.” They came, after all, legally under a bracero program, and were deported when their visas ran out. Surely there was a record of them somewhere? I’m not sure what work went into tracking them down and recovering their names, but they were found, and if you listen to the linked recording, you can hear McCutcheon sing the old familiar song, as the names of the dead are read between the verses.

At their grave, there is now a memorial to the plane wreck at Los Gatos Canyon’s forgotten victims. Find-a-Grave has a photo of the grave. It is in Coalinga, the hometown of my college boyfriend Brian Sayre, who died young himself in an accident. Had he lived, I think he too would be glad that these dead have their names back.

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Coffee with Katie Porter

Posted by Sappho on July 13th, 2019 filed in Daily Life, Democracy, News and Commentary

I was late. I think it was a problem with the controls of the new car. My old car, fifteen years old, became too expensive to repair. New cars have new features, like connecting your phone with Bluetooth. This pairing, once done, apparently has the effect that, if you can’t find which of the many buttons actually lets the stereo play Bluetooth sound, has the effect of silencing Google Maps, so that it carefully maps your every next turn but doesn’t tell you any of these directions (and it’s not exactly safe to look at a cell phone screen while driving). Lesson learned: Bluetooth off when the phone is in the car, until I can get the dealer to tell me where the control is to make it audible.

At any rate, arriving halfway through the event, I thought it wise not to ask questions that others might already have asked, and settled for listening to the Q&A. The setting was a coffee house in Anaheim. The coffee house was crowded. Katie Porter stood on a chair. Several of her staffers were present, to help constituents once the questions were done.

Here are the questions and answers that I remember, a couple of hours later (I didn’t take notes or livetweet):

First topic: Impeachment. The man next to me spoke up, applauding Katie Porter’s stand on impeaching Donald Trump. Katie Porter explained how she had come to her stand. She had, she said, deliberately not supported impeachment during her campaign, because she believed, on principle, that it was wrong for her to take a stand on the subject before the Mueller investigation was done. Once it was done, she and her staff carefully read the whole report, and looked at the history of impeachment (being a law professor, she said, helped). She found deciding in favor of impeaching Trump an easy call. There were four cases where Mueller had found all of the items necessary for obstruction of justice, and others where Mueller found some of the items for obstruction of justice to be present. Obstruction of justice is a grave offence for someone entrusted with authority. This isn’t like a drug dealer flushing evidence down the toilet. It’s like a dirty cop altering the evidence. Rule of law requires that we be able to trust our government not to obstruct justice. So the hardest thing for Katie Porter was not coming to her decision, but pretending to be undecided for a week (here she threw in a joke about how she doesn’t tend to hold back what she thinks). She did this only because she wanted, when she made the announcement, to be ready with a video and a FAQ. She understands that she has constituents on both sides of this issue (her calls are mostly running pro-impeachment, but there are some con calls as well). But this was the stand she needed to take.

Green New Deal: A woman across the room from me asked why Katie Porter hadn’t come out in support of the Green New Deal. Katie replied that when she takes the risk of coming out for something, and takes whatever hit she may take from people on the other side, she wants it to be for something that will get something specific done. She applauds Green New Deal supporters for keeping the pressure on to do something about climate change. She thinks the principles driving the proposal are good. But she prefers to work on climate change proposals that are stronger on specifics that will lead to a clear payoff: a carbon fee and dividend bill, a bill that would supply money for more free public charging stations to encourage the use of electric vehicles, asking our military to address climate change as a national security issue, and providing assistance in waste management for developing countries.

Wells Fargo: A woman had a specific problem with Wells Fargo. I didn’t record the details. Katie started by referring the woman to her staffer who deals with financial issues, and then launched into a long discussion of how, now that she is in Congress, she is addressing issues ranging from sketchy lending practices to companies forcing consumers into arbitration agreements. This is a particular area of expertise for Katie Porter (and she shows it in the videos where she questions people in committee hearings). So, for example, when another constituent followed up with a question about a Chase announcement related to adding arbitration for disputes to their customer agreement, Katie noted that on her Twitter account and from her office you can get a form letter to use to reject arbitration. Katie says that arbitration is great for businesses dealing with each other, less good for business/consumer relations, where power is more lopsided, and arbitration is used to hide the history of disputes that would show up if all the cases appeared in court.

Student loans: Does Katie support Bernie Sanders plan to forgive student loans? Katie notes that there are multiple plans to forgive student loans, differing in detail. She isn’t wedded to a particular one. Rather, she supports committee work to come up with a comprehensive solution to addressing college finance issues, which could include student loan forgiveness and also a plan going forward. She started a caucus to address the issue.

Climate change debate: Does Katie Porter support having a climate change debate? Yes, she does. She also takes the opportunity to say that one question she will not answer is who she favors for 2020.

Trump is our President/student loans/immigration: A man behind me managed to get in three questions in quick succession. One took the form of a statement that, whatever you think of him (and the man says he didn’t vote for him), Trump is our President, and deserves the respect owed to a President. Katie answered this one by saying that yes, Trump is all of our President, whether we like it or not, just as Obama was everyone’s President, both for those who liked him and for those who didn’t. She confined herself to stating these obvious legal facts.

The second point raised by this man was that he felt that Katie had been too dismissive, in her student loans reply, when she talked about parents’ and grandparents’ loans. Who was better able than parents and grandparents to assess students’ plans and abilities. Katie said, yes, parents and grandparents are better able than students to assess the terms of a loan, but she thinks it not ideal for college education to be too loan dependent.

Third, the man wanted to know what limits Katie would put on immigration; didn’t we need to place some limits on how many people our country can accept? Katie said that her constituents have widely varied views on immigration, and her office hears all of them. Certainly we need some limits. For instance, we already have fencing on parts of the border, and this is a good thing, because those parts of the border with fencing are, in general, areas where it’s unsafe to cross. We have differing views on how many and what sorts of immigrants we can receive (Katie listed examples of areas where people might differ and what some of the differing views were), and these views should be resolved through the political process, by working out a compromise. This, though, the Trump Administration isn’t willing to do. Katie would like to see a deal like the bipartisan Hurd/Aguilar proposal. Trump, though, won’t accept any deal that doesn’t include whatever he wants at the moment and his wall.

Immigration: Another woman spoke up, lamenting the separation of families at the border. Katie agreed, and said that rule of law required that we live up to our treaty obligations regarding asylum seekers.

