bicycles, Amsterdam
angel in Nieuw Kerk, Amsterdampigeons, Amsterdam

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My wife and I are visiting Amsterdam, and today we went to the Dutch Resistance Museum. It’s really excellent, with very creative displays and lots of information delivered in easily-digested-yet-substantial bites. For us, it also provided a lot of lessons that are all too relevant to our situation in the United States today.

The first is that resistance is messy: morally messy. The actions people took to hurt the occupiers, such as a railroad strike, also hurt the people (hunger increased) and the resistance itself (since members depended on the trains for transport). Few moral choices were perfectly clear or afforded an option that resulted in entirely clean hands. Forcibly called up to work in Germany, men could either go, thus unwillingly helping the German war effort; refuse, and be shot or sent to concentration camps; or hide, endangering their families. Those who weighed the options and went to Germany were castigated by many compatriots afterwards–“Why didn’t you hide?”–but they had not necessarily chosen the worst of three bad options. And then there were the many civil servants and officials who faced the unenviable decision: do I stay in my position and try to intercede for my people, soften the effect of the Nazi takeover, or do I resist and, at best, be replaced by a member of the Dutch Nazi Party? Some were outright collaborators, but many others were simply trying to walk an impossibly thin wire.

It’s the nature of violent regimes to set up such impossible choices. Divide and conquer was a common and effective strategy of the Third Reich. In the Netherlands as elsewhere, they instituted Jewish councils that were charged with carrying out Nazi requirements. Even those leaders who did their best to mitigate the decrees were set up to be perceived as collaborators by their own people; that was one of the occupiers’ intentions.

Another effective strategy was the frog-in-the-pot approach. The Nazis didn’t lower the hammer right away. People were devastated by the invasion, but it soon appeared that life remained pretty normal, even for Jews. Bit by bit, more repressions were added: a registry system, labels on passports, requirements that schoolchildren learn a Nazi-approved curriculum . . . Different people drew the line in different places, and some just kept their heads down and put up with all of it; some, no doubt, were even sympathetic to the German aims. But again, those who genuinely opposed fascism and anti-Semitism were still that frog in the pot, noticing a growing discomfort and wondering when to say “too hot.”

Is this sounding familiar?

Those who resisted did not always agree on how to do it, when to do it, or how much was too much or not enough. In fact, the impression one gets from the museum’s displays is that internal conflict was at least as common as unity. For example, people criticized even the bravest actions for coming too late. One heroic act of resistance was planned in intricate detail and attempted three times before modest success and devastating punishment (execution, imprisonment, exile). The German occupation required everyone to have papers; for many, forgeries were the only option since genuine ones would be marked with a “J” and thus be a sentence of internment or death; the forgeries, naturally, did not match what the Registry Office held. So, going to the source, the conspirators plotted to blow up the Registry Office. In the end, they succeeded in starting a fire that destroyed 15% of the records. (Today, someone wanting to carry out equivalent sabotage would have to be a hacker.) There was much rejoicing, but since most Jews had already been deported, many people also pointed out that if the bombing had been carried out earlier, many more lives would have been saved.

If this kind of sniping doesn’t sound familiar, you can’t have read any liberal or leftist responses to the news over the past year and a half.

I wonder how people responded when it was not the liberals, nor the socialists–both pillars of Dutch life, according to the museum–who rushed to the defense of Dutch Jews, but the fringe, mistrusted Communists. I wonder if, when this defense of the Jews was seized by the Germans as a pretext for vicious crackdowns that shed some of the first blood of the occupation, there was a wave of recrimination: “If we’d just stayed quiet, those people would still be alive.” I don’t know, but there are hints in the displays that some at the time were uneasy with the Communist-Jewish alliance, and that the protests gave the regime the excuse it was waiting for. If so, we’ve heard those arguments more recently and closer to home.

