Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Back Story 6: Abortion and Homosexuality

No one will deny that Calvin College is a pretty conservative place, and that the majority of the students are fairly right wing. So you would think that I would get a lot more negative responses to my articles, but in fact every week the letters to the editor would be taking issue with Giessel’s articles, and not with mine. I don’t know why this is. Maybe it is true what they say about the minority always being the most vocal. (Actually Bork and Buma did get some letters, but they can probably tell their story better than me).

In fact, if we take into account the fact that the response to my editorial on Jesse Jackson was never printed (see previous post), the only written response I ever got to anything was to my crossroads piece on abortion. All the articles I wrote, and the only time someone ever got offended strongly enough to write in was the article on abortion.

With that track record you’d think I’d be pretty satisfied, but I was pretty upset to see Nick’s letter questioning my figures on abortion rates.

Everyone knows that in any political debate that goes on there are a lot of statistical games. We played into that a bit at Crossroads. I would spend a couple hours researching on the Internet, and I would pull out all the facts and statistics that supported my side, and leave out everything else. Giessel would do the same thing on his side.

Now if my piece on abortion had run unopposed as an editorial, I could understand why someone would get upset. But it ran as a Crossroads piece. It wasn’t as if the other side was not represented. If you didn’t like my numbers, you could go across the page and look at Giessel’s figures.
Okay, so we were playing number games with an issue that was important to a lot of people, and I shouldn’t have been surprised that someone took issue with this. But instead of attempting to return to reason, and quoting some mainstream numbers, Nick takes issue with only my figures, and then returns with more right wing numbers quoted from a blatantly biased source. To me this was in effect saying, “I don’t even want to hear the other side of this debate. How dare you quote numbers that don’t come from a pro-life advocacy group.”

Ironically enough, the figures that Nick took issue with were not cited from a far left organization, but came from a pamphlet put together by a Calvin professor. My girlfriend had attended a lecture by this professor, and I had obtained the pamphlet through her. Although I did cite only the numbers that supported my argument, and left out all the other numbers, the source itself could not be more credible.

I guess I could have avoided all this if I would have cited my source the first time. But we were all, Giessel’s side as well as ours, lazy about citing sources at Crossroad. (This would of course get us into trouble again later with the Rehnquist piece.)

I dashed out an angry response to Nick’s letter, saying that I had gotten all the figures from a handout from a Calvin professor, and I said I hope Nick would be more careful with his statistics in the future. I handed it into Baxter at Chimes, and carried a copy of that response with me for the rest of the day. Whenever someone would say, “Hey Joel, you took a bit of a hit in the Chimes today, didn’t you?”, I would simply pull out my response and show it.

My girlfriend did something I would never have thought to do, which was to e-mail the professor in question and make sure he was okay with my referencing him. The professor responded that he had read my article, but had not recognized any of my figures and did not want to be referenced in connection with them. I responded by sending an e-mail to him which outlined which of his statistics I had used, how I had used them, and what Nick’s response had been. The professor invited me to meet with him to discuss this.

The professor compared the statistics. “I said in my handout that the number of illegal abortions prior to 1973 was between 200,000 and 1.2 million annually,” he said, looking over his materials. “You wrote in your article that ‘some estimate that illegal abortion was as high as 1.2 million’, and you ignored the lower number. Now that’s perfectly legitimate to do when you are writing an opinion piece, but then you have to realize that you opened the door for him to come in with these other statistics from the other side. Of course these numbers he’s quoting are ridiculously low. His source seems to be highly partisan. But if you had quoted the whole range of numbers at the beginning, you might have avoided this.”

The professor gave me permission to cite him by name, although he expressed the concern I’d end up dragging him into the argument as well. (Although in the end this proved to be an unfulfilled fear.) He also advised me to be as polite as I possibly could, so I edited down my angry letter and tried to make it more conciliatory. Reading it now, I may have gone too far because it almost sounds sarcastically sweet, but that wasn’t my intention.

Since no one responded further, that was the end of the abortion debate, but that was not the end of my conflicts with Nick. Some time later I was having dinner with my family and my brother, a high school junior at the time, was complaining to me about his Sunday school class. “Some student from Calvin has been teaching our Sunday School class,” my brother said. “His name is Nick. Maybe you know him?”

