Tuesday, March 31, 2009

That Delicate Balance

After the Obama administration announced the ouster of Rick Waggoner, the embattled CEO of once-proud carmaker General Motors, Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm said on National Public Radio that Mr. Waggoner was being made a “scapegoat” for the company’s — and our economy’s — problems. On one level, this is obvious hyperbole, trying to ascribe victim status to a very highly compensated executive who will decidedly not need to worry about where his next meal is coming from, much less being put to death as a symbolic sacrifice for our collective gas-guzzling sins. Digging deeper, however, it seems to me that Gov. Granholm’s statement hints at a mythological level beneath America’s current economic crisis.

In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche speculated about how the art form of tragedy may have grown out of opposition between competing Dionysian and Apollonian elements in nature and culture. The wild revelry of the Dionysian, with festivals and the fermentation of strong drink, is at odds with the austere Apollonian order of law and reason. (How music fits into this schema is yet another question.)

Nietzsche’s conceptualization reamins controversial, but the basic tension between Dionysian and Apollian elements can still be applied to today's issues. For too long, year after year of Greenspan’s tenure at the Federal Reserve, the spigot on the national kegger stayed open as the Dionysian dance of derivatives and other dubious financial instruments continued. Despite Enron and numerous other corporate scandals, Apollonian regulation was often treated with outright scorn (as Thomas Frank details in The Wrecking Crew). In Adam Smith's theory, the free market has an invisible hand, but in practice an orgiastic economy based on excessive credit, lax oversight, and rampant Ponzi schemes is not providential. When the bubble burts (as it always does), Dionysus moves on to the next party, leaving others to pick up the pieces.

As we do this, with compassion for those suffering from the economic fallout, finding the right combination of Dionysian and Apollonian elements is crucial. As with the Constitution itself, it's a matter of striking "that delicate balance." The dynamism we’re depending on to lift all our boats won’t come with too much top-down regulatory order. But going back to an unsustainable spending spree isn't a viable option, either.

Criminal justice reform will be an important part of the broader balance-striking cum national renewal that is now our task. With more than one in every one hundred adults behind bars, America has been on a Dionysian incarceration binge undertaken under the fa├žade of Apollonian order. Senator Jim Webb has introduced a bill in the Senate for a national commission to grapple with the issues, and The New York Times opines (rather too sweepingly) that it’s time to stop “wast[ing] money by putting the wrong people behind bars.”

No one says change will be easy or that it is assured. For a generation, charges of being “soft on crime” have silenced those looking for a more thoughtful approach. But as Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller asked at a meeting of his state’s sentencing commission in the summer of 1999, “How about tough AND smart on crime?” Liberal ideology doesn’t necessarily have all the answers about how to do this, and The Times overplays its hand by asserting it’s merely a matter of putting the right people away — presumably the proverbial “worst of the worst.” In practice, much of the problem of the expanding prison population has to do with the length of stay in prison, not solely who should be sent there in the first place. The debate is joined, however, and here’s hoping someone steps forward soon in the House to offer a companion bill to Senator Webb’s.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Being White Means Not Having To Think About It

To a white boy headed to the lake on vacation with his family, Bemidji, Minnesota, was an idyllic place. Every summer, year after year, our family would pick up groceries (and sometimes fishing lures) there on the way to a private cabin on a lake north of town. The cabin owner, a businessman from Sioux City, Iowa, had started renting it out to my parents in the early 60s as a service to the church, putting the pleasures of a vacation Up North within reach of an underpaid pastor.

The city stretching out along the big blue lake was beautiful and filled with simple wonders. The most iconic sites were the signature WPA era statues of the mythological Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. The visitors’ center nearby featured a fireplace inlaid with stones from all fifty states, seemingly emphasizing the All American imprimatur of the place. The adjoining amusement park didn’t hurt, either. Not far away stood a statue of Chief Bemidji (perhaps or perhaps not a real historical figure), overlooking the waterfront, and an Art Deco movie theater (later converted to other uses) also bore The Chief’s name.

