Category Archives: Quandaries and Rants

What We Pay Attention To Matters

What We Pay Attention To Matters     —by Jinny Batterson

Here in North Carolina, we have the option of voting early—this election cycle, nearly three weeks early.  On the very first day of the eighteen days set aside for early voting in the county where I live, I cast my ballot.  I’d earlier signed up to work as a non-partisan election official at one of the early voting sites in our county.  Mostly because of this temporary job (and because I need to spend at least some of my time sleeping), I’ve been sheltered from widespread exposure to news events and negative campaign advertising. This has proved to be a real blessing. 

Once I finish my early shift at about 2 in the afternoon, I come home, take a nap, take a walk, share an evening meal with my husband, then bed down early so I can repeat the cycle, starting at about 4:30 a.m. the following day.  I’ve been vaguely aware of hateful tweets and sporadic violence, but mostly I’ve spent my after-dark hours sleeping and my before-dark hours either working or enjoying the autumn weather outdoors. 

On the job, we’re forbidden to talk politics, a wise decision, I believe. Still, from some of the partial stories other workers have shared with me, I get the impression that we represent a pretty wide range of backgrounds and political persuasions. We have younger workers, some coping with student debt, others concerned about underemployment—mismatches between the skills they’ve trained for and the jobs they’ve found so far. We have middle aged workers who worry about aging parents and/or the fluctuations in their 401Ks in a volatile stock market.

The long and short of voting at a central NC early voting site

We come in all colors, shapes, and sizes, from a petite ballot handler to a former basketball center. Some older “temps” are retirees like me; others still work part-time, sandwiching in scant time for personal lives amid hectic work schedules. One of my 60ish coworkers has a vocabulary that suggests he may not have had the same chances for formal education that I did. His line of patter can sometimes border on bigotry, yet he spent some of his off-hours last week comforting a colleague whose wife had a terminal illness. 

Our range of voters also is wide—from the just-turned-18 to a frail elderly woman whose grandson wheeled her up the elevator and into the voting area to cast her ballot one more time. She was born in 1920, the year that women in the U.S. first obtained the right to vote in national elections.  We see office workers on their lunch hours, professors eager to encourage their students to vote, students puzzled about voting procedures, custodians, construction workers, and others whose dress and demeanor defy easy labeling. 

It would be unrealistic to believe that our democracy is in great shape. Being subjected to predictably inflammatory tweets, predictably bloody lead news stories, and predictably negative campaign advertising can be discouraging. Whatever the outcome of this current voting cycle, we will have lots of work to do to help heal some of the breaches in our social fabric, whether we are citizens or elected officials. Yet I’m encouraged by the civility of the voters and polling officials in the small corner of the electorate where I work. Many people DO show up to vote, over a million so far in North Carolina. They wait in line, sometimes chatting with each other. They’re glad to get their ballots and to make their opinions known.  Perhaps if we pay more attention to what’s going well, we may be in a better position to help alleviate what’s not. 

Softening Hearts, Hardening Infrastructure, Widening Perspectives

Softening Hearts, Hardening Infrastructure, Widening Perspectives

                                            —by Jinny Batterson

It’s been a rough couple of months here in North Carolina: two hurricanes (Florence, then Michael), a polarized government, widespread agricultural losses, increasing poverty, damaged schools and infrastructure. 

Yet there’s been heartening news as well. Many established charities such as the American Red Cross have sent disaster recovery teams to the worst impacted areas. Local citizens in areas less damaged by the storms have created both short-term and long-term relief efforts. A neighbor who specializes in local fundraising set up a Sunday-afternoon event at a nearby shopping center and raised over $10,000 in cash plus thousands of dollars worth of non-perishable food and household goods for hurricane relief. Because of the extent of the damage, both in the Carolinas and elsewhere, it will take continued efforts by private donors, non-profits, government agencies, and financial institutions to help promote recovery.  The natural environment will never be the same; repairs, rebuilding, and/or relocation of homes and businesses will take months if not years. 

After hurricane Florence decimated the coastal Carolinas, major roads and interstates were flooded and impassable for over a week, making cities such as Wilmington, North Carolina effectively islands.  Residents who’d evacuated were asked not even to try to return home as soon as the first few roads were reopened—what limited road travel was possible needed to be reserved for emergency and supply crews.  Now that the immediate crises are over, people are starting to grapple with longer-term problems: should rebuilding be limited in areas that seem more and more prone to drastic weather?  Should building codes be changed? How do we adapt our infrastructure to be more resilient? Do we need to pursue alternatives to a predominately road-based transportation network?