“Yeah, I know him. Well actually I don’t know him, know him, but I know who he is. He attacked one of my articles in the Chimes.”

“Anyway,” said my brother, “the class is really awful. The whole theme for the past few weeks has been how evil homosexuality is. He’s been saying that our culture has become too tolerant of homosexuality, and we need to recognize how evil it is. He said that homosexuality is the worst sin ever, and that God hates homosexuals.”

Now, I love my brother, but I should probably have known him well enough to keep in mind the possibility that he might have been exaggerating things a little bit. However, after having already crossed swords once with Nick in the pages of Chimes, I was eager to believe he was an extremist Right wing ass-hole, and that everything my brother said about him was true. I assured my brother I would talk to Nick and straighten things out.

The problem was I had never met Nick. However I looked his picture up in the Student Body book, and then tried to pick him out in the student cafeteria during lunch. The first couple days I didn’t have any luck, but then one day I realized he was sitting right behind me. I excused myself from my friends and sat at Nick’s table. Although we had never met, I knew who he was, and he knew who I was.

“Nick, right?”

“Yes. Joel?”

“I understand you’re teaching a Sunday school class in the Church I grew up in.”

“Yes, you’re brothers in my class actually.”

“Yes, I’ve been talking to my brother, and I’m worried that you might be being misinterpreted by your students.” I was trying to be diplomatic. I repeated what my brother had said, and then finished by saying, “now I’m sure you’re not actually saying these things, but I’m concerned that he’s gotten that impression.”

Nick’s eyes were wide with horror. “No, that’s not what I’ve been teaching at all,” he said. “In fact that’s the exact opposite of what I’ve been teaching.” Nick explained to me that he believed the debate on homosexuality was being dominated by the extremists. He wanted to teach the Sunday school class to avoid both the acceptance of homosexuality advocated by the liberal culture, and the hatred of homosexuality advocated by people like Fred Phelps. (Reverend Fred Phelps is perhaps most famous for holding up a “God hates fags” sign at the funeral of Matthew Shepard.) Rather, Nick wanted to teach the class to love homosexuals as people even while condemning the lifestyle as a sin.

Perhaps I should have been satisfied by this response, but I pressed further. “Of course, there is some debate in the church these days,” I said. “Many people don’t think homosexuality should be regarded as a sin anymore. Don’t you think you should present that side to the class as well?” Nick replied that anyone who read the Bible carefully could come to no other conclusion than the sinfulness of homosexuality. “But that’s just your opinion,” I said. “There are other Christians who don’t believe the same as you. Shouldn’t you at least present the other side of the argument to the class?” Nick replied that he didn’t think any true debate existed in the church. We argued this for a bit, I essentially just rephrased my question in different ways, and he repeatedly gave me the same answer. After a while I gave up, thanked him for talking to me, and then left.

I was so focused on correcting the wrongs that perhaps I never gave Nick enough credit as to where he was right. My own conservative up bringing had tacitly encouraged hatred of homosexuals. My teachers and youth pastors never said to me, “You should go hate gay people,” but we were always being pushed in one direction only. My Christian Schoolteachers constantly complained about homosexuality gaining popular acceptance, but no one ever cautioned us against the excessive of the conservative movement. Add to this the natural human tendency to hate anyone who is different, and the tendency of youth to be drawn to the extremes, and it is unsurprising that so many of us grew up hating gays. In high school I participated in a debate in a “Current Events Discussion Class” in which I argued the position that homosexuals should be banned from the military. As we left the class, some of my classmates talked about how they would kill any homosexuals they met, and I felt a certain thrill in the solidarity that we all hated the same people, and that it was okay to hate gays because homosexuality was a sin. I wish I would have had a Sunday school teacher like Nick who wasn’t afraid to draw the line on either side.

But ultimately I believed he was wrong. All of the hate speech that is coming out of the Right is sheltered by the Church’s refusal to accept homosexuality. As long as the church preaches that homosexuality is a sin, it will inspire zealots to hate crimes and violence against homosexuals. It will encourage the religious right to try and impose their narrow idea of morality on the whole nation, and the ongoing attempt to combat homosexuality by legislation.