Though I recall seeing Native American people in Bemidji, where nearly one in five people is Native, it never really registered with me how starkly different their perception of social reality might be from mine. As James and Nadine Addington later taught me, being white means not having to think about it. Not having to think about institutional, structural, systemic racism, of the privileges I am afforded in society simply because I'm white. I noticed, for example, that Native Americans had a different type of license plates on their vehicles, and my father probably explained to me that Minnesota’s three largest Indian reservations — Leech Lake, Red Lake, and White Earth — were all nearby. But I was oblivious to the fact that these different plates made racial profiling on traffic stops that much easier.

Slavery may be America’s original sin, but the confinement of Native peoples to reservations is no less so. For decades, the supposed sovereign status of the tribes was little more than a hypocritical fiction. Today, the rise of gambling casinos on reservations has made some tribes with easy access to urban areas wealthy. Yet the reality is that for most Native people the downward pull of decades of economic deprivation and racism keep them caught in a cycle of abuse, suicide, murder, accidents, and other ills — often alcohol-related.

Civic leaders in Bemidji and elsewhere in northern Minnesota have begun to grapple head-on with many of these issues. In 1999, data showed that in Cass County, which borders the Leech Lake Reservation, Native people made up about 11 percent of the population, but accounted for over half of the arrests. By 2003, figures like these hade come to the attention of the Minnesota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU set up a field office in Bemidji to monitor the justice system in the surrounding 7-county area. This effort included hiring an educator and activist named Audrey Thayer to conduct civil rights education in the community for all races.

Five years later, the results, as one might expect, remain a work in progress. The percentage of the jail population that is Native American has gone down from 80 percent to 45 percent in the seven-county area. But many tensions and charges of racial profiling remain. In the fall of 2007, the Bemidji Area Race Relations Council and a community development group called Bemidji Leads collaborated to form Shared Vision, a task force dedicated to improving mutual understanding between Indian and non-Indian communities.

Shared Vision commissioned a professional survey, conducted by the Wilder Foundation of St. Paul, which documented a daunting racial divide. Of those who responded, 71 percent of white people saw the Bemidji area as a community welcoming to everyone, but nearly three-fourths (73 percent) of the Native people living in the Bemidji area did not. The percentage of Native people living on the nearby Leech Lake, Red Lake and White Earth reservations who thought Bemidji was not welcoming was even higher, at 88 percent.

As Lenin said in quite another context, What Is To Be Done? The task is not merely to eliminate bias within the criminal justice system. As challenging and unfinished as that is, it does not fully account for the disproportionate impact the system has on people of color. It’s not just race — it’s also about class, intertwined with race, and race as a structural privilege, not primarily a personal prejudice. Attorneys and justice system personnel can be trained about improper bias until the men and women in blue are blue in the face, but the results are likely to remain limited without a commitment to economic justice and to dismantling the deep roots of institutional racism in the community.

In the long run, in a global economy, the continued economic development we’re counting on depends on overcoming the legacy of racism. As Jim Addington says in his Dismantling Racism seminars, the human race is one family. We all come from the same earth, even if we don't all look the same or pray to the same God. Stimulus package or no stimulus package, it’s hard to get much work done, or find customers for our products, if we’re fighting with each other or (even unconsciously) holding each other down.

Brecht didn’t get it quite right when he said “feed the face first, then talk of right and wrong.” In a country in which 1 in 50 children is homeless and 1 in every 8 black males in their twenties is in prison or jail, we need to feed the face AND talk of right and wrong. A working lunch, to which all people are invited, where the privileged are prepared to give up their unearned perks.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


I come from White America, and I was in my early thirties before I made my first African American friend — or any friend who happened to be a person of color. In Estelline, South Dakota, where my family lived in the 1960s, the local sports teams were still known as the Redmen, yet I never met any Native people. In Blooming Prairie, Minnesota, where we lived in 1970s, there were Hispanic folks who came to help work the farm fields. Back then, however, most of them were there only for the summer, not integrated into the school system and the community. At St. Olaf College, there were a few black African students, from countries like Ghana, but really only a handful. Valparaiso University School of Law was similarly monochromatic when I was there in the 1980s.

