Advent, Day 4: “Time”

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The above photo is my submission for day four of rethinkchurch.org‘s Advent Photo-a-Day project. See yesterday’s photo/post for more information.

Today’s word, “time,” makes me think about doing time. The basic statistics regarding prison and corrections in the United States are staggering, let alone the human realities. The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country in the world. Advance numbers for 2012 from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics indicate that, while the overall prison population in the U.S. is declining slightly, an estimated 1.57 million adults were incarcerated here by last year’s end, or about 1 in 160 adults. That number does not include all other adults who are otherwise under the supervision of state and federal correctional systems (via various forms of probation and parole). By the end of 2011 that number stood at 6.98 million, or roughly 1 in 34 adults in the United States.

By way of illustration, if my (relatively meager) cohort of 438 Facebook friends was representative of the United States, three would be in prison and ten more would be under other correctional supervision.

These mushrooming numbers are especially staggering due to the fact that, in the same time period in which prison and correctional populations have exploded, violent crime (murder, assault, rape, and sexual assault) has plummeted. Many attribute this increase to the “war on drugs,” especially at the federal level. In 2011, the last year for which official statistics are available on this question, the single largest category of federal sentences– 94,600 out of 197,050— were for drug-related offenses.

These aggregate numbers, though, don’t tell the whole story. They don’t include juveniles under correctional supervision, including those in residential facilities. Nor do they include young people caught up in the “school-to-prison pipeline,” a term for the trend in recent years in which increasingly harsh school discipline exposes students rapidly to the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Increasingly, the road that leads to prison for Americans begins in their classrooms.

The aggregate numbers also hide wide racial disparities, both in correctional populations and in the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Sticking only to people in prison, the BJS estimates that at the end of 2011, of 1.53 million prisoners, 581,300 were black, 349,900 were Latino/a, and the rest white (and the number for “white” includes Asian-Americans, American Indians, and individuals who identified more than one race). According to the 2010 census, around 13.6% of all Americans identified as Black or African American, and 16.3% of Americans identified as Hispanic or Latino. People of color are represented in prison populations out of all proportion to their overall numbers in the population. The cause of these disparities is hotly debated, although it is hard to resist the conclusion that the increase in sentences for drug-related offenses, which are famously racialized, has much to do with them.

The effects of mass incarceration on communities of color are tremendous, even more tremendous than official statistics indicate. Since many of those statistics, such as employment rates, are tied to household surveys, they disregard people in prisons and jails. This means that many official statistics for people of color, who are incarcerated at rates significantly higher than whites, are skewed due to the fact that larger segments of their populations are officially disregarded. Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindnessargues compellingly that mass incarceration in the present-day United States, via a drastic expansion of police powers and criminal law in the “war on drugs” and mandatory sentencing guidelines, systematically targets and relegates large numbers of people of color to near-permanent second-class status.

These statistics and realities ought to motivate greater outcry, or at least greater discussion. They aren’t a simple matter of “crime and punishment.” In our society, incarceration and correctional supervision are a mark that is difficult to clean off, even well after jail time is done. Many states place high barriers to persons convicted of felonies to regain their voting rights. Two states, including my own home state of Kentucky, provide no means whatsoever for felons to regain their voting rights. Employers routinely ask applicants to “check the box” indicating whether they have been convicted of a felony, and many employers will automatically weed out those applicants who check “yes.” Felony convictions also bar individuals from seeking any number of professional or occupational licenses, which restricts their long-term career prospects.

Our culture treats people convicted of crimes who have done jail time as pariahs. This, sadly, tends to include church culture. Our churches talk a good game around justice and inclusion, at least sometimes, but in practice we function as little more than arbiters of solid middle-class respectability, equipping our own communities for upward mobility. Yet we Christians gather every Sunday to follow in the footsteps of an executed criminal, blissfully ignorant of the disconnect. The Christian communities whose experience is reflected in the New Testament, however, were no strangers to incarceration. The New Testament abounds in references to prison and prisoners which are impossible to explain away as figurative references to “spiritual” bondage. Yes, much of that incarceration was at the hands of imperial Rome and its collaborators. What makes our imperial incarceration practices so much better, though? Why should followers of Jesus simply assume that this time, Empire has got it right?

This Advent, I plan to take to heart the exhortation of the Epistle to the Hebrews:

Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. (Heb. 13:3, NRSV)

Advent, Day 3: “Peace”

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The above photo is my submission for day three of rethinkchurch.org‘s Advent Photo-a-Day project. If you haven’t seen a Photo-a-Day challenge before, the idea is to take a photo each day that relates to a specific theme, word, or concept. Today’s assignment is to post a photograph that denotes “Peace.”

Generally, I like for these photos to speak for themselves, but this photo and concept deserve some comment. “Peace” is difficult enough to conceptualize for me, much less depict concretely. I went with a photo of action, of dynamism, of movement. It may seem odd to use this image to depict “peace.” I went this direction because I think that many of the ways we talk about “peace” founder on an incorrect assumption that peace is paradigmatically something static– a state of affairs, a state of mind, or some such.

Take our tendency to talk about “peace” as a feeling one has. “I am at peace,” one says, meaning to denote something like calm or tranquility or the absence of stress. I think that these feelings have something to do with peace; it’s not wrong to call them peaceful. They aren’t, however, the whole of peace, and perhaps are the least important part of it, functionally speaking.

