31 December 2020

Digesting 2020

Welcome to my blog post number 902. This time it's my annual sampling from the year's posts. In a couple of cases, I've included runners-up that I would have included in this digest if I didn't have such a rigid format.

Wayne Copenhaver. Source.
One of this year's themes for many of us is "loss." The planet and nation have lost so many people to the COVID-19 pandemic -- a scandalous proportion of whom might have lived under more competent and less politicized public health management. 

Also: Beirut lost part of its harbor district in a warehouse explosion. The Atlantic hurricane season seemed unrelenting, with part of Central America hit twice within a few weeks. In a non-COVID year, wildfires might have been the year's biggest disaster story in several parts of the world.

Most of us had very painful individual losses this year; among mine have been Anne ThomasRamón González Longoria Escalona, and Wayne Copenhaver

Losses that are, at first glance, far more trivial -- no 2020 Waterfront Blues Festival, for example, or the cancellation of my visit to Moscow Friends and Elektrostal last March -- point to the business and employment crises connected with art, entertainment, travel, and other economic sectors we usually take for granted.

Our nation's embedded demon of white nationalism accounted for searing experiences of loss, grief, and anger, of whom the murder of George Floyd in full public view was only the most visible instance to most of us.

Other themes that cropped up on my blog, roughly in order of frequency, were presidential corruption and incompetence; Christian/Quaker history and discipleship; topics related to Russia; the USA's 2020 Census; books; and humor (too rarely, and usually political).

January: "Our life is politics"

[After being told by a Palestinian teenager that "our life is politics."]

There's a way of understanding politics that is far more descriptive and analytical than all transaction-based descriptions -- and to my mind, far more helpful. "Politics" simply refers to the social processes by which a community allocates scarce resources. It's not just limited to the arrangements in place at the moment -- it also includes the marketplace of ideas within which we advocate fairer and more transparent processes and learn to do that advocacy more persuasively. There are few forces that can resist the power of an idea whose time has come ... thanks perhaps to years of intelligent development and persistent advocacy.

It's that kind of alertness to the forces at work and readiness to respond knowledgeably, rather than dependence on heroes and villains, that may be one important way of understanding that "our life is politics." It's a refusal to resign oneself to a passive acceptance of whatever happens, in favor of awareness of today's hazards and tomorrow's possibilities of change. The more hazards you face (e.g., Gaza!!), the more important it is to stay aware.


February: William Barr, Max Boot, and "the vapor trails of Christianity"

Here's what I'd like to discuss with both Barr and Boot: the usefulness of the word "religion" as a meaningful category. Barr says that religion makes all the difference -- and at various points he shifts from "classic Christian" to "Judeo-Christian" to the role of religion in general in the full 50,000 years of human development. Boot and Cho refer to the full variety of religions in the ten most religious and ten least religious countries they studied.

Here's the problem. A couple of years ago anthropologist Dimitris Xygalatas wrote about the influence of religion in general to their ethical behavior: "No matter how we define morality, religious people do not behave more morally than atheists, although they often say (and likely believe) that they do."


Also ran: Is the Bible nice?

March: Stress test

Despite what conspiracy theorists say, no Western agents of russophobia, anti-Trump media, or other plotters developed this novel coronavirus. It apparently has the same genesis as countless other viruses in human history, some of which have wreaked similar havoc. It spreads in ways similar to other viruses as well, by contact with respiratory droplets from infected people. Because a typical infected person may spread the disease to several others, the progress of the disease is exponential until people learn to stop giving the virus opportunities to spread. Although much research needs to be done on specific features, treatments, and prevention, nothing about this current pandemic is unprecedented or particularly mysterious.

I don't mean to minimize anything. Once infected, most patients recover, but it's a considerably more dangerous virus than a typical flu, especially if the patient already is vulnerable for one reason or another. (Again, see this WHO site.) But, aside from the medical questions, what are we learning about ourselves and our societies from the stress imposed on us by the coronavirus? Or to put it another way, what stress tests have we already flunked?


Also ran: To Russia with love

April: Paying for health care

Health care's dependence on the free market is based on a myth: the relationship between an independent consumer contracting with an independent professional in the community to provide medical services in times of need. Although cash was usually expected, it was certainly not unheard of for doctors (maybe especially in rural areas) to be paid by barter. A doctor might treat two or even three generations of a family.

