Thursday, December 31, 2015

Dearly Loved Victims 

Given that my visitor traffic dips every year at the start of school, I know my readership includes many students learning about life, and I feel responsible towards them …

Just like folks in the New Age movement, I like achieving professional development and personal growth, and then helping others achieve too. That’s why I’ve been thinking about the status of local Muslims today. I like spiraling around that onion.

Of course my readers are not into “New Age weirdness.” Nevertheless I would urge you, if you doubt such woo-woo things as “positive thinking” or “a positive mental attitude” to go ask someone you think is successful whether he or she believes in positive thinking—and then go and do likewise.

And if you are a Muslim reader, I might urge you to find a successful Muslim and ask if he believes in being a victim—and then likewise stop being in “victim mode.” You can’t be very successful at management, sales or life unless, between your ears, you are positive, realistic and not a victim.

I say this not to be New Age but because I sometimes read in the newspapers that Muslims see Islam worldwide, and themselves, as victims. They see Islam as being unknown and “everywhere under siege.” Actually, Islam is better known than ever. When Syrian refugees pour into Europe they are not referred to by the usual 20th century term, “Arabs,” but with the new Muslim-preferred term, “Muslims.” It’s nice for Muslims to see the world acknowledging how Muslims feel brotherhood; it’s not nice for me to read about “brothers in victimhood.”

You may recall how around the time of 9/11, like a country singer sang about himself, most people did not know Iraq from Iran. “Most people” would include students at university. Naturally students are scholars, but only about things that concern them. Before 9/11 undergraduates had no reason for concern about desert geography on the far side of the world. No reason to be concerned about Muslims.

Meanwhile, for things of interest, naturally university students learn to document and footnote, as they learn to value substance over opinion. For example, in my health class I might raise my hand to say, “According to (location) (title) (name) at a Canadian palliative care conference, held here at the university, ‘after their child has died of cancer, X percent of parents will get divorced.’” This controversial percentage, then, would not be stated as being solely my opinion. As I participated in class I would be showing good academic conduct.

Another sort of good conduct would be how, on campus, a student won’t say anything controversial about Iraq, or about Iran, unless he knows for sure which is which. No guessing. Not unless he wants his fellow academics to lose respect for him.

One evening I truly lost respect: I was dumbfounded, as our fighter-bombers were doing their bombing runs in Yugoslavia, to hear what “Farrah” said. An active student, Farrah was pretty, liberal and Muslim. At a meeting in student council chambers she said, “They are bombing my people.” Of South Asian heritage, she didn’t wear a nun-style religious head covering, or hijab. As I recall, back in the nineties people didn't know that word, and nobody ever dressed that way except for a few old ladies in tubular coats.

This was before 9/11; and no, Farrah's people weren’t Serbians. How could she not know which was which, not know that Canadians were bombing Serbians, not Muslims, defending Muslims, not Serbians? I think she guessed because she assumed: She was looking through a lens of victimhood, even though normally she was a good student. At the time I didn’t understand; I filed it away, and years later when I read about Muslim victim-mode I said, “Now I get it!”  

By the way, (BTW) if you are an eager student on a campus full of eager people, you may want to go around asking, “If there was a payoff for seeing Muslims as victims, then what might that payoff be?” Don’t expect an instant answer: Even students of psychology will understand their white rats better than they understand themselves. And be careful when you ask Muslim church officials: They are successful, of course, but not in a “management” sense. They have more in common with serene professors of Religious Studies than with scrambling entrepreneurs, business executives or naval officers.

It was a Muslim ex-U.S. navy officer and head of a Muslim organization, Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, who characterized another Muslim organization as “stoking the flames and raising funds off the exaggerated narrative that Muslims are under siege…” (Note: I am not giving you an easy answer to the above question—He is not saying that money is the most important reason for the victim narrative)

Jasser is quoted in the Calgary Sun newspaper column before me. It’s by a middle-aged, suit-and-tie Canadian Muslim writer, Tarek Fatah.  On December 23, 2015, page 15, Fatah notes that two Muslim organizations formed a third, and then met in Washington D.C. to hold a two-day Muslim leadership conference. Last Sunday they condemned terror, but they
“…did not renounce the doctrine of armed jihad that feeds Islamic terrorism nor call for taking politics out of American mosques.
… There was no call to cleanse the American Muslim house of all jihadi literature.”

Reading between the lines, I sense that victimhood is somehow connected to keeping a belief in jihad, as a tool for the weak… even though “everybody knows” Islam means peace.

At least, that’s how it seems to me right now.

If a Muslim friend tells you “anybody who’s a Muslim knows Islam is under siege” then I have an answer for you. Don’t ask him about the army of kidnappers moving through Africa, or the infiltrators with rubber boats who snuck into India and shot up the financial district, or the killers who drove to Paris. Instead ask, “Did somebody say so? Who’s he? How does he know? —Can he document and footnote?”