We also talk about “peace” as meaning the absence of conflict. We speak of peace as what happens when war stops. We talk of “keeping the peace” in our workplaces, our families, our churches, our relationships. Again, I think it is fair to call these things peaceful. Certainly the absence of conflict can be productive of feelings of calm or tranquility. However, this way of thinking about peace can, at times, be naïve and dangerous. When we valorize the absence of conflict, we often valorize the avoidance or denial of conflict. Conflict doesn’t go away, though, simply because we don’t want to acknowledge it or deal with it. One need not seek conflict actively or produce it unnecessarily for conflict to arise, and when it arises, it is there whether we want to look at it or not. Avoiding or denying conflict is not only futile, but it often only exacerbates it.

Moreover, valorizing the absence of conflict is often a tool the powerful use to silence the voices of people who have legitimate criticisms and complaints. This happens when, for instance, faculty members of color at universities are investigated and accused of “racial harassment” for pointing out racism and racial inequities on campus. It happens when white folks accuse people of color of “reverse racism,” “making things about race,” and “playing the race card” for pointing out what they experience on a daily basis. It happens when victims of sexism, abuse, and homophobia in church settings are dismissed and branded as instigators of needless conflict for telling the truth about what they experience and demanding change. It happens when service workers, adjunct faculty, unpaid interns, and others are deemed troublesome ingrates for having the audacity of wanting to be paid a fair, living wage for their labor. As with so many other important values, powerful elites routinely weaponize the value of peace.

It is often cited as a maxim that there is “no peace without justice.” I believe this is true. It is possible to feel peaceful, or to live in disregard of conflict, in the midst of a situation that is horribly unjust. In fact, one of the ways privilege works (white privilege, class privilege, straight privilege, and the like) that it insulates the privileged from the psychic realities of the injustices that produce their privileged status. It distributes the hard work–the “interpretive labor,” as David Graeber has called it— of dealing with injustice and conflict primarily upon those who lack privilege, and that distribution then becomes another part of the injustice that structures social relationships. The carefree minds of the privileged become one more thing that they– that I– purchase at others’ expense. Peace with justice, by contrast, is hard, uncomfortable work for everyone.

Beyond “no peace without justice,” though, I also believe that neither peace nor justice is synonymous with the absence of conflict. If conflict is a call for resolution with justice, then of course the resolution of conflict is more just than conflict that continues unabated. A just resolution of conflict, though, does not always translate into tranquil, calm feelings for everybody, certainly not in the short term, and these feelings can themselves be a source of conflict. Those of us who have profited unjustly from their privileges and from the exploitation of others will likely find it extremely uncomfortable, to say the least, to shoulder additional burdens. The hope is that justice will foster liberation for all, even for those who currently benefit from injustice, but this does not mean that there will not be struggle and conflict beforehand.

Good-thinking liberals, such as I used to be, founder on this latter point. There is an unreflective but widespread liberal belief, I think, that if we set everyone down around the same table and talk things out, then everyone will come away satisfied with the outcome– which means, of course, that everyone’s satisfaction is taken to be the measure of how just the outcome is. It sounds great, except that in practice it means that good-thinking liberals tend to find their efforts at a satisfactory dialogue held hostage by the feelings of people whose interests are unjust, and who will refuse to be satisfied with anything but an unjust outcome. The only way to satisfy those who desire injustice is, simply, to give up on justice and enjoin everyone to make nice, which is what happens all too often in practice. Good-thinking liberals have a hard time trusting that struggle and justice go together.

One of the things that keeps me Christian is that neither Jesus nor the canonical Gospels has any such illusions about peace and justice satisfying everybody. The Gospel According to Luke makes constant reference to God’s justice involving a kind of turnabout that will leave some unsatisfied. Take, for instance, the Magnificat of Mary (Lk 1:46-55), appropriate given the season we are in:

“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things,

and sent the rich away empty.” (Lk 1:52-53, NRSV)

There is no talk here of asking the powerful first whether they are cool with being brought down from their thrones and sent away hungry. There is no presumption that they will be happy with this. God is the God of all, of course, even of the rich and the powerful, but this does not mean that God is wealth and power. Far from it. God reaches out to us beyond, and in spite of, our wealth, our power, and our privilege. God can show us that peace and justice sometimes happen in spite of what we might want.

Peace, when thought of as a state of affairs we are meant to achieve and then make endure, frequently misleads us. Peace is not something that is. Peace is instead something we do. Peace is not a magical, long-distant goal in which all conflict has dissolved. It is, rather, in what we do with, and in, the conflicts that structure our patched-up lives.

Want to participate in the Photo-a-Day challenge? The words for Advent 2013 are as follows:

Advent Photo-a-Day 2013

In Search of Golden Tickets: 2. Cold Indifference

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Photo Credit: aeter via Compfight cc

My son and I are reading Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at bedtime. It was the first full-length book I ever read, and I ended up reading it many times throughout my childhood. Now I am getting to share the book with my own son. I have decided to blog at regular intervals about what we both experience as we share the book together. The first post in the series is here.

GUILDENSTERN (quietly): Where we went wrong was getting on a boat. We can move, of course, change direction, rattle about, but our movement is contained within a larger one that carries us along as inexorably as the wind and current…

ROSENCRANTZ: They had it in for us, didn’t they? Right from the beginning. Who’d have thought that we were so important?