When the Rodney King riots broke out in May 1992, I was living in Iowa City, Iowa, completing a master’s degree in European history. As at St. Olaf and Valparaiso, most of the people I encountered at the University of Iowa and in the community were white. But in 1991, I had become friends with Theresa Riffe, an African American woman originally from Des Moines who worked at the Prairie Lights bookstore and befriended many of the international students who came to the university. When the campus was rocked by a terrible multi-victim shooting by a homicidal graduate student in the fall of ’91, Theresa was at the forefront in helping the community heal. She was a good friend of the wife of one of the victims, physics professor Christoph Goertz, and was there for her in that time of grief.

In the summer of 1992, while I was in southwestern Germany studying at the Goethe Institute, I had occasion to visit Theresa in Paris, where she was making an extended visit. She loved the City of Lights and was very much in her element there. We huffed and puffed up the steps of Notre Dame together, along with a couple of other friends with Iowa City ties, and saw the sites in a city teeming with tourists on the first weekend in June.

Fast forward four years, to late August of 1996. I had just arrived in Boise, Idaho, where my wife, Diane, and I were about to spend a year during her ministerial internship. A mutual friend called with the tragic news that Theresa had unexpectedly died, apparently from a condition related to diabetes. The mourners at her funeral comprised a unique cross-section of Iowa City society, bridging the barriers that so often divide people. All of life is meeting — or should be.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Inverted Money Laundering and Perverted Burial

As a preacher’s kid, I was raised on money put in the offering plate. When I read, then, about someone robbing a church, it hits especially close to home.

The robbery of the Berean Church in Lincoln, Nebraska, merited barely a tiny paragraph in the March 5, 2009 edition of the Star Tribune (of Minneapolis-St. Paul), buried deep inside the paper. Though criminal justice tends to take a disproportionate share of the headlines, those typically go to high-profile cases like Bernard Madoff, Tom Petters, and Sara Jane Olson. But the Star Trib item on the Lincoln robbery contained at least the barebones of the police account.

A man dressed as an armored car guard pulled up to the church. He walked into the office and told an employee he was there to pick up the church’s weekly bank deposit. After being given the money, the man posing as a guard drove away, fifteen minutes before the real armored car arrived. The money may have included the biblical “widow’s mite” and been intended for the Lord’s work — but it was gone.

From the sacred to the profane, in a form of inverted money laundering. Taking money offered to God and diverting it to wrongful ends is not unknown in the church, but more often occurs through fraud perpetrated by financial officers, not through a brazen robbery.

Not long after the church in Lincoln was robbed, I went to see Matteo Garrone’s harrowing film “Gomorrah,” about the many deadly sins of the Camorra crime families and their terrible grip on Naples and the surrounding region. In a postscript to the film, Garrone describes how the Camorra launder the profits from their criminal activities by using legitimate businesses. The ill-gotten profits don’t come only from the old standbys of illegal drugs and prostitution, either. Garrone asserts that if the amount of hazardous waste under Camorra management were stacked into the sky, it would tower over Mount Everest.

Dant'e's hell famously contained a sign at the gates cautioning entrants to abandon all hope, and Garrone's “Gomorrah” comes close. Betrayal after betrayal unfolds, and homicide after homicide, in such an ineluctable, matter-of-fact manner that one's ability to be shocked becomes dulled. Not one single act of forgiveness occurs, and even small acts of basic human kindness are scarcely to be seen. Among the several interlocking stories, the closest thing to hope is the willingness of two separate characters to simply walk away. It’s like Good Friday, with the Neapolitans on the cross — and indeed, the film ends with a makeshift perversion of a burial.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Beyond the bailout mentality

Though I don’t know why Oprah Winfrey puts herself on every single cover, her magazine — called, of course, O — consistently features insightful, thought-provoking essays. In April 2008, the writer Terry Tempest Williams wrote movingly of her stay in the county jail in Soda Springs, Idaho. Arrested for speeding without a valid driver’s license, she chose to forego posting the $200 bail. Instead, after a call to her husband, she replaced her nice clothes and Prada slippers with a standard-issue orange jumpsuit and Keds. Entering a cinder-block pod with 12 other women, she soon found that most of them were there because of a different sort of speed: crystal meth.