Simple solutions seem elusive and likely counterproductive. Perhaps we need to rethink some of the implicit assumptions we’ve made about how the world works.  Rather than considering ourselves outside nature, it may be time to widen our perspectives and acknowledge that we humans are just one piece in a complex, evolving whole.  Among the groups that have challenged some of my existing perceptions are:

Transition networks (https://transitionnetwork.org/), a set of local-global initiatives to work toward more resilient local economies in the face of escalating global challenges

Bioneers (https://bioneers.org/), harnessing scientific knowledge toward solving human problems

Biomimicry 3.8 (https://biomimicry.net/), which looks at other life forms (some with over 3.8 billion years of experience on earth) for innovative ways to re-engineer human-made systems

What partial solutions have you discovered?  What “small/local” actions are you taking to make our future more livable?  Please share some of your thoughts. 

Seven Harmful/Helpful Political Habits

Seven Harmful/Helpful Political Habits   —by Jinny Batterson

(I’ve expanded an earlier version of this post that was written in 2014. Many of the issues remain the same; my wordiness has increased. Please read and pass along to anyone you believe would benefit.  Thanks!)

As a citizen in a democracy, I am a member of multiple levels of government whether I like it or not. Democracy, it is often said, is imperfect, but still better than the other options. Recently many opinion leaders in the United States have questioned whether we Americans are losing “the habits of democracy.” Over the years, I’ve sometimes exhibited bad political habits. I’m trying to reform, to become a more effective member of a democratic society. Below I’ve listed seven of my bad habits, with possible correctives. Recognize any?  

1) Politics is serious business, so I need to engage in it with utmost seriousness. 

Many of us with reformist bents can allow our passion for improving the world to overtake our sense of humor and proportion. Whenever I’ve done this, often I’ve tripped over my own earnestness or outrage, alienating potential allies—sending nasty letters to elected officials, carrying protest placards, scowling. Successful politicians of many different persuasions, from Ronald Reagan to Nelson Mandela, have learned to take themselves lightly while taking their causes seriously. There are good reasons why campaign photographs show candidates smiling.

Even in these polarized times, it IS possible to be well-reasoned, polite, even humorous. When I’ve taken the time to cool down before approaching officials at any level, I’ve had better success at getting them at least to recognize my perspective, even if they may not entirely agree. As a wise mentor once told me, “A smile is the shortest distance between two points of view.”  

2)  Politics is dirty, and most politicians are crooks, so I don’t want to get involved.

The list of our national, state and local political scandals seems endless. I can find it tempting just to walk away from politics to avoid being tainted, too. I hear about “dark money” (large contributions that are difficult to trace) and its influence on elections. Not surprisingly, some politicians in all political parties have accepted large sums from PACs, superPACS, possibly even foreign sources. I could not compete with large donor groups, even if I won the lottery.

However, that does not exempt me from making my small contribution—money, in-kind donations, and/or labor—to support candidates and causes of my choice. I can research the sources of candidates’ campaign contributions through public records and watchdog groups. I can vary the sources of my “partial” news (neither impartial nor complete) to try to understand multiple perspectives. Most important of all, I CAN VOTE, even when my possibilities seem less than ideal.   

3) Government can solve all our problems.

  I can let my expectations of government get overblown, instead of trying to make a difference where I have the most expertise and potential impact. Much as I’d like for my elected officials to snap their fingers and instantly reduce any negative impacts of globalization and automation, reduce unemployment to zero, eliminate poverty, and mitigate climate change, I realize that expecting governments to do too much too quickly can be self-defeating.

My most visibly effective actions have been at the local level—lobbying for enhanced facilities at a nearby park, or speaking out to oppose the rezoning of a small stretch of undeveloped green space. I can get informed and make a small difference; many small differences DO add up. 

4) Government is the problem.

On several occasions, I’ve lost my temper in conversations with “faceless bureaucrats” over regulations I thought were obsolete, needlessly harsh, or downright stupid. I can find parts of government maddeningly unresponsive, from the local to the federal level. 

It’s far easier for me to remember government actions that inconvenience me or limit my perceived choices than to remember valuable government services, from filling potholes on winter-damaged roads through providing police, fire and military protection, to dispensing veterans’  benefits, to underwriting healthcare subsidies for the elderly and the poor. Sometimes I may need to give the “faceless bureaucrats” a pat on the back.