Also I didn’t view Sunday school as the appropriate forum for these ideas. Having grown up in this church myself, I was not particularly surprised by these classes, but perhaps my familiarity with it increased my anger. In my view, church should be a place where you learn how to try and be a better person. You should learn things like giving money to the poor, or turning the other cheek, or teachings of the bible that you can apply to your life. Church, and Sunday school, should not be places where we train the next generation of culture warriors to fight against the liberals and their message of tolerance. The majority of the Sunday school class was no doubt personally unaffected by the condemnations of homosexuality, and if there were any homosexuals in the class, they must certainly have felt awful about the whole topic.

Finally I was upset because this seemed like a continuation of the Church’s obsession with sex, which I remembered so well from my own middle school and high school days. The church seemed so intent on condemning sexual behavior. Almost every week at Sunday school, or every chapel at my Christian school, would deal with sexual topics. To the church, sex was the ultimate sin. And war was never condemned. War was okay, even honorable for Christians to fight in. I never heard any condemnations from my church of the wars that took place during my lifetime. Growing up, I heard condemnations of pre-marital sex several times a week. And preaching against homosexuality fit very nicely into their pattern.

Having somewhat worked myself up a bit, I sent an angry e-mail to the pastor and youth pastor of my church. E-mail is a dangerous thing, because you can get yourself to write angry things that you would never say in person. And with a click of a button, the e-mail is sent, and any thoughts about re-writing or editing come too late.

Among other ramblings, I said that they now had a responsibility to present the other side of the homosexuality debate to the Sunday school class. I also said they should be careful, because once the students realize they have been lied to, they will never trust them again.

My pastor replied, saying he and the youth pastor would like to take me out to lunch to discuss the issue. I was immediately shamed by the kind way they responded to my angry e-mail. We set a place to meet for lunch, and they discussed the issue with great kindness and patience with me.

Perhaps my experience is not so unique. Anyone who grows up in a conservative environment, and then, when growing up finds themselves struggling against many of the ideas, inevitably finds themselves in a conflict between the ideas they’ve grown to resent so much, and the people who have treated them with so much love and kindness.

Two Christmases ago I experienced the same feelings. I returned from Japan with some of my students, my students were eager to meet Americans their own age. I brought them to the High School Sunday school, and was very touched by the outpouring of hospitality my church gave to my students and me. At the same time, as I sat in on the high school Sunday school class, I found myself strongly disagreeing with everything that was being said.

The Youth pastor was doing a class on comparative religions, which, of course, in a conservative Christian environment is always code for, “let me tell you how wrong the other religions are.” We were talking about Hinduism, and the youth pastor brought up the point about the caste system in India. “Of course the caste system isn’t officially part of Hinduism,” he said, “But if Hinduism was genuinely a religion based on love, then how could such an awful caste system develop in a Hindu country?”

I was very tempted to raise my hand and point out that the holocaust and slave trade had happened in historically Christian countries, but I reminded myself that I was a guest in this class, and that they were doing a huge favor to me by accepting my Japanese students into their class. Although at the end of class, I did feel the need to apologize to my students because their religion of Buddhism was also condemned in harsh terms. Struggling with my limited Japanese so that I would not be understood by the people around me, I managed to tell them not to worry about anything that was said, just regard the whole thing as an interesting cross cultural experience.

But I digress. Back to the lunch.

After some preliminary discussion, my pastor and youth pastor informed me that the church’s official position was that homosexuality was a sin. I debated this with them for a little bit, but nothing was resolved. I was trying to avoid my excesses of earlier, so most of the objections I raised were very timid, and I don’t think I did a good job of articulating myself. Not that it would have mattered anyway. They were standing by the church’s position, and that was that.

In the end we all parted on good terms, respecting each other’s differences. I can’t say I ever became good friends with Nick, but we were on somewhat friendly terms after this. As with Giessel and Waddilove, it’s weird how arguing with someone can make you become friends with them. (I think Matt Lind could comment on this as well).

Reflecting back on the whole incident I find, as with many of things I did in this period of my life, that I could have handled things a whole lot better, but I’m proud I took the stand that I did. At Calvin I knew few homosexuals, but since I’ve gone into the larger world and met and befriended many homosexual people, I’ve always been extremely proud of this incident, even if I handled it with all the tact of an angry child.

