Friday, April 26, 2013

Self Defense

Every time the happiness or safety of one of my children was threatened, I felt a rush of adrenaline that drove me to protect them. I kept an eye on the suspicious-looking guy at the toddler playground. “Excuse me, mister, what are you doing here?”

Identifying threats is critical to survival. The quicker the better. In the wild, a split second can make the difference between living and dying. Our need to assess threats and react to them is deep in our base brains. It’s as much an instinct as the urge for food and sex. We act without thinking.

When we feel threatened and can’t identify the source of the threat, we become agitated. We feel defenseless, vulnerable. The resulting anxiety, which sometimes seems intolerable, can be ameliorated only by identifying the threat so we can plan our defense. No serious threat exists for long without our finding, or imagining, the source of it.
After the Boston bombing some rushed to the judgment that the bombers were Chechen Muslim terrorists. Even a few U.S. Senators, ostensible defenders of our Constitution, recommended that the surviving bomber, a nineteen-year-old U.S. citizen, be held as an enemy combatant and tried by the military rather than the courts.
The breathless panic of those Senators was not that surprising. We need to know this about ourselves. We need to know that we are afraid. We need to know that being afraid makes us lash out to try to protect ourselves. We need to know that sometimes, because of other instincts that are also deep within us, we lash out at the wrong people.
When we lived in tribes, the tribe next door was frequently a threat. So we learned to fear the other, the foreigner. Xenophobia sounds like an irrational psychological state, but it is deep in our psyches. We are programmed to fear foreigners. We need to know that about ourselves too.
I’m not saying we should be na├»ve. I don’t recommend we whistle while walking down dark alleys late at night. I’m not suggesting there are not plenty of people in the world who would hurt us if they could. What I am suggesting is that we aren’t helping ourselves by generalizing from isolated examples of legitimate threats. Not all black men in hoodies mean you harm. Nor all women in hijabs.
The world is chaotic. Many of us are confused. Some of us are unbalanced. A Christian zealot who murders an abortion doctor may say, may even believe, he is acting out of religious conviction, but is he? Or is he just crazy? I ask the same question about the Taliban. How sane are you if you are willing to strap on a suicide vest? We can blame zealotry on religion or nationalism, but perhaps the blame lies within us.
Perhaps it lies within our need to blame others for our misfortune. I’m not sure of evolutionary roots of that particular trait--it may be simply another form of identifying threat--but it has produced many a martyr willing to die for the sins visited upon his people by the godless abortionist or the imperialist aggressor. The storm grows as blame begets blame.
Perhaps, instead of responding defensively, we should try to understand why others want to harm us, why they blame us for their troubles. “They hate our freedoms,” a Fox talking head said after the Boston bombings. “They hate our way of life.”
Somehow I doubt that. They may be jealous, but if they hate us it is probably because of something they think we are doing to them, or about to do to them, as opposed to the way we are living among ourselves. Nations have been exporting their cultures for millennia. The most common method of export has been conquest. No wonder we are suspicious of each other’s motives and pieties.
Religion plays into this suspicion, of course. Heretics and infidels are to be despised. How else can the clerics retain control over their flocks? I would be fine with doing away with all religion, but I don’t think that’s going to happen any time soon. There is no doubt yet another evolutionary imperative behind its longevity. If we can’t get rid of it, perhaps we should try harder to understand it, or at least just to agree to disagree, peacefully, and see how we all end up in the end.
One reason it is hard to ignore some religions, to just let them alone to be however they want to be, is because they are abusive, especially to women. Westerners are justifiably sanctimonious about how enlightened they are on this front compared to the teachings of, say, Sharia law. No one with a developed intellect and conscience thinks women should be treated differently than men, but they always have been. Parts of the world are just farther along the cultural evolutionary curve than others.
Does that give us a right to feel superior, to condemn the heathens? In a way, yes. But in another way, most of us cannot claim to have been the authors of our better mores. It is not just scientists like Newton but whole societies that stand on the shoulders of those who came before. Are we, by virtue of time and place of birth, innately more virtuous that those born in societies that have not so advanced? Are they to be ridiculed? Subdued? Conquered? They are nothing more than a look back at ourselves. The answer to how we should treat them lies in how we, in their shoes, would want to be treated ourselves.
A hand reached out in understanding might be bitten. It might be blown off. But it might be taken. And another hand taken. There’s a nice version of the song “None of Us Are Free” that has an improvised line that puts it well: “The only chain a man can stand is the chain of hand on hand.”

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Old Friends, Young Me

Frank is still the same: charming, witty, self-effacing. Roger is dead. What a shock that was. Roger was the folk-guitar player with blond good looks who got all the girls (especially the ones I wanted). I hope it won’t sound too insensitive, especially since I have been looking for him for twenty years to catch up, to say how disappointed I am that I will not now be able to see if Roger had gotten fat and bald.

Joe is still the same too. But then I knew that. I’ve kept up with Joe over the years. He’s a mirror of me, or maybe I should say a mirror to me. It’s the ones I haven’t seen since I was eighteen or twenty who fascinate me. What would they think of me now? What would I think of them?
I’m not sure I want to know the answers to those questions. I have a big high-school class reunion coming up. I’m not going. I have a conflict, and it’s a long way to travel. Even if I could go, though, I’m not sure I would.
My reluctance is something of a mystery to me. I’m dying to know about my classmates. I really did look for Roger on and off for twenty years. No one knew where he was. Live fast, love hard, disappear young; that’s how legends are made. I’d been looking for Frank too, in the same casual way our relationship blossomed when we went off to college together and wandered down similar dark corridors from which it took each of us a while to find our way back.
I had better luck finding Frank than Roger. Frank and I have been trading emails for the last two days, long chatty missives, onions peeling. It’s hard to say how much joy those emails have brought me. I wanted to know about his life. He told me. I told him what I was doing. But for me it wasn’t really about the facts, it was about the subtext: I miss you, man. I miss those days. I miss us.
We knew each other when we were uncertain and full of hope. We watched each other form, like glittering crystals in a clear liquid that the moment before could have flowed in any direction. We could see that crystallization in each other better than we could see it in ourselves. We could see the beauty in each other before we could see it in ourselves.
In one of his emails, Frank reminded me that he was a strong young man. He knows this because late one night he hoisted me over his shoulder and carried me up three flights of stairs in our freshman dorm. I don’t remember the specific circumstances that called forth that heroic feat, but I can imagine them. Frank taught me that A-1 sauce tastes great on French fries.
If I went back to our class reunion, Frank might be there. Other friends would certainly be there. It would be nice to see them, to have a drink with them, clap each other on the back, kid around, but somehow I think it would not be as nice as those emails.
In his written words I can hear the Frank who went off to college with me. I can see him sitting across a plate of soggy French fries, bobbing his head the way he used to do, regaling me, as he would put it, with some hilarious story or another, usually at his own expense. And on the other side of that table, I can feel myself sitting there. I can feel my anticipation as he speaks. I can feel my own conversational gears whirring. It is dim in that room over that plate of fries, but we are bright with the life in us. Our futures are before us. We know that, even if we don’t know precisely what that means.
I love that illusion. I’m not sure I want to give it up for ten minutes at a cocktail party where everyone is trying to cram their longing into the same tiny space. If Frank and I can’t be in each other’s lives---and we live too far apart for that---I want to be who we were. Besides, I’m sure he couldn’t carry me up three flights of stairs anymore.
We are not who we were when we were eighteen, but the ways in which we shaped one another live on in each of us. That’s something like immortality.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Long March

Continuing my practice of being the last in the land to see certain movies, I’ve just watched “Lincoln.” I put off seeing it because I thought it would be depressing—millions of dead boys, one dead president. It wasn’t what I expected.

For me, perhaps because I am trained as a lawyer and still love legal analysis, it was a lawyer's movie, a forceful argument for how the law moves forward, for how civil society (which depends on the rule of law) progresses. The process is messy, corrupt, virtuous, agonizing and, in the case of the Thirteenth Amendment, triumphal.