Also familiar was the way that some people were treated as heroes while their partners in resistance were virtually ignored. For example, Gerrit van der Veen, one of the conspirators in the Registry Office bombing, has numerous streets named after him across the country, while another, who was gay, gets little recognition. See?: I have already forgotten his name, while van der Veen’s sticks because it’s a major street and a tram stop. We enact unfairness like this constantly, giving white women credit for #MeToo without acknowledging the black woman who initiated it, or allowing our prejudices to influence which resisters of Trumpism get more attention and praise. Then these injustices prevent our unifying to fight our common enemy: sexual harassment or the administration’s policies.

Even resisters were prejudiced and entitled. When Jews who survived the camps returned to Holland, many of their neighbors downplayed the Jews’ suffering, didn’t want to hear about it, or drew facile, false equivalents. A young girl who survived Bergen-Belsen heard all about the rationing of food and confiscation of bicycles that her neighbors endured, though they didn’t want to hear about the camp.

Do that failure to hear each others’ experience, and a defensiveness about others’ greater suffering, sound familiar?

Most Dutch, inheritors and upholders of a global empire, were slow to acknowledge their hypocrisy, and the people they colonized made deals that also sit uneasily on the conscience. Many Indonesians took up arms against Dutch and Dutch-East-Indian residents of Indonesia, some of whom had lived there for generations. The Indonesians wanted to be a free republic, and saw the Japanese fight against the Dutch as an opportunity to free themselves from colonial rule. So, despite Japan’s own imperialism and the repressiveness of the Japanese army, they joined forces with Japan to drive out the Dutch. Many Dutch East Indians and Dutch were bitter about this and didn’t understand for years, if ever, that the struggle for Indonesian independence was much like their own struggle against German occupation. Resistance to oppression created uncomfortable parallels and unsavory coalitions, then as now.

And there was the passionate support of the Dutch royal family, which had fled to England, which might seem an odd rallying cry for a pro-democratic movement but also inspired and unified the people; and the almost comically bourgeois forms of resistance, such as the woman who, when compelled by the Nazi officers to darn their socks, claimed ignorance and sewed them shut. Gasp!–but, laughably minor though it seems, it got her into trouble.

It seems as if we have been here before. Here’s the thing to remember, then: the Dutch resisters were victorious. They needed the Allies to liberate the country, ultimately, but they hung in there through starvation and repression and outright murder, until they won and the Nazis lost. This, even though their resistance movement was filled with infighting and compromise and sniping.

Maybe that’s just what successful resistance looks like. Maybe even when your efforts are messy and you get a hundred things wrong, it can be enough. Maybe we should stop worrying about being such a flawed, frustrating resistance movement, and just keep on keeping on. They also serve who only sabotage the officers’ socks. And if enough serve in enough ways, we will win.

When we talk about gun deaths in this country, we don’t talk much about suicide. This may seem strange, since about two-thirds of our annual more-than-36,000 deaths by firearms are suicides. Most of the rest are homicides, with a small number of accidents (Centers for Disease Control figures for 2015; the 2016 total was over 38,000). In other words, you are twice as likely to die by a gun in your own hand as someone else’s.

You would think that suicide by firearms would garner attention, since it kills 60 U.S. Americans a day, but I think that neither gun control advocates nor those who want to permit free access to guns want to bring up suicide. The gun-rights folks may believe that people wanting to kill themselves should have the right to choose a gun, but it’s not really the kind of argument that wins you a lot of fans. And the gun-control advocates, of which (in case you haven’t read my blog before) I am most definitely one, tend not to bring it up because of a widespread belief that someone bent on suicide will carry it out, and the means are not significant. In this, we could not be more mistaken.

I’ve said it myself, this “they’ll find another way” mistake, but I was corrected, after a sermon on suicide, by a local activist, to whom I am very grateful. It does indeed matter what means people choose for suicide. Those who choose highly fatal means–jumping off bridges or tall buildings, shooting themselves, or, all too often in the community where I serve, stepping in front of a speeding train–are much less likely to survive a suicide attempt. That much is obvious, in fact tautological. But what is also true is that, denied these means, they are much less likely to kill themselves, then or ever.

