Saturday, May 26, 2012


A while back I hand-colored a playing-card sized piece of paper and taped it on the front door of my house. I drew a red circle with a slash through it, like the ones warning motorists not to make illegal turns. On the paper I wrote “No guns here – you're safe.” A few visitors have told me they noticed the sign. I notice it myself sometimes, but not always.

The sign is meant to assure visitors that they are entering a peaceful place. It is meant to warn people who might be carrying guns not to come into my house armed. It is meant to remind me of my commitment to pursue a violence-free world.

The sign is a response to the daily news of shootings in our community. It is a response to the people who are lobbying for concealed-carry laws which would allow people to carry guns on the streets and into other people's businesses. It is a response to the arguments that guns make us safer, because all the evidence indicates that guns make us less safe.

I put the sign up as a test. I wanted to see if anyone would take issue with it. No one has. I wanted to see if anyone would ask where they could get one like it. No one has, but a couple of people have said they like the sign. I wanted to see if I would get tired of the sign. I haven't.

I have been wondering if other people would agree to put up signs like it, and if the signs could become part of an effort to renew a dialogue about personal and public safety and the role that guns play in making our communities more dangerous. I am curious to know how many people in my community have guns in their homes. I am curious about whether people know which of their neighbors have guns, and how they feel about their neighbors having guns. I wonder whether parents want their kids playing in houses where guns might be lying around.

I am curious whether our local police would support efforts to discourage people from having guns at home and whether our local politicians would take a stand on this issue. I wonder who the people in my town who have guns think they need to protect themselves from.

I see plenty of signs in yards warning that the houses are protected by security alarms and services. Would people hesitate about putting up signs indicating that they are not armed and they are not ready to kill people who tried to steal their televisions? Do people think it is better to let people wonder if they are dangerous than know that they are not?

I have heard a lot of people who were very afraid say in their prayers that they are not afraid. By affirming their faith that they are protected, they rise above their fears. I wonder whether people would become less afraid in their homes if they would put up signs saying they are not afraid.

I'd appreciate you sharing your thoughts on these matters.

Monday, May 21, 2012

NATO Protests

Now that the NATO conference and its attendant protests have concluded, the effectiveness of those protests can be evaluated. Obviously, the protests did not prevent the conference from taking place. The protests also did not have any apparent impact on the conference attendees or upon the business that was carried out at the conference. The conference was like countless other conventions that come to Chicago, except for one thing – because of the protests, some people started asking each other what NATO was and what it did.

It's not a question that people ask when the medical association, housewares conventions, or plastics industry trade shows come to town, because people have a pretty good idea what those groups are all about. But it became obvious that a lot of Americans, perhaps most, really didn't know much about NATO.

From the little bit of coverage that the conference received in the news, the answer emerged that NATO is one of the mechanisms that the US uses to exercise military might around the globe. The main topics discussed at the conference had to do with how long the US would remain in Afghanistan, whether Pakistan would allow its roads to be used by trucks supplying those troops, and on what schedule and terms the Afghan military would replace the US military as a force ruling over the Afghan people. There was also some discussion about whether France would object to new missile “defense” systems being deployed in Europe. France reportedly withdrew its objections once it received a promise that French companies would get some of the contracts for those systems and could profit from the military expansion.

Some of the NATO protesters will be disappointed that they did not bring Chicago to its knees. There were only a few thousand protesters. There were more cops than that. But by creating even a little more awareness of how the US uses NATO to project its military might, the protesters have moved the discussion forward. People who now understand more about our militaristic approach to foreign policy are better equipped to question that approach. They are probably more motivated, too, to continue learning and to speak out.

If there had been no protests and no threat of violence, there would have been almost no news coverage of the NATO conference. No one would be asking, as they did in the days leading up to the conference, what the protesters wanted. The conference, like most government meetings, would have taken place, if not in complete secrecy, in the closest thing to it – in the absence of scrutiny.

So, whatever the protesters hoped to accomplish, what they actually accomplished has the potential to lead to very significant change in the long term. If knowledge really is power, and if truth really does set people free, the protesters may have accomplished a great deal more than the conference attendees did.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

We Told You So

A new poll shows that most veterans think the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were bad ideas and should be stopped. Well, as someone who held that view before we even invaded Iraq, and who got shouted at by lots of angry veterans, the most important thing I can say is, “I told you so.”

We're not supposed to say, “I told you so.” No one likes to be told, “I told you so.” No one likes the person who tells them, “I told you so.” But we should be saying it. Because if we don't, it won't be long before the veterans and other people are shouting at whoever warns them against supporting the next ill-advised war.

