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Thinking and writing at the intersection of faith and culture. We focus on both sacred and secular issues, and everything in between, because God does too.
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Album Review: Lady Gaga’s Joanne

Fri, 11/11/2016 - 02:00

In a moment of candid exasperation during a 2015 speech at Yale, Stefani Germanotta—or, to her less-familiars, Lady Gaga—confessed, “I have had to make decisions like, why am I unhappy? Okay, Stefani/Gaga hybrid person, why are you unhappy? … I don’t like wasting my time spending days just shaking people’s hands and smiling and taking selfies. It feels shallow to my existence. I have a lot more to offer than my image.”  Seven years earlier, she had released the triple-platinum ode-to-image, The Fame. Two years later she wore the meat dress.  Now, she’s feeling the hangover from her identity-performance’s high.  Fame was a poker face,1that prevented the world from seeing the person behind the pseudonym.  Living that false image couldn’t beat unhappiness, but authenticity can, and it’s that authenticity that shines in her self-searching, latest album, Joanne.

Joanne rockets between ballad and rock, funk and blues, country and dance pop.  And the protagonists seem to vary as much as the genre.  It kicks off with the “young, wild American” of “Diamond Heart” and finishes with the meek seeker of “Angel Down.” Each facet of her life gets to tell its story. The journey is, as Good Morning America’s Michael Strahan points out in a release-day interview, raw and authentic: there’s moments of lost innocence and erotic desire as well as signs of genuine faith and political concern. This juxtaposition can feel incoherent, but coherence and authenticity hardly ever go hand in hand.  Gaga’s complicated like all of us. We’re just hot messes of love seeking meaning and fulfillment.

The album’s title is a nod to the roots of this mess.  Joanne was Joanne Germanotta, the singer’s aunt who passed away at 19, a decade before her niece was born.  Gaga, née Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, literally carries that tragedy with her.  Authenticity begins with coming to terms with origins, and she can’t escape the haunting of her own name.   

“Girl, where do you think you’re going’?” She howls over and over in the title track.  With the sheer willpower of her voice—and she has a lot of it—she still can’t bring her aunt back. We’re trapped in her distress until her mourning finds some resolution in the bridge: “Honestly, I know where you’re goin’/And baby, you’re just moving’ on/And I still love you even if I can’t/See you anymore.” Anguish and grief become calm acceptance.  It’s that faith in her aunt’s living on that heals her.Lady Gaga’s disorienting longing for her heavenly aunt’s presence, however, doesn’t have anything on her frenzied quest for love in this world. She confesses that she can only find it imperfectly. It’s as constant ecstasy is a “Perfect Illusion.” She’s looking for some “John Wayne” who can quench her thirst for a love that thrills. She claims that he made her “high like amphetamine” yet admits that maybe he’s “just a dream.” Strong emotions of angst and frustration show up in both voice and instrumentation. If Ke$ha’s love is a drug, then Lady Gaga’s drug comes with a crash. Stymied love hurts. It wounds the soul and leaves its mark. Is lasting love even possible, the distorted guitars ponder, or is it all just a passing high?

Lest despair have the final word, she follows the real-but-resentful “Perfect Illusion” with the heartfelt and hopeful, “Million Reasons.” Gaga refuses to give into desperation; instead, she holds out for the possibility of love. Her lover2 has given her a million reasons to “quit the show.” The piano is somber. The harmonies hurt. The drums dwindle and fade. Yet somehow, she needs “just one good [reason] to stay.” The reward is worth the risk. “Lord, show me the way!” she cries with her weapon of a voice that pierces through the “worn out leather” of disillusioned love.  No surprise then that “Million Reasons” is the most popular of the album’s tracks on iTunes.3 Its exhausted lamentation strikes a chord with an America that has so many reasons to give up hope. Lady Gaga has the courage to acknowledge her fear and reach through it.

It’s this authentic hope as a response to hurt that connects the despondent Lady Gaga back to Stefani Joanne. Joanne, in name and in song, is a reminder of the “could-be” that’s simultaneously the hurt of the past and the possibility of the future.  She meditated on her name to find authenticity and ended up crafting an alchemy of loss into hope.  