That’s as much as I remember (except for the fact that somewhere in there we learned that Katie is vice chair of the Scouting Caucus, and several constituents were given the names of specific staff members who could work with them on a particular issue). I stayed for a little while after the event ended, long enough to see that several staffers stayed behind when Katie left, to listen to individual constituent concerns.

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So, it turns out that the milkshakes weren’t concrete

Posted by Sappho on July 2nd, 2019 filed in News and Commentary

In this case, I don’t feel suckered. I was suspicious of the “concrete milkshakes” claim, so I didn’t include it in my post about Andy Ngo. I said that a video showed him being attacked, while carrying a camera, and it does. Still, for about a day, the rumor of milkshakes with fast drying concrete raged through Twitter, not just about right-wing folks who still believe that Hillary Clinton had Seth Rich killed, but among serious people. And it turned out to be wrong. And it’s interesting to see people’s reactions.

On the one hand, you have folks like Cathy Young, spreading the correction (and this is why I include her in my follows – she’s at a different point on the political spectrum from me, but she’s fact-based).

On the other hand, I see someone saying, hey, it’s still “petulant terrorism” to throw milkshakes, and, when Nicholas Grossman replies that “petulant terrorism” isn’t a thing, and not everything bad is terrorism, I find that a thread replying to one of his tweets has veered into the argument, not just that throwing milkshakes is terrorism, but that serving milkshakes is a form of Antifa terrorism because Antifa might take the milkshakes and throw them at someone. And then, I suppose, someone might decide that the milkshakes contain concrete. And all of this would somehow be the fault of the people who served the milkshakes.

Guys, you can by all means go ahead and condemn people who threw milkshakes at Andy Ngo; the milkshakes don’t have to have concrete in them for you to object to the tactic. Certainly go ahead and condemn the people in the video who appeared also to be laying hands on him. But if you condemn supplying milkshakes to drink at an event where lots of people are likely to be thirsty, I think you’re going way overboard in your definition of violence.

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Why I don’t write about Antifa much

Posted by Sappho on June 30th, 2019 filed in News and Commentary, Peace Testimony

A mob attacks Andy Ngo in Portland. Truth be told, I had no idea who Andy Ngo was until he was attacked. I can only keep track of so many bloggers, even ones who undoubtedly have way more readers than I do. But I’ve seen the video, and it does show him being attacked, and he is, in the video, armed with nothing more than a camera, so condemning the attack is an easy call, right?

And Jill Filipovic does just that. I’ll copy her entire Twitter thread, ignoring any copyright infringement on her Tweets, because I doubt she’ll mind.

This is reprehensible. I really, really hate much of what @MrAndyNgo believes. But you don’t physically attack a person because of their views. You don’t defend a violent mob attacking a person who is alone. This is wrong and disgusting and shameful.Jill Filipovic added,

Yes, the right-wing fever dreams about Antifa are way overblown, and Fox etc uses a largely invented Antifa threat to terrify its audience. No, many of the same people who defend Andy wouldn’t do the same for leftists who were attacked. But that can’t be the standard we adopt.

Even if you don’t give a shit about Andy or violence or think he deserved it, what, strategically, is the point of this? To put leftist protesters in the same category as violent hateful Nazis in the minds of a great many Americans? To give credence to the “outlaw Antifa” view?

Also this stuff is just so self-indulgent. You are not defeating the Nazis; you are losing the moral high ground and putting vulnerable people at risk. It feels good because you’re an angry boy living in extended adolescence, but this is about your own ego, not much else.

There actually are good guys and bad guys here. The alt-right racists and grifters are professional victims. Physically attacking them, not in self-defense, helps their cause. It puts more vulnerable people at greater risk of state violence. It is bad strategy. It is dangerous.

Seems reasonable enough, right? There’s a quote that’s often apocryphally attributed to Voltaire, but apparently actually from Evelyn Beatrice Hall: “I don’t agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Can we agree that, at least sometimes, “I really hate what this person says. I share your hate of what this person says. But you’re dead wrong if you defend physically attacking him for it” is the right position to take?

But then I looked at the replies Jill Filipovic is getting. The first thing I saw was people taking issue with Jill’s “Yes, the right-wing fever dreams about Antifa are way overblown” by pointing to exactly the video attack that she’s condemning. Because, apparently, if anyone associated with Antifa attacked anyone ever, in any way, that means nothing said by the right wing about Antifa can be overblown. But I’ve read, myself, things by right-wing writers, about Antifa, that are clearly giving exaggerated accounts of Antifa violence in order to defend minimized estimates of the threat of “alt-right” violence. Like the article in the Federalist that described the Proud Boys as a “free speech” group that stands up against the terrifying, violent Antifa. Like the person just now who replied to Jake Tapper’s tweet “Antifa regularly attacks journalists; it’s reprehensible” with a tweet suggesting that Jake Tapper, through some alleged past defense of Antifa, provoked the violence in Charlottesville.

That violence, I’d like to remind folks, started when a Unite the Right rally attracted people from all over the country to protest a local decision about a Confederate memorial. It was that crowd that showed up with semi-automatic rifles, that marched with torches through the streets shouting “Jews will not replace us,” and that encircled and attacked a smaller group of counter-protesters on the evening of August 11. It was “Unite the Right” protesters who showed up outside a synagogue with semi-automatic rifles on Saturday morning, August 12. And it was those white nationalists who are responsible for the one death at the protest, when a man whose name I refuse to remember (but who is now sentenced to life in prison) rammed a car into a crowd of peaceful protesters. So, no, Jake Tapper isn’t responsible for any of that violence. Even if it’s true, as it is, that by August 12 armed leftists as well as armed white nationalists showed up ready to rumble, making Antifa out to be the aggressor at this demonstration is a dodge, a way of avoiding acknowledging which homegrown ideology really has racked up the highest body toll in the US during the past couple of years. That ideology would be white supremacy.

That fact, though, doesn’t make Jill Filipovic, or Jake Tapper, any less right about attacks on journalists (even bloggers whom you don’t much like) deserving criticism wherever they come from. Jill’s getting other replies that say “It’s always self-defense” or that Ngo must have staged this.

And, then again, Twitter being Twitter, both the attacks on Jill “from the left” and those “from the right” may well include trolls and bots. I have no particular confidence about how much of Twitter Antifa is actually real (unless I actually know the person tweeting), and a certain portion of Twitter Trump support is likewise astroturfed.