But before I pat myself on the back too hard, I should mention that half a year later I was doing my student teaching at an extremely conservative Christian high school, much more conservative than even the one I grew up in. While I was there I heard a lot of “Fred Phelps” style hate talk against homosexuals, but I didn’t speak up because I didn’t think it was my place as a student teaching. I was more concerned with getting through my student teaching than I was about standing up for what I knew was right.

I am pretty sure Nick, who I gave such a rough time for not being as progressive on the issue as I was, would have at least stood up for his beliefs and spoke out against the hate talk if he had been there.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Back Story 5: Odds and Ends

Actually I don’t really have any interesting stories left. So here is a wrap up of all my uninteresting stories. (Or a continuation of uninteresting stories, depending on how you look at it).

First: I think I got more positive feedback from this short letter I wrote in defense of DeRoo than from any thing else I wrote, including all of my long-winded articles. Maybe I should learn something from this…

Second: Shortly after the Jesse Jackson affair broke, Waddilove asked Bork and Buma for space to write an editorial on it. As soon as I heard about it, I asked Bork and Buma for space to write a response to Waddilove’s article.

I had assumed that Waddilove’s editorial would attack Jackson along the same lines that every other conservative commentator was taking, and so I planned my response accordingly. But Waddilove is nothing if not unpredictable, and his attack on Jackson was not what I had been expecting. I asked Bork and Buma to run my response anyway. I edited out any direct reference to Waddilove’s article, and so I thought maybe it could stand on its own. At the same time, however, appearing the week after Waddilove’s, it was obviously meant as some sort of response.

Like Giessel, Waddilove is someone I disagree with most of the time, but still regard as a good friend. I felt a bit bad that I had used his article as a launching point for going in a totally different direction, but I apologized to him over beer and chips at “La Cantina”, and I think he understood.

The following week, Bork and Buma received a response to my article, which made cursory references to my arguments, and then used my article as an excuse for going in another direction entirely. I don’t know if anyone reading this believes in karma, but….

The response, after criticizing me for moral relativism, criticized Jackson by saying that no other ethnic group in America has someone speaking out on their behalf, so why should the African American community have someone like Jackson?

The response was not very complimentary to me, but because I’m a big egotist, I encouraged Bork and Buma to run it for no other reason than it mentioned my name and referenced my article. Bork and Buma in the end decided not to run the article because they thought a third article on the Jesse Jackson affair was overkill, the article ignored most of my arguments and so didn’t make a lot of sense in context, and they felt the article’s vicious attacks on Jackson bordered on race baiting. And they were probably right. So the response to my response never saw the light of publication.

Third: I don’t know if anyone caught this or not, but I actually have two articles on the school voucher issue. Based on this you might think it’s an issue I really feel strongly about, but in both cases I ended up writing the article because no one else was on hand to do it. (Not that I didn’t mean what I said in the articles, it’s just not one of my pet issues that gets me really excited.)

Giessel wanted to do school vouchers as a crossroads piece. The rest of the boys were a bit ambivalent about the issue, so I volunteered to write our side. The following year, when Bork and Buma were editors, the voucher issue was on the Michigan ballet, and the issue was big news again, so they needed someone to write about it again in crossroads.

I agreed to do it, but wanted to re-run my piece from the previous year. I didn’t see any point in re-writing it, since I would just end up saying the same things anyway. There was a brief debate about the ethics of this, but in the end I got my way. I made a few small changes, like adding in some new information and arguments.
Because of the change in the layout of Chimes, I actually had less room than I had the previous year, and I was trying to fit in more information. So I edited out absolutely everything I didn’t think was important, like an introduction, a conclusion, and transition words.

The whole issue of school vouchers also reminds me of one of my favorite Chimes related stories. During the spring of my 4th year at Calvin, Klippe, who was going to be the editor in chief of Chimes the next year, approached me and asked me to be the Chimes perspective editor the following year. I was delighted by the offer, but had to decline because I only had one more semester left at Calvin, and that was Student Teaching. I told Klippe to get in touch with Bork and Buma instead.

But anyway, it is the first time Klippe and I have ever talked. In an attempt to break the ice, Klippe says, “I really enjoy your articles. I think they’re a lot better than the other side. For instance Giessel’s arguments against School Vouchers were absolutely ridiculous.”