We don’t suppose that politics today is as rough and tumble as when Lincoln used his war powers to confiscate Southern slaves and free them and then bought the last few votes needed in the House of Representatives to codify their freedom before, as he feared might happen, the war ended and the judicial branch set aside his Emancipation Proclamation. We don’t suppose Congressmen today want other men to remain in bondage. We take for granted two things many of them (perhaps most of them) feared: suffrage for blacks and women. We are more civilized now.
We are not at war, literally, among ourselves. There is that. But the hostility and contempt endure. We are godless socialists to our political rivals or, from the other point of view, sanctimonious plutocrats. Congress is as contentious and corrupt as ever. The Tea Party wants everyone’s head. There hasn’t been an actual political duel in a while, but I’m sure Mitch McConnell would pull out a flintlock pistol if he could; he probably has one in a trophy case at home. Rand Paul would be happy for everyone in government to just go home.
I get discouraged by the state of politics today. Apparently I need not. If we can survive what Lincoln went through, what he died for, we can survive the current siege of hypocritical filibusters. We can survive the current Court’s interpretation of the Second Amendment. We can survive the fiscal imprudence of our big-hearted attempt to give the least among us the dignity of subsistence income, health care and education.
We are not all created equal. Some are born rich, others poor, some healthy, others disabled. Don’t even get me started on athletic ability and musical talent. What we mean, I think, by that wishful sentiment, is that it must not be the place of government to prefer some of us over others, to give advantage to some and impediment to others.
We have not yet achieved the lofty goal of equality, but we get closer with every generation. Like Lincoln’s push for the Thirteenth Amendment, our progress wends its tedious and frightful way around sinkholes of corruption and over barricades of privilege. We press on. We cannot see what lies ahead, as Lincoln reminded us, but we must go forward as best we can. We must gain what ground we may today, remembering who we are and what others before us have sacrificed so that we may have our chance to do better for one another.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Backs to the Wall

I’m in Cambridge, MA, sitting in a coffee shop at table near a window. I’m facing the window, with my back to the crowd, because the bench on the other side of the table is too low for typing. Almost involuntarily, my chair is migrating, inching around the table until, at last, I am on one side of the table, with my side to the crowd. From there, I can see everyone in my peripheral vision. That’s good enough. I stop fidgeting, mentally and physically, enough to write this piece.

For as long as I can remember, in any room, in any situation, if at all possible I sit with my back to the wall. I don’t like to hang out where I can’t see who might be coming at me. It’s as reflexive as smiling at cute children or avoiding groups of loitering men on dark nights.

At lunch yesterday, a good friend of Meg’s, Jenn DuChene, who runs a preschool in New Hampshire for four and five year olds, told stories about her children that reminded me that I’ve probably always had these instincts. She said that with the boys every stick on the playground is a weapon (for play). The boys can be kind and nurturing, too, she said, but competition is their default mode.
Jenn’s boys make me think of Kim Jong Un of North Korea, who is, in many ways, still a boy himself. He’s got his rocket stick and he’s waving it around. It doesn’t seem like he is playing. Darwin is whispering to him, and no one has taught him to control his atavistic instincts. He needs a little time in Jenn’s class to learn to play well with others.
He’s not going to get that, at least not from his sycophantic countrymen. I don’t know if the U.S., or even China, can give him a time out to make him think twice about his bullying. We’ll see.
Personally, I’ve been thinking lately, as Kim ratchets up his bellicose rhetoric and positions his missiles, that we ought to just whack the idiot. Why wait around for him to carry out his insane threats? I guess we don’t want to be the ones to start a nuclear war on the Korean peninsula. But still, it does make me wonder how much threat a civilized world ought to have to accept before it acts preemptively. Look where appeasement got us with Hitler. Bullies seem to need to test limits, to see just how weak others are, how much lunch money or land they can take before they are punished.
Is Kim just acting out un-socialized instincts? Is he a sad little man who needs a hug? Maybe. But when he’s wielding bombs, hugs are hard to give. What do we do now?
Jenn probably knows the answer. Or Debbie Roth (the female Mr. Rogers who was Chris’s and Nick’s kindergarten teacher). Or my sister, Elizabeth Page, who ran a preschool for poor children in D.C. for many years. They spend their days helping boys learn to manage their aggressiveness. Our prisons are full of young men who didn’t have their gentle emotional shaping. Nations are rocked by the violence of men who never had their guidance.

I don’t know what to do about Kim Jong Un, but I do know this: we need more Jenns and Debbies and Elizabeths in our children’s lives. Without them, we would all be spending a lot more time with our backs to the wall.