 

5) Local politics does not matter.

I can too easily focus on the “big” political races, glossing over the reality that the government level that impacts me most directly is local: zoning rules; property tax laws and rates; school pupil assignments; the placement of roads, parks, and greenways; economic development plans and procedures.

To be most effective, I need to focus much of my political time and effort on local issues. Besides, for citizens and officials alike, learning needed consensus building and compromise skills starts close to home. This was hammered home to me shortly after I moved to North Carolina, when a school board election that drew just over 10% of the county’s voters created a temporary majority opposed to diversity. They reversed a decades-long pattern of economically-based integration in the county’s schools. in the next election cycle, turnout doubled, though still low in an odd-year election. A more moderate school board took office.

6) If I just elect the right candidates, all will go well.

In several previous election contests, I’ve voted for a successful candidate I thought would be best for the town/county/state/country. When little immediately changed, I got disappointed. Partly because our national population has increased nearly a hundred fold since the U.S. became a nation, many officials at all levels represent increasingly large populations—in their districts, their state, or our nation as a whole. 

Therefore, if I want the elected officials who represent me to reflect my views, I need to do more than use my vote to support candidates whose views most closely reflect my own. Voting is a necessary first step, but not the only one. I also need to remind successful candidates, once elected, of my views on issues that affect me—coherently, respectfully, and repeatedly.

7) “Watershed” elections are crucial; some losses are irreversible.

As I’ve lived through more and more election cycles, I’ve come to believe that hyperbole about potential shifts in policy as a result of a single election can be counterproductive. Of course presidential elections can matter. Of course it can matter which political party controls national appointments and committee assignments. Many substantive changes, though, take decades or even generations. It took 58 years from the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Plessy vs. Ferguson that established a “separate but equal” doctrine for public facilities to the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision ending legal segregation of public schools. An initial national Women’s Rights Convention was held in 1848. A U.S. constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote in national elections was not ratified until 1920. Conversations and disagreements in our broader society about the rights, responsibilities, and roles of minorities and women continue to this day.

I’m skeptical of overblown claims, both of single-election disaster potential, and of single-election long-term gains. At the same time, I’ve concluded that it is important to vote in EVERY election, not just the high profile ones. Also, I need to stay engaged, informed, and involved, regardless of who holds the presumed power at any given time—I need to remember that truth is always eventually more powerful than a lie.

After especially bruising mistakes or defeats, I pick myself up and start again. If each of us works to become less prone to our own bad habits, we CAN change our governments at multiple levels for the better. Rather than the polarized extremes of political culture we are too often exposed to, we can move toward the “more perfect union”  envisioned by our nation’s founders as they wrote the preamble to our U.S. Constitution. 

As you work to reform whatever your bad political habits happen to be, first and foremost, PLEASE make it a habit to keep your voter registration current, and PLEASE vote—in every election!      

Is Anyone Really Stealing American Jobs?

Is Anyone Really Stealing American Jobs?  —by Jinny Batterson

Recently, a friend forwarded to me an email of guidelines for “buying USA,” comparing some everyday items, from greeting cards to toothpaste, that are marketed in the U.S. but now often made in other countries. I have no objection to buying more of the goods I use from hardworking Americans, but I do object to the thinly veiled inference that workers in China (or Mexico, or some other lower-wage country) are stealing American jobs. Wording of the message forwarded to me matches one posted by a real estate developer from near Charlotte, NC in March, 2016, as that year’s election cycle was heating up (see https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/ace-hardware-made-usa-very-encouraging-david-e-johnson-pe). My initial reaction to the message: Oh, rats! Here we go again, blaming job losses on low-wage workers in other parts of the world, when those workers actually play only a small part in American job losses. This mid-term election cycle, I’m concerned that both recycled and more recent posts and tweets are trying to persuade American voters that a broad trade war with China will help save American jobs. 

Over the past forty years, I’ve been able to spend a fair amount of time visiting with workers in China. They don’t want to steal anyone’s job. They are just trying to improve their lives, like workers everywhere. In the 1940’s,1950’s and 1960’s, many Americans left grinding rural poverty for better manufacturing jobs in cities. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, many Chinese also left the countryside in search of better paying urban jobs. By now, Chinese wages have risen. The Chinese government is starting to tighten regulations to rein in the pollution that significantly shortens Chinese lives. Some jobs are leaving China for other countries with lower wages and/or laxer environmental rules.