 

 

 

 

Categories: Things Jesuit

You Think I’m Terrible, Don’t You!

Thu, 11/10/2016 - 02:01

“You think I’m a crazy, middle-aged woman, don’t you!” she said as she plopped into the chair in my office.

I smiled and gently shook my head, “I’m sorry…did I say or do something to give you that impression?”

Jenny replied, “Well, no. Not you, I guess. But, everyone thinks it. I know they do. I disappoint them all, especially my husband and my family.” She wiped her tears away and described a recent evening.

“I teach at our local high school. I got home from work at five and started cooking dinner. My oldest kids were at band and soccer and ballet. Our youngest is just a third-grader and she had a lot of homework. So, I was helping her. I hadn’t vacuumed or dusted that week. So in between her math problems and cooking, I needed to clean. Also, I had found some of the leftover paint for our guest room; it was old, so I needed to use it before it went bad.”

“Wait… So you were preparing dinner, cleaning the house, tutoring your youngest, and painting a room…”

“Well, yeah. There was a lot that needed to happen.” She paused and continued, “My husband finally came in from the farm.” Then she smiled, “He came into kitchen, put his arms around me and kissed me on the cheek and went upstairs to clean up before dinner…finally, at nearly 7:00pm, everyone was home from practice, dinner was ready, and we ate. It was such a long day. I felt like I was going nonstop since 5:00am.”

“I don’t think I understand, Jenny. It sounds like a beautiful evening—busy and hectic, sure, but beautiful. Why do you feel they were disappointed?”

“Well, I didn’t finish the repainting, and my husband had to help the youngest with her homework.” Her hands rose to hide tears. “I just try so hard… and I just can’t ever to do it all. I let them all down. They don’t say anything, but I know.” Her voice shook as she attempted to settle herself, “I try to do everything for them, and I just can’t… I know they’re disappointed. And, I know when I complain or am stressed that they think I’m some crazy woman. A witch or something.”

***

A few months later and life caught up to me. Two extensive papers due on the same day. And, a presentation with defense. And, I was responsible for a student prayer service. I completed all of these in time, sure, but I was running on not much more than coffee fumes and anxiety. Going into the prayer service, I became convinced that I was letting people down: I was failing my mission to study, my presentation didn’t feel up to par, and the prayer service was going to be a bust—obviously, this all meant that I’m a terrible Jesuit and a terrible person.

In my head, I actually began rehearsing an apology to the students in the group. But before I received a chance to delivery it, an acquaintance came up to me: “Colten, I don’t know you that well, but I’m always impressed by you…”

At the statement, I stopped. It felt all too familiar, and I thought of Jenny’s words: “You think I’m a crazy, middle-aged woman, don’t you!” Her words echoed my own internal monologue: “You think I’m terrible, don’t you!” It was the same narrative and the same pain.

***

“Jenny, it sounds like you have a lot on your shoulders.” I paused for a moment. “I don’t know your family, but from your descriptions they sound wonderful.”

She mumbled, “They are.”

“And, it sounds to me like they love you, Jenny.”

She wiped the tears from her eyes, “They do.”

I often remember the impossibly high expectations Jenny set for herself, and I recognize that frequently I set impossibly high expectations for myself. Jenny was convinced that everyone was disappointed with her for not being a superhero. Again and again, the same lie runs through my own thoughts. It’s not what others think of me, but what I think of myself that hurts.

I’ve never spoken to Jenny after that day, but I’m reminded constantly of our short conversation. I hope Jenny realizes that what she thinks about herself is much more harsh than what others think of her. I hope she finds a way to soften her own expectations in order to find peace. And, I hope to find the same.

-//-

 

The cover image, from Flickr user Shane Horan, can be found here.

Categories: Things Jesuit

Moving Forward: Recommitting to Our Democracy

Wed, 11/09/2016 - 02:14
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Well, America, we have declared our 45th President of the United States: real-estate mogul and reality television star Donald J. Trump. In the process of a bitter election, both he and Hillary Clinton managed to further polarize the American electorate. Whether it’s Trump’s blatant sexism or Clinton’s email scandal(s), more than eight in ten voters feel “repulsed rather than excited” by this campaign season.