Given this mix, of empowered right-wing white supremacist violence that’s currently more dangerous than Antifa, of apparently credible reports of actions by some people affiliated with Antifa (attacks on journalists) that are reprehensible, and of some incidents that appear on later reports to have been exaggerated to include worse actions than what actually happened (the demonstration at Tucker Carlson’s house), it’s hard to know when, if I criticize something, I may later find out that I was suckered. But Jill Filipovic is absolutely right on the general principle. Throwing things at Andy Ngo is neither self-defense nor defensible politics. And there are people who are trying to exaggerate the threat of Antifa to make excuses for the likes of the Proud Boys. Both these things are true. The one doesn’t make the other not true.

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Links and reflections on the humanitarian crisis at the border

Posted by Sappho on June 26th, 2019 filed in Blogwatch, News and Commentary

Some Suburb of Hell” camps. Dozens-of-kids-get-only-two-lice-combs-and-their-blankets-are-taken-away-when-they-lose-one camps. We-won’t-let-you-wash-your-hands-or-clean-your-baby’s-bottle-or-give-you-toothpaste camps. If-you-don’t-want-me-to-call-them-concentration-camps-I’m-damn-well-going-to-substitute-another-phrase-that-says-just-how-awful-they-are camps. Don’t-expect-me-to-use-the-euphemism-immigrant-detention camps. If-you-did-this-to-your-kids-you’d-be-put-in-jail camps.

Within my Quaker meeting, we’ve been discussing how we can respond. Doris was moved to speak both the past two Sundays in meeting for worship about the children in camps. Becky has supplied a form that, if we print it on card stock at home, will supply postcards to send to our representatives (we’re in several Congressional districts), our Senators, and our President. There’s a vigil, in many locations, on July 12; if you can’t make it to San Diego, you can watch for local events at the Lights of Liberty web site.

I am struck by the fact that, a year after we protested family separations, families are still being separated, so toddlers can be given to the care of 7-year-olds and 8-year-olds in crowded baby jails. Dara Lind’s Vox Explainer on the horrifying conditions facing kids in border detention reports:

Traditionally, an “unaccompanied alien child” refers to a child who comes to the US without a parent or guardian. Increasingly — as lawyers have been reporting, and as the investigators who interviewed children in detention last week confirmed — children are coming to the US with a relative who is not their parent, and being separated.

Because the law defines an “unaccompanied” child as someone without a parent or legal guardian here, border agents don’t have the ability to keep a child with a grandparent, aunt or uncle, or even a sibling who’s over 18, though advocates have also raised concerns that border agents are separating relatives even when there is evidence of legal guardianship.

Clearly, this is wrong, and contrary to common sense. Grandparents are family. Aunts and uncles are family. If the law doesn’t recognize that when people are fleeing a desperate situation, sometimes the children fleeing will be in the care of grandparents, aunts, uncles, or adult siblings, the law needs to change. When I was four and my aunt died, my grandparents sold their home in Illinois and moved to California to care for my cousins. Two years later, those cousins moved across the country to become my sisters and brother. I imagine us having to flee, after my sisters and brother had joined us but before the adoption, perhaps without paperwork of legal guardianship. Sure, if we crossed the border to Canada and then Uncle Gordon had asked for his children back, it would be the job of the Canadian government to send them to their father. But if Uncle Gordon wasn’t in the picture, or if he was already waiting in Canada? I picture toddler Jessie, as the two-year-old that she was when she joined our household, being taken away from us, and I picture seven-year-old Jean, the oldest of the three, having to take care of her little sister, in a crowded baby jail that couldn’t be counted on to supply diapers.

The court hearing was not specifically about the Clint facility — it wasn’t about what investigators found last week at all. And as Ken White explained for the Atlantic, Fabian’s cringeworthy “safe and sanitary” argument came from the awkward stance the Trump administration has taken in this litigation: In order to challenge the court appointment of a special monitor, they argued that there’s a difference between a promise to keep kids in “safe and sanitary” conditions (which the government has agreed to for decades) and a guarantee of particular items like toothbrushes.

Dara Lind, The horrifying conditions facing kids in border detention, explained , Vox, 6/25/2019

It’s the fate of the children that’s most heartbreaking, but even our treatment of adults is unconscionable: people are legally entitled to request asylum, but we meter for weeks with no hint of when they’ll get to present themselves and apply, till desperate people cross the border outside the border checkpoints, in hopes of setting foot on US soil and being able to make their application. And so we come to the photo of the drowned man and his drowned toddler daughter.

A member of my Quaker meeting, a retired professor who now does volunteer work on immigration issues, is now in Tijuana volunteering for El Otro Lado, and has a blog. She writes

My day started at 6:30 this morning, when I went to the Pedwest pedestrian entry point — the same one I just walked through yesterday to get here — and met a few other volunteers. We were to do outreach, handing out flyers and letting people know about the services offered at Al Otro Lado, but also watching for any problems with the treatment of refugees trying to enter.

This is another change: the increased number of people other than Central Americans, and the complicated procedure by which people get a chance to be processed by U.S. authorities. Here’s now it works, in brief: anyone who wants to apply for asylum in the U.S. has to come here and write their name in a spiral notebook that is under the control of “list managers,” who are migrants themselves. However, the notebook is physically the property of Mexican authorities, who pick it up when the numbers for the day have been called and who bring it back the next morning. The list is numbered — ten names per number — and you can only present yourself to U.S. authorities after your number is called. If you show up more than a day or so late, you may be told you have to start all over with putting your name at the end of the list.

There are all sorts of problems with this system. For one, it is subject to corruption (e.g., authorities who, for a price, will get you moved to a higher spot on the list). Also, the slow metering means that people must wait for many weeks in Tijuana, during which their pass to travel through Mexico expires and they often run out of money. I had a really tough moment today hearing three Togolese men tell me how desperate they were — out of money, and with an expired pass, hassled by police who would try to extort money from them because of the expired pass, and with no idea of how many more weeks they would have to wait for their number to be called.

I encourage you to read Betty’s blog. It will be more informative, right now, than mine.

And please, write, call, demonstrate, make it clear that our government’s immigration policies need to change. No more sticking people in if-you-did-this-to-your-child-you’d-go-to-jail camps.