After I sent a semi-coherent reply to my friend, I let a later draft sit. I needed more time to simmer down and reflect. I realized that I’m very lucky.  So far, my retirement income is comfortable. I do not have to pinch pennies. I can afford to be selective in my buying habits. As much as possible, I patronize local sources. When we lived in Vermont, I made a special effort to buy cheese from our area farmers’ co-op; in Virginia, I bought a lot of local apples; here in North Carolina, I shop the local farmers’ markets; I eat ribs and barbecue at local restaurants. For less-localized items, I check labels along with prices to see where a product originated and how it was produced. Even if they’re somewhat more expensive,  I will sometimes buy U.S.-made goods to help support American workers. At holidays or when buying specialty items, I often purchase “fair trade” products so that some of my coffee, chocolate, and gift purchases will help support those with the lowest wages. Overall, I try to be an informed, careful, caring consumer.

Despite all sorts of “buy from nearby” campaigns, and despite what we may want to believe about fair and unfair trade, for at least a generation the biggest cause of job losses worldwide has been the quickening pace of replacing human workers using automation. According to a Financial Times article published just after Mr. Trump’s election (https://www.ft.com/content/dec677c0-b7e6-11e6-ba85-95d1533d9a62, December 2, 2016), about 85% of U.S. manufacturing job losses between 2000 and 2010 were due to automation rather than to moving jobs overseas. The same article compared the average hourly wage for a human American welder ($25) with the operating cost to have a robot do the same work ($8). If you include the installation and maintenance costs for the robot, the gap narrows slightly. However, the cost difference is likely to continue growing. 

Some trade agreements can damage the interests of workers and/or put at risk the natural environment that supports human life as we know it. Global trade has rarely been without its distortions and inequities. (For example, ask almost any Chinese about the British practice during the 19th century of exporting opium raised in the British colony of India into China to offset the costs of British imports of tea and porcelain, or consider the trans-Atlantic slave trade.) Negotiating worthwhile trade deals can be both time-consuming and extremely difficult—blogs or tweets alone don’t cut it. 

One of my grandfathers lost his job in 1930 when the company he was working for at the time replaced their human bookkeepers with calculating machines as a cost-cutting measure. On President Herbert Hoover’s final full day in office, March 3, 1933, he signed the “Buy America Act” that had recently passed the U.S. Congress. The Great Depression of the 1930’s was not solved.

Americans suffering from job losses need assistance and encouragement rather than attempts to divert the problem onto others. Automation, used wisely, can help improve lives; used foolishly, it can devastate human workers, even entire communities. Global competition, used wisely and fairly, can help spur innovation and growth. Used foolishly, it can pit groups that have many common interests against each other.

Blaming will not solve anything. Please let’s take time together to consider the deeper issues. 

Testing the Alarm System

Testing the Alarm System   —by Jinny Batterson

Wisps of smoke color our East Coast sky
As across our media screens dance
Sheets of flame from West Coast wildfires.

In Miami Beach, tourists get wet feet
Nearly every high tide. In Alaska, melting
Permafrost leaves larger and larger sinkholes.

From time to time, our mid-Atlantic region
Gets buffeted by hurricanes. Summers veer
Between drench and drought. Just now, neither.

I set out on an early morning walk to outpace
The heat and humidity that will settle all too soon,
Once the sun is well up and shade recedes.

Already, morning traffic is picking up along
The commuter artery where my walk begins.
I stay to the shady edge of the sidewalk.

My immediate goal is an off-road greenway;
Its entrance takes off just shy of a big new
Apartment complex.  Almost there–relief!

When I’d first started this walking loop several
Years ago, there were no apartments, only acres of
Second-growth woodland with a greenway in the middle.

I’d watched with dismay as the woods to the path’s left were reduced
To a mere comb-over, the rest cleared, gouged, then built over,
Paved or mulched, adorned with small shrubs and spindly saplings.

Just as I turn onto the path, a racket like the quacking
Of the Aflac duck, but amplified to ear-splitting intensity,
Erupts from somewhere within the apartment complex.

Three short blasts, short silence, three more, on and on.
No place to hide from the noise. No sirens, though.
No evidence of smoke or flame.  What gives?

Wandering the parking lot in search of an answer,
I eventually find a fellow in a hard hat getting
Out of a pickup.  “Is there an emergency?” 

“No, ma’am. They’re just testing out the alarm
System to make sure it works, before the next
Phase of the complex is opened for occupancy.” 