And if your friend gets annoyed at you for being so confoundedly scientific, then you can lighten the atmosphere with a humor-story about President Abraham Lincoln during the civil war:

You may recall poor Lincoln had to keep firing his newest top general, and then appointing a new one, desperately hoping each time to find a general, at last, who was adequate. This agony went on for years before he finally found his General Grant. At one point, when Lincoln was gently giving another top general another chance, someone complained bitterly to Lincoln “You have to replace General X!”
Lincoln kept his temper, asking mildly, “With whom?”
“With anybody!”
“Well, anybody might do for you, but I must have somebody.”

Sean Crawford
~ I noted how Farrah wore no head cover in everyday life, which seemed so natural to us at the time. (I don’t know what she wore to her mosque) Fatah’s column ends with two Muslim women recently writing in the Washington Post to plead with liberals who were trying to be politically correct. “Please do this instead: Do not wear a headscarf in ‘solidarity’ with the ideology that mostly silences us, equating our bodies with ‘honor.’ Stand with us instead … against the ideology of Islamism that demands we cover our hair.”

~Lots of initials from Fatah’s column:
The Islamic Circle of North America (IGNA),
along with other American Islamic organizations such as
the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)
formed the US Council of Muslim Organizations (USCMO)
that hosted a National Muslim Leadership Summit on Sunday in Washington, D.C.
Dr. Jasser founded and heads the American Islamic Forum for Democracy.

~Fatah’s final line: But is anyone listening to the voices of reason among North American Muslims?

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Free Falling in the Season

To explain the title: By "free fall" I mean my "free fall Fridays" group where we write with gusto, without editing or stopping, all from the same "prompt." By "season" I mean not only Christmas but a winter of things passing on.

Today I have three recent free fall pieces to share: two are light and one is pretty.

I was supposed to post this morning but I forget. My excuse: 'Tis the season.

The prompt was the cover picture of this week's Swerve magazine that had to males glaring at each other, one with an old Japanese hair style, with a tiny Christmas tree at the bottom.

You can forget any notions of the serene mysterious east. The only mystery to me was how Mr. Oki could throw out so many beer bottles every week without getting fat. Maybe it’s his Japanese genes. Anyways, he was no serene geisha boy. More like a samurai gargoyle.

Yes, he looked like a gargoyle, perched on his little roof balcony and drinking at all hours of the night and day. At least he got lots of fresh air. So did I, as I was a smoker, and my little self-discipline, my little joy, my little game, was that I never smoked in my house.
So I’d be on the ground, silently smoking, and he’d be up high, silently drinking, and you would think we’d be as serene as two birds on two stumps. Nope.

I loved flicking my butts with a good wrist motion, and springy fingers, to see how far they’d go. I called it following "the way" of butt flicking, for whatever spiritual benefits following "the way" would entail. Of course I always flicked at Mr. Oki’s house. I felt entitled. Do you know what he did? Now, I don’t know how far his bathroom was from the roof, and I admit that I’ve taken advantage of the cover of darkness myself, but—why did he have to follow "the way" of the urine stream?When he already had a height advantage? And he always peed towards my house. And sometimes when I stepped outside I never turned on the light because I am coordinated enough to smoke in the dark. It’s easy. Unless somebody tries to pee on my burning ember.

I never wanted to give Mr. Oki the satisfaction of hearing my strangled gasp, or quiet curses. I mean, come on, some misfortunes I just don’t want to broadcast.

One day we met in public where of course he couldn’t drink, in a place where I didn’t dare smoke: the lot for selling Christmas trees. We both had thoughts of the tree sitting on the line between our houses, so we just glared at each other: no burning down the tree, no peeing beer on it’s branches—glare!

prompt- something cheery

The opposite of cheery is when I mistakenly think I’ve found a Christmas music radio station. And then I waste my time for days before realizing: No exaltation, no joyful and triumphant, no sing all ye citizens… because the station is secular only. Not a single carol! What a waste of my time, besides making me tired of the old standbys.

No, cheery is when I can play God Bless you merry gentlemen (from the ending of Three Days of the Condor) or Silent Night (from the beginning of a Disney western movie) or Joy to the World. You never get tired of the REAL classics… not unless some celebrity tries to sing them with too much stupid originality.
Sometimes, I swear, before I want to hear Dean Martin croon again I’d rather hear Jeremiah croaking like a bullfrog: "Joyyy to the word, allll the boys and girls. Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea, joy to you and me."

No, you can keep your originality. Give me a plain children’s classroom singing, every time.

prompt- an old photograph

My mother once lived in the arbalest nursing home, in the longbow valley. It’s a nice valley with khaki colored grass, and sagebrush, sage hens, and lazy rolling tumbleweeds. On mainstreet the weeds roll on Sundays.