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Reflections on a memory of Sarajevo

Posted by Sappho on June 8th, 2019 filed in History, Peace Testimony

“They’re trying to kill me,” Yossarian told him calmly.
No one’s trying to kill you,” Clevinger cried.
Then why are they shooting at me?” Yossarian asked.
They’re shooting at everyone,” Clevinger answered. “They’re trying to kill everyone.”
And what difference does that make?”

Joseph Heller, Catch 22

One day, back in 1993, I sat in a room full of people from the various warring countries that were then still known as “former Yugoslavia.” My husband, Joel, who had spent three months in 1992 mostly in Croatia and Serbia (with shorter visits to Slovenia and Northern Macedonia), had been invited to join this gathering. Some of his friends were there – a Serbian woman, a Bosnian man. All of the people in the room had gathered in the hope that, somehow, if Serbs and Croats and Bosnians in the US could meet and talk, they could find a way to help fix the ongoing disaster in their respective countries.

Still, they disagreed. Serbs who were appalled at the actions of Milosevic still hoped to press their country to stop its acts of aggression without encouraging the US to bomb Serbia. Others thought that bombs might be just fine, as long as Serbia was stopped. And so a Serb posed the question to a Bosnian whom we knew, a man from Sarajevo. I’ll call him Adin, because that was not his name, and because I don’t think most Americans have preconceptions about the name Adin, as they might if I called him, for example, Ahmed.

“But if the US bombed Serbia, wouldn’t that just mean that other families are getting bombed?”

“Yes,” Adin replied, “But my family would no longer be bombed.”

Bear in mind, as you read this, what was happening in Sarajevo at the time. The Siege of Sarajevo was the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare. It began on 5 April 1992 and ended on 29 February 1996. At the time we spoke, the Serbs had managed to blockade the city since 2 May 1992, as they assaulted the city with artillery, tanks, and small arms. According to Wikipedia,

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The Sociopath Next Door, Quakerism, and the blessing for the tsar

Posted by Sappho on May 26th, 2019 filed in Quaker Practice

I recently finished reading Martha Stout’s book The Sociopath Next Door. Stout’s argument is that 4% of the population has antisocial personality disorder, or, as she puts it, are sociopaths, and that sociopaths are without conscience or love. Coming from the perspective of being a therapist who helps people pick up the pieces after being damaged by close relationships (family, romantic, etc.) with sociopaths, she issues the warning that not all sociopaths are behind bars. That many of them are our neighbors, coworkers, friends, or lovers, and we need to be prepared to protect ourselves from them.

The book is readable, backed up by some footnotes pointing to research, but not so loaded with research references that it will be put off any lay reader. I found interesting Stout’s discussion of different kinds of sociopaths, and how to detect a sociopath. (High on the list is the “pity play,” which, as I see it, doesn’t mean anyone you’re inclined to pity, but does mean you want to run like hell from someone who both wrongs you and appeals to your pity – don’t be the woman singing “As Long As He Needs Me.”) Stout is also ready with suggestions on how to respond if you find you are dealing with a sociopath (distance yourself!).

Two questions stuck in my mind, as I read the book. The first: How far can I rely on Stout’s account? Clearly, she’s more expert on this subject than I am. She’s a therapist, and I have a rusty undergraduate psychology major from decades ago. But she’s not the only expert. For instance, her estimate of 4% of the population is backed up by some studies (peer reviewed ones that are referenced in footnotes), but I’ve also seen apparently reputable sources giving other estimates – in one case 3% of men and 1% of women, in another 1% of the population as a whole. Whether we’re talking about 1% or 4% doesn’t change the situation that much, but it’s a reminder that no single book is the whole story on antisocial personality disorder. More telling is the question: Are sociopaths actually as unfeeling as Stout says? Here’s a report on a study suggesting that they feel more regret than we think, but aren’t able to integrate that regret into their decision making.

Still, there does seem to be agreement among psychologists that there’s a minority of the population, whether it’s 1% or 4%, who are, let’s say, conscience challenged. And that raises the second question: how do I react to that information, as a Quaker, remembering George Fox’s exhortation to “Walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone”?

Simply brushing aside the challenge of sociopathy strikes me as a kind of spiritual bypassing:

Spiritual bypassing is a defense mechanism in which one uses spirituality in order to avoid uncomfortable or painful feelings. Maybe one wants to avoid anger, or grief, or loss, or boundaries. So instead of feeling that anger (or grief, or loss, or boundary, or whatever the thing in question may be), one papers it over, and calls the papering-over “spiritual.” 

(The image illustrating this post is a great example of spiritual bypassing in pop culture: Princess Unikitty from the LEGO movie. She’s a sparkling rainbow unicorn, and she over-focuses on the positive, refusing to acknowledge anything that hurts… until she reaches her breaking point, whereupon all the negativity she denied herself causes her to boil over in rage. Image via Stephanie Lin.)

About Bypassing, by the Velveteen Rabbi

Early Quakers had a notion called the Day of Visitation. It’s an idea that seems theologically liberal, perhaps, compared to the Calvinist belief in predestination that was prevalent in 17th century England. Everyone gets a Day of Visitation! No one is predestined not to get this chance. But perhaps also not so liberal compared to how we often think now. Can you miss your chance? (As one hymn, not a Quaker one, puts it, “And that choice goes by forever, twixt that darkness and that light.) I do, though, find myself thinking back to that notion whenever I encounter someone who doesn’t seem to have a sense of empathy that’s reachable now. I don’t get to see the whole arc of that person’s life. Maybe I’m just not present for that person’s Day of Visitation.

Stout, in fact, thinks that sociopaths are to some degree genetically hardwired for lack of empathy, but not entirely hardwired for anti-social personality disorder. She notes that research in China has shown a much smaller percentage of the population meeting the diagnostic criteria for antisocial personality disorder (by which I mean, much smaller whether you take the 1% estimate or the 4% estimate of incidence in the US), and says that culture influences how much sociopathy gets expressed.

Then there’s the question, how do I respond to sociopathy, as a Quaker?

I would say, with humility. Judging someone else to be irredeemable, because a sociopath, is above my pay grade. In most cases, I won’t actually know that the person has antisocial personality disorder, and can I really know who will never change? No. But I can know who I can’t change. I can know, if someone is damaging to me, and has repeatedly shown no willingness to stop that damaging behavior, when it’s time to give that person the blessing for the tsar: “May God bless and keep the tsar – far away from us.”