This is why, thanks to the California state legislature, we now have barriers making it harder to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, along with hotline phones and posted phone numbers. There is nothing stopping someone who is turned back by the barrier from seeking another way to end their life, but the psychology of suicide is such that many do not: not that night, not the next day, not ever.  Of course, to cut the suicide rate, we can and must do more than just making the final stage harder; we need to reduce poverty and injustice, reduce drug abuse, restore meaning, and provide ample mental health care. But that final stage also matters.

Restricting access to guns–by far the most common way U.S. Americans kill themselves–is thus a very effective way to save many of those lives. When Australia responded to its 1996 Port Arthur massacre by putting tough gun laws in place, the rate of firearms homicide dropped, and so did the rate of homicide overall. The rate of firearms suicide dropped, and so did the rate of suicide overall. With homicide, the reason is obvious to those of us not being paid by the NRA: it’s much harder to kill a lot of people fast with a knife or a truck. With suicide, though? Why don’t people denied a gun find another method? I don’t know. But as often as not, maybe more often than that, they don’t.

So let’s stop shying away from the topic of guns and suicide. When people want to know what good it will do suicidal people to restrict their access to guns, the answer is: it can save the larger part of sixty lives a day.

Sixty lives is a Las Vegas massacre, every day, week in, week out. If you worry about your child’s safety, reflect: they are probably twice as likely to die by suicide as by homicide. To keep them safe, tackle suicide. To tackle suicide, tackle the gun lobby.

I’d be hard pressed to name a favorite of the eight or so books by Philip Roth that I’ve read, but I wouldn’t hesitate at all to name the one that comes to mind most often: The Plot Against America. It affected me strongly when I first read it, and now it seems terrifyingly, but usefully, prescient.

Roth takes a few facts as his foundation and spins an all-too-possible alternative history from them. Those facts: Charles Lindbergh, son of a Minnesota Congressman, and a national hero for his solo transatlantic flight, ardently opposed a United States entry into the Second World War. He was a member of the anti-interventionist America First organization; unlike the organization, he was also anti-Semitic and a lifelong advocate of “racial purity.” His sense that Russia was a greater threat than Germany was not so much about fearing Communism more than fascism, but about his preferring the Nordic to the “semi-Asiatic”; he hoped that the U.S. and Germany would unite to oppose the “semi-Asiatic” Russia. He did support U.S. entry into the war after Pearl Harbor, as did many America-Firsters (the organization disbanded immediately after the attack), and fought bravely in the Pacific. But by then, he had set himself up as an opponent of the three forces he saw as agitating for war: the British, the Roosevelt Administration, and the Jews. He and Henry Ford were longtime friends, drawn together in part by their anti-Jewish paranoia. Lindbergh was also a candidate for the Republican nomination in the 1936 presidential election. The only scrap of this paragraph that I learned in school was that he was the first person to fly solo and nonstop across the Atlantic.

The Plot Against America proposes that Lindbergh wins the 1940 Republican nomination and goes on to defeat FDR. With the anti-interventionist in office, the U.S. stays out of the war; those who do want to fight the Nazis must flee to Canada and join the despised (by President Lindbergh) British forces. With a vocal anti-Semite as President, Henry Ford’s racial theories are given free rein and U.S. Jews have an increasingly uncertain and frightened existence, like immigrants and Muslims in 2018. Roth fills the novel with specific detail by focusing on the experiences of one family–“his” family–in Newark, New Jersey.

It’s a portrait of a nation gradually sinking beneath an internal sea of fascism. Last week, the president suggested that people who peacefully protest racial injustice should maybe just not be in our country; his administration pursued a policy of asking teachers to report students without documents and another of removing children from any undocumented adults; it was revealed that 20% of the children thus removed are either unaccounted for, or so terrified of the government that is supposed to be their guardian that they have gone into hiding; and the administration has repeatedly accused the investigators of foreign interference in a presidential election of employing “spies.”