GUILDENSTERN: But why? Was it all for this? Who are we that so much should converge on our little deaths? (In anguish to the PLAYER:) Who are we?

PLAYER: You are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. That’s enough.

GUILDENSTERN: No– it is not enough. To be told so little– to such an end– and still, finally, to be denied an explanation—-

PLAYER: In our experience, most things end in death.

–Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Act Three

Our reading of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory continues. One of the features of co-parenting is that The Boy and I don’t get to read the book together every night. My ex-wife and I read different books with him at bedtime at our respective houses. It means that we are working our way through the book slowly, but that is just fine. The Boy has a pretty good memory for the details of a good story, so he is always ready to pick back up right where we leave off.

Last night we finished the part where Augustus Gloop, the gluttonous first recipient of a Golden Ticket, exits the story by falling into Wonka’s river of frothy mixed chocolate and getting shot up a great tall glass tube towards the “strawberry-flavored chocolate-coated fudge room.” It is a pretty frightening scene, really, if you aren’t already inured to it (as I am) from years of re-reading and from years of seeing it on film. After Augustus gets shot up towards whatever destiny awaits him, “like a bullet in the barrel of a gun,” Wonka has a lengthy argument of sorts with Mrs. Gloop, Augustus’s mother. It is a rather long exchange. Mrs. Gloop becomes steadily more upset, shrieking and yelling, while Wonka, who is delightfully amused by the whole affair, can barely stifle his gleeful laughter. Mr. Gloop is almost a nonentity, offering matter-of-fact interjections but otherwise leaving the outrage and panic up to his wife. It is, truth be told, almost too stereotypically gendered a scene: the shrill, emotional mother, the detached father. It is not the only stereotyped moment in the book, either.

When I read to The Boy, I try to dramatize as best I can. I even try to do different voices, although my repertoire is limited. My Wonka is a high singsongy affair, and my Mrs. Gloop is just me acting as agitated as I can without deafening us both and bothering the neighbors. This scene really called on my inner thespian. The Boy seems to like that.

We read the following chapter, in which the remainder of the company floats down the chocolate river on Wonka’s boat, before stopping for the night. We usually spend a minute or two talking about the story after we stop. B immediately came back to the fate of poor Augustus. He understood Wonka’s optimism regarding Augustus’s safety, but he clearly didn’t trust it. “What happens to Augustus?” he asked me. He knows I have read the book before. “Is he OK?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“Really? Where is he? Does he come back?”

“Well, no, we never see him in the story again. They just keep on going without him.”

His brow furrowed. He found this upsetting. He had expected that the story would return to Augustus somewhere along the line. “Oh” was all that he said. He was already sleepy, so he drifted off to sleep after that.

B is learning an important thing about the kinds of stories that last: they don’t answer all of the questions they raise. He loves the book, but he is still uneasy about the ultimate fate of Augustus. Wonka reassures us that he ends well, or well enough, but even my six-year-old understands that someone who would giggle with delight at the prospect of a boy trapped in a fudge boiler is perhaps not trustworthy. The Oompa-Loompas suggest in no uncertain terms that Augustus will die a rather gruesome death. Wonka is quick to point out that they are joking, that they love to tell jokes– but is this one of them? Or is the operative love of cruel jokes here Wonka’s own?

More tellingly, Augustus simply exits the stage here for good– whether alive or dead– as something less than an actual character. He never develops or changes or learns. He never gets to be anything more than a naughty boy, the subject of a terrifying Oompa-Loompa morality song, the butt of several fatphobic jokes. He is, from the perspective of the story, a question that is answered as soon as it is asked, and answered with a facile moral lesson.

It almost makes me want to see someone do for Augustus what Tom Stoppard did for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: that is, give him, and us, a shot at seeing Augustus as a human being with his own story. I fear, though, that the lesson would end up being about the same for Augustus as for those two. Augustus may have been his own person, the subject of his own life, but the story in which he takes part had no need of him in that capacity, just as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern end up dying the same way regardless, shuffling around in apparent freedom while the boat insensibly carries them where it will.

This lingering unease about the fate of Augustus, and about that of the other children, is part of the genius of this book. In my first post, I stated my conviction that beneath Dahl’s prima facie moralism, this book harbors difficult and subversive truths. Kids are smart; kids get things. My son is no exception. He gets the tensions left behind by a story in which powerful grownups are not particularly concerned whether a kid lives or dies, and in which the story itself means what it means regardless. It bothers him.

And it should.

Focus on the (Chosen) Family

3867480044_fd23456933_oPhoto Credit: Valeri-DBF via Compfight cc

This post is my contribution to QueerTheology.com’s Queer Synchroblog 2013. This year’s theme is “Queer Creation.” Links to all of the other excellent entries are at the bottom of this post. After reading mine, go forth and read more!

In order to get to what the theme “queer creation” evokes in my mind, I need to discuss a point of view about as far removed from my own as I can imagine: the views of extremely conservative and patriarchal evangelical Christianity.

My interest in those views came into clearer focus a few days ago, when I read Kathryn Joyce’s Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement. It is a compelling but sobering read. In it, Joyce sketches out a portrait of possibly the most theologically and socially conservative Christians in the United States. The organizing commitment that unites the various groups in this wing of American Christianity– homeschooling groups, neo-Reformed and independent fundamentalist Protestant churches, conservative Catholics, anti-choice activists, and others– is their explicit, unapologetic commitment to patriarchy and their relentless enforcement of “traditional” gender norms. The norms in question stem from Christian patriarchy’s adoption of a controversial and much-discussed “complementarian” view of gender.