And that’s OK, because none of us can be there for everyone, trust everyone, or work with everyone.

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Meeting of the Minds, Orange County, 2019

Posted by Sappho on May 19th, 2019 filed in Bipolar Disorder, Classes, Lectures, and Conferences

On Wednesday, May 15, I took a floating holiday from work and joined my husband and another member of our DBSA chapter staffing a table at Meeting of the Minds, a mental health conference that is held every year in Orange County, sponsored by the Orange County Mental Health Association. I’ve attended this conference in other years, and have written posts about what I saw those years.

This year, I spent half my time in the exhibitor area staffing our table, as we traded off which one of us took time away from the table to attend workshops. The exhibitor hall housed tables for a number of organizations. Some offered mental health services addressed to the language and cultural needs of particular immigrant communities. Some represented local hospitals or health insurance groups. Some offered particular kinds of therapy (pharmaceutical, drug/alcohol rehab, psychotherapy of different kinds). Here is the police booth, with an exhibit about how cops and first responders can effectively respond to situations that involve mental illness.

I went to two workshops. The first was given by cops, for cops, and advised on what to do if you are called in to deal with someone who is mentally ill. The cops began by listing their qualifications and specialties as cops. Both were mental health liaison officers and homeless liaison officers. I noticed that both were also terrorism liaison officers, but this turned out to be a coincidence that had nothing to do with the presentation. They also had other qualifications that I didn’t note, because they differed from one to the other.

We then moved into the presentation. Most calls a cop will get that involve mental illness are for low level crimes, not violent. Cops may also get a “suspicious person” call (here one of the presenting cops remarked on how many “suspicious person” calls cops get – “we get suspicious person calls about UPS drivers”) or a call from a concerned family member (for a situation which may or may not meet the legal standard for a “5150” – California law for involuntary commitment to a psych ward). 55% of US cops have no training in mental illness.

We got an overview about mental illness in general, where I did not take notes – mental illness is really common, a large proportion of homeless people are mentally ill, mentally ill people are way more likely to be victims of violent crime than people who are not mentally ill, but are not way more likely to be perpetrators of violent crime. These were expressed as specific statistics (the one I remember is that people who are mentally ill are four times more likely to be victims of violent crime), but, because I didn’t take notes, I’m not going to rely on my memory for the statistics.

Next, we got a presentation on four or five specific conditions. I say “four or five” because whether you count four or five depends on whether you count “depression and anxiety” as one category or not; the cops did combine them when saying they would talk about four conditions, but presented first depression and then anxiety when they got to that part. The full set of conditions were: Autism (which the cops did say was a developmental thing rather than a mental illness), bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, anxiety. Each presentation followed the same sequence: a general explanation of the condition including some statistics on how common it is and when in a person’s life it usually appears, a video that was either an interview with someone with, say, autism or depression or anxiety, or an attempt to simulate what it was like to have, say, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. And finally a discussion of how a cop should approach someone with that condition.

Then we got a video of some cops handling a situation well.

General advice: Clear, simple commands. No more than one command, or at most two, at a time. A calm voice. Remember that people can be triggered when touched without warning, so, when safety permits, don’t touch or warn before touching. Some conditions got specific advice (for instance, “don’t argue with delusions” was part of the advice for schizophrenia but not, obviously, for autism).

The next workshop that I attended was by a therapist, for therapists (like the cop workshop, it was also attended by people living with mental illness), and it was on Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) was created to treat borderline personality disorder and is now also used for other patients with severe, chronic, treatment resistant problems with emotional control.

DBT is not a first line treatment for garden variety depression. Why? Because it is expensive and time intensive. But for borderline personality disorder it is one of two tested treatments. The other is mentalization. But fewer people know how to do mentalization. Learning DBT if you are already a therapist is a 10 week course. This was just an overview.

We got an overview of borderline personality disorder which I will not attempt to summarize.

DBT involves: behavior therapy, affirmation, dialectics, and mindfulness.

Behavior therapy: There is a focus on learning and rewarding new behaviors. In addressing behaviors, first priority is given to life threatening behaviors (dangerous forms of self-harm), second to behaviors that threaten the therapeutic relationship (if therapist and patient can’t maintain a good therapeutic relationship the treatment won’t work), and third to everything else.

Affirmation: Borderline personality disorder is an emotional regulation disorder that is partly a matter of heightened genetic sensitivity and partly a matter of feeling not affirmed. The therapist looks for something in the patient’s experience to affirm (obviously not affirming unhealthy responses, but affirming emotions).

Dialectics: If, like me, you think first of Hegel and Marx when you think of dialectics, you may wonder what dialectics has to do with therapy. In fact, dialectics does have more or less the same meaning that it has when you read your Hegel, and it is relevant. People with borderline personality disorder are prone to black and white thinking. Dialectics, here, means teaching the skill of holding two conflicting ideas, both of which may be part of a larger truth, at the same time.

Mindfulness: Focused attention on some particular thing in the here and now is a useful skill for emotional regulation. (Mindfulness, in fact, is now often incorporated in standard cognitive behavioral therapy, though other DBT practices are not.)

Patients need to commit to six months to learn the skills, and may continue for another six months.

The program includes: individual therapy, group skills learning, and phone coaching (a patient gets to call the therapist for a quick coaching of what skills to use in a triggering situation – not a crisis call but a short refresher call). Another vital part of DBT is that the therapist has a regular consultation with other DBT therapists. This is very helpful for the therapist.

While there are no tested treatments at this time for other personality disorders, DBT is tested and works for borderline. No longer is borderline considered untreatable. DBT works. Go, DBT!

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Links: On Spiritual Bypassing, Prayer, Abortion, and Climate Change

Posted by Sappho on May 19th, 2019 filed in Abortion, Blogwatch, Theology

The Velveteen Rabbi, About Bypassing

Johan Maurer, Abortion and the cost of rhetoric

Jim Burklo: Education: The Cultivation of Attention

David Roberts at Vox, Jay Inslee is writing the climate plan the next president should adopt

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Celebration of Life: Rachel Held Evans, Riley Howell, Zeynep Tufekci’s grandmother

Posted by Sappho on May 5th, 2019 filed in RIP

One of my favorite Christian writers, Rachel Held Evans, has died way too young.