In the middle of it, Philip Roth died, and for all his fear of death, was probably glad to shake the dust of Trump’s United States off his feet. But before he went, he weighed in on the nation’s tumble toward the dystopia he had so vividly envisioned. The parallels between Lindbergh and Trump were considerable, he said, but with this difference:

Charles Lindbergh, in life as in my novel, may have been a genuine racist and an anti-Semite and a white supremacist sympathetic to Fascism, but he was also . . . an authentic American hero . . . [a] courageous young pilot . . . . Trump, by comparison, is a massive fraud, the evil sum of his deficiencies, devoid of everything but the hollow ideology of a megalomaniac. (New York Times, January 16, 2018)

Lindbergh’s fictional rise to power is more probable than that of a multiply-bankrupt self-promoter who only regained wealth and a household name by parodying himself on a game show about business, and you’d think that it would be easier to both see through Trump and get him out of office. But so far, that sea is still threatening to take the whole country under. If you’re looking for insight into how it happens and what we can do about it, in the marvelous prose of the writer who came up with that phrase “the evil sum of his deficiencies,” or you’re just looking for an excellent novel for your summer reading, check out The Plot Against America.

I acquired my first student loan in 1986, when I started college. I acquired my last one the year I completed seminary, 2000. As of this morning, eighteen years after graduating, I still owed tens of thousands of dollars. For some time, I’d had enough money to pay it off, but since the interest rate was lower than what I could earn on investments (sorry, recent graduates; that’s what the rates were like in the 90s), it made financial sense to hold onto as much as my money as possible and pay the loans off slowly.

But today, I finally decided that these financial advantages were outweighed by the emotional burden of approaching my 50th birthday and my 20th year in ministry still carrying that debt. If my daughter went to college at the traditional age, I would still be paying off my own tuition when I began having to pay hers. The hell with that. I called the handy dandy automated service, and through various beeps and pressings of “1,” gave it a payment for exactly the balance. (I really hope the payment went through before the close of business, or I will accumulate another day’s interest and have to write them a check for three cents.)

It feels really good to be done with this. I didn’t realize until I hung up the phone that some part of me had still felt like a student. Now I have graduated.

We went to church last night, in a quiet spot amidst the glitz and noise of the New York theater district. Bruce Springsteen seems to have the same goals for a performance as I do for a worship service: remind people of what really matters and give them the spark and courage to act; add some beauty to the world, restore hope, and have fun together.

You set out to do that, but you don’t always bring it. He brought it last night, all right.

Catsitter is in place, redeye is behind me, and I’m in New York, where the public radio stations play classical music and the taxi drivers play the public radio stations. This one does, anyway. I’m grateful. I slept some on the plane, but my brain can’t take 1010 WINS even at the best of times. I normally enjoy chatting with taxi drivers, and I’d like to hear this one’s story–he came here from Russia, I think–but maybe a little more sleep before Brooklyn would be good.

Joy and Indigo are out of town for spring break, but I won’t follow them until Monday night, since I have an all-day training to go to on Monday. So I enjoyed a quiet morning at home alone today (Saturday), then went to the San Francisco March for Our Lives to end gun violence. When I joined the March, it extended as far as I could see in both directions. When I got to the Embarcadero I turned and walked back up Market Street a ways, and still the other marchers streamed by, no end in sight.

Seeing people’s signs was a highlight, as always. I counted three Hamilton quotes: “This is not a moment, it’s a movement,” “Tomorrow there’ll be more of us,” and “History has its eyes on you.” Several students’ signs noted the irony of their schools’ dress codes (especially for girls) being more restrictive than gun laws. There were many pleas to give teachers more resources to do their jobs instead of guns. I liked this one from a girl about Indigo’s age.