This mythical doctor had no priority other than your health. Lobbyists for this classic system fiercely defend our right to choose our doctors and build congenial relations with them, per this heartwarming myth. I know doctors who, even today, try to honor this private-contract fee-for-service model and the ideals of individualism and human-scale medicine embedded in it.


May: When fear is a gift // a guest post

With the college classrooms, library and student union on one end of the campus, the walk from the library to my dorm late at night tended to be a solitary one. It was a long, dark, lonely walk. Walking home from visiting a friend off-campus was dark, too -- all those large, lovely trees hid the street lights, and townspeople tended to close up shop and stay home after around 9:00 pm.

That first year, I would refuse to walk alone after 9:00 pm or so, early hours for a college student. My female friends would tell me not to be silly. I was very shy in other ways, not tending to bother others. But in this I was resolute. I would not visit them late, nor leave a party alone. I remember my friends’ impatient reponses. My fear was unpopular; it was regarded as stupidity, and bending to it was a sign of weakness.

By my third year, it had all changed.


June: Bolivian Friends: a grand and modest epic

[My review of A Long Walk, a Gradual Ascent: The Story of the Bolivian Friends Church in its Context of Conflict, by Nancy Thomas.]

There is genuine heroism and amazing self-sacrifice in this movement, including, at times, serious persecution from the unsympathetic sectors of the Roman Catholic church, sometimes in combination with skeptical politicians. However, Nancy also reveals less heroic dimensions of the story: conflicts among church leaders and among missionaries, and several instances of leaders falling into various moral pitfalls, both sexual and financial. (There's also a story of a genuine, touching romance with a heartbreaking conclusion. Here is a missiological study that doesn't lack for human drama!) The theme of conflict arises repeatedly, sometimes among church leaders, often between INELA's Bolivian leadership and the Oregon missionaries, and sometimes between generations in the church. The Thomases' commitment to tell the story from both "inside" and "outside" (from the Bolivians' viewpoint as well as the missionaries') means a commitment to unvarnished truth.


July: The most important question

"What would it mean for me to put God at the center of my life?"

... In the long term, answering [Jennifer Haines's] question has led me to invest my life in the Quaker movement. (This is no guarantee that my day-to-day participation has been flawless!) Our little corner of the Christian world has sometimes seemed to me to be too shy, at other times too full of itself, but for me personally Friends faith and practice have been a way of life based, directly and simply, on trust in God. We trust God to lead us in our personal lives and in our lives as communities, and we are skeptical about falling back on leaders and ceremonies that could mask our lack of trust.

I had to call on that trust many times in 1977. I left Canada with my bachelor's degree in Russian, returning to the USA with absolutely no idea what I was going to do with my future, but with the hope that it would involve Quaker service. The visit to Pendle Hill took place during those months of uncertainty, and it could not have been better timed. I decided that putting God at the center meant meeting uncertainty with trust.


August: The socialists are coming!

Democratic socialism shares the same major goal as classic socialism: eliminating the social and economic causes of suffering. Eliminating preventable suffering is also a major ethical priority of Christianity, which is probably why so many socialist thinkers have been Christians. For example, Canada's democratic socialist political party, the New Democratic Party, included Christian politicians such as J.S. Woodsworth and Stanley Knowles among its formative leaders. The Roman Catholic Church's social teachings helped form the modern labor movement in many countries. Prominent Christian socialists in the USA's history include Norman Thomas, Dorothy Day, A.J. Muste, Kirby Page, and Mother Jones. This history, if better known, might go a long way to correcting the impressions left by the celebrity Christians of the far right.

Democratic socialism recognizes that there is no way to impose this laudable goal of eliminating preventable suffering from the top down. Coercive centralized planning, no matter how elegantly organized or diligently practiced (see Red Plenty), involves a monopoly on power, and we humans have a terrible record with unchecked power. Democratic socialists rely on two major devices to keep power in check -- a system of political checks and balances, and a market economy. Strangely enough, these are the same mechanisms favored by conservatives!


Also ran: Seeking to justify myself

September: "The mere sound of his name will signal hope" (Matthew 15:21, The Message)

How do these verses -- particularly the name of Jesus, the handpicked Servant -- give me hope?

First of all, his messianic job description includes justice, and Isaiah promises that this justice will triumph. All of us Quakers who yearn for justice are part of the Jesus story. To the extent that we are persistent in working for justice in his name, that name will signal hope. The fact that there are Christians who seem indifferent to justice as we understand it shouldn't discourage us.