It was Sunday afternoon and I was high on the hillside. Do you know the word glen? It means a narrow valley, and that was the longbow. No doubt from the glaciers or something. My mother was the first white woman in the valley. Now there is an airport and a paved road and they’ve even heard of us in Saskatoon.

It was a sunny cold day, with a gentle breeze, and I was looking down on the old collection of buildings. The oldest was gone, the second oldest was now a parking lot, and the one my mother lived in, white and shiny in the distance, was still there. I used to walk to see her after church. Now I would walk on the hill trail, but no more for this year. The wind was too cold for me: When you’re old, your bones get cold. 

I found an old log bench: polished, varnished and nailed down. I sat. The grass blew like the timeless sea and I half meditated, half thought. My mother, and everybody else, would have pooh hoo-ed the idea of me pushing her way up the hill for the view. But maybe I should have.
And maybe, in my mind’s photo-album, I should have deleted all the bad photos and kept only the good. Or put the photos between plastic sleeves of forgiveness. A Roman once asked, “What is truth?” I don’t know. The wind blows cold and I don’t know.

From my wallet—of telflon weave and Velcro closure—I looked at an old photo. My mother was impossibly young, and impossibly optimistic, with a big smile. All the world’s an album, and we all play many photos. I stood up. Now to walk downhill, knees creaking. I would not be back this year.

Sean Crawford
December, 2015
We sure have fun at Freefall Fridays. Our last meeting was the 18th, we can't meet again until Jan 8 (because of holidays on Fridays) so we are going to unlock the building on Wednesday the 30th just for us. We simply can't go three weeks without meeting.

I just have to laugh. After we furiously write our short pieces we go around reading aloud. After my Christmas carol one people started clapping. Before I could get too puffed up with pride at how they loved my awesome, deathless, pretty little prose... Margaret looked at me and said, "We're clapping for your singing." … Yes, I can sing like a good bullfrog.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Mockingjay Meets War

Note: Today’s essay has fiber: It’s not meant for easy swallowing. Put it this way: I imagine a high school class would discuss only one paragraph at a time.

I like wearing my mockingjay pin. It’s amusing when someone in a group asks me about it, thinking it’s a real bird, while the others listening would all know the bird was a fictional mutation, from the Hunger Games series of books and movies by Suzanne Collins. I have read all the books, and seen almost all the movies. Like in Star Wars, or the old Tarzan books, the hero starts out alone, then among familiar people, and finally in a mass army advancing to change the status quo. In the final movie of the series, Mockingjay, the young teenage lady, Katniss, now in the army, confronts some horrors of war. As does the young audience.

Of course teens know war is wrong, but when should they come to know about the wrongness of the adult world? Science Fiction, being unreal, can introduce them to the grownup world with a muffled reality—not a sharp shock. For example, as a teen I read Tunnel in the Sky, by Robert Heinlein. It’s a novel about students in high school and college who have to survive cut after being cut off from civilization. Near the end of the novel a journalist finds the hero, paints the hero’s face in savage colors to take a holograph, and writes her news story, about him being savage, from her pre-conceived angle. I was dismayed, but at least, obviously, it was only science fiction. I have since learned that U.S. journalists interview their subjects only after first announcing to their editor an angle, unlike to the British style of interviewing with an open mind, according to Lynn Barber. By the way, Barber is the person played by Carey Mulligan in the terrific film An Education. I liked Barber’s autobiography of the same title.

Since Tunnel, I have seen where, for an infamous Chatelaine magazine cover, they painted the face of k. d. Lang with lipstick. Too bad for Chatelaine the article inside had Ms. Lang saying she never wears lipstick. I once heard the head of a U.S. Outward Bound school telling us the National Geographic TV special about his school was “good” because it was “80% true.” I was outraged, dismayed, but at least I had been warned by reading Tunnel in the Sky.

I wonder how many teens watching Mockingjay will one day realize, and then think about, how it is based on reality?

In the film a potential boyfriend (there are two of them, in a love triangle) believes in setting up delayed second bombs, a method taught in Al-Qaida training camps, a method used by allied bombing raids on Germany, according to a German-speaking soldier, Guy Sajer. Sajer, from the French provinces of Alsace-Lorraine, reports being caught in a royal air force night bombing raid while on leave from the Russian front.