One man walked by with the sign “Arming teachers is like arming priests and rabbis.” I wasn’t sure what that meant (still am not) but I came up alongside him to tell him that I’m a minister, and although I know the chances are almost nil that anything would happen during a service, since the massacre in Sutherland Springs, I always keep my cell phone in the pulpit when I preach: charged, and on, and right where I can get at it. He shook his head. “You shouldn’t have to think about that kind of thing.” Yeah.

As is so often the case, the media exaggerates the role of white students and implies that few Parkland students or organizers are African-American, just as, when African-American teenagers have organized responses to violence in their communities they’ve been ignored (“no one addresses ‘black-on-black crime'”), and when they have peacefully protested violence by police, they’ve too often been portrayed not as promising leaders, but as thugs.

Not that the Parkland students have been consistently lionized; the NRA seems to be accusing them of loving the attention, and the media responses are mixed. Still, the dominant response has been admiring, supportive, and grateful–as it should be. Now if we could respond to the young leaders of Black Lives Matter and other, people-of-color-led anti-violence activism the same way . . .

For my part, since I’m so frustrated by the deceptive and self-deceptive narrative about how “good guys with guns” (whether teachers, armed guards, or individuals in their homes) are a viable solution to gun violence, the connection between the deaths of Stephon Clark and others at the hands of police, and that of my aunt at the hands of her (professional, middle-class, white) husband, is evident. Both are cases of those widely perceived as “the right people,” the “good guys,” becoming a deadly risk to those they are supposed to protect. That comes about when a “good guy” is laden with fear, uncontrolled anger, and an attitude of entitlement, but these are far more likely to be fatal when combined with guns.

So one side of my sandwich board memorialized my aunt,

and the other evoked, along with her name, the names of some African-American victims of the “good guy” myth.

Rest in peace, because we will not stop fighting the greed and injustice that killed you.

Today’s political misconception is the one about enslaved African-Americans being counted as three-fifths of a person in the United States constitution. It’s true; it was spelled out in Article 1 until repealed by the 14th Amendment after the Civil War. But the assertion that an African-American amounts to only 60% of a white person is only part of this law.

The complete meaning is worse than that. Much worse.

The question the delegates were wrestling with was: Since states are represented in the House of Representatives based on their population, how do enslaved people count toward that representation? The abolitionists’ answer was “They don’t,” which was logical, since slaves were not treated as human beings under the law and certainly weren’t permitted to vote, themselves. Why should their owners get more representation based on that enslavement? The southern answer, illogically but expediently, was “The same as free people.” A family of ten that owned 90 slaves would therefore have the representation in Congress due 100 people. (Of course, it was not the individual or family, but the state as a whole that got the representation.)

Slave states wouldn’t ratify the Constitution without getting to count slaves toward their Congressional representation, and two slave states were needed to reach the nine out of 13 needed for ratification. After much wrangling, the delegates reached the Three-Fifths Compromise.

It would be bad enough if the article meant what it is often misunderstood to mean: that each free person is 100% of a citizen and each enslaved person is 60% of a citizen. But in fact, enslaved people didn’t count at all, except in order to benefit those who enslaved them. (Important aside: Indians were explicitly placed outside the count entirely; I don’t know to what extent that was a recognition that they were citizens of their own nations living among the citizens of the U.S., and to what extent it was an assertion that they were personae non gratae, though I can hazard a guess. Free blacks were counted the same as whites, but their numbers in the slave states were negligible at the time.) Slaveowners among the delegates had the chutzpah to argue that “blacks ought to stand on an equality with whites” (Charles Pinckney, SC), although they certainly weren’t arguing for racial equality in any other context. Not to put too fine a point on it, they wanted to count pieces of their property towards their representation, exploiting the fact that that property resembled a human being, though in their view “it” was not.

The Three-Fifths Compromised enshrined one of the most despicable facts of the U.S. slavery system: enslaved people were regarded as people when it benefited the enslavers, livestock when it didn’t. Thus, on the one hand, an enslaved woman had no rights her owner was bound to respect, as if she were a cow or sheep. On the other hand, the owner could have sex with her, something that would have been both taboo and illegal for him to do with non-human property, and their offspring would be considered human children (and, of course, the owner’s property). Likewise, bounty hunters and hunters of runaway slaves delighted in the opportunity to have prey that were so intelligent. Human escapees offered them a challenge that deer, bears, and wild pigs did not. But like the animals, they could be caught, tortured and killed with impunity.