What came into clearer focus for me in reading Joyce’s book than it had before was the extent to which a broad claim underwrites the theology and way of life of Christian patriarchy: a belief that the nuclear family and its gender roles– a married man and woman producing offspring– constitutes the basic unit of the human world. The family enjoys that basic status not by accident, but because God created it and endowed it with fundamental value, and created human beings as what they are in the context of it. For patriarchy, men and women are what they are in the first instance in virtue of the roles they play in their families: The husband the “lord” and “head,” the wife the submissive “helpmeet” and bearer of children. These roles are ordained outside of all history, outside of all time, by the creative will of God from the beginning. As such, Christian patriarchy’s attitude towards the family and towards its embedded gender roles is tied to a strongly metaphysical set of claims about creation. The nuclear family for these folks is not a contingent accident of evolution or simply a convenient way of organizing society in light of other institutions that happen to prevail at any given period in history. It is woven into the very fabric of the universe. Attempt to mess with that, and you threaten the ruination not only of society, but also possibly of creation itself, by inviting the judgment of the Creator in defense of what he has putatively created.

I feel like I have to intervene at this point to say that I can’t possibly imagine what it would be like to believe these things about God or the universe. I don’t mean for that to come off as flippant or smug, although it very well may be both. I know that the controlling, abusive, violent behavior these beliefs enable– the thoroughgoing effort to control the bodies and behavior of women, down to the finest detail, that they help rationalize– is very real, very painful, and, in many cases, deadly. Aside from that, I just can’t understand what it would be like to open my eyes in the morning and to see a world staring back at me in which the nuclear family with a God-like man as the unquestioned head forms the fundamental metaphysical building block. It ignores, willfully, the lessons of history and the social sciences that show the nuclear family to be a dynamic and ever-changing institution, one that always interacts with, and is shaped by, economics, politics, and culture.

More basically, though, I fear what it would be like to be forced to live in such an oppressive world. It is certainly not a place that has room for me, a queer man, much less for all of the strong, wise, outspoken women who have blessed my life so richly with their friendship, their stories, and their love. Nor does it seem to be the sort of world that would have much use for Jesus, or at least the Jesus I encounter in Scripture: the bachelor Jesus who dragged his disciples all over Palestine, far from their families; the one who said, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26); the one who said that “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20). Perhaps Jesus, being God, gets an exemption from the requirement incumbent on everyone else to marry and put their family first. But then it becomes hard to understand just what taking up discipleship, taking up one’s cross and following Jesus, is supposed to look like for us if we say that what Jesus does has little role in showing us the way. It seems to ascribe to Jesus the same sort of “do as I say, not as I do” attitude that he clearly finds so objectionable in everyone else.

Queer folk long ago developed the idea of “chosen family”: the idea, that is, that the people who are your actual family are the ones who behave like it, supporting you, loving you, bearing you up, holding you accountable when you need it, whether or not those folks are your biological relations. We developed the notion because, for so many of us, our biological relations want nothing to do with us or are overtly hostile and abusive to us. I like to think that the way Jesus sought to show us, the way of love for our fellow humans, embodies the potential for unlocking this notion of chosen family– a queered notion of family, one in which tight bonds of community and care form across biological barriers, unlikely and unforeseen and ambiguous and fragile but also deep and abiding and nourishing. Of course, some or all of your chosen family may also consist of your biological relations. As family systems theory in family therapy shows us, though, even among a biologically-related family unit, people can pick up and get assigned all sorts of different roles and relationships, and those roles and relationships can change over time.

Chosen family, at its best, is a family in which we finally get to own our own loving. It is one in which love kept fenced in by just-so stories, one that claims the deliverances of metaphysical or grand historical narratives gives way to a love that embraces reality and feels its way forward through the shadows. It is one that has room for the full panoply of human relatedness: For lovers, for biological and adopted children, for friends and neighbors, for co-parents and step-parents. It is a family in which God’s creative love fuses passionately with the creativity and love we possess as being made in God’s image.

This is the world I strive to see when I open my eyes in the morning. I hope it is a world that we all of us can eventually help to bring about, with God’s help, together.

This Year’s Entries

Queering Our Reading of the Bible by Dwight Welch

Queer Creation in art: Who says God didn’t create Adam and Steve? by Kittrdge Cherry

Of The Creation of Identity (Also the Creation of Religion) by Colin & Terri

God, the Garden, & Gays: Homosexuality in Genesis by Brian G. Murphy, for Queer Theology

Created Queerly–Living My Truth by Casey O’Leary

Creating Theology by Fr. Shannon Kearns

Initiation by Blessed Harlot

B’reishit: The Divine Act of Self-Creation by Emily Aviva Kapor

Queer Creation: Queering the Image of God by Alan Hooker

Queer Creation by Ric Stott

Eunuch-Inclusive Esther–Queer Theology 101 by Peterson Toscano

Valley of Dry Bones by Jane Brazelle

Queer Creation: Queer Angel by Tony Street

The Great Welcoming by Anna Spencer

Queer Creation by Billy Flood

The Mystery of an Outlandishly Queer Creation by Susan Cottrell

We’ve Been Here All Along by Brian Gerald Murphy

God Hirself: A Theology by T. Thorn Coyle

The Objectification of God by Marg Herder

Coming Out As Embodiments of God Herself by Virginia Ramey Mollenkott

An Interview by Katy

On Creation and Belonging by Andrew Watson

Creation by Liam Haakon Smith

Practically Creating Practical Queer Theology by Talia Johnson

Inspired Possibility: Opening the Gift of the Queer Soul by Keisha McKenzie

Oh What A Difference A Pope Makes! by Hilary Howes

I’m Really Angry by John Smid

The Goddex by Thorin Sorensen

In Search of Golden Tickets (Part 1)