Once upon a time, there lived a girl with a magic book …

“Inspired” by Rachel Held Evans

If you haven’t read Inspired, I recommend it. It’s a lovely book, about encountering the Bible, when young, as a magic book, getting disillusioned later, and recovering the power of the Bible as a story book. I have also loved following Evans’ blog and her Twitter feed. She will be missed. Well, most of all missed by her family (she leaves behind her a husband and young children). But also missed by the wider world.

Also dead way too young: Riley Howell, who died charging a gunman at UNCC

Remember his name, not the name of the shooter.

On hearing of such premature deaths, it’s a comfort to read what a rich long life Zeynep Tufekci’s grandmother lived (though still, of course, sad for Tufekci to lose her). Read about her in Tufekci’s touching blog post, In Memory of my Grandmother: “Educate Your Girls, Cherish Your Good Memories”

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A Mueller Report Round Up

Posted by Sappho on April 30th, 2019 filed in News and Commentary

I finished reading the Mueller Report myself, and summarized what I learned in posts for friends and family to see on Facebook. I’m not posting those comments on the blog, but I am going to do a round up of what others have to say.

Quinta Jurecic at Lawfare Blog, Obstruction of Justice in the Mueller Report: A Heat Map

Quinta Jurecic at Lawfare Blog, Robert Mueller’s Take Care Clause

Benjamin Wittes at Lawfare Blog, Notes on the Mueller Report: A Reading Diary

Ryan Goodman at Just Security, Guide to the Mueller Report’s Findings on “Collusion”

emptywheel, The Commander in Chief Keeps Instructing His National Security Officials Not to Protect the Country



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Busara Road

Posted by Sappho on April 22nd, 2019 filed in Africa news and blogwatch, Books, Fiction, Quaker Practice

Busara Road, by David Hallock Sanders, is a Bildungsroman whose themes range from grief to sexual awakening to the aftermath of colonialism.

In the wake of the death of his mother, 11-year-old Mark Morgan is uprooted from Philadelphia to a small town in the rain forest of western Kenya, as his father seeks to bury his grief in Quaker missionary work. Initially unhappy about the move and scared of his new neighbors, Mark comes to develop a deep love for his new home and his Kikuyu and Luo neighbors.

The book displays a variety of Quaker characters (Quakerism in Kenya proves different from Quakerism in Philadelphia!) who both display serious flaws and sincere devotion to their faith. Also varied are the villagers Mark encounters in his new home, who range from devout to possibly atheist, and who are sharply divided in their response to the aftermath of colonialism. It is this violent colonial past and the continuing impact of the wrongs done during that time that drives much of the plot of the book, as Mark grows in his understanding and appreciation of his new home.

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On Marx and Adam Smith and changing my mind, or not changing it

Posted by Sappho on April 18th, 2019 filed in Economics, History, News and Commentary

“And that is why, when I first registered to vote, I registered for the Communist Party,” my friend tells me.

We’re talking about what it’s like to work a customer service job. How customer facing jobs mean getting less pay to take more crap. How part of the deal can be having maybe a quarter of the customers you’re helping treat you as if you’re not quite human.

And that isn’t, not really, what this post will be about. This post is about changing my mind. About how, sometimes, “changing my mind” isn’t as simple as changing a single position to a different one. Not as simple as, say, being wary of nuclear power because, what about nuclear waste, and then deciding we actually need nuclear power, even more of it, because coal is doing much more harm. Sometimes, instead, a change of mind means moving to a different point on a spectrum, but not all the way to the opposite side. Or changing the nuances with which you hold a particular position. A complicating of your perspective, rather than a reversal of your position.

So let me talk about how my perspective has shifted on three matters: Marx and Marxism, libertarianism, and markets and free trade.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Posted by Sappho on April 7th, 2019 filed in Quaker Practice

“The clergyman is expected to be a kind of human Sunday,” said Samuel Butler. It’s one of the two quotes from The Way of All Flesh that stick in my mind. The other one is a bit longer:

His wife, too, did not recover rapidly from her confinement; she remained an invalid for months; here was another nuisance and an expensive one, which interfered with the amount which Theobald liked to put by out of his income against, as he said, a rainy day, or to make provision for his family if he should have one. Now he was getting a family, so that it became all the more necessary to put money by, and here was the baby hindering him.

But back to being a human Sunday. I’m glad that the clerk of a meeting is not expected to be any kind of human Sunday, because I’d be a bad one. As it stands, my main job is to clerk/facilitate/guide the monthly meeting for business, and beyond that, I close meeting for worship, give reminders to committees to get started with things, and do various little tasks. And people are kind when I do them imperfectly.

Today was one of those imperfect days. Quaker Explorations looked promising: One of our members was slated to talk about refugee assistance in Orange County. And I arrived ten minutes late. And it turned out that arriving ten minutes late was a blessing, because, while a bunch of other people were taking part in Quaker Explorations, a couple of other Friends and I hung out in the social area talking to a member who was back, whom we hadn’t seen for weeks. And it turned out that was an important conversation to have.

It’s the first Sunday of the month, when we normally read the Queries first during and then after meeting for worship. And this month I forgot – bad clerk! – but my assistant clerk remembered for me, and fetched me a copy of Faith and Practice, and so, though we didn’t have the reading during meeting for worship, we did read queries and have a brief discussion afterward. (This month’s queries: Harmony with Creation.)

Little things (and I’m imperfect in ways much bigger than these), but useful small reminders that sometimes imperfection works out fine. Sometimes a little worse (probably better if I had remembered about those queries), sometimes unexpectedly better (a good thing I didn’t miss that conversation).

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Christchurch and immigration

Posted by Sappho on March 20th, 2019 filed in News and Commentary, Race

Christchurch shootings: Jacinda Ardern calls for global anti-racism fight

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has called for a global fight to root out racist right-wing ideology following last week’s deadly attack on two mosques in Christchurch.

In one of her first interviews since then, she told the BBC that she rejected the idea that a rise in immigration was fuelling racism.

Fifty people were killed and dozens more wounded in Friday’s gun attacks.