“Well thank you,” I say. Pause. “Wait a minute, did you say ‘against School Vouchers?’”


“That was my article. I was the one who wrote against School Vouchers.”

“Oh.” Awkward Silence. “Well then I thought your arguments were absolutely ridiculous.”

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Back Story 4: Bush and the Death Penalty

My fifth year at Calvin, Bork and Buma became the perspectives editors at Chimes, and were very generous with giving me space when an idea occurred to me for an article.

Sometime in late October, Buma said something to me like, “We haven’t had a good controversy at Chimes for a while. Why don’t you write something to really get people upset?”

We tossed around a few ideas, and I came up with the idea of attacking Bush on the death penalty.

It was something I felt strongly about anyway, so it was no problem getting into the issue. Since blacks are more likely to be executed than whites for the same crimes, the death penalty is always a racially charged issue. But this is particularly true of Texas, where white juries love to send black men to their death. And under George W. Bush there were a few cases, most notably that of Gary Graham, where a black man was convicted and executed on the thinnest of evidence. Not only did Bush ignore appeals to issue a stay of execution, he cancelled a press conference to avoid talking about the issue.

The day of Graham’s execution was filled with both protests and counter protests on both sides, again much of it racially charged, including the Ku Klux Klan, which demonstrated by holding up signs thanking Bush for executing Graham. I wanted to use one of these pictures as a graphic with my article, and I was sure this would be something that would cause discussion on campus.

There were a couple issues, one was timing. The week I proposed the article in question I already had another anti-Bush article running in Chimes, and both Buma and I agreed one article an issue was plenty. The following week there was no space, and then the week after was right before the election. It could run the third week, but there was no point in running an article like that after the election.

The problem is that the issue right before the election everyone wants to get their two cents in, and there is not a lot of space. Bork and Buma agreed to run the article, but couldn’t promise me enough space for a large graphic as well.

And then of course there was the issue of whether it was appropriate to have a picture of the Ku Klux Klan in the Chimes. I argued that it was. I wasn’t promoting the Klan; in fact quite the opposite I was using their opinions as a counter-example to the value of the death penalty. Of course a lot of people, prefer not to think about these things, but any discussion of the death penalty would be incomplete without mention of racial factors, and the Ku Klux Klan applauding the execution of a black man should not be brushed under the rug. A black man executed by a white governor while the Ku Klux Klan applauds…In fact the only thing missing is that Bush had Graham killed by lethal injection instead of hanging him from a tree.

And yet, there was still the issue that whoever opened up the Chimes to that page would be confronted by a picture of the Klan. They might not even read the article, but their eyes would see the Ku Klux Klan plastered across the pages of Chimes. In the end, to my great regret, the decision was made to cut the graphic out. Although this decision was made probably as much for reasons of space as anything else. In fact even my article itself had to be severely edited down from what I originally handed in. I regretted this as well, just because I tend to be biased towards my own work, but it did make room for some other great articles, such as Bierma’s piece “hypocritical pro-lifers”, which covered some of the same themes about the way we think about the value of life in politics.

Although my article still contained written parts about the Ku Klux Klan celebrating the execution, I was worried that it would be neutered without the graphic, and wouldn’t cause people to think about the issues in quite the same way. But Buma assured me that, the day the issue came out, he overheard several people complaining about me during the day.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Back Story 3: Liberal versus Republican Debate

The Spring of my senior year, Austin and a couple of other students decided to revive the charter for the Calvin College Democrats. The chapter had not been active since my involvement in it my freshman year.

A lot of people were happy to see the chapter re-started, and the initial meetings were filled with a lot of people. Austin cleverly avoided referring to the group solely as the “Calvin Democrats” but called it “Liberals and Democrats” which appealed to a lot of people, such as myself, who had become disillusioned with the mainstream Democratic Party.

However, like all new clubs and activities, after an initial burst of enthusiasm, the clubs members soon thinned out, and pretty soon the club meetings began to consist only of Austin, Bork, myself, and Giessel. Yes, Giessel, the head of Calvin Republicans.

Giessel liked to keep an eye on what the liberals were up to, so from the first meeting of the club he had one of the best attendance records. But to his credit, he was not one of those people who enjoys screaming at the other side. He behaved himself very well, was extremely polite and welcoming to the new group, and proposed several ideas for increased dialogue on campus between the left and right. One of his ideas was to begin an annual debate between the Campus Republicans and the campus liberals.