After running an unpredictable campaign full of drama and scandal, Mr. Trump promises to make America great again. After this election, he’s got a lot of work to do. His own Republican Party is in shambles. Internationally, the threat of ISIS continues to grow.  And of course nationally there is the political divisions in Washington that somehow he’ll have to figure out how to unify – especially with potential economic instability.  

Despite what he says, Trump alone can’t make America great again. He’s got to work together with Congress and internal RNC divisions. And, if we’re going to move forward together with  President Trump, it will take our own commitment to democracy. We have to work together for America to continue to be strong.

***

Our democracy is built on the premise that we can debate worthwhile ideas that will help us live together. For democracy to function healthily, we have to engage in our political culture: We vote. We join civil society groups like church groups, sports teams, and political parties to build American social life. We trust one another in the process.

Our political culture is broken and so is our engagement in it. Among other developed countries, our voter turnout is atrocious. We see ourselves as lazy and selfish. Some sociologists debate whether we even join those church groups or sporting teams anymore. Even if we get involved in civic movements, we avoid talking about politics.

And finally, we don’t trust the government or our fellow Americans. This election cycle was simply an extreme result of polarization.

Today we have to move forward – together – and fight against the distrust and negativity  we have for one another. We don’t have to choose whether to make “America great again” or be “stronger together”. We can be both. We can stand with one another to build a better country for future generations.

In his 2016 State of the Union Address, President Obama urged all Americans to do their part to keep this democracy going:

Our collective futures depends on your willingness to uphold your duties as a citizen. To vote. To speak out. To stand up for others, especially the weak, especially the vulnerable, knowing that each of us is only here because somebody, somewhere, stood up for us. We need every American to stay active in our public life – and not just during election time – so that our public life reflects the goodness and the decency that I see in the American people every single day.

To do this, we must interact with one another, especially people who are different than us. Let’s stop unfriending friends on Facebook because they have different views than us, and start talking to one another. Let’s follow Obama’s call to stay active in political life.

Of course many feel angry and frustrated with the disaster of both the election and political culture. That is more than understandable because this has been deplorable at best. But are we going to remain angry or are we going to move forward?

We can move forward:

  • We can reconnect with family members we unfriended because of their different political views.  
  • We can break out of our media silos to understand other viewpoints
  • We can seek out clubs, rejoin sporting teams and religious congregations that we left
  • We can humbly pray for decreased bitterness and increased gratitude
  • We can practice political conversations that avoid demonizing others
  • We can turn to the example of Pope Francis who calls us to build a politics without fear

The election is over. Today we walk forward with President Trump. Let’s make our previous generations proud by reclaiming a public life that truly reflects how great we’ve always been. Let’s do this together.

Categories: Things Jesuit

Two Parties are Better Than One

Tue, 11/08/2016 - 12:01
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Just two days ago, another Western-hemisphere democracy took to the polls to elect a president. In case you missed it, Nicaragua re-elected Daniel Ortega of the Sandinista Party (FSLN) to a third consecutive term.

Today is our turn. As Americans across the country head to the polling stations, there are only two choices for the next president of the United States: Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. But hey, at least there are two! Since I arrived in Nicaragua earlier this year, Ortega’s victory in the elections had basically been assumed.

First, let’s look at the US. Why is it dominated by two political parties? For one thing, the electoral system in the United States severely limits the likelihood of the rise of a viable, electorally-competitive third party candidate. The US has a winner-take-all, first-past-the-post system in which runner-ups do not get representation. In contrast, a proportional representation system includes coalition-building among a plurality of political parties as we see in Germany, Ireland or Mexico, where a multiplicity of political parties is tenable and prevalent.

It can be tempting to oversimplify our understanding of how a democracy works and overlook the complexities and even varieties among democracies. While it’s not the only factor, the system matters. And not all systems are created alike. That’s why multiple political parties can compete in some democracies, but not in others. In the US, third party candidates can make the ballot every four years, but unless that party replaces or usurps the Democratic or Republican party, it won’t have a significant chance at the White House.