Dog Days Dreaming

Dog Days Dreaming     —by Jinny Batterson

It’s hot and muggy outside, pretty typical for central North Carolina this time of year. I’m used to calling late July and August “dog days,” figuring that even dogs with any sense would spend this part of the year lolling in the shade (or, if available, in an air-conditioned interior). It’s also a time when summer begins to drag a bit. My recollection of “dog days” during my schooling is that by this part of August, I was bored, “dog tired” of school vacation. Going to the swimming pool, attending a fireman’s carnival, getting a root beer float or a hand-dipped ice cream at our local soda fountain—none of these activities had quite the same allure as earlier in the summer. I was beginning to long for the uptick in social life that went with school’s return. Some of my friends probably felt the same way, but we were reluctant to share our views out loud. Instead, we hewed to a teen party line that summer was all fun and school was a drag. Turns out the term “dog days” has less to do with our pet canines than with the pre-dawn appearance of Sirius, the “dog star,” during a roughly 40-day period in July and August, noted since Greek and Roman times.

Sleep research indicates that most of us dream. Fewer of us remember our dreams on waking, especially during these groggy, hot days of late summer. That’s true for me. More often than dream memories, I’ll awaken with a tune or fragment of a lyric in my head. Recently, I woke up with the first verse of “America the Beautiful” as an ear worm. Why that song? Why this time of year? Going down a rabbit hole via online search engines, I found three additional verses, along with some background about the author and the conditions that prompted the song’s writing. 

The lyrics for “America the Beautiful” were penned by Katharine Lee Bates, an English professor at Wellesley College. She began the poem while spending the summer of 1893 teaching English at a school in Colorado Springs. She and several other teachers made a day trip up nearby Pike’s Peak.  From its summit, they could see the fertile plains below. Bates scribbled the first lines of what later became “America the Beautiful” into a small notebook she carried with her:

“Oh beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain.
America, America, God shed his grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea.”

In 1893, there was a major economic downturn, creating distress for many laboring families and farmers. This became a theme of the second verse, which implores God to help mend America’s flaws:

“America, America, God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-countrol, thy liberty in law.”

The poem first appeared in print in a weekly journal around the time of Independence Day in 1895. Bates included a third verse lauding the sacrifices of earlier soldiers: 

“Oh, beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life.
America! America! May God thy gold refine,
Til all success be nobleness, and ev’ry gain divine.” 

Bates’ final expanded version, published in 1913, contained a fourth verse laying out a vision of an America that lived up to its ideals:  

“Oh, beautiful for patriot dream that sees beyond the years.
Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears!
America! America! God shed his grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea.” 

In 1918, when the armistice ending the first world war was announced, U.S. soldiers stationed in Europe burst out singing “America the Beautiful.” The song, much easier than “The Star Spangled Banner,” has since become an unofficial American anthem. It’s been performed by dozens of American pop idols, including Elvis Presley, Barbara Streisand, Aretha Franklin, and Ray Charles. Although it’s rare to hear all four verses, versions have entertained audiences at Super Bowls, presidential inaugurals, and hosts of Independence Day celebrations. One of the most moving performances was a guitar-accompanied rendition by country singer Willie Nelson and a host of entertainment luminaries in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001.

In previous U.S. political cycles, a waking aspect of “dog days” has often been a brief reprieve from political campaigning. Media outlets have provided less news about our government, which sort of “goes on vacation” along with many of the rest of us. Campaign advertising, social media posts, email blasts, robocalls have stayed quiescent until after Labor Day in September. No such luck this year. We’re being subjected to death by a thousand tweets.

Regardless, until after Labor Day, I’ll keep ignoring as much of the political hoopla as I can. Meanwhile, I’m going to celebrate the August 12, 1859 birthday of Katharine Lee Bates. I’m going to relish her lyrics of patriot dreams of an America, with our caring people and stunning nature, that will one day be beautiful again. 

American Report Card: An F in the Three C’s

American Report Card: An F in the Three C’s    —by Jinny Batterson

For much of my formal schooling, several times each school year I’d bring home a report card.  In high school and then college, those reports typically evaluated my performance based on a scale from “A” to “F,” where “A” was the best grade possible, and “F” represented failure in a particular course. My grades in all subjects were mostly A’s and B’s—enough to be on the honor roll of students with superior study skills and motivation. I rarely got a C—which counted as the average.