As this Chimes article indicates, we liberals more or less got our collective asses kicked on this one, but it wasn’t completely our fault. A large part of it was just that we didn’t know what we were getting into.

Giessel and the Republicans had proposed the debate, and decided the format. Also the moderator was one of the Calvin Republicans. I don’t think they were trying to gain an unfair advantage, but they had a clear idea of what was going to happen, and we didn’t. Giessel tried to explain it to us. “It’s just like the format of the ‘Larry King Show,’” he said. I nodded my head like I understood, but I don’t think I had ever watched the “Larry King Show.”

And it certainly didn’t help our cause any that we allowed Giessel to sit in on all our planning meetings. Again, I don’t think he was trying to gain an unfair advantage; he had just gotten into the habit of coming to all of the “Calvin Liberals” meetings. Ordinarily this was no problem, but when we were discussing our strategy in the debate against him, maybe someone should have suggested it was inappropriate to have him there. I guess we were just too polite. It was a bit bizarre though. Since the meetings were just me, Bork, Austin, and Giessel, it wasn’t like Giessel exactly blended into the crowd. We just more or less pretended he wasn’t there for an hour and a half while we discussed things like what our response would be if the topic of abortion came up, and how we planned to avoid being pigeon holed as big government, and there was Giessel sitting in the whole time absorbing our whole strategy. And that was the only planning meeting we had.

Giessel was going to represent the Republican side, and Austin agreed to represent the Liberals, but reluctantly. Austin was very nervous about getting up on stage all alone, and so insisted Bork and I come up with him for support. The plan was we would sit up on the stage with him and help him prepare his responses to Giessel.

Now I (and I think Austin also) had envisioned something like this: There is a Republican table, and a Liberal table. Giessel is up on stage talking, and Austin, Bork, and I are sitting at the liberal table. I’m scribbling down notes or something, leaning over to whisper something to Austin, or pointing out to him some statistics he can use. Then, Giessel’s time is up, I thrust some papers into Austin’s hand, and he gets a chance to go up and take the microphone and give his response.

But in actuality, the debate functioned more like a free flowing conversation. Giessel and Austin did not give point and counter-point responses like a high school debate team, instead they were more or less just behind their podium talking to each other in sound bites or sentences. Someone would say something, and then the other one would immediately respond to it. There was no down time to discuss strategy with Austin. In fact there wasn’t even a “liberal” table like I had envisioned. La Grand and I (Bork ended up not being able to make it) sat in chairs behind Austin’s podium. I would be flipping through my files and writing down things on paper, and then standing up to hand Austin something, but it was a very unsmooth process. Austin would have to stop whatever he was talking about, take a minute to read what I had written, and then stammer to try and remember what he had been talking about. After the debate Austin told me that I had helped him out a lot, but at the time I got the impression that I was doing nothing more than disrupting his chain of thought. Worse, it made things look like the 3 of us together on the liberal side were no match for Giessel by himself on the Republican side.

The other thing that none of us on the liberal side really understood is that the nature of the debate would just follow wherever the conversation led. For instance I had come prepared with statistics on just about every topic just in case the debate would veer into those areas. Giessel, on the other hand, had come prepared with topics he wanted to steer the debate into. He had even brought props with him. At one point to illustrate the necessity of more funding for the military he took a slide ruler out of his pocket and said, “This is what is being used to design our fighter planes. This is all the technology our military can afford.” I flipped through my files, but I had no figures on slide ruler usage in the military, and it was one of Giessel’s many points we had to let through unopposed. We had come totally on the defensive, with no talking points of our own.

In talking with the Chimes reporter afterwards, I did my best to be gracious and acknowledged that Giessel, to his credit, had done very well as a one man team against the three of us. And although I’m not directly quoted, I think the Chimes analysis of the 3-part team doing more harm than good also came from my comments to the reporter.

I think the fellow liberals in the crowd were pretty disappointed by our performance (again, this comes through in the article). I was sorry we had let them down. I’m not sure how the debate went in following years, or if the liberal team did any better in the years following.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Back Story 2: Me versus the Mosaic Floor

Calvin College has never been a school known for its diversity. It consists overwhelmingly of white Dutch students, and very few faces of color can be seen on the campus. As multiculturalism becomes more and more something that is valued in today’s world, the administration has been doing a lot to try and change Calvin’s image.