But while some are bemoaning the impossible odds of third party candidates and others are lamenting a choice between two unlikeable candidates, let’s all at least take a moment to appreciate the fact that there are still TWO legitimate political parties in the US.

***

So back to Nicaragua. In the lead-up to the election, I never encountered a single person who doubted Ortega’s chances of winning this year. This is despite the fact that his reelection required a rewritten Constitution that removed the two-term restriction on running for president and that he named his wife as his running mate (I promise this is not a House of Cards episode).

Ortega did not face a single viable competitor in the election after suppressing opposition parties over the summer. I will let others analyze the reasons for his assured victory, but let me simply lament the lack of electoral competition and the problems it brings. Transitions in power between political parties are vitally important in a healthy democracy for a number of reasons. Let’s take a look at three in particular.

First of all, without transitions in power between parties, there is less defense against imbalanced policies and legislation. Typically when a party in power produces controversial legislation, the opposing party can revise or repeal it in subsequent years when they assume control. As we know, a swing in an election between political parties is often treated as a “mandate” to enact exactly this kind of change. Even just the threat of a future repeal or the need for sufficient votes can lead legislators to seek bipartisan support through more moderate legislation. In contrast, there’s no need to “reach across the aisle” when there is no one on the other side.

The danger of a dominant party democracy goes beyond imbalanced legislation. A second issue with a lack of political change is the risk of higher levels of political corruption. Take South Africa, for example. Since the fall of Apartheid in the 1990’s, the African National Congress (ANC) has won every Presidential election. Jacob Zuma, the current President of South Africa, spent $20 million in public money on his private residence, which included an amphitheater and swimming pool. In 2009, he had nearly 800 (!!!) charges of corruption dropped by the national prosecutor. Protests occasionally rise up to demand Zuma steps down, but the ANC continues to hold support of an overall majority of the country, and competing parties are left to celebrate even the minor victory of seeing ANC support dip below 60%. Without checks on power, members of a comfortable ruling political party have more leeway and less accountability: the perfect cocktail for corruption.

A third disadvantage of a dominant party political environment is a lack of political discourse. While plenty of airtime and print has been dedicated to the personal character of Clinton and Trump in the US election, there has still been a lot of lively debate about important political issues, ranging from healthcare to immigration to foreign policy. In contrast, there was not a single presidential debate in Nicaragua. Flashy billboards and generic slogans were sufficient for Ortega to support his candidacy in the run-up to election day. Where is the discourse over the social and economic problems the country is facing and the best approaches to combat them?

These are just three of the many pitfalls in a country where a dominant party remains in uncontested control. How are citizens meant to respond? If there isn’t a realistic possibility for desired political change, this dominant-party system becomes a form of repression against popular sovereignty. The very legitimacy of the democracy comes into question. Despite all the drama in the US elections this year, we haven’t gone so far as to question the legitimacy of our democracy.

***

Transitions of political power remain common within our two-party system. While a Clinton victory today would ensure at least a three-term reign for the Democratic party, this would be the first such streak since the Reagan-Bush Republican years ended in 1992. Individual political parties used to dominate the White House for long stretches at a time, but since 1968 the US has experienced a higher degree of electoral competition and turnover, accompanied by peaceful transitions of power. That is a good thing.

Yes, there are severe problems that arise when there are no alternations in political power: imbalanced legislation, less accountability for political corruption, and less political discourse. As bleak as this election season has looked in the US, let’s be thankful for at least this one fact: we still have two major political parties. And two parties are better than one.

Categories: Things Jesuit

Accepting the Challenge of Being Civil

Tue, 11/08/2016 - 02:14

Election day is here, finally.  With this being one of the most divisive presidential elections in American history, we need closure. We need to move forward with a President Clinton or a President Trump.  

Even with the recent FBI investigation into Clinton’s emails, she will likely win.  Meanwhile, despite struggling numbers for Mr. Trump, Republicans still look like they will control the House.  Now, the toss-up question is the U.S. Senate.   

So what? If things look settled, why all the fuss?