Alfred E. Wonka Photo Credit: Artriarch via Compfight cc

Two days ago, my son and I began to read Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at bedtime. It was the first full-length book I ever read, and I ended up reading it many times throughout my childhood. Now I am getting to share the book with my own son. I have decided to blog at regular intervals about what we both experience as we share the book together.

It seems important before anything else to say something about my own relationship to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. What I say shall, I suspect, help explain why sharing it with my own son is so significant to me.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was my favorite book as a child. The reasons why are a little hard to explain. I was a rather odd child. At least I felt odd. All children are probably odd, when you get right down to it, although more often than not we are made to feel like we shouldn’t have been. My oddity was that I was unabashedly morbid. From a very early age death felt like a clear and present reality to me. I felt like all around shadows of the dead lurked, shadows with stories they could tell if they wanted but never would. I felt surrounded by secrets that only the dead knew for sure. So when other children began to dream of what they would be when they grew up, they had dreams of becoming firefighters or policemen or the like. The first thing I ever wanted to be was a mortician. How else would I ever get to spend time with the dead? How else would they teach me what I needed to know? Certainly the world of bright colors and happy endings wasn’t the whole story.

I learned to read early, and I always loved reading. When I was seven or eight years old, my Aunt Sue gave me Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as a Christmas gift. It was the first long book I ever read. I remember being drawn into it with a sense of increasing recognition. The book is clearly for kids, if only because the protagonist is a profoundly sympathetic boy, and the goings-on are magical, sometimes whimsical. But, like just about everything Roald Dahl ever wrote, it is also dark, sarcastic, threatening, and occasionally violent. The book has a happy ending, for virtuous Charlie, at least, but there are many sticky endings for the other characters in the book: kids end up attacked by squirrels, juiced like blueberries, exploded into clouds of electrons.

Then there is the character of Willy Wonka himself, the crackpot brujo pulling all of the strings. Ostensibly, Willy Wonka is a force for good in the universe. Not only does he make candy, which is good in itself, but his entire Golden Ticket promotion turns out to be an exercise in rewarding virtue and punishing vice. No wonder parents let their kids read this book! The moral of the story seems to be clear: Don’t chew too much gum or be a brat or watch too much TV, and you will be OK. It would all be so wholesome and didactic, except that Wonka, the guarantor of moral order, is himself juvenile, vindictive, capricious, exploitative– hardly an ideal role model. Even his light-hearted whimsy carries an undercurrent of barely concealed malice, a hatred for just the sort of sugar-overloaded children who are his best customers. If Wonka is wielding his considerable power and cleverness to secure the triumph of virtue, it is for no other reason than that he found virtue more amusing that week.

(The malicious undercurrent of Wonka’s glee is why, among film portrayals of this story, I tend to prefer Johnny Depp’s portrayal in Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to Gene Wilder’s in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Wilder’s Wonka is a great character with occasional flashes of sarcasm– as the Condescending Wonka Meme indicates– but he is a bit too genial. Depp’s Wonka captures the essential maliciousness of Wonka. Pity, though, that Burton felt pressure to mitigate the impact of it by appending a spurious psychologizing backstory onto Wonka to explain “how he got that way.” Apparently the movies are not ready for a character who represents sui generis mischief.)

For all of its seeming moralism, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a story about how being a good little boy only pays off, if it does, because the reward system put in place by grownups is utterly and completely arbitrary. I can hardly think of a more subversive message– and a more relevant one in these days of “creative destruction” and forced labor precarity under late capitalism. When I read the book as a child, I of course had no way of articulating any of that. But I, the boy who dwelled on mortality and the limits of what my world contained, felt like that book was telling me the truth. It wasn’t about death, but it seemed to be telling a lot of truths about life and not trying to hide them from me.

My son is odd too. I am sure I do not yet understand the half of his oddness. But I am still odd too, and now that I am supposed to be on the supply side of virtue and order, it doesn’t feel much less arbitrary. In some ways, it feels more arbitrary, not less. I think I look forward to sharing this book with my son because, among other things, I want him to know that, through all of life’s cant and hypocrisy and superficiality, I am here with him, working to see the truth and make sense of it too.

*********

So far, we have read the first seven chapters. Wonka has announced his unprecedented Golden Ticket promotion, and two rather unpleasant children, Augustus Gloop and Veruca Salt, have found the first of the coveted tickets. Chapter 7, “Charlie’s Birthday,” greets us with high hopes, as impoverished Charlie receives his annual birthday chocolate– a bar of “WONKA’S WHIPPLE-SCRUMPTIOUS FUDGEMALLOW DELIGHT.”