The boyfriend also claims those who merely “mop the floors” for the palace are hated targets too, because they are helping the dictator. In my dad’s war this was part of the justification for squadrons bombing Berlin, but the actual reasoning goes beyond a simplistic sound bite. A more complex explanation lies in the cry, “What else could we do?” Obviously my father couldn’t magically do like on Star Trek. He couldn’t be like the captain of the Starship Enterprise and merely “target life support” or “target the ship’s engines.” I think the idea in WWII, to paraphrase a Canadian prime minister, is “civilian casualties if necessary, but not necessarily civilian casualties.” When you focus on destroying the engines of society, such as a German hydro-power dam, where there are night janitors mopping the control rooms, then I think your soul is safe: You may blame the Germans for electing the Nazis, you may hate every last one of them, but at least you have not intentionally, intently, targeted civilians. (Come to think of it, without meaning to target themselves, the Germans would have suffered casualties from their defensive anti-aircraft shrapnel)

In Mockingjay, while presumably everyone else shares the American value of having tunnel vision, as in “bust a gut to win the war with no thought for tomorrow,” one of the district governors, Governor Alma Coin, is thinking ahead to becoming dictator after the war. Americans may not like it, but such thinking is common. For example, the armies of the communists in China fought the Japanese, but not very hard, while planning and preparing to fight the armies of the Chinese republicans.

The Americans are entitled to their ideals, of course. In fact, they put their short-range thinking where their values were by (indirectly) starting up Al-Qaida in order to drive the Russians out of Afghanistan. But of course not everyone is American: In Vietnam two cultures clashed: The Americans wanted to have a "war time" effort, and they even pressed their protégés to lower the draft age to 19, while the South Vietnamese steadfastly kept their conscription at age 21, while pacing themselves and not fighting very hard. I am saying that, like the Iraqi army today, the reason for their “poor” fighting ability, by comparison to their adversaries, was not any “lack of U.S. training.” After all, their adversaries had no training.

The Americans were frustrated, but their hands were tied: Their policy was merely to help the Vietnamese with advice, training and combat support, help them to stand on their own feet, not to fight in place of them, not to occupy the South Vietnamese legislature or their army headquarters. “It’s their war, and they have to win it.”

In Mockingjay, as the army advances on the capital the issue becomes: What is justice? An eye for an eye? Revenge? Or to serve society? Canada’s young offenders act, where youth cannot be publicly named, puts society and rehabilitation above revenge.

In our culture there is, of course, a solid place for a “Judgement at Nuremburg,” where every Nazis told the allies, “I was only following orders,” ... and there is also a place, although puritanical people may forget this, for following the example of Abraham Lincoln and “binding up the nation’s wounds.” Lincoln wanted his adversary Jeff Davis to escape the country. The difference, I guess, is to the allies their war was external, against evil; to Lincoln his war was internal, against brothers. I’m sure the Germans would have been more motivated than the allies in binding up their wounds: After the war, in the new East Germany, many minor Nazi officials went on to became minor communist officials. (The senior German communists could trust them to believe in totalitarianism)

In our own time, in Iraq, the Yankees screwed up by saying that even the most minor members of the ruling Baathist party could no longer serve their country. (But they could work in business) If you remember what happened in the 1960’s when so many newly-independent European colonies in Africa, just like the Mockingjay nation of Panem, tried to embrace democracy for the first time in living memory, then you know what happened: Iraq did not have enough trained non-Baathists to go around. Silly Yankees.  

In our own time, as South Africa transitioned to democracy, they have benefited from their organized “Truth and Reconciliation” efforts. Young Katniss, having seen so much, favors the Lincoln/South African model. I think she’s right.

I would hope the teenagers watching Mockingjay would understand the heroine’s point of view.

If adolescents do not think of history, and of newer nations struggling with the demands of citizenship, then it’s because they aren’t focused on being voting adults yet: Their energy is going elsewhere. Give them time. One day they will find the lessons of history a lot more relevant. And then it may be entertaining stories set safely in the past or future, stories like, say, Julius Caesar, or Mockingjay, that will make the lessons real.

Sean Crawford

~As for justice and serving society, I am fascinated by Alain de Botton’s book The News subtitled A User’s Manual. (I bought it this fall and I’m re-reading it already) He dislikes it when journalists simply believe in a gleeful Watergate-type journalism, without realizing the purpose in catching people is not glee but to improve society. He explains this better than I can.

~The man who suffered a bombing raid while on leave was Guy Sajer, The Forgotten Soldier, who’s book is read aloud to high school students according to a reviewer on Amazon.

~Near the end of Mockingjay (the movie) someone reads a letter to Katniss about how people are “fickle,” and will forget again. (The letter would make for a good class discussion)

~Sometimes we forget, and sometimes we never learned in the first place. I think for teenagers, and for the rest of us too, learning history and war is like getting educated about a tsunami: it happens so seldom, not even once a generation. So why bother to learn? Why risk being called a war-monger or a tsunami-monger? The problem is if you’re standing on the beach in South Asia in 2004 and suddenly the sea recedes… then you need to already know it’s time to run like hell. But so many people just started exploring the beach and wondering what was going on…