Ardern is right. I’ve said in the past that I’m not “open borders” as I understand the term (which would mean suddenly removing all existing border regulations, and addressing border issues in terms of “what interferes least with people’s right to move wherever they please” rather than in the cost/benefit terms I favor). And also that I’m very much “open borders” in the everything-to-the-left-of-Donald-Trump sense. But what I’ll say now is that the past few years have convinced me that a) the cities and regions that are actually getting the most immigration aren’t the ones most alarmed about it, and b) cracking down on immigration does not crack down on racism. If there were some magic amount of immigration that would be low enough not to trigger the racists, and some slight amount more that would? Of course I’d pick the somewhat lower amount, to keep my own country together. But it seems that immigration restrictions only empower the racists more, to attack people in their own countries and to spread their poisonous ideology to other countries. Paying their price doesn’t make them go away.

And that is called paying the Dane-geld; but we’ve proved it again and again, that if once you have paid him the Dane-geld you never get rid of the Dane.

Rudyard Kipling

Not paying Danegeld to people who shoot up synagogues and mosques.

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Quaker meeting kids

Posted by Sappho on February 20th, 2019 filed in First Day School

We now have an active group of kids, full of enthusiasm for projects of their own choosing. Within the last couple of months:

They raised money for water filters in a place short on clean water.

They put together homeless hygiene packs.

Several of them did a local version of the spreading international school strike for action on climate change.

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About Yizkor books, and Zikhron Saloniki

Posted by Sappho on January 27th, 2019 filed in Yizkor

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day. One of the cities hard hit by the Holocaust was Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece. When my grandmother was growing up there, the Jewish population was large enough that my grandmother spoke fluent Ladino (a Jewish version of Spanish). By the end of WWII, the Thessaloniki Jewish community was almost entirely gone.

One way that Jewish communities are remembered is through the writing of Yizkor books, which preserve a record of the communities as they existed before the Holocaust. One such book is Zikhron Saloniki, written by David Recanati and others, and published in Israel in 1972. I am the project coordinator for a JewishGen project to translate this book from Hebrew and Ladino to English. You can find the pages already translated here.

You can donate to this project, and as many other Yizkor book projects as you like, at this page.

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Baby Hitler

Posted by Sappho on January 19th, 2019 filed in Moral Philosophy, Speculative Fiction and Other Geekiness

I don’t find the question “Would you kill Baby Hitler?” especially interesting as a moral question. As Will Wilkinson said

Why is it “kill baby Hitler” rather than “make Hitler’s mom fall in love with YOU” or “kidnap Hitler’s grandpa and strand him in Nepal just before he meets Hitler’s grandma”? People lacking in imagination should not have time machines.

Sure, you can add the hypothetical conditions to ensure that killing baby Hitler will absolutely for sure prevent the Holocaust and nothing else will, but why would I want to do that? Because why would I want to imagine myself killing babies? Sure, it’s a way of posing a philosophical question about doing evil so that good can result, but if you don’t want to do evil that good may result in the real world, why would you change your mind based on a hypothetical that would never happen? Conversely, if you would do evil for some cause that you consider good (maybe even are doing evil to real toddlers because it suits your political goals), the baby Hitler hypothetical, precisely because it can never happen, gives you an oh so easy opportunity to imagine that you’re really not an end justifies the means person, because you would never, ever kill baby Hitler. Given that you can’t kill baby Hitler, this is an easy choice.

I’m more interested in the speculative fiction and alternative history aspects of the “baby Hitler” hypothetical. Speculative fiction: If I’m killing baby Hitler (or, in a gentler version, diverting a somewhat older Hitler into a painting career), how do I get around the time travel paradox that I wouldn’t exist (because my father would never have come to this country) without WWII. If time travel exists, what kinds of temporal alterations are even possible, given that many temporal alterations would pop the time traveler right out of existence? Do time travelers carefully check their genealogy before setting off to alter time, so that only someone whose existence doesn’t depend on Hitler gets to kill him?

For me the most persuasive resolution of this problem, assuming time travel, is a many worlds version of time travel, where you never alter your own timeline, however many times you kill baby Hitler, but rather simply spin off an alternate timeline.

And that leads to the question I find even more interesting, the alternative history question: What would it take to actually change the past? If we live in a multiverse, in which all possible alternate timelines exist, which alternate timelines are actually possible, and what were the changes that made them work?

This ties into a real question about how you view history. What are the driving forces? Implicit in the baby Hitler hypothetical is a “great man theory” of history, where history is explained, for good or ill, by the impact of highly influential individuals. In contrast, “history from below” emphasizes the impact of masses on the leader. From Tolstoy (for whom history is guided by Providence) to Herbert Spencer to Karl Marx (for whom history is driven by shifts in economic forces), the great man theory doesn’t lack for critics. If you believe in “history from below,” killing baby Hitler only ensures that someone else fills his role. But that doesn’t mean that an alternate timeline is impossible; you just need a different sort of change to build that alternate timeline.

In fictional alternate histories, sometimes the change is a shift in a decision in a particular battle (which fits with the great man theory), but other times it’s something else; Years of Rice and Salt takes its point of departure from a more virulent Black Plague, leading to a world without European civilization as we know it.

In our own lives, we sometimes need to act as if the “great man theory” is true (a President Hillary Clinton would have been materially different from Trump, and only a modest number of votes would have needed to shift, in the right states, to put us in that timeline). But we also sometimes need to act as if “history from below” is true, and not everything hangs on whoever is currently President.

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Last round up of the year

Posted by Sappho on December 29th, 2018 filed in Blogwatch

Year end thinks from my friend mama sdb

But the more confusing one was the “leader” who asked me what I was doing to “work on my gift.” Now, I know I haven’t been trained in these things, but I’m pretty sure if it is a gift, that means I didn’t work to earn it.

Also, here is that pesky honesty again. I know what he was really asking me: was I working on  conforming of all the expectations of that God Club. 
And see, I am kind of a contrary thinker about things. I mean, they told me that grace was unearned favor. I was told over and over again that it wasn’t by “might or power, but by the spirit.” That doesn’t seem to leave me a lot to work on.

Some good news on Twitter from Jay Ulfelder

Johan Maurer highlights some of his 2018 posts, from “What’s so urgent about sex?” to “Have we seen his glory?”

Erik Loomis at Lawyers, Guns, and Money on Anything Good Happening on the Environmental Front?