The natural expectation, especially for those of us who have watched too many movies with plot shortcuts, is to expect that Charlie’s birthday bar will contain ticket number three. Certainly this was The Boy’s expectation. As we began the chapter, his eyes lit up with delight, and he said “Ooh, Charlie is going to get a Golden Ticket!!!” He clearly is genuinely invested in Charlie.

We read the chapter together, The Boy with barely disguised excitement. The suspense builds and builds as Charlie slowly opens the bar in his grandparents’ bed. And, of course, his bar doesn’t contain the ticket, and his parents and grandparents console him. Interestingly, though, The Boy didn’t take the story’s word for it when it said that the bar didn’t contain a Golden Ticket. It says, very clearly, “There was no sign of a Golden Ticket anywhere,” but as I finished reading the chapter to him, he said “Wait a minute! The Golden Ticket is in the wrapper and he didn’t see it!”

As the chapter finished with Charlie’s mother summoning him to school– “‘Come on, or you’ll be late'”– I had to tell The Boy, “No, he didn’t get a Golden Ticket in his candy bar.” This made him sad and confused. His brow furrowed, and he began thinking. “I bet he gets a Golden Ticket some other way! I bet he gets another candy bar!” My prosaic side thinks that he understands storytelling well enough to understand that there is a lot of book left, and Charlie, the main character, has to get in that factory somehow, or else the rest of the book makes no sense.

I wonder, though, if it isn’t that he just doesn’t feel a raw sense of compassion for Charlie. Moralism aside, it is next to impossible to read the opening chapters of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and not feel a deep sense that Charlie deserves good things. He is so poor, yet he genuinely loves being around his grandparents and listening to their stories. He is also generous; the part where Charlie, crestfallen about not getting the Golden Ticket in his birthday Wonka bar, wants to share his chocolate with everyone in the room, moves me to tears every time.

That is where our reading ended for the night, and, after The Boy speculated about Charlie’s eventual good fortune for a while, he still seemed sad. I asked him, “Do you feel sad for Charlie?”

“Yeah,” he said.

“Because he didn’t get a Golden Ticket?”

“Yeah. And he is so poor.”

“He is. But he is rich in other ways,” I said.

“Really?”

“Yes. He has lots of people in his life who love him. His parents and his grandparents.”

The Boy had no response to that. I wonder if he saw himself in that description. He is also very fortunate in that respect, I think. His material circumstances are comfortable enough, but he also has lots of people in his life who love him and want to spend time with him.

Tonight we will read some more and see what the story has in store for us both.

Chase’s Collection, Debt Sales Reined In by Regulators

2110710885_2990214653Photo Credit: swisscan via Compfight cc

This post will read like a bit of a departure for me, since it has to do with a side of my life (consumer debt and collections) about which I don’t typically blog. This piece of news, though, is hard to summarize in a tweet or a Facebook status.

As reported in the financial press a few days ago, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency has entered into a consent order with JPMorgan Chase Bank and its affiliates regarding its debt collection activity, sworn document procedures, and related practices regarding consumer debt. A copy of the consent order (PDF) is here.

The consent order is the outcome of a regulatory probe that began sometime in 2011 as the result of whistleblowers calling attention to sloppy practices in Chase’s consumer collections division. The practices–robosigning, poor document retention, lax oversight of outside attorneys– mirrored similar problems that plagued the mortgage lending industry in the wake of the burst of the housing bubble in 2008. Chase’s own press release regarding the consent order points out that it ceased collection litigation in the second quarter of 2011 as a result of its own internal review.

The Consent Order is very noteworthy in the context of collection of consumer debt. Of special note is the fact that the OCC has obtained Chase’s agreement to increase its oversight and due diligence related to sales of consumer debt to third-party debt buyers. In my opinion, this is a huge development. Sales of defaulted consumer debt to debt buyers shunt consumer debt away from banks, who are regulated (although probably not enough) into a far more loosely regulated realm that increases the risk of abuses. The economic meltdown of 2008 in particular led to a cascading waterfall of consumer debt getting unloaded onto the third-party debt buyer marketplace. It has taken regulators (including the FTC and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, who have oversight over debt collection, but lack rule-making authority) a while to catch up to this state of affairs. (Chase may have suspended much of its collections and collection litigation in 2011, but to my knowledge they did not stop selling defaulted debt to debt buyers, who are only too happy to file suit on their own behalf.)

Today’s consent order with  follows on the heels of the OCC’s publication this July of best practices (not formal rules) regarding such sales of consumer debt. The OCC, who regulates the largest national banks and credit issuers in the United States, has not previously paid a lot of attention to banks’ sales of consumer debt.

As someone who used to work in debt collection and still keeps a close eye on that world, I think the OCC’s moves here are a positive sign. I have thought for a long time that many of the problems with debt buyers and their collection activities go back to the ability of banks to offload their defaulted credit portfolios so easily– and, to date, with little oversight. More developments are sure to come; stay tuned.

Twelve Years Ago

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What am I supposed to learn?

I haven’t learned it yet

Smoke another cigarette

–Michael Knott, “Jail”

Twelve years ago today, I was living in State College, Pennsylvania. I was ABD (“all but dissertation”) in the Ph.D. program at Penn State University. I was teaching two sections of Introduction to the Philosophy of Science, both of which met on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. It was a Tuesday, though, so I had no particular place to be.