We may take for granted our ability to vote.  When I taught AP Government, I told my students to register to vote on their 18th birthday.  I usually got a mix of reactions, including the apathetic and sarcastic  “Why does it matter?”  

My response: “Because you have a voice, so use it.”

So today, we use that voice: we cast our ballots knowing that what we do and who we vote for has consequences.  We do so with the knowledge that our vote will be counted among the millions of Americans who earnestly want a government that functions, cooperates, and works for the good of all.  We know and trust that, in our country, voter fraud occurs rarely during the process.

We trust  because we Americans understand that differences are decided at the ballot box.  

***

Our politicians know this too. In their concession speeches, candidates show voters that the results are legitimate, and it is now time to move on.   An exercise in humility, it is an important symbol to us and to the world that the election is not about one single person, but about the country.  

We’ve seen this time and time again.

In the 2000, the country woke up the morning after election night without a president.  The contested state of Florida had yet to declare an electoral college winner but it looked like Governor Bush was ahead by a few hundred votes.  Vice President Gore requested a recount.  His request was denied in a tight 5-4 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court and Governor Bush won the election. In his prime time concession speech, Al Gore respectfully accepted the Bush’s victory:

Now the U.S. Supreme Court has spoken. Let there be no doubt, while I strongly disagree with the court’s decision, I accept it. I accept the finality of this outcome, which will be ratified next Monday in the Electoral College. And tonight, for the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession.

And in 2008, John McCain conceded the race to Senator Barack Obama with honor and dignity.   During his speech, he silenced boos from the audience.  Acknowledging the significance of electing the first African American president, he called Americans to support Obama.  

I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him, but offering our next president our goodwill and earnest effort to find ways to come together, to find the necessary compromises, to bridge our differences and help restore our prosperity, defend our security in a dangerous world, and leave our children and grandchildren a stronger, better country than we inherited.

Gore and McCain came from two different parties. In their greatest act of their campaign, they trusted and accepted the will of the American people.  While it may not have been the outcome they wanted, it was the final result.

***

Whatever candidate we choose or position we fight for, let us exercise our right to vote with confidence.  Let us vote with a sense of integrity knowing that we will really make a difference, not only for ourselves, but for our fellow Americans.  

And at the end of the day, if our candidate loses or position fails, let’s follow the examples of Gore and McCain who avoided demonizing others.

Yes, this year has been contentious, and it is time is needed to mend the vitriolic rhetoric passed back and forth.  We might be tempted to use our social media to demonize others. But, if we choose to go beyond the biting words of a tweet or a snarky Facebook post, we are actually doing something honorable.  

We are choosing to accept the challenge of being civil.  

***

Image courtesy FlickrCC user Michael Bentley.

Categories: Things Jesuit

Why Elections are Unserious

Mon, 11/07/2016 - 02:14
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When I taught world history to freshmen in high school, I once asked my students to reflect upon the longevity of the Roman Republic (it lasted over 500 years, ending in the first century BC, over twice as long as our Republic). In an effort to underscore how significant the end of the Republic must have been for citizens of first century Rome, I asked what I thought to be a loaded question: Who can imagine the United States ceasing to exist as a republic? To my great surprise, the hands went up — at least half of the class.

Perhaps my adolescent scholars didn’t quite grasp the implications of my question, but I recall at that age being far more optimistic about the future of my country. On the brink of the culmination of such a brutal campaign season, I am not about to encourage despair over the state of our public affairs. I will try to let you in on some good news.

Elections are the primary means by which most of us participate directly in the government of our cities, states and country. Given this political significance, shouldn’t we be taking them seriously?

My response is: “Certainly yes… and no.”

As I prepare to attend the Ignatian Family Teach-in this weekend, I am reminded by Catholic Social Teaching that ignoring my duties as a citizen, while enjoying the benefits of the rights afforded me, is like “building a house with one hand and tearing it down with the other.” (Pacem in Terris, #30)

Then how can I call our elections “unserious”?

I use “unserious” in the sense that my former professor, Fr. James V. Schall, SJ, used the term.1 Drawing from Aristotle, Schall would often remind his students that if humans were the highest beings, politics would be the highest activity. But even Aristotle did not assert that humans are the highest beings, so there must be something more serious than politics.