In her essay, Williams describes her jail stay as a powerful “note to self”: accept personal responsibility for one’s actions. Too often, having the money to bail ourselves out can get in the way of consciously accepting what one has done and failed to do — and what the ensuing consequences are for oneself and others. The mind-set epitomized by George W. Bush’s various Wall Street bailouts shows this way of thinking writ large in our society, with far-reaching damage when reality finally intrudes. As Obama’s team struggles to deal with the train wreck, our country needs a collective moment of clarity comparable to what Williams experienced at the Soda Springs jail. Obama tried to provide it in his inaugural address, but fundamental change does not necessarily happen in one fell swoop.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Thin Blue Line and the Torn Curtain

For centuries, societies have depended on scapegoats to resolve social conflict, or at least keep it suppressed. From the Aztecs to the ancient Near East, this originally involved putting human victims to death. Exodus 32, for example, depicts Moses unleashing a bloodbath to wipe out worshippers of the Golden Calf. The violence is carried out by sword-wielding Levites engaging in a mad melee to forge the priestly caste; today, we might call it a gang initiation. Greek tragedy, too, reflects the reality of human sacrifice. The thousand ships of Homer’s epic would not have sailed, had Agamemnon not sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia at Aulis.

Today, in our secular age, one might think we’ve outgrown all this. There’s no need to sacrifice humans to maintain social order, or to substitute animals under an outmoded theory of atonement. Humans are rational creatures, responding to rewards and punishments expressed in criminal codes. It might not be possible to create a felicific calculus, exactly, but just let us enjoy our fascination with Kojak or Miami Vice or CSI (in its various iterations) or Law & Order — and not think too much about it.

Ah, but what if you found yourself falsely accused of murder and were up against a prosecutor like Doug Mulder of the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office, circa 1976? That’s what happened to Randall Adams. Adams was a 28-year-old Ohio resident who was living in Dallas, working a job repairing pallets and living in a motel with his brother, when he was arrested and wrongfully convicted of the murder of a police officer. Officer Robert Wood was shot and killed on November 28, 1976 during what should have been a routine traffic stop.

The evidence in the case strongly pointed to a 16-year-old juvenile, David Harris. Harris had stolen the car involved in the incident, as well as the .22 caliber pistol. He had also bragged to various people in his hometown of Vidor, Texas about killing the officer. But under Texas law at the time, Mulder could not charge Harris with capital murder. Instead, he chose to focus on Adams, an adult “drifter,” suppressing evidence and knowingly using perjured testimony to deceive the trial court.

The prosecutors justified these tactics (to themselves) by asserting in their closing argument that the police are the “thin blue line” against anarchy. Errol Morris took this phrase as the title for his path-breaking documentary, which helped Randall Adams finally get released in 1989 after twelve years of imprisonment for a crime he didn’t commit. To me, the prosecution’s thin blue line is little more than a watered-down, shorthand version of the scapegoat theory exposed by Rene Girard in Violence and the Sacred. As Girard and his epigone (particularly Gil Bailie) have argued, using humans as scapegoats is no longer morally viable in a world being transformed by the Christian gospel’s message of empathy for victims and love for all.

It’s not merely that Mulder made Adams into a victim through twelve years of wrongful imprisonment. That was bad enough. Even if he’d focused on the true culprit, David Harris, Mulder’s prosecutorial zeal for the death penalty might well have been tempered by a recognition of the early pathos in Harris’s life. Yes, David Harris was a bad actor; he was on a crime spree at the time he murdered officer Wood, and he was executed in 2004 for a murder he committed in 1985. As depicted in Morris’s film, however, his evil deeds follow a childhood shadowed by tragedy. The drowning death of his 4-year-old brother, when David was only 3, produced a haunted family dynamic in which, David Harris claimed, his father withheld love from him, instead showering it on a later-born brother, one who was born after David’s older brother’s death.

David Harris's family background does not excuse his crimes. For all I know, he may have been a true "bad seed" and used his brother's drowning death as a feeble excuse. Without question, law enforcement — by men and women in literal or metaphorical blue — is vital to civil society. My point is that in a culture in which empathy for victims is on the rise, even the cold-blooded murder of a police officer doesn’t justify prosecutorial misconduct purporting to preserve “the thin blue line.” When the curtain of the temple was torn in two upon Jesus’s death, that line, as previously practiced, came down for good, even if the Word about it is still getting out.