The three-fifths rule was another means by which white supremacist governments had things both ways. People who were enslaved could not vote, nor had any rights that distinguished them from livestock, but whereas having more sheep did not entitle a state to more representation, having human livestock did. Every person brought from abroad to the auction block in New Orleans or Richmond gave Louisiana or Virginia that much more power to maintain that enslavement. Each enslaved woman who, raped by an owner, gave birth to a child, was by compulsion strengthening the chains holding them all.

That’s what’s meant by “three-fifths of a person.”

Next post: Donald Trump, Jr.’s meeting about “adoption”

I’ve been mentally collecting common political misconceptions, some of which I’ve held myself. Some have been debunked repeatedly, such as the myth that Al Gore claimed credit for inventing the internet (he clearly didn’t), though even as one crumbles, another takes shape before our eyes, such as the claim that Sarah Palin said “I can see Russia from my house!” (It was Tina Fey, playing Palin on Saturday Night Live. Millions of us heard her say it on live television, and her tone was clearly satirical, not one of literally quoting her target, and yet people still say Palin said it.) But other, more substantive misconceptions keep cropping up, so herewith a few posts taking a close look at them.

Up today: the idea that federalism, and the Federalist Party of the early United States, advocate a loose confederation of states with a weak federal government. Federalism’s modern version, in this thinking, is “states’ rights.” In fact, the opposite is true: federalism argues for a strong central government and, while not discarding states’ jurisdiction over many functions of government, tilts towards empowering the federal government to supersede the states’.

I thought federalism equalled states’ rights for years, for the simple reason that the Federalist Society, the conservative legal organization, strongly advocates states’ rights and weak federal powers. And if one looks to the authors of the Federalist Papers, there are mixed messages; one was James Madison, a founding member of the Democratic-Republican (also known as the Republican) Party, which decisively took leave of the Federalist Party. However, during the writing of the Federalist Papers, Madison was a Federalist, or perhaps federalist is a better way to put it: he thought the Articles of Confederation were too weak (the Federalist Papers were written with the express object of getting the Constitution ratified to replace the Articles of Confederation) and that a stronger central government was needed to bind the states together.

The Federalist Society, according to Wikipedia, is primarily concerned with the concept of judicial restraint, which is outlined in Federalist Paper No. 78. That was indeed written by someone who remained a Federalist all his life, Alexander Hamilton. But in many (most?) of its stances, the Federalist Society sides not with Hamilton but with the later Madison, who parted from the principle of a strong central government, and in doing so, shed the name Federalist and began a new party–the first political party and the beginning of party factionalism in the United States.

I’m sure my understanding of these parties’ positions is far from complete, and probably anachronistic; who knows where Hamilton, Madison, and other early Federalists and Anti-Federalists would stand on the issues of 2018? But it’s undoubtedly true that the term “federalism” is repeatedly used to mean its opposite.

The Federalist website, for example, though not connected to The Federalist Society, shares its general worldview, and like it, is an inheritor not of the Federalists’ political philosophy, but their opponents’.

And just last week, the Washington Post used the term “federalism” to describe pushback by the nations’ governors against Trump’s teacher-arming plan (“Trump gets a seminar on federalism as governors push back on arming teachers,” February 27). “The session quickly became a seminar on federalism — and a reminder that states really remain the laboratories of democracy,” the author, James Hohman wrote, but that is far more a Democratic-Republican article of faith than a Federalist one.

Political philosophers, government majors, members of the Federalist Society, Ron Chernow, David McCullough (biographers of Federalists Hamilton and Adams, respectively): if you have light to shed on this issue, please do.

Next post: 3/5.

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