One of those efforts is the “Mosaic Community” or multicultural floor. The idea is to take one floor in the dormitory housing, and turn it into an intentional diverse community where students can study multicultural issues.

The thing that made me, and a lot of other Calvin students uneasy was the perception that Calvin was taking most of the minority students and concentrating them all on one floor. Also it didn’t help the perception that the dormitory selected for the Mosaic Community was the dormitory furthest away from the campus center. I think this was done because this was the newest dorm, and had the nicest facilities. Be that as it may, the location only increased the perception that Calvin was taking all the minority students and sending them to the outskirts of campus where they wouldn’t interact with the rest of the student body.

Membership in the Mosaic Community was of course voluntary, but the promotional literature for the Mosaic floor that the college sent out to incoming freshmen gave a lot of people the impression that this was the floor where minorities were supposed to live. The pamphlets all but said, “If you are a minority, this is the place on campus for you.” Many people were concerned that the college was promoting segregation.

By simple virtue of the fact that the floor was voluntary the people who applied to live on the floor were generally people who agreed with its mission. But even among residents and alumni of the floor, I occasionally heard grumblings of dissent. One spring I was talking to someone who lived on the floor, and he was recapping his year there. “It was a good year, and I’m glad I did it,” he said. “But I have a lot of concerns that the floor is isolating minority students. I’m planning on writing a letter to the college and suggesting, that instead of a multicultural floor, they have a multicultural class instead. That way students can take what they learn in the class and bring it back to their different dormitories, and the message of multiculturalism can be spread a lot further than just one floor.”

At another time, I remember talking in a group with a couple students who lived on the floor. Someone in the group said, “The Mosaic Floor is just Calvin’s way of segregating the minority students.”
It was said half as a joke, but the members of the Mosaic floor present, (both minorities) responded, “No, that’s true actually,” and then launched into their complaints about the floor.

But what sticks out in my mind most is some of the conversations I had doing dorm cleaning. I spent 3 summers cleaning dormitories as a summer job. Because this was an “on-campus job”, I worked with a lot of international students who didn’t have work visas to do off campus jobs.

One student in particular from Africa was an incoming freshman. She had moved to America a few months early, but she had not started classes yet or been assigned to a permanent dormitory. During the summer she received the promotional material for the Mosaic floor, and came to work the next day very disturbed.

“Just because I’m black, I have to live on this floor?” she complained. “Can’t I live on any floor I want to just like a normal student?” I and Buma and a few others who were around tried to explain that membership in the Mosaic floor was not mandatory for black students, even though the college made it sound like it was with the promotional materials. Despite our reassurances, she remained quite upset by the whole thing. Then another African student, a sophomore, said he had signed up to live on the Mosaic floor the year before for the same reason. He had assumed, from the promotional material, that, as a black student, the floor was the only place he would be welcomed.

Jump ahead to my senior year. I was in a modern American history class with Bork and Buma. The professor began the class by showing us a film about Kent State. The premise of the film was that the film maker, a baby boomer who had been profoundly affected by the Kent State shootings, went back to the Kent State campus in the 1980s to see how attitudes had changed, and then made a movie lamenting the current climate of apathy on the campus.

A large part of the film focused on how black students at Kent State felt isolated from the rest of the student body, and the white students were too apathetic to care. Walking back from class with Bork and Buma, we agreed there seemed to be parallels with Calvin. And to me, the biggest problem with isolating minorities seemed to be the mosaic floor.

There were a lot of people on Calvin’s Campus who felt uncomfortable with the Mosaic floor. There was a lot of talk in private conversations. Chimes had done an excellent spoof on it a couple years previously. In the spoof, a minority student was seen walking around another part of campus, and people wondered what he was doing away from the multicultural floor, and assumed he had been lost.
But I thought that because of student apathy and laziness no one was actually doing anything about it. Despite all the grumbling about the Mosaic Floor, I doubted if anyone had ever gone through the trouble of officially complaining to the college.

It was my, perhaps naïve, belief that because of student apathy the administration was simply unaware that these concerns existed. If someone would just write a letter to them pointing out these concerns, maybe the administration would do something.