Some of my course names also fell in the A to F range—algebra, biology, chemistry, drama, English, French. Recently I sent a postcard, a low-tech equivalent of a tweet, to a member of our national government, suggesting a set of three C’s as subject matter to measure how we as a nation are doing: curiosity, compassion, and care for nature. I also suggested that these universal human values, long assumed to be part of the American ethos, needed some shoring up on our shores. In the wake of various recent national policy shifts, our country’s reputation for such values has dramatically declined. Curiosity, compassion, and care for nature are in somewhat short supply in United States official policies due to cutbacks in science funding, rollbacks of environmental safeguards and global climate agreements, but especially in the way we are treating recent immigrants.

After I mailed the card, I mused about the letter “F,” signifying failure, but also fear, fear that can produce or compound both personal and systems failures. Certain fears are sensible motivators to prepare for environmental or life challenges: fears of earthquakes, tsunamis, blizzards, floods, erratic weather, poisonous snakes and spiders, rabid animals, aging, ill health, losses of loved ones in dangerous situations. Other fears function mainly to divide us, worsening real or perceived unfairness, especially when combined with scapegoating of some convenient “other.” We may be persuaded to be frightened of job losses, loss of income, loss of housing, loss of our ability to pay for needed medical screenings or treatments, loss of property or property value, all because “they” are encroaching on “our” prerogatives. Fear can be the opposite of all three C’s, shutting us off from exploration, from compassionate and thoughtful dialogue, from other meaningful interactions with our fellow humans and other creatures. We may engage in more and more absurd rituals to try to protect our presumed advantages. 

  Most of the immigrants in my family came to what is now the United States of America before there were immigration quotas or even a U.S.A. I’m not in danger of being deported. Still, I am troubled by many aspects of the current immigration debate. I’ve found recent reports of children taken from their loved ones at border crossings and put into detention away from their parents or close relatives deeply disturbing. Such behavior suggests an absence of curiosity, compassion, or care for nature. 

Splitting apart families who cross our borders to seek asylum from violence in their countries of origin is both morally wrong and politically untenable. Tasking our border security agents with taking children from their parents or close relatives and putting these children into separate detention facilities is much more likely to breed future terrorists and thugs than engaging in more proactive, humane procedures. Taking infants, toddlers, and young children from their loved ones is, by almost anyone’s definition, a sign of unfounded fear, an abject policy failure, a huge red “F.” Got any postcards handy?    

Radio Mille Collines and the Limits to Free Speech

Radio Mille Collines and the Limits to Free Speech   —by Jinny Batterson

Each of us beyond infancy is, I believe, a product of both nature and nurture. Genetic traits and predispositions we’re born with get adjusted over time by our experiences and our successive re-interpretations of those experiences. I seem to have been born with a predisposition toward nervousness, so it’s probable that the name-calling and mud-slinging that too often inhabit media and political spaces in current-day America feel more threatening and more repugnant to me than they might to someone with a less nervous temperament.

Still, my “nurture” plays a role as well. During the 1980s, I spent two years in the economically impoverished central African country of Burundi working on rural development. Before I went, I did as much research as I could in those pre-internet days about the country I’d be living in for a time: Burundi was for most of its history a sparsely populated, geographically isolated mountainous kingdom with a preponderance of rural herders and farmers. Then, starting in the late 19th century, Burundi became first a German, then a Belgian colony, administered along with neighboring Rwanda. Neither colonial power provided much development support. During their four-plus decades of rule, Belgian administrators often used “divide and conquer” tactics, exacerbating tensions between the area’s two main ethnic groups: the Tutsis, most of whom owned and herded cattle, and the Hutus, who tended instead to farm multiple small plots owned communally by extended families in the Burundian and Rwandan hillsides, or “collines.” Since its early 1960s independence, Burundi’s trajectory has included political assassinations plus a massive ethnic conflict in the early 1970s that killed an estimated 300,000 Burundians. 

When I first arrived, I spoke none of the local language, Kirundi. I had little notion of which of my coworkers and neighbors were Tutsi and which were Hutu. Physically similar, with the same language and skin tone, Tutsis and Hutus were sometimes characterized as “talls” and “shorts” in an exaggeration of one trait that distinguishes them at the extremes. Because of intermarriage, a fair number of Burundians were and are a mixture of both groups. During my stay, I gradually built up a very basic Kirundi vocabulary. Though fluency remained beyond my grasp, I understood enough so that when I attended a local soccer game about halfway through my assignment, I recognized the derogatory use of a word meaning “short,” yelled at the opposing team by some nearby spectators. Not quite as offensive as the “n” word in American speech, the epithet was still intended to be disrespectful. 

During the 1980s, Burundi and neighboring Rwanda were relatively calm, but starting in 1993 both countries again descended into wholesale bloodletting, with the widely publicized Rwandan genocide of 1994 and a less-media-covered simmering civil war in Burundi.  Part of the build-up to the Rwandan genocide consisted of incitements by a privately owned radio station, Radio Mille Collines (Radio of a Thousand Hillsides), against ethnic Tutsis and moderates of all groups. According to a summary by the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies:

“From October 1993 to late 1994, Radio-Television-des-Mille-Collines (RTLM) was used by Hutu leaders to advance an extremist Hutu message and anti-Tutsi disinformation, spreading fear of a Tutsi genocide against Hutu, identifying specific Tutsi targets or areas where they could be found, and encouraging the progress of the genocide. In April 1994, Radio Rwanda (the official government station) began to advance a similar message, speaking for the national authorities, issuing directives on how and where to kill Tutsis, and congratulating those who had already taken part.”  The Institute has published detailed transcripts of many of these station broadcasts in English, French, or Kinyarwanda, the Rwandan local language.

After the genocide and a change of government in Rwanda, international criminal proceedings brought to trial some of the political leaders of genocide-era Rwanda, along with some of the media leaders who had helped foment hatred with their increasingly strident broadcasts. Not all ringleaders could be located and brought to justice, but 92  high-ranking defendants were indicted for their roles in a 100-day rampage that killed an estimated 800,000 Rwandans.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I sometimes fear for my own country and for our planet. Derogatory speech is again on the rise globally, whether from politicians, media pundits, or just disgruntled citizens and residents. Americans belonging to groups who have in the past been targets of repression and/or genocide—African-Americans, Jews, immigrants, LGBTQ persons, among others—feel the impact most deeply, but it affects us all.  As one European Jewish leader put it, “While hate speech and incitement is far too often dismissed as bigoted ranting or merely painful words, it can also serve as an important warning sign for much more severe consequences. Almost every genocide, ethnic cleansing or inter-ethnic conflict in modern history was preceded by violent words. We witnessed inflammatory public speech rise steadily before outbreaks of mass violence, whether in Nazi Germany, Rwanda or in the former Yugoslavia.”   

Of course we need to be able to express opposing views, but we need to be able to express them civilly, rather than by using name-calling, blaming, or personal attacks. Free speech is not the same as hate speech or incitement—please let us learn and teach the difference before it’s too late. 

   

Who Was Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and Why Does It Matter?

Who Was Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and Why Does It Matter?                                                              —by Jinny Batterson

After the Valentine’s Day mass shooting at a high school in south Florida, I listened to some of the early news reports. Of course, there was outrage at the taking of seventeen lives, fourteen of them students at the school. There was the customary soul-searching and hand-wringing over supposed reasons for the violence that once again had erupted in our midst.

Then I partially tuned out. I wrote yet another set of letters and messages to my NRA-indebted U.S. Senators. I commiserated with family and friends. I tried to focus mainly on small, more localized projects where I could make a positive difference.

While I tried to process this latest affront to human dignity, somewhere in the back of my mind, the name Marjory Stoneman Douglas rang a bell. Most high schools are named either geographically, or for some local educator or political figure. Why, then, did this woman’s name seem somehow familiar?  After a while, I checked the internet for a biography of Ms. Stoneman Douglas. First I noticed a picture of an aged woman in a brimmed hat, holding a cat on her lap. Skimming the accompanying text, I found that Marjory had been born in 1890, an only child of a marriage that unraveled when she was six. She spent much of her childhood under the stern tutelage of her mother’s parents in Taunton, Massachusetts. As she grew up, her mother’s mental and physical health deteriorated, leading to several institutionalizations, then a death due to metastatic breast cancer shortly after Marjory graduated from college. 

Always an avid reader, Marjory began writing for publication in her teens. After a brief tumultuous marriage, Marjory moved to Florida in 1915 and worked for several years at her father’s newspaper, which eventually became the Miami Herald. Over time, she established a career as a free-lance writer, penning over 100 articles and short stories, several novels, as well as the non-faction account The Everglades: River of Grass, first published in 1947.