Secondly, this handpicked servant will neither bully nor coerce. Anyone whose idea of Christian service (for justice or for anything else) is to play the big shot is not -- emphatically not -- signaling hope to far-off unbelievers. With humility but great confidence, we ought to challenge anyone who damages the credibility of the Good News with their arrogance. I will not name names; I trust you recognize them when you see them. In the meantime -- good news! -- we're under no obligation to imitate their tactics.


October: God's sweet revenge

Grayson Gilbert wants us to know that "There Are No Atheists in Hell." ...

Gilbert's God: "What are you looking at me like that for? See, I'm real, you damned atheist. You had a lifetime of opportunity to repent and believe the good news, but you squandered them away in (a) riotous living, or (b) helping other people to the best of your secular self. Go to hell and fry forever!"

(I know we're supposed to imagine them roasting or broiling, or as the vivid icon in Ivan's the Terrible office shows, boiling in oil, but my mother used this specific curse when she was really angry: "Go to hell and fry forever!")

The Pope's God: "Surprise! Maybe now you'll believe me. Beloved, welcome to my house!"

Yes, I'm having fun now, but actually I'm angry. What evangelist in his or her right mind thinks that we can build a case for a loving and merciful God by insisting on God's final revenge on those who cannot cross the threshold of faith, not because their atheism masks a "concealed hatred of God" but because (1) they can't work it out intellectually, despite genuine efforts, or (2) they've never heard a coherent and credible presentation of the Gospel offered without hidden agendas, or (3) most members of God's fan club they know seem to revel in malice, racism, xenophobia, violence, or greed.


November: Election week shorts

[Comparing the USA's 2020 election with our experience four years earlier, when we still lived in Russia...]

... In 2016, almost all of our face-to-face social community was pro-Trump (and assumed we were, too). With some of our friends and colleagues, we had a lot of explaining to do. Now, thanks to the pandemic, we temporarily don't even have a face-to-face social community, but most people we're in daily contact with are not Trump supporters.

Election day itself was also very different. Four years ago, I was teaching a class at the Moscow Theological Seminary on election day. Now we're retired -- and on Tuesday we dealt with the stress of election-day suspense by going to the Oregon Zoo, where the residents were definitely able to take our minds off our anxieties:


December: Earlham College, ESR, and Anna Karenina

[Notes from a developing story of conflict and denial.]

All happy families are similar to each other. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Actually, if you substitute "colleges" for "families," the situation is probably reversed. All happy colleges, in the USA's current economic, political, and public health context, are probably unique, whereas unhappy colleges have many features in common -- the frightening and repelling prospect of higher education debt, increased skepticism about the value of their product for happiness, spiraling costs of competition in amenities, cycles of costcutting that lead to reliance on mercilessly exploited adjunct faculty, ... and all that was going on before the pandemic.

However, the case of Earlham and ESR has its unique aspects. Judged by numbers of students, ESR is a tiny division of the larger organization, but legacy has given it an outsized importance, both for the denominations it was founded to serve (Quakers in all our variety) and for the integrity of Earlham's identity as a whole. It cannot be treated as a modular profit center whose assets and goodwill can be lightly disposed of. By its very nature, it serves a community that can rarely afford to carry its share of ESR's costs. That has been the heart of ESR's case to Quaker donors: help us raise and nurture Friends' future leadership for the good of all of us.


Another year-end review from a Quaker blogger -- more elegant and compact, and highly recommended: Mark Russ thanks his readers in 2020.

Somewhat along the same lines: Open Culture lists its fifteen most popular posts of 2020. Enjoy!

Internet Monk is wrapping up. I could not choose a particular post from the flurry of "last posts" on the blog. Just read everything: internetmonk.com

Navalny and more: how things look in Russia from the point of view of human rights defenders... Authorities open a new criminal case against Navalny. Is the Navalny poisoning fiasco hurting Vladimir Putin? Shaun Walker wonders whether the regime is worried. Kirill Kobrin on the post-Putin consensus among the liberal intelligentsia.

While we're on Russian topics, this article is making me really homesick: here's how many Russians celebrate the New Year.

Mrs. Anderson, step-sister of blues legend Robert Johnson, is determined to set the record straight. (Thank you to Mary Kay Rehard for the link.)

My favorite music video of the year, presented as a tribute to Little Richard:

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