What Schall and Aristotle are getting at is that politics, as something practical, is less serious than contemplation, which relates to the divine. It is contemplation that is the real purpose of the human existence. Politics is merely a practical concern. It only interests us insofar as it helps us to our true end.

Thus, there is a Christian way to put politics into perspective that lends it a more hopeful lack of seriousness: namely, to recall God’s larger plan for humanity.2 In the midst of political anxiety, we can easily forget what is most important in our lives.

***

I want to explore two ways in particular that our political culture ignores the bigger picture. First, as my students reminded me, we often assume that the United States and our political project ought to and will endure forever; and second, we believe that our form of government is capable of producing real unity.3

With regard to the first, would our founding fathers even recognize our current form of government? Moreover, we can all agree that things political are broken; though there is a variety of opinion about the changes needed. It can be easy these days to imagine, as my students could, the end of our form of government.

As to the second, I find it difficult to imagine a few hundred elected officials forging true union for a country of over 300 million people of so many different cultures. Surely there are some common values that unite us and the federal government certainly has its role in peaceably settling disputes and differences, but must we rely on our government for unity?

***

If not in politics, where can one seek an enduring order and true unity? Here is the good news: there is a realm in which a just order will endure for all time. We call it the Kingdom of God. There is a source of perfect union with fellow pilgrims. We call it the Mystical Body of Christ.

Politics is an essential part of human life and the business of Christians just as much as anyone. But I cannot find my ultimate meaning or lasting happiness in politics. Even if America were to cease existing (as some are expecting from this election), we Christians ought not despair, for we are destined for another Kingdom.

Categories: Things Jesuit

5 Reasons Why I’m Glad the Cubs Won (I Guess…)

Sat, 11/05/2016 - 02:00
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I’m from Green Bay, but now I’m a teacher in Chicago. Yesterday, there was a parade two blocks from my classroom, and thousands gathered for a celebration 108 years in the making. Several of my students skipped class; others were trapped in a flooded public transportation system. They have a quiz on Tuesday. I hope they’re ready. If not, I blame the Cubs.

The Cubs are World Series Champions, and now I have a truly awful, 1980’s theme song-styled jingle running through my head at all times. Hey Chicago, what do you say? Think-of-something-new-to-sing!

In spite of my slight annoyance, energy fills the streets, a sweet release of tension built up from over a century of disappointment and wishful thinking. Grown men reminiscent of those teenage girls seeing the Beatles live on the Ed Sullivan Show. Little ‘W’ flags left on the tombs of the dead who never saw the day come 1. This morning, my normally sleepy bus-ride to work was almost entirely blue and red. It seemed that all of Chicago was filing toward Michigan Avenue for a chance to glimpse the team that broke the curse.

Life is far from perfect in Chicago, and the Cubs won’t heal all the wounds of this city. But, I think there are least five reasons it’s a good thing the Cubs won:

  1. This Cubs team seems to be, with one glaring exception, filled with character. That exception, of course, is Aroldis Chapman,who was suspended for 30 games after a domestic violence conviction.2 On the whole, though, these guys seem to carry each other. Literally, in the case of David Ross, the 39-year-old backup catcher (and resident Yoda-figure), who was carried off the field in his final major league appearance. This kind of team-building character is a positive witness to the strength of good sportsmanship.
  2. After playing the favorite all year, the Cubs became underdogs in the series. They were on top for the entire season, but falling to a 3-1 deficit in any contest is a significant challenge. 4-0 sweeps are impressive, but the human spirit is more inspired by a good comeback.
  3. Chicago Cubs fans can no longer walk around in a self-loathing vale of tears. Most of us non-Chicagoans and others who have virtually no skin in the baseball game were tired of the complaining. Chicago sports fans gripe about ‘84 like it was yesterday. And, Steve Bartman did exactly what I would have done – he went for the ball. Get over it already.
  4. Fewer people will buy Chief Wahoo swag. I’m glad MLB and the Indians are now looking into the problems with the logo, but for the time being, let’s agree that the red-faced Indians brand is at best problematic and offensive, and at worst, explicitly racist and culturally oppressive.
  5. The overt religious symbolism. Cubs fans across the country made promises to God in the bottom on the 9th inning, and the game was played on All Soul’s Day. We remember our beloved dead on that day. Even the World Series can’t get around God.

When I walk into my house these days, I enter a house divided. Three men born and raised in Cleveland. More than half-a-dozen from Chicago. A few transplants like me, waiting for that moment when the heart decides. Fortunately, we’re still on speaking terms, and for a historic moment, the Cubs brought a city together. And for that, I’ll gladly say: go Cubs go.

Categories: Things Jesuit

Telling the Story of Racial Injustice

Fri, 11/04/2016 - 02:00
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We’ve got best-selling books on mass incarceration. We’ve got videos of unarmed people of color getting shot and killed. We’ve even got #blacklivesmatter, which has already appeared over 12 million times on Twitter.

Yet, otherwise smart people are saying things like, “This country isn’t oppressing black people.”  38% of white people say they don’t even understand the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement, to say nothing of whether they actually support it.

People see Philando Castile shot and dying? An isolated incident. Eric Garner? A chokehold gone horribly wrong. Trayvon Martin? Just one crazy vigilante, that’s all.

What will it take for all Americans to become believe that systemic racism in our country is a thing?

We’ve all heard the facts. We know about the rapidly rising incarceration rate in the U.S.:

And that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world:

And that most of the increases in incarceration rates have to do with drugs:

And that these offenders are overwhelmingly likely to be African-American or Latino men:

These facts don’t exist in isolation. We take them in as part of a narrative we tell to help us understand the world.  We make from them our stories of black folk.  

Trayvon Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman’s story to his jury was one of fear. That black men are scary. That seeing the 17-year-old black kid in the hoodie caused him to fear for his life. That it was self-defense.

They bought it.

Others tell another story- that our country’s history is one of racial progress. We have a black president, the story exclaims. Look at how far we’ve come!  But that one doesn’t account for these brutal facts about incarceration.  

We need a different story.

A better story takes a broader view of the facts.  It’s a story that successfully connects current manifestations of systemic racism back to slavery, a practice that we universally condemn. A story that rejects our contention that we would have never tolerated slavery had we been alive back then. A story that reminds us that we are standing idly by while steadily increasing numbers of (mostly) black men are sent to prison for (mostly) non-violent, drug related offenses.

Ava Duvernay offers us exactly this story in her new Netflix documentary, 13TH,  which presents these facts in the context of the whole of black history in the United States–chattel slavery through the present day.  

The arc of this story is the consistent oppression of black folk. While this oppression used to be overt (slavery and segregation), it is now more subtle and insidious (mass incarceration and violence).

It starts at the beginning.  The film takes its name from 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery in the United States. Duvernay directs our attention to the amendment’s one key exception:: “except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

In this story, slavery hasn’t disappeared. It’s just taken a new form: locking people of color in prison.

And this story is not partisan.  Of course, it features Nixon’s 1971 “War on Drugs” and its subsequent intensification under the the Reagan’s“Just Say No” campaign.1  But it also continues with Bill Clinton’s signing of the 1994 Crime Bill, which led to the largest increase of incarcerated people in our nation’s history. As Republicans and Democrats fought over votes for being “tough on crime,” people of color paid the price.

In what is certainly 13TH’s most surprising original interview, Newt Gingrich2 puts it simple, The objective reality is virtually no one who is white understands the challenge of being black in America.  Newt can be so frank, because Duvernay isn’t interested in finding scapegoats or placing blame.  All 13TH wants to do is take all of those facts and anecdotes floating around our consciousness and place them in a broader narrative.  It wants to help those white folk understand the challenge of being black. 

In doing so, 13TH reminds us that we are inheritors of a story of racial injustice with chapters that span over four centuries.  13TH is a must-see because it gives us the tools to tell that story.  It’s a story so matter-of-fact that it’s hard to believe we haven’t already heard it.  But maybe that’s because we haven’t been listening.

13TH is not rated. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.  Watch it here.

Categories: Things Jesuit

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