Now the connection clicked—I’d spent a couple of vacations exploring parts of Everglades National Park, including the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas Wilderness Area. I read further into her biography. In later life, Douglas became a tireless advocate for preservation of the Everglades, earning several awards, plus the enmity of some agricultural and real estate developers. She turned 100 the year Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School opened, and lived for eight more years, continuing to write and speak about the need for good environmental stewardship. According to a local journalist who’d interviewed Stoneman Douglas several times, “She had a tongue like a switchblade and the moral authority to embarrass bureaucrats and politicians and make things happen.”

I applaud the ongoing efforts by student survivors at the school named in her honor to reimagine our national obsession with guns. I’ve heard that some of their fundraising appeals contain variations of this Stoneman Douglas quote: “Be a nuisance where it counts; Do your part to inform and stimulate the public to join your action. Be depressed, discouraged, and disappointed at failure and the disheartening effects of ignorance, greed, corruption and bad politics—but never give up.”  She didn’t give up. Neither can we. 

         

Civic Faith, Civic Hope, Civic Love

Civic Faith, Civic Hope, Civic Love     —by Jinny Batterson

This past Saturday started out chilly, with intermittent showers. When I first awoke, I felt discouraged about political shenanigans that have infected multiple levels of our government— disagreement about state and federal voting maps, with lawsuits, hastily crafted legislation, and lots of confusion about districts for upcoming elections; serious questions about the impartiality of our judiciary and proper procedures for selecting judges; looming ballooning federal deficits; periodic government shutdowns; inadequate funding for education and health care; voter suppression; little progress on comprehensive immigration reform; climate change dissension; despoiling of rivers, forests, coastlines; White House staff scandals.

Rather than roll over and try to go back to sleep, though, I got up, got out my umbrella and rain gear, then took the public bus to downtown Raleigh to participate in this year’s “HistoricThousands on Jones Street” march and rally, the twelfth such annual public gathering. HKonJ has become an increasingly potent way for ordinary citizens to voice their concerns near the legislative offices of our North Carolina elected representatives. Multiple non-partisan groups had sent me invitations to the march. Arriving at the assembly area, I saw clusters of fellow prospective marchers with well-made, well-used banners and signs. However, what most intrigues me about such gatherings are the individual signs, banners, and costumes participants come up with to express their views. Among the first I spotted was worn by a neatly bearded man—a t-shirt that proclaimed in yellow letters against a black background: “Make Tacos, Not Walls.” Not far away, a married couple with a religious bent held up complementary signs—his explained “I’m a privileged white male who believes in liberty and justice for all,” while hers was briefer: “That ‘love thy neighbor’ thing? I meant that!—@GOD.” Two younger guys carried a poster with slightly wobbly large letters. In bold black and red, it demanded: “Who voted for Gerry Mander?”, an indictment of the more and more brazen legislative ploys to create voting districts that unfairly advantage selected incumbents, groups, or political parties.    

As a woman, I was especially receptive to signs crafted by women. Just before the formal march started, I talked with two female friends who’d come from different parts of North Carolina to meet at HKonJ. One had written on a rough piece of cardboard, the kind sometimes used by homeless people at major intersections, “Hope Will Never Be Silent!”  Her companion had a slightly more elaborate poster, in vibrant colors, “Love Is Why We Are Here.”

Once showers resumed after the march, attendance dwindled. Many of us sought shelter in local restaurants and shops. As I headed down Fayetteville Street toward a local snack bar run by an immigrant family, I noticed two women seated at an outdoor table, deep in conversation. One had on a flowered hat of the type sported by the political satire group the “Raging Grannies.” 

After a bit, they interrupted their talk long enough for me to ask for a photo of them and their sign, a quote from earlier social activist Dorothy Day: “Love is the Only Solution.”   

The HKonJ event helped renew my faith in the capacities and decency of ordinary citizens. We came together to express, for whatever issues most compelled us, our stakes in this city, state, country and planet. I’d guess that within the overall march were folks whose views opposed each other’s on one or more issues. To be able to “walk in each other’s shoes” will take further work, listening, and mutual respect. Nevertheless, despite the weather, we all walked together, chanted together, laughed together, sometimes even sang together.

Long ago, a prolific letter writer explained that faith, hope, and love abide forever. This is as true of our civic life as it is of our religious and spiritual lives. With civic faith, civic hope, and, above all, civic love, I’m persuaded that we can together get ourselves out of the challenging set of messes we’ve gotten ourselves into.  Happy Valentine’s Day!