On the way back from that class I said to Bork and Buma that we should each write a letter to the administration about the Mosaic Floor mentioning our concerns. Bork and Buma were somewhat less enthusiastic about the idea than I was. I tried to convince them, but in the end we agreed that I would write the letter, and then they would just add their signatures.

I really liked the idea my friend had mentioned previously about having a multicultural class instead of a multicultural floor, so I asked him what had ever become of his letter, and would he mind if I used his idea. He said nothing had ever come of his letter, but he gave me the names of people in the administration I should send my letter to.

I finished the letter, then went over to Bork and Buma’s place to get their signatures. A couple other people were in the room at the time and indicated a desire to sign the letter as well. My girlfriend, who was also present, mentioned that a lot of her friends on her dorm floor had the same concerns, and she wanted to bring the letter back to her dormitory to get their signatures. I gave the letter to her, and before long the letter was circulating the 2nd floor of the NVW dorm like a petition.

This was perhaps my greatest error of judgment in the whole affair. Writing a personal letter to the college expressing my concerns is one thing. Spearheading a petition is another. The minority community at Calvin seemed divided about the issue of the Mosaic floor. Some felt it was segregation, some felt it was educating about multiculturalism. Whatever the merits of either side, it was probably a debate that should have been dominated by voices within the minority community, and for me as a white student to try and lead anything was out of place.

Besides which I didn’t feel that the arguments I was making in the letter were dependent upon having a lot of signatures at the bottom. I was trying to appeal to the administrations good sense, not intimidate them with a lot of names.

Finally, even as a petition, it was a bit half-assed. It just circulated one floor of one dorm. I mean if you’re going to organize a petition, you should do it right and do it campus wide. Otherwise it looks like I could only get 60 people who agreed with me, and that somewhat defeats the purpose of circulating the thing in the first place.

When the letter finished circulating the 2nd floor of NVW, I made a half assed effort to add some balance to it, by getting Giessel and some of the other Young Republicans to sign it. I think it was the only time Giessel and I ever agreed on anything. He laughed as he put his name down, “If anyone reading this has been paying attention to Chimes, and knows who we both are, it is going to be a shock to see both of our names on the same letter.”

And then I sent the letters.

Shortly afterwards I received an e-mail from the faculty director of the Mosaic floor. She thanked me for the letter, and said that the Mosaic Floor was sending both my letter, and their response to it, for publication in Chimes.

I was horrified by this. For one thing I had written the letter to the director of the Mosaic Floor, not as an open letter to everyone on the Mosaic Floor. (I don’t need 80 new enemies, thank you very much). And I had certainly not intended it for publication in Chimes for the whole student body. This wasn’t an argument I wanted to go public on. And in the various clubs I was involved in, Social Justice Committee and Environmental Stewardship Coalition, I worked with people how lived on the Mosaic floor. But it was a bit hard to argue that it was a private letter after it had already been making the rounds through NVW and collecting some 60 odd signatures.

I was also not happy about the fact that they had full access to my letter and were able to respond to every point I made in advance, and yet the letters would still appear side by side in the Chimes. I thought that was a bit of an unfair advantage on their part, and I was worried they would absolutely destroy my arguments, and then hold me up to ridicule in the paper.

In fact, I had been hearing from Buma (who had some connections on the current Mosaic Floor) that they were eager for my blood. I guess with the letter circulating around the way it was, word had gotten back to the Mosaic Floor, and the members of the floor who believed in the value of the program were absolutely furious with me. Only they didn’t know who I was. According to Buma, they had just heard that someone who wrote regularly for Chimes had written a piece that attacked the Mosaic Floor. They were expecting the article to appear in Chimes, and I think were already planning their response, and were disappointed to learn it was only a letter. Which is probably why they ended up sending it to Chimes anyway. But given how mad they reportedly were, I was worried about being called all kinds of names in print.

I pleaded with Baxter to let me see the article before Chimes printed it. Baxter was very sympathetic to my position. “For one thing, we don’t print people’s letters without their permission,” he said to me. “For another thing, the Mosaic Floor does not dictate what we print in Chimes. They think they can just order us to print what they like, but we decide our own content.” I looked at their response, and was somewhat relieved. They had not destroyed my arