Give me an R! Give me an A!

Dear Joel,

Some high school girls--some beautiful blonde-haired, white cheerleaders–in the public school district where I live here in Utah have made national news recently for posting a video of themselves chanting “F—- N—-” on Instagram. The school district has claimed to be “shocked,”–just shocked!–at the incident.

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Last year around this time, some lovely white women from Arkansas State University, where I teach, made the news for showing up to a sorority event dressed as cholas and wearing t-shirts that looked like a brick wall as part of a “Build The Wall” costume, referencing Donald Trump’s xenophobic plan to wall of Mexico.  Responding to the charge that her behavior was racist, student Samantha Overby demonstrated a frighteningly stupid, bratty interpretation of the First Amendment when she announced both that “I have the right to my opinion and the right to express those opinions publicly” and “I will not be criticized for my political opinion” in the same Tweet. A-State declined to comment on the matter.

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And last November, the University of Kansas saw a cheerleader post an image of three men from the spirit quad some in KU sweatshirts signaling support for the KKK in a pro-Trump Snapchat post.

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I’m starting to see a pattern:

I live among racists–whatever part of that country I live in.

Young white people are so entitled that they cannot envision that they will face backlash for being publicly racist.

I don’t know if racism is worse among the cheerleading/sorority sister types, but these three cases are a good reminder that poor rural whites aren’t our real problem. It’s middle class suburbanites. 




When “complicity” = “listen to women”

Content warning: violence in racist and sexualized contexts.

Dear Joel and Rebecca,

Last week Marshall, a movie about an early episode in Thurgood Marshall’s path towards the Supreme Court, arrived in theaters. His life brings general (white) awareness to many opportunities to rectify injustices.  I think it’s relevant to Joel’s responses to Hollywood’s big release the week before: the latest episode of “men in control of women’s lives do bad things to them” (Harvey Weinstein et al).


Above, Marshall, our first African American Supreme Court Justice, was the grandson of a slave. Prior to his appointment to the Court, he’d argued more than 32 cases there, including Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which recognized that “separate but equal” is “inherently unequal.” Of those 32 cases, he won 29. 

I am grateful for the sisterhood that finally ended Weinstein’s reign of terror. I am also grateful for the male actors who have talked about assaults that use sexualized behaviors to say to them “remember, I own you.” It’s not about sex, it’s about power over others’ bodies.

We talk about the problems of putting boundaries on sexual behavior and increased racist attacks, behaviors exemplified in national leadership. We are puzzled that the block of swing voters in the 2016 presidential election were people like me: white middle-upper class educated church-going women. We like to dream of a country not troubled by race questions, safe for all children. The release at this time of Marshall, which focuses on Thurgood Marshall’s defense of a black chauffer in Connecticut accused of raping and then trying to murder his wealthy white employer, gently reminds us that these are still interlocking problems. If we insist the starting point is the safety of (our) white women and children, we have not entered the beloved community. The communal danger of sexual assaults is not that they are sins of lust, but that they are life-denying sins of pride and power.

Is this easier to see in other issues? What complicates relief for victims of sexualized war crimes–people who live in communities where everyone is hungry? What complicates advocacy for women kept in domestic slavery–women mostly unable to access help because they don’t have legal residency status? What’s the biggest challenge to “pro-family” missions into U.S. and Canadian reserves and ghettos–places where neighboring areas value lives less than cattle or cars? If we prioritize talk about sex over talk about power and privilege, we mess up.

The loudest protests against non-heterosexual relationships seem to happen in the same circles that struggle to challenge heterosexual pedophiles. That’s not coincidence. It’s not about sex, it’s about keeping closed the circle of who holds power.

When our white daughters put in the work to hold colleges accountable to Title IX, they are sometimes told to note their relative privilege and not distract from racial equity efforts. This argument only lasts as long as you can believe that minority students are assaulted less often and need less help accessing protection. Wouldn’t privilege look more like our white daughters using their resources for themselves and ignoring the problems of those who have less access to power? It does get uncomfortable when our children start using their own analyses of power.

This is NOT an issue of compartmentalizing attacks on women.  Marshall starts with both men and women upholding the account of a woman’s assault. Thurgood Marshall is on the other side. I’m not spoiling any suspense by noting that it’s about a case of a black man unjustly accused by a white woman.

Above, Kate Hudson’s Eleanor Strubing takes the witness stand to accuse Joseph Spell, played by Sterling K. Brown, of assaulting her. 

This still happens, all the time. Yes. It’s another side of “the talk” many African American boys get as they attempt to maneuver our white supremacist culture. They can get lynched just as quickly for being accused of making a white woman uncomfortable as they can for “frightening” a cop. White discomfort triggers disproportionate violence, even when the complainant isn’t aware of the racist way it plays out.

I participated in racism when I didn’t challenge the priorities of my sisters in the church as they approached the ballot box: the violence of the regime closely follows their priorities. All the actions in D.C. that bother me have a common goal of clarifying power. Some are directed against women, some excuse whites or empower the wealthy. I can’t isolate women’s issues.

It’s not about protecting the women, folks. It’s about recognizing that naked power is the real danger to us all.


Deb Bergen is a child psychiatrist in West Virginia (where she listens to the survivors of the opioid epidemic and capitalist oppression), mom of 2 young adult children (who have taught her wiser ways of listening), wife of a pastor/Old Testament prof (who listens to and sustains her), dual citizen of Canada and U.S. (doubled opportunities to learn White history).


8 Reasons for Hope

Dear Joel,

I’m taking up your challenge to find reasons to feel hopeful. And, as much as I love look at pictures of baby Highland cattle, they’re not enough. So, on this Tuesday, I’ll share some things in the world that are genuinely giving me hope.

  • Millennials. They’re shaking up our economy in some of the best ways: hurting the diamond industry, rejecting cars, closing Hooters. They smoke and drink less than previous generations, are deeply connected to their parents, are civic-oriented, love their gay friends and neighbors and selves, are less likely than previous generations to get pregnant before they’re married, and don’t cheat on their spouses nearly as often as their grandparents did. Let them have their avocado toast and liquid soapthey’re befuddled by ancient prejudices, and they’re going to do what you and I were supposed to do when we were young: rock the vote. And they can do it because they are, demographically speaking, huge.
  • Divorce rates are down. Unplanned pregnancy rates are down. Abortion rates are down. Drunk driving rates are down. Crime rates are down. Murder rates are down. We’re doing measurably better in a lot of ways.
  • The world is less violent than it’s probably ever been.
  • The mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico is a hero.

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Above, Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz stands waist-deep in water to help victims of climate change impacted by Hurricane Irma. 

Image result for uncle moneybags equifaxAbove, Amanda Werner attended the Congressional hearings into Equifax’s bad behavior. She was dressed in a monocle and top hat and worse a white mustache to invoke the image of Rich Uncle Pennybags from Monopoly. I hope she will be my friend one day IRL. 

  • Progressives are winning. Chokwe Antar Lumumbe is the new mayor of Jacksonville, Mississippi. He’s working to make Jackson “the most radical city on the planet.” Jackson. Mississippi. The one way down South.  And I believe he can do it, because he has a message of real democracy. And he’s explicit that the larger goal, beyond caring for the people who he serves, is to change electoral politics. And in Birmingham, Alabama, which has recently found new and legal ways to segregate by race, Randall Woodfin recently unseated a two-term incumbent. Woodfin is a straight up progressive, who ran on a platform of improving basic services while expanding social services. Both Lumumbe and Woodfin use the language of “people first”--straight up appeals to progressive voters. And they won because young people and people of color are doing tremendous work to make our democracy stronger.

Good Guy Delusions and Las Vegas Shooting Conspiracy Theories

Dear Joel,

You have seen the Las Vegas shooting hoax and conspiracy theory internet posts? The gist of them is: It didn’t happen. It’s a false flag operation to gin up efforts to take away guns from law-abiding citizens. It wasn’t possible for one person to get that many guns to his hotel room undetected. It wasn’t possible for him to plan an attack that was so sophisticated. He couldn’t have circumvented the tight security of a casino. He couldn’t have gotten through the glass in his hotel window. A regular person couldn’t operate a gun that efficiently.

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Above, a meme articulating doubts about the Las Vegas shooting. I’ve lopped off the shooter’s head, which appears in the original. 

I don’t want to stereotype wingnuts, but the spots where I’ve tracked these posts are on Deplorable forums. Many of the posters are also believers in the “good guy with a gun myth”–the idea that if more of us were armed, we’d be safer. Bad guys wouldn’t even start something because they know they’d get shot down. (This ignores the fact that many mass shooters commit suicide at the end of their rampages; they’re not afraid of dying.) If they do, then good guys with guns will stop them. (This is demonstrably incorrect, but never mind that now.) There was no good guy with a gun who could have stopped Stephen Paddock, of course. At thirty some stories above the crowd, he was safe from every open-carrying Nevadan in the state.

I’m intrigued (okay, maybe disheartened is a better word) that people who don’t believe a mass murderer could commit a mass murder with a gun think that a good guy with a gun could prevent one. Somehow, these folks believe that they could, armed with a handgun, heroically kill a gunman without killing anyone else by accident (even though police miss their targets nearly 90% of the time in high stress situations), but they don’t believe that one person with 47 weapons can kill or wound more than 500 people within a matter of seconds.

I’m not sure what the corrective to this is. Better physics education? Mandatory classes in risk analysis and the psychology of self-delusion before you get to buy a gun? Verbally berating people to lower the misplaced self-confidence of significant portions of the population?




Guns in the Hands of Entitled Men

Dear Joel,

I’ve been thinking about those 47 guns that Stephen Paddock legally purchased prior to his massacre of concert-goers in Las Vegas last week. In our search for “red flags,” that is a powerful one.

When I was a child, we had a rule at our house that might seem mean or silly but that serves us well: We didn’t collect things. This made sense for our family. We were poor and lived in tight quarters. We didn’t have money or room for stacks of baseball or (for my younger siblings) Pokemon cards, Beanie Babies or My Little Ponies. (The exception to this was books–I don’t think my parents ever said no to a Scholastic Book Order request, even when I chose junky titles.) With this rule in place, we had a good defense against advertising and competitive consumption, and I never felt the urge to go buy something because it had just come out or would complete my collection. More importantly, we also appreciated our fewer things, and there is real peace that comes from that–from knowing how to be content with enough.

Which might be why, even today, there are few things that I own 47 or more of. Books and music, and that’s it, and I definitely get pleasure out of them proportionate to their space and cost. But nothing else. I don’t have 47 pairs of shoes or 47 shirts or scarves. I don’t have 47 pieces of kitchen gear (which I could easily do if I didn’t practice being content with enough) or pieces of flatware, though we like to host dinner.

So 47 guns–ranging from $5,000-$10,000 each–doesn’t make sense to me. Even if you like a thing–like I like kitchen knives or spices–you can’t make use of 47 of them. They either duplicate each other in function or don’t perform with distinctions that are meaningful in most circumstances.

Perhaps the same reason that prompts a person to own four houses and two planes?

When gun rights opponents try to find reasons why we shouldn’t regulate gun ownership more carefully, they point to “evil”: evil individuals or a “godless” culture. They don’t point, though, to the entitlement of shooters, tied up in their masculinity, of the sense that the world owes them something (usually women but also money and fame).

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Above, a screenshot from the website of Dixie GunWorkx, in St. George, Utah, where Paddock was a customer. The copy next to the picture of a gun says, “Why get a suppressor [silencer]? Because you can!” 

I think that 47 guns is a sign of a dangerous entitlement. That makes it a warning sign and something worth noting in the first place.


Kansas Mennonite challenges state law demanding she sign a statement refusing to boycott Israel


Some breaking news we’re going to be talking a lot about, I suspect: A Kansas Mennonite is suing the state over her right to participate in a boycott of Israeli goods.

The issue is complex, but here is the quick version: Kansas law, like laws in twenty-other states, prohibits the state from entering into contracts with individuals or companies that participate in the boycott of Israel. Koontz, who is a friend of mine and someone I respect very much, is an outstanding public school teacher in Wichita who also works as a teacher trainer. When she recently went to sign her contract to serve as a teacher trainer, she was confronted with a requirement that she sign off on a statement that she’s not participating in a boycott of Israel.


Above, Esther Koontz, who is bringing a case against the state of Kansas for its demand that she sign a pledge that she won’t participate in a boycott of Israel. 

Esther Koontz can’t in good conscience do it. She’s a member of a Mennonite church, and her husband is a pastor. MCUSA decided at this summer’s convention to sell its assets in contested areas of Israel-Palestine. The United Church of Christ has made a similar move.

But the issue isn’t just Mennonites’ interest in peace and human rights. There is also the issue of free speech, which is the ACLU’s angle. Shares Esther:

“You don’t need to share my beliefs or agree with my decisions to understand that this law violates my free speech rights. The state should not be telling people what causes they can or can’t support….I’m disappointed that I can’t be a math trainer for the state of Kansas because of my political views about human rights across the globe.”

The central argument here is that the state can’t use its power to mandate that we engage in particular kinds of speech–or punish us for participating in others. It’s not hard to understand. We have the right to use our voices–and our voice includes our political support for BDS–without losing our ability to work for the state. We don’t have to sign loyalty oaths to the US–and certainly not to a foreign country.

The case, Koontz v. Watson, was reported in the Washington Postand it will likely earn Esther–as well as her church–hate mail and accusations of anti-Semitism that will hurt them.  I’d encourage our readers who support the right of individuals to exercise their religious conscience even through economic boycotts to write to your state representatives (especially if you are in Kansas); donate to the ACLU, which has taken up this case; and keep Esther, her family, her co-workers, and her church in your prayers.

And if you are in a similar position as Esther, consider how else you might be able to show solidarity with her.


PS. Kansas used to require that state employees sign a loyalty oath to the state, too. It was a bad idea then–and the courts called it unconstitutional. I’m hopeful we’ll see a similar outcome here.

Handbook of the Bible in America now available

Dear Readers,

If there is any chance that some of you want to read MORE of me writing about the Religious Right, you can find it in the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of the Bible in America. No spoilers, but you’ll get to read about David Barton, Christian Dominianism, Ted Cruz, and the origins of Thanksgiving–plus essays by top scholars in American religious studies. It’s a hefty 728 pages, but editor Paul Gutjahr has given us a readable, engaging guide to understanding how Americans have taken up the Bible across our history.


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