Bag o’ Books: ‘Heartland’ by Sarah Smarsh


Three thoughts about ‘Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in he Richest Country on Earth

• I’m biased. Sarah Smarsh and I both wrote for the website back in the aughts before our careers took us separate places. I knew from her previous writing that this book would be smart and incisive on matters of income inequality. What I didn’t expect: That it would be so beautiful. It’s possible to have lived through tough times and circumstances and still find moments and ideas worth preserving. The tone here could be rueful; it’s elegaic.

• Lots of people think being poor is a choice, but lots of poor folks have that choice thrust upon them: It’s easier to graduate high school, for example, if you aren’t hungry, or if you get to go to just one high school. But if you move from school to school to school — Smarsh was in eight schools by ninth grade — it’s harder to have the stability most people need to find success. Smarsh has become a success, but she’s too smart to believe that because she made it out it’s a simple matter for most folks. She’s the exception rather than the rule.

• I won’t lie. I felt a sense of dread during the reading of most of this. Why? Because I expect 2019 to bring a recession. Because my line of work — freelance writing — has brought me some success and yet feels very tenuous. I want to give my son the chance to be successful. I worry how close I am, how close most of us who are in the middle class or self-identify with a middle class mentality, actually are to living a life that combines hard work, deprivation and insecurity. I’m terrified that Smarsh’s past is the future for many Americans. I’m terrified it’s the future I’m going to give my family.

Facebook, living and community

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About a week ago, I deleted my Facebook account.

I didn’t deactivate it. I deleted it. (The decision came after report Facebook was sharing contents of users’ private messages with outside companies — a privacy breach too far fo me.) Which means, in a few weeks, I’ll forever lose access to  a dozen years of posts, comments, photos and — most importantly — my sole means of contact to many friends and acquaintances.

I haven’t missed it much. In fact, I’ve finished two novels that I’ve been reading forever, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. It’s not just that Facebook filled in the corners of my free time; I’d fallen into a spiral where it was easy for me to jump between Facebook and Twitter for an entire evening, screwing around for no good reason. My brain couldn’t slow down enough for a novel.

The problem, of course, is that I still have a blog — hi everyone! — to promote, as well a various other things I write. Facebook can be helpful with promoting and distribution of written ideas and opinion.

So, a question for you: How can we develop a 606 community without necessarily being reliant on Facebook for distribution?

Mennonites, in my experience, are all about developing sustainable paths. The same should be true of our online lives, as well.




Reading: Republicans no longer believe honesty is all that important

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Well, then:

 In 2007, an Associated Press-Yahoo poll found 71 percent of Republicans saying it is “extremely important” for presidential candidates to be honest, similar to 70 percent of Democrats and 66 percent of independents. The new Post poll shows identical shares of Democrats and independents prioritizing honesty in presidential candidates, but the share of Republicans who say honesty is extremely important has fallen to 49 percent, 22 points lower than in the AP-Yahoo poll.

I think some of my Trump-supporting friends believe they can support him and maintain their own character despite his clear moral degradation. Here’s a piece of evidence that suggests otherwise.

Under ‘just war’ theory, the war in Yemen is a moral disaster

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Providence Magazine’s mission is to apply right-wing Christian ethics to matters of foreign policy. The magazine’s co-editor, Mark Tooley, writes he recently got into an argument about the ethics of America’s support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen — the same war the U.S. Senate astoundingly rebuked this week — and concludes that Christian pacifists are morally unserious.

American Christian commentators can preach smug, condemning bromides. Or they can, if they are more serious, labor to apply the historical church’s vast ethical resources to complex geopolitical challenges for which there are usually no comfortable answers.

He doesn’t reference “just war” theory by name, though I assume that’s what he’s referring to. Technically, the theory is supposed to offer an obstacle to wanton warmaking — if you’re a Christian, you can only conduct a war under certain conditions — but I suspect that it doesn’t really work that way: Is there a war that America has refused to undertake because advocates conceded it didn’t meet just war criteria?

Let’s do what Tooley does, though, and apply the theory to Yemen. How does it stand up?

Just war theory is split into two parts — one that governs the reasons for going to war, the other that governs conduct in war. My friend Damon Linker one time summed up the six criteria for going to war thusly:

The war must be undertaken with the intention of establishing a just peace. It must be defensive. It must be aimed at protecting the innocent against unjust aggression. It must have a reasonable chance of success. It must be declared and waged by a competent governing authority. And it must be undertaken as a last resort. If the war meets these six criteria, it can be considered morally justified.

Let’s look at a couple of these items:

• It must be declared and waged by a competent governing authority.

How is such an authority defined? “A just war must be initiated by a political authority within a political system that allows distinctions of justice. Dictatorships (i.e. Hitler’s Regime) or a deceptive military actions (i.e. the 1968 US bombing of Cambodia) are typically considered as violations of this criterion. The importance of this condition is key. Plainly, we cannot have a genuine process of judging a just war within a system that represses the process of genuine justice. A just war must be initiated by a political authority within a political system that allows distinctions of justice.”

The war in Yemen being prosecuted largely by the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It is a dictatorship — one that recently had an opponent living abroad assassinated and dismembered. There are few people outside Saudi Arabia who would argue the monarchy serves the cause of genuine justice.

• It must have a reasonable chance of success.

The war is nearly four years old. It is a stalemate. Everybody believes they can win a war at the outset. But at this point, any “reasonable chance of success” is remote. The longer a war drags on, the less justifiable it becomes under just war theory.

• It must be aimed at protecting the innocent against unjust aggression. 

The war in Yemen is mostly about geopolitical posturing by outside powers. You should read this easy explainer of the war if you don’t understand what’s involved, but here’s the key point for our purposes:

Alarmed by the rise of a group they believed to be backed militarily by regional Shia power Iran, Saudi Arabia and eight other mostly Sunni Arab states began an air campaign aimed at restoring Mr Hadi’s government. The coalition received logistical and intelligence support from the US, UK and France.

The innocent are neither here nor there, it seems. The old aphorism is that “war is politics by other means” and that seems to be the case here. You can think that Saudi Arabia is preferable to Iran. But that doesn’t conform to just war theory.

These are just the justifications for war. There’s also a set of criteria for how the war is conducted.

The big one, for our purposes is called “discrimination.” Basically, civilians aren’t combatants and thus should be spared the pains of war as much a humanly possible. And it’s here, perhaps, that the war in Yemen falls most disastrously short of being just.

From August:

GENEVA — The military coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in Yemen has killed thousands of civilians in airstrikes, tortured detainees, raped civilians and used child soldiers as young as 8 — actions that may amount to war crimes, United Nations investigators said in a report issued Tuesday.

The report singled out Saudi and Emirati airstrikes for causing the most civilian casualties, saying they had hit residential areas, markets, funerals, weddings, jails, boats and medical facilities.

“There is little evidence of any attempt by parties to the conflict to minimize civilian casualties,” said Kamel Jendoubi, the chairman of the panel of experts that produced the report.

From November:

<p”>The announcement by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis at the Pentagon came on the heels of a statement by the aid agency Save the Children on Wednesday that underscored the harrowing nature of the conflict: An estimated 85,000 children might have died of hunger since the bombings began in 2015.

Experts say Yemen has become the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, and 14 million people could soon be on the brink of starvation,according to the United Nations.

“For every child killed by bombs and bullets, dozens are starving to death — and it’s entirely preventable,” Tamer Kirolos, Save the Children’s country director in Yemen, said in the statement. “Children who die in this way suffer immensely as their vital organ functions slow down and eventually stop.”

I’m not as familiar with just war theory as I should be, admittedly. But it sure appears that even a cursory application of its principles finds the Saudi war in Yemen wanting — and thus the U.S. support of that war unjustifiable.

Mr. Tooley is right: The world is complex. Aphorisms don’t always match the complexity of a problem. But sometimes these matters are simpler than they seem. The war in Yemen is a moral disaster — truth, whether or not you bring the “historical church’s vast ethical resources” to bear, or not.

Readings: What’s missing from the ‘Slave Bible’

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Wow. From NPR:

On display now at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., is a special exhibit centered on a rare Bible from the 1800s that was used by British missionaries to convert and educate slaves.

What’s notable about this Bible is not just its rarity, but its content, or rather the lack of content. It excludes any portion of text that might inspire rebellion or liberation.

“This can be seen as an attempt to appease the planter class saying, ‘Look, we’re coming here. We want to help uplift materially these Africans here but we’re not going to be teaching them anything that could incite rebellion.’ ” Schmidt says. “Coming in and being able to educate African slaves would prepare them one day for freedom, but at the same time would not cause them to seek it more aggressively.”

Read the whole thing. Shocking, but not surprising.

Part of my journey away from full participation in the church came while watching Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” while I was an undergraduate at a Mennonite college. A sudden realization occurred, that black people had often experienced Christianity as a tool by white people to oppress them. Seems like a no-brainer maybe, but at 19 — in that context — it was mind-blowing. Why wouldn’t black people reject a religion used to hurt them? And what kind of God would punish people who rejected his One True Religion on the basis of how it injured them on this earthly plain? I couldn’t find answers to the questions that seemed both just and theologically orthodox. Justice seemed to be the higher calling.

We don’t cut whole passages from the Bible anymore in order to preserve white supremacy. Not literally, anyway. But maybe we still do this in our hearts.

Readings: Art museums are the gift that keeps on giving

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Co-sign this piece from the Washington Post:

Here’s a holiday gift idea: Take someone you love to an art museum.

Just go. Take your mom. Take your husband. Take your girlfriend.

Meet them there, or catch the train in together. And remember: No pressure. It’s not like a play or a movie or a concert, which your companion might like but might just as easily hate, leaving you both stuck in your seats, and you feeling responsible. You can walk out of a gallery any time.

Last year, we used some of our Christmas money to purchase a family membership to the Nelson-Atkins museum in Kansas City. It’s a fabulous institution. The membership enabled us to see special exhibitions featuring everything from Depression-era photographers to Napoleonic-era art. I featured the photography in a SixOh6 post earlier this year:

These pictures were taken all within the lifetimes of my grandparents. It’s both forever ago and just that close. The conditions that millions of Americans were living in — in makeshift shacks, built from mud or items rummaged from the trash, or simply not having enough to eat an being required to flee across the country in hopes they’d find some way to make a living — are those we associate, in modern America, with “third world countries or with pre-modern ways of living in our own. Truth is: What we think of us civilization — of a largely middle-class society, anyway — is both recent and fragile.

An art museum need not be that weighty – there’s lots of fun you can have there. But the membership was a gift that kept on giving.

Football and forgiveness at Liberty University

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Checking in on football at Liberty University, the evangelical Christian college founded and run by the Falwell family. What’s going on with the team?

Former Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze has agreed to become Liberty‘s new football coach, sources told ESPN on Friday.

Say, why’s he a “former” coach?

At the time of Freeze’s resignation, Rebels athletic director Ross Bjork told ESPN that school officials found a pattern that included phone calls to a number associated with a female escort service.

Bjork separately told ESPN that once university officials dived deeper into Freeze’s phone records on a university-provided cellphone, going back as far as shortly after he was hired in 2012, they started finding more of a pattern with phone calls of the nature USA Today had earlier reported after an open-records request.

Guess who hired him?

Former Baylor athletic director Ian McCaw, who resigned in wake of the school’s sexual assault scandal, is Liberty’s athletic director.

Want to know something weird?

Ian McRary, Baylor’s Title IX officer from February 2015 to January 2016, was hired by Liberty in February 2016 as associate general counsel. Ian McCaw, Baylor’s former athletic director, was appointed AD at Liberty in November 2016. McCaw quickly hired Todd Patulski, his assistant athletic director at Baylor, as the Liberty athletic department’s associate athletic director and chief financial officer. McCaw, Patulski and McRary had all left their jobs at Baylor amid the investigation into that school’s handling of sexual abuse and assault allegations; administrators were accused in one of many resulting lawsuits with having “created a hunting ground for sexual predators to freely prey upon innocent, unsuspecting female students, with no concern of reprisal or consequences.” Not all the alleged rapists at Baylor were athletes, but the athletic department under McCaw and Patulski was viewed as the epicenter of the assault epidemic.

So. I don’t want to be glib about the possibilities of forgiveness and redemption where sexual sins are concerned. Still, it’s weird that Liberty — which is dearly, deeply committed to its conservative Christian identity — apparently routinely elevates men with these kinds of public histories, at least where football and sports are concerned.

I wonder what it tells the women on campus?