We need to be saying, “I told you so,” so that the veterans and everyone else who supported our recent wars will realize that the wars were bad ideas from the start. Otherwise it will be too easy for them to look back upon the wars and think that they were a good idea, but they were not carried out well. That is what people were told about Vietnam after we pulled out – that if we had just been more aggressive we could have won. The militarists blamed the peaceniks for the military's failure to win a war which could not be won and should not have been fought.

If the question of whether a war is a good idea is answered by whether you won or lost the war, war is just another card player's bet, and gamblers who are in power will start lots more wars in the hope of hitting it big on one of them. If that is the position the people who supported the wars want to take, they will have to abandon their assertions that the wars were patriotic, just, and necessary. War cannot be both virtuous and a simple matter of good or bad luck.

We need to be saying, “I told you so,” until the people who supported our recent wars admit that the protesters, whom they were quick to say didn't know anything about war, were actually the ones who were right. They need to admit that we were right, so that the next time they are tempted to rally in favor of a war we will be able to remind them that they were wrong. If they can admit that we were right and they were wrong this time, maybe they will listen to us the next time and not just shout at us.

We need to be saying, “I told you so,” and then reminding people why were were against the wars. It wasn't principally because we might not win the wars. It was because there was no need to go to war, and because wars kill people, and because the money we spend on wars can't be used to solve other problems. If that message doesn't come through, in a very short while we will be told that these recent wars actually accomplished something, and what we accomplished was worth the cost and was more important than other things we could have been doing. We will also be told that it was OK to kill the people we killed. If we accept that view of our recent wars, the same arguments will be used to persuade us to start the next war.

Recent news about Wall Street illustrates what happens when the people who are wrong don't acknowledge their mistakes. Obama has refused to hold anyone accountable for the financial crises. No one has been prosecuted for financial crimes. As a result, the crimes are still going on, and firms like J.P. Morgan continue to pay millions of dollars in compensation to managers who just lost billions of dollars doing exactly the kinds of things which led to the crises a couple of years ago. Their actions may well lead us into the next crises, even before we recover from the first. Someone should be shouting, “I told you so.” There were plenty of people warning against what Wall Street was doing, and the correctness of their warnings needs to be acknowledged so that the people who ignored those warnings will learn from their mistakes.

If no one says, “I told you so,” it is as if no one did tell you so, which is the same as saying you shouldn't bear any blame because how could you have known? When people, their companies, and their governments stubbornly embark on foolish and dangerous courses of action and ignore all well-founded protests, they should be told when their errors become obvious, “I told you so.” The veterans who support misguided wars, the bankers who profit from predatory practices, and the politicians who orchestrate or allow it all to happen may not like the criticism, but the rest of the country should be thanking the people who had the courage and conviction to shout “no” and who have the obligation to remind them – “I told you so.”

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Old Man Fibber

I overheard the old man who was sitting a short distance from me on the evening commuter train complaining to his companion about Mexicans who come to this country illegally, work but don't pay taxes, collect welfare, and send the money to their six kids back home. He said he lived in Arizona. Apparently he has bought into the inaccurate anti-Hispanic rhetoric that has left much of the rest of the country wondering whether people in Arizona are getting too much sun.

A few moments later, the conductor walked through the car collecting fares. The old man showed the conductor a card which the conductor told the old man he had never seen before. The old man said the card was supposed to get him a free ride because he was a senior citizen. The conductor examined the card and read what it said on it to the old man, which explained that it was not a free-ride card at all. The conductor, apparently feeling sympathetic towards the old man, told him that he would let him ride for free today, but that he needed to buy a ticket the next time he rode. When the conductor was out of earshot, I heard the old man say to his traveling companion, “That's what the conductor told me this morning.”

The old man didn't really seem to be so confused that he didn't understand that he was supposed to pay for his train ride. He just decided to scam a free ride and let the rest of us passengers pay his way. He settled back into his seat and continued to complain about Mexicans who were, in his imagination, scamming the system and making the rest of us pay their way.

The old man has plenty of company, including the senior citizens who drive to the free movies at the public library but don't want to be annexed into the village so they won't have to pay the road and library taxes the village charges. And there's the old lady in the next town who never returns her library books because her library doesn't charge senior citizens fines. There are also the seniors who liked getting free bus rides during the former governor's term even though they knew they could afford to pay and they knew that the public bus service was having serious financial problems. Everyone, particularly seniors, seems to like a bargain. Plenty of people like it even more if they think they are getting special treatment. And some like it even more if they think they are getting away with something.

Is this human nature at work, or just people blaming nature for their own selfishness? Is the old man letting good old-fashioned racism color his views of others whom he accuses of doing what he is actually doing? It's hard to say. Maybe the Hispanics who mop the train station floor and maintain the tracks and who actually do pay taxes and don't collect welfare could answer the question.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

What is your problem?

