25 November 2010

Thanksgiving shorts 2010

I'm writing this in the waning minutes of Thanksgiving, Moscow time. We had a wonderful Thanksgiving party during the long break between the third and fourth periods at the New Humanities Institute. It was so fun to see people come into the faculty lounge, take a look at Judy's cornucopia, constructed from strips of pizza dough, and express their delight with her creation. Of course that was not all--our three bags (transported by taxi) included turkey salad, cranberry-pear sauce, pumpkin swirl bread, pomegranate jello salad, and apple-cranberry-raisin crisp.

I've always been impressed by the sense of kollektiv among Russians at their workplaces; and I think our Institute is especially blessed by warm community among its colleagues. I was glad we had a chance to express our gratitude with this Thanksgiving feast. This is the third year we've presented a breaktime meal at Thanksgiving. One of the instructors told Judy, "You always surprise us with something new." Another thing I'm thankful for!

One of the things that drives some of my younger Russian friends crazy is how untidy some things are here. (Examples from our own neighborhood at right--taken with an old cellphone.) My friends are of course comparing some of the buildings and yards and streets they see every day with the airbrushed versions of the West and particularly the USA that they see in films and on television.

When they make these observations, I sometimes find it very hard to know what to say. Sometimes I point out that you can find similar scenes in most American cities, which is true. I also point out that Russia lost a quarter of its housing stock in World War II, and one of the results was that quantity became more important than quality in trying to fill the gap. (By the way, some of these shabby-looking postwar apartment buildings are very hard to demolish!)

Many of my friends have somewhat more cynical explanations, involving unflattering generalizations about their own country. I listen respectfully, but I don't repeat these assessments myself. The things that Russians are allowed to say about themselves are not on the same list as what guests are allowed to say!

It's hard to deny that sometimes the comforts of tidy middle-class America still beckon. But Thanksgiving Day reminds me to consider other ways to assess my surroundings and find beauty. Simply on a concrete physical level, I have everything I need for a good life:
  • books
  • music
  • friends
  • shelter
  • food
  • love
A beautiful forest is ten minutes away by foot; a peaceful lake is a bus ride away; the ever-changing sky is right over my head. And Judy's tapping away over at the other computer.

Robert Wright's article on the Afghanistan war, "Worse than Vietnam," reminded me of one of the central lessons that I drew from that war while it was still grinding on; we don't seem to have figured out how to profit from that lesson even now. The lesson: be skeptical of leaders whose egos are invested in their advice. Is it even theoretically possible for a roomful of our elite to come to us citizens and address us humbly and honestly?--"We are sorry, we made a strategic mistake in sinking lives and a huge amount of national wealth into this war, and we are now going to stop posturing before the world and let the people of Afghanistan determine their own destiny--which is what they have proved over and over that they will do anyway."

While we're in the neighborhood of the militarism theme, let me ask you a question: what do you do when a business or corporation invites you to "honor our men and women in service"? An airline I admire did this recently on their Web site, listing the ways they honor soldiers ("heroes"). Many positive comments appeared below this post, including expressions of gratitude from veterans. I tried and tried to compose a nuanced comment of my own, and ultimately gave up.

People join the military for a variety of reasons, including--but not limited to--the desire to serve their country. But (aside from the Gospel of Peace which I serve) is military service uniquely praiseworthy? Why or why not? Where can you talk about this honestly?

Soldiers are in a strange position--by the very nature of their jobs, they've agreed to obey orders almost without question, disconnecting themselves and their service from the issues of national policy, national wisdom--in other words, from questions of whether their deployments are ethical and worthy of the commitment they themselves have made. In honoring their service, are we blessing this disconnection--or are we pledging to hold our government accountable for the use they make of this commitment and readiness to obey? Will we take our politicians--and, yes, even our advertisers--to task when they proclaim admiration for soldiers' self-sacrifice as a way of encouraging us to suspend our critical judgment? Judging by the shocking lack of discussion of Afghanistan in the recent elections, I have to wonder.

Anyway, please let me know if you have found a way of responding to these sorts of honor-our-heroes campaigns that inserts some kind of creative "yes-but" into the communication.

Red Letter Christianity, Black Letter Epistle-anity, or Whole-Canon Spirituality? (From Zoecarnate, the opti-mystic blog....) A thoughtful contribution to the "canon-within-the-canon" conversation. 
The reason why groups like The Beatitudes Society seem to be more focused on following Jesus rather than believing in Jesus is because we, generationally, have significant doubts about the kind of world [that] has been left in the wake of "believing in Jesus."
Permanent War Watch department, from Tom Engelhardt:
While Americans fight bitterly over whether the stimulus package for the domestic economy was too large or too small, few in the U.S. even notice that the American stimulus package in Kabul, Islamabad, Baghdad, and elsewhere in our embattled Raj is going great guns. Embassies the size of pyramids are still being built; military bases to stagger the imagination continue to be constructed; and nowhere, not even in Iraq, is it clear that Washington is committed to packing up its tents, abandoning its billion-dollar monuments, and coming home.
Two views of the just-past centenary of Lev Tolstoy's death: "Tolstoy's 'Afterlife': An Ambivalent Centenary" and "The Murder of Leo Tolstoy."

Journalists working for Russia Today, arrested covering a demonstration in the democratic, free-press USA--is it possible?

An eloquent goodbye from a Quaker lobbyist ...

... and a new director for the Quaker United Nations Office in Geneva.

Could Vladimir Vladimirovich be the Antichrist? (Link from poemless.)

If you're trying to cut down on the time you spend online, don't click this link.

A different interpretation (especially on guitar) of an old classic, from the amazing collection of AlruneRod2811.

1 comment:

Bill Samuel said...

In reading Joe Volk's comments, I was saddened to still see no apology for FCNL's disastrous shift in policy in the early months of the Obama Administration. It became virtually a lobbying arm of the White House.

During that time, FCNL actively lobbied for a budget that increased spending for the military, devoting over half of all discretionary spending to death. Joe also sent out an email pleading with us to send letters to the editor supporting Obama's policy on Afghanistan.

In that period, many of us withdrew our support from FCNL. Income to FCNL declined markedly, forcing drastic cuts in staff and program.

FCNL did turn away from that aberration in its historic support for peace, but it has yet to apologize to its supporters and promise never to make the same mistake again. FCNL apparently does not believe that confession is good for the soul.

As for myself, I do not plan to resume supporting FCNL unless and until it acknowledges its mistake and pledges to never become a partisan tool again.