It’s the day after Holy Innocents Day, but that makes it only a day too late to share Coventry Carol

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Posted by Sappho on December 16th, 2018 filed in Feminism, Music, Sexuality

Baby, It’s Cold Outside

‘Tis the season for arguing about whether “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” should be appreciated as a romantic period piece or rejected as a date rape song. Let’s look at the lyrics

First, let’s look at how the song lyrics tell you that the “mouse” really does want to stay with the “wolf,” and how it makes the “wolf’s” pursuit gentle. Then, I’ll look at the two lines that make the song creepy as all get out in a #MeToo era.

First (because it’s the more straightforward role), the “wolf”: Most of his pleas are either compliments to the “mouse” (“Your eyes are like starlight now”) or references to how very cold it is outside (“Look out the window at the storm”). There’s only one “What’s the sense in hurting my pride?” Imagine if the frequency of these lines were reversed (as they actually sometimes are, when someone is badgering someone to change a “no” to “yes”). There would be nothing romantic about that (and “How could you do this thing to me” would turn from what’s probably meant to be a compliment to an angry demand that the mouse stop rejecting the wolf).

Now, here are all the cues that the “mouse” supplies that her heart isn’t in her rejection:

“I really can’t stay”: Here “really” isn’t an intensifier, but the opposite. If you want to eat another holiday cookie, you say, “I really shouldn’t,” and the person offering says, “Go ahead, it’s Christmas.” Unless the words are “no, I really mean it,” we don’t usually use the word “really” when we really mean it (paradoxical though that may be).

“The neighbors might think”: All of the mouse’s reasons for wanting to go are phrased in terms of concern for her 1940s reputation. Not only isn’t this the way a woman talks who really doesn’t want to have sex; it’s not even the way a woman talks who does on some level want to have sex, but who has reasons of her own (whether doubt about the man, or convictions about when it’s appropriate to have sex) for waiting.

“But maybe just a half a drink more”/”I wish I knew how to break the spell”: At the same time that the mouse tells us that other people would want her to leave, she also drops suggestions that she does want to stay.

“Baby, it’s cold outside”: The dead give away that she’s actually persuaded, and wanted to be persuaded, comes when she joins in on the chorus.

So, with all these cues that show that the song is, yes, of course a 1940s period piece in which a woman who wants to have sex puts up a token resistance for respectability’s sake, what’s the problem?

“The answer is no”: If someone’s saying “I ought to say no, no, no sir,” that’s a sign that the answer may not be “no.” But when she flat out says “the answer is no,” you should take no for an answer, not a negotiating position.

“Say, what’s in that drink?” Obviously the creepiest line in the song, in a #MeToo era. I’m told that, in the time period in question, it’s supposed to mean that there’s nothing in the drink, but the woman is pretending there is, to justify staying. Honestly, that doesn’t make the line less creepy to me. If the signal for “I really do want sex” (I’m drunk! I’m drunk!) is that close to the signal that I really should be left alone (I’m too drunk to take care of myself), then that’s a problem. When I listen to the song as a period piece, I like to imagine “Say, what’s in that drink?” as the mouse saying, “Say, that looks like a really tasty drink, maybe I’ll stay and have some more,” because it’s the only way I can make the line non-creepy to my own sensibilities.

Affirmative consent: The song lyrics do a lot of work both to show you that the mouse’s protests aren’t about her own desires and that she actually does want to stay. In real life, though, when you start interpreting every ambiguous sounding “no” as a “yes,” you wind up pressuring a lot of people who did mean “no” but were trying to phrase their “no” to sound nice. A social convention that treats “no” as a bargaining position harms a lot more people than it helps. (And, as Professor Khachaturian used to say, in the Human Sexuality class at Stanford, “When I came to this country, I had grown up with a custom that you always say no to an extra helping of food, and get talked into taking it. When I saw the plate moving away when I said no, I changed.” If there really are still women who say no when they mean yes, they’ll change their practice if their no is taken seriously, and everyone will be happy, since the women who really mean no will get their no taken seriously.)

Bottom line: Enjoy the song as a period piece if you like, or change the radio when it comes on if you’re in the “this song is creepy” camp, but either way, don’t take it as a template for how to behave on a date.

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G K Chesteron on Democracy

Posted by Sappho on November 30th, 2018 filed in Quotes

This is the first principle of democracy: that the essential things in men are the things they hold in common, not the things they hold separately. And the second principle is merely this: that the political instinct or desire is one of these things which they hold in common. Falling in love is more poetical than dropping into poetry. The democratic contention is that government (helping to rule the tribe) is a thing like falling in love, and not a thing like dropping into poetry. It is not something analogous to playing the church organ, painting on vellum, discovering the North Pole (that insidious habit), looping the loop, being Astronomer Royal, and so on. For these things we do not wish a man to do at all unless he does them well. It is, on the contrary, a thing analogous to writing one’s own love-letters or blowing one’s own nose. These things we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly. I am not here arguing the truth of any of these conceptions; I know that some moderns are asking to have their wives chosen by scientists, and they may soon be asking, for all I know, to have their noses blown by nurses. I merely say that mankind does recognize these universal human functions, and that democracy classes government among them. In short, the democratic faith is this: that the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary men themselves — the mating of the sexes, the rearing of the young, the laws of the state. This is democracy; and in this I have always believed.

G K Chesteron, Orthodoxy

This passage is found in Chapter 4, “The Ethics of Elfland.” Immediately following it comes Chesterton’s famous description of tradition as “only democracy extended through time” and “giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.” And that point offers an interesting conundrum. On the one hand, there’s some sense to it, as there may, at any given time, be swings in opinion that are best checked by a due regard for “the democracy of the dead,” mistakes made in one age that aren’t made over time. On the other hand, how do we avoid making regard for tradition the perpetuation of real injustice. Also, how do we balance the possibility that those of us currently alive may be missing some wisdom that we would gain from “the democracy of the dead” against the possibility that we may think differently because we are in different circumstances, and the fact that we’re the ones who have to live with our decisions? I can’t say I’d want to let the dead always outvote me. Maybe just to give them a chance to give me pause? To make sure I fully understand them before I dismiss them? And if we talk about democracy of the dead, it needs to be democracy of all the dead – the enslaved as well as the enslavers, those who suffered from Jim Crow as well as those who benefited from it.

At any rate, setting aside the interesting question of what regard we do or don’t owe to tradition, I like the way Chesterton puts his argument for democracy. It’s not that a democratic government will always be right (is any government?), but that the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary people themselves.

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