In the safe suburban area where I live, the prevailing response to the daily news of shootings that occur in the inner city seems to be, “It's not our problem.” Analyses by social scientists tend to support this view. The shootings take place mostly in poor areas among minority populations where employment and opportunity are scarce.

The problem of urban violence is geographically contained. It is almost entirely perpetrated by members of the lower-income communities against other people from the same communities. It may seem baffling that people would be killing their neighbors, but so long as the killing does not spread into the suburbs, people around here take comfort. They view it the same as they view our foreign wars. We are not threatened. “So what if they kill each other?” pretty much sums up the way people outside the zone of violence view what is going on inside. It is not our problem. Or we ask dismissively, “What is their problem?” implying that the cause of the violence is a poor attitude and not a paucity of resources.

What surprises many people, though, is that while the ghetto dwellers are killing each other, the affluent are killing themselves. Earlier this week, a man shot his wife and then himself in the wealthy town of Barrington Hills. The news photo showed a police car parked outside the wrought-iron gates of the couple's estate which was so large that the home was not even visible in the distance, behind the big trees.

Within the past couple of months, at least three Lake Forest high school students have killed themselves. A couple of months ago, a Northbrook man shot himself in his home. A short time earlier, a man shot himself in a parking lot in downtown Deerfield. There are plenty more cases like these in all the wealthy suburbs.

Suburbanites with money, privilege, and everything that goes with it, living in isolated safety in their economically segregated towns, are killing themselves just the same as their urban counterparts are killing each other.

The ghetto dwellers may well be puzzled that life in wealthy Lake Forest and these other towns could be so miserable that people would kill themselves, just as suburbanites have trouble understanding why people in the ghettos, who have so little, would make things even worse for themselves by polluting their communities with violence. I can imagine people who have so little asking rhetorically about the rich, “What is those people's problem?”

While the external conditions leading to the suburban suicides and urban homicides are obviously different, one thing the victims have in common is an inner feeling of hopelessness and a violent response. It unites rich and poor. It reaches people regardless of where they live. In a strange way, it reveals to us the commonality of our experience as people, despite all our attempts to deny that bond.

People on both sides of the economic divide can dismiss each other's problems as not their problems. But if we pay attention, the universality of violence could start to change the way we look at one another. Instead of disregarding other people's misery by saying, “It's not our problem,” and asking, “What is their problem?” we could start asking ourselves, “What is our problem?” Maybe wealthy suburbanites would start to see that ghetto violence, even if it stays confined within the ghetto, is their problem after all.

Thursday, May 10, 2012


I still haven't decided whether to join the protests when NATO comes to Chicago. Having opposed U.S. military adventurism for years now, there is some appeal to protesting one of the mechanisms which facilitates such violence. On the other hand, at least in theory, NATO can be a structure which could be used to promote peace, so it doesn't seem appropriate to protest NATO's very existence any more than it would make sense to protest the existence of the UN.

I know and have worked with some of the people and organizations that are planning the protests, and I feel a certain obligation to participate. Solidarity is important. But I also know that there will be people at the protests who will not be pursuing the same goals that I am. Various government agencies will probably have provocateurs among the crowd who will be trying to incite violence in order to discredit the protests. Some violence-prone activists may even come in from out of town. I have no interest in being part of a crowd which could be manipulated towards unproductive action.

Nor am I interested in playing the role of peaceful protester bloodied by reactionary out-of-control security forces. I don't think it will help anyone to promote the idea that we are once again, as in 1968, caught up in a struggle between the establishment and those who seek progress.

All this is not to say that I am just being frightened away by the massive show of force that we have been promised. I am really not afraid for my safety. I have marched in plenty of protests before, and I know that with very few exceptions, everyone on both sides will want things to go smoothly.

The biggest question is really whether the protests will accomplish anything. It is a question that activists usually answer by pointing out that without the protests, nothing will be accomplished. The world needs to see that there are people in the US who oppose our government's approach to the world. But if all the world sees is that most Chicagoans go about their lives while a small group protests, which is what I expect will happen, the protests will have done little.

What I would really like to do is to invite some of the NATO delegates and a handful of my friends over for dinner at my house. If the delegates have any interest in finding out what Americans think, that would be a great way to go. But I don't think that is what this NATO meeting is all about. I think it is just another meeting among people whose governments like to use force to control the world. They are not coming to Chicago to listen to Chicagoans. This is just a place to meet. The delegates won't be paying attention to the protesters any more than George Bush paid attention to us when we tried to explain to him why invading Iraq would be a bad idea.

Whenever the NATO nations decide they want to hear what I and my friends and neighbors think and learn how we feel about what they have been doing, all they have to do is phone me. I'm easy to reach and would be happy to set a few extra places at the dinner table for them. For that matter, if my own government ever decides it is interested in what ordinary people think, the invitation is open to them, too.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Accessible Religion

I asked a friend who is a priest to review one of my blog entries before I published it. I told her that I didn't want to offend people by what I said, and I also didn't want to sound like a fool. She wrote me back a wonderfully detailed, insightful, and instructive response which was worded so gently that I wasn't sure if she was telling me that I did indeed sound like a fool, but she left me convinced that I needed to do some re-writing.

Religion needs to be accessible to people, but it doesn't need to be easy. I am sure that clergy struggle to write sermons that will carry meaning and inspiration to a broad range of people, and now, having been edited by a priest who every week meets that challenge, I see how difficult a task it is.

We are bombarded by television and radio preachers who openly tell us that they are delivering a simple message. They tell us that all we have to do is open our hearts, or read our bibles. Maybe that's all some people need. But to me, the world we live in is so complicated that it requires us to put a bit more effort into understanding how the religious and moral messages that we have inherited apply to our lives.

The priest who critiqued my blog entry (and she hasn't looked at this one yet, so don't blame her if you don't like it) told me about a conference she attended recently. She gave me just the slightest taste of the intricacy of the historical and theological debate among the presenters and her colleagues. She gave me just an inkling of the deep thinking that has gone into some of the questions to which I am only able to devote a few paragraphs in my blog. She affirmed some of what I had written, challenged some of it, and led me to think about things that had not occurred to me.

But most importantly, she reminded me of the limitations of the easy answer. All faith traditions come to us with rich bodies of scholarship. They also leave us with unanswered questions and with questions that have been answered in the past, but for which new answers may be needed.

The surveys tell us that attendance at church services is declining. Attendance at Sunday School and religious studies doesn't seem to be doing so well, either. So a lot of people, busy as we all are, are left with only the slimmest slice of religion. It was good to be reminded, by someone who has made religious ministry her life and her career, of the abundance of thoughtful guidance that is available to anyone who wants it. And I can imagine my Rabbi saying, “What, you thought all we do is light candles?”

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Good Samaritan

Last Sunday, I sat in an adult study session at a church and listened to the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The story is short and can be understood by youngsters. It also carries an important and timeless lesson for adults, which is who Jesus told the story to. The parable raises the question of who our neighbor is. It is an important question because of the instruction Jesus gives on how we are to regard and treat our neighbors.

The leader this Sunday was expressing the view that Christians not only have an obligation to tend to people who are needy and injured, but they should also be working to correct the conditions that lead to people becoming needy and getting injured. She quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said, “On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life's roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

One man in the study session seemed to disagree with the entire premise that Christians should help other people, either by charity or by working to change oppressive and inequitable conditions. It was not clear whether he had a very narrow concept of who we should think of as our neighbors, or whether his rejected the imperative to help. He went through a convoluted discourse on his view of capitalist economics and suggested that the one percent who own most of the wealth of this country should not stop to help their fellow men, because that would lead to the recipients of aid becoming dependent upon entitlements, and it would reduce employment, shrink the economic pie, and lead to worsening conditions for everyone.

It seemed that the man was saying that Jesus was wrong, and that Christians should not do as the Good Samaritan had done. There are undoubtedly many lessons to be learned from different interpretations of the parable, but it seems to me that it would be considered outside of mainstream Christian thought to say that Jesus was just plain wrong on this point, or that Jesus was even capable of being wrong. And yet, that was the thrust of the man's argument.

Religions have from time to time had difficulty maintaining coherence of their doctrine. In modern times, most Christian denominations have been very reluctant to impose orthodoxy by labeling people who fall outside of the mainstream thought as heretics. Excommunication and shunning are not commonly used.

But this past Sunday as I listened to one man in a Christian church proclaim that his faith in a libertarian/Republican/laissez-faire economic doctrine had supplanted the religious teachings of the church where he came to worship, I wondered just how far our society's devotion to money has gone, and more disturbing, how much further it may go. I also wondered about how religious leaders should respond when the fundamentals of their faith are misunderstood or rejected by people who purport to subscribe to that faith.

Jesus had a lot to say about the relationship between a religion and its leadership. He did not hesitate to counsel rejection of corrupt practice. Neither was he ambivalent about directing his followers to follow the path that he prescribed. I wonder what he would have had to say to the man I encountered in church. Or perhaps the question should more correctly be asked, what should all of the rest of the people in the room have said to their neighbor?