I had been married for a little over two years, and my then-wife, Cheryl, was doing odds and ends while I finished my dissertation. She had always felt a call to work with elderly people– she is currently a social worker in a long-term care facility–and at that time, she volunteered a lot at the local Senior Center. (Its director at the time, Barb Lindenbaum, one of the loveliest, most gentle souls I have ever met, has since passed on from cancer.) That morning, Cheryl was getting ready to volunteer at the Senior Center for a few hours.

For my part, I had no particular place to be, so I was watching the morning shows in my pajamas while she got ready to go out. In those days, I watched a lot of TV news. That morning, I was watching the Today show. Ann Curry, I think, was interviewing an author who had just published a biography of Howard Hughes. Not long after the interview wrapped up, Matt Lauer broke in with live video of a smoking hole in the side of one of the two towers of the World Trade Center. A tragic freak accident, it seemed; they made mention of the plane that hit the Empire State Building during World War II. Clearly, though, the plane that had hit the tower was much bigger. Looking at the hole, which was belching thick black smoke, and doing New Yorker mental math, the Today show hosts speculated on-air that the plane had to be the size of an airliner. It had obviously veered very far off course– flight plans never took an airliner close enough to the WTC for this to be a near-miss situation. The mystery of how the plane had gotten so far off course, coupled with the logistical challenge of fighting a raging fire at the top of one of the tallest buildings in the world, already made it clear that the story would dominate the rest of the morning’s news.

As Cheryl gathered herself to go out to the Senior Center, I directed her attention to the TV and told her what appeared to have happened. She noted it with an appropriate level of alarm, which was not much, and then left. She was never as interested in the news as I was.

I was at home alone in the apartment, then, and settled in for the day. Research and writing would have to wait; this was major news, and I had to watch. I scanned the cable news channels and other morning shows. No one else seemed to have anything more than NBC had. I had made my way back to the Today show, who had a live feed fixed on the WTC, when the second plane hit. As TV news types are trained to do, Matt Lauer and company had been talking incessantly, but when a corner of the second tower erupted in a gigantic fireball, they almost inaudibly gasped in unison and fell silent. That gasp and that stunned silence was unlike anything I recall ever seeing on live television before or since. It couldn’t have lasted more than three or four seconds, but it felt like it lasted longer. I think it should have lasted longer, really.

Once the TV news folks regained their composure, they reached the conclusion quickly that the planes must have hit the towers deliberately. The odds of two random airliners hitting both of those towers within minutes of one another was unthinkable. A scan of the other morning shows and cable news channels indicated that every major news network had reached the same conclusion. I shoved a tape into the VCR, set it to record at the slowest (6-hour) speed, and began to record what was happening. This was clearly historic.

Ultimately I recorded the news, mostly CNN, for 24 hours. I still have the tapes somewhere, but I have only had the stomach to review them once.

Pretty much everyone who was alive and watching the news that morning remembers that from that moment on, there were several hours of steadily elevating panic. Not long after the planes hit the WTC, reports came in of a crashed airliner somewhere in the vicinity of the Pentagon. Reports were vague at the time– I seem to recall that reports were vague as to the number of planes that had crashed, whether one or more planes had hit the building, whether a bomb had exploded in conjunction with all of this. The major news outlets didn’t have cameras trained on the Pentagon the way they had them trained on lower Manhattan. It took a while for anyone to get video or a live feed going from there. Not long after, there were unconfirmed reports– later falsified– of bombs exploding on the National Mall and in front of the State Department. All the while, the towers burned in NYC, and the reports and video from the streets of the city was all panic and shock.

It was somewhere in that bedlam of news that the local NBC affiliate in State College, WJAC-TV, broke in over the Today show (who had hauled in Tom Brokaw out of retirement and every other military and aviation reporter and analyst they had) to report a crashed airplane not far outside Pittsburgh. They were, so far as I know, the first to report that event, which proved to be the downing of United Flight 93 short of its intended target due to the heroic actions of a group of passengers. No one knew that that morning; that story would be told later. All we knew was that another plane had fallen out of the sky, the fourth that morning.

The news had already broken, I think, that the FAA and the federal government had grounded all civilian air traffic and restricted all airspace over the continental United States, an utterly unprecedented move. But that didn’t matter; planes were coming out of the sky in New York City, in Washington, D.C., and near Shanksville, PA. Each location formed the corner of a triangle, and near the center of that triangle was where I sat, watching the news.

I was still alone at home. I could see the TV from my front door. I stood in the door jamb, one ear on the TV, one ear to the sky, waiting for planes to fall. It was utterly quiet. I was scared.

*********

The rest of the horrible aftermath of that day unfolded from that point. No more planes crashed, no bombs exploded, but both World Trade Center towers fell in a scene of sheer horror. Cheryl came home just after the first tower fell, but before the second; she had received word from Barb, who had heard from her husband Sandy that something major had happened. She didn’t know, though, that one of the towers had fallen, and when I told her, she was dumbfounded. The video from the ground was of absolute panic, of a million pieces of paper and slivers of metal and glass and choking dust. The fall of the second tower not long after was, by that point, a grim coda.

The days, weeks, and months that followed were a mixture of shadows and fog, grief and anger, and, more than anything, fear. The fear was pervasive. No one knew exactly what to expect next. There were reports of attacks on Muslims and on anyone who was thought to be Muslim. College campuses around the country received crank bomb threats; the building that housed the English as a Second Language classes at Penn State received at least two that week, presumably because many foreigners could be found there. My Twitter friend Louisa (@LouisatheLast) reminded me today that the Penn State community was apprehensive about that Saturday’s football game, not because Beaver Stadium is a politically meaningful target, but just because a large number of people would be gathered there. Once airspace reopened, airports took on the air of militarized zones, with minimum safe distances for pickup and dropoff and tighter new security rules.

In the news media, a narrative of war and retaliation consolidated quickly, within minutes and hours of the planes hitting. While the towers burned, Tom Brokaw on NBC definitively called the attack an act of war, and others on NBC and elsewhere had begun to connect the attack to Bin Laden. That looming emotion of fear, grief, and wounded pride fused, in the country’s collective dazed state, with the neoconservatives in the Bush Administration and their house organ, Fox News. I don’t have a recording of it, but I clearly remember that Fox News showed, more than once, video that purported to be men, women, and children celebrating the attacks on the streets of Nablus: A clear attempt to distill the prevailing anger and fear and aim it towards the Palestinians and, by extension, the entire Arab world. But Fox News was not the only one to show the video, and they weren’t the only one eager to channel silent, overwhelming emotions into political directions. All around, there was a race to invest the attacks with political meaning.

The next day, September 12, I was scheduled to teach class. The university emphasized to all that class sessions, and class attendance, was completely optional that day. I held class that day, but not to teach philosophy of science. It felt perverse to teach Karl Popper, one of Margaret Thatcher’s major intellectual influences, on that day, with his “third world” of sterile ideal objects insulated from history that, nevertheless, white Europeans seemed to have greater purchase on than anyone else. Instead, I offered it as a forum to let all of us, myself included, try to talk through what the hell just happened. I said a few words to start off with. I said that the world was collectively sailing into rough waters as regards our identities and their social and political meanings, a world in which being a citizen of a (liberal) nation-state was undergoing transformations and showing its limits, a world in which other markers of identity such as religion would prove increasingly intractable to state-driven politics. I predicted that whatever lessons this horrible set of events had to teach us would take us a very, very long time to learn, if we learned them at all. It all sounded so important at the time. I am not sure now.

*********

For the last eight or nine years, I have begun this post in some form or fashion, but I have never finished it and published it. The emotions have been at times still a bit raw for me. I also felt like my relationship to the events of that day was tangential. I didn’t lose any friends or family, and I wasn’t particularly close to Ground Zero or the Pentagon or even to Shanksville. I was like most Americans, who watched it all unfold on television. More than anything, though, I was nagged by the sense that I couldn’t write about that day without feeling like I had sorted through what I thought it all meant. I felt like my post had to do more than stop; it had to conclude.

By this point, twelve years on, in 2013, the events of September 11, 2001 have been endlessly echoed, repeated, re-played, appropriated and reappropriated, analyzed into microscopic bits and reassembled, broken apart and spackled over, and, as time goes on, increasingly compressed to fit into rituals of forced remembrance. 9/11 spawned one war (Afghanistan) and fueled the deception, naked imperial ambition, and collective suspension of disbelief that spawned another (Iraq). It ushered in a revival of fear-based nativist jingoism in politics that is still very much with us in the age of Obama and the “birther” movement. After a longer-than-usual period of reverent silence, Hollywood eventually made its round of movies and television programs about it. 9/11-inspired ideological slogans graced innumerable bumper stickers, yard signs, and T-shirts, the event and its meaning shattered into a million little pieces of paper and slivers of metal.

Yet I still struggle with the notion that perhaps the events of September 11, 2001 still sit there, difficult to recollect and perhaps locked in the past. I once felt like it was important to remember that day and remember it well, beyond the cloud of nostalgia and ideological politics. I even preached a sermon once with that message. It seemed like an important message at the time. I am not sure now.

I am beginning to believe that what 9/11 holds for us is in the small things: The brief , seemingly pointless fragments of memory that take on immense significance. Whenever I think about or tell my story of where I was on 9/11 and what I was doing, for some reason I always, always, come back to standing in my doorway, listening and looking for planes and hearing utter, complete silence. Even today, I think that I am no further along in understanding that day than standing at the doorway and listening to a vast gulf of silence.

I also think of how others, mostly in Pakistan, to this day stand in their doorways and listen and look for planes: unmanned drones, in their case, operated remotely by Americans in the heartland. Silence does not uniformly greet them, though: instead, what they hear is the buzzing sound of aerial killer robots which, on occasion, rain down death. There are children in Pakistan whose entire lives have been lived under the shadow of these drones, drones that our country flies largely out of a desire to prevent another 9/11 from happening– to us. One has to be utterly insensitive to the basic humanity of Pakistanis not to understand that it is monstrous to expect people to live their lives feeling what I felt in that doorway, and worse, on a constant basis. I think we Americans will someday have to reckon not only with the deaths of innocent civilians brought about by our drone program, but also the intangible, but surely immense, psychological damage we have inflicted on an entire generation of Pakistanis and others.

One of the ideological slogans birthed by 9/11 was “never forget.” I am beginning to wonder, though, if forgetting is really a problem we have to guard against here. I certainly don’t know how to forget that day. It seems that we are never allowed to forget it, that its ghosts still haunt us. Maybe we should be allowed to forget it for a little while. Maybe we would then see what kind of life we might be capable of without having to position ourselves constantly with respect to it. It could even be the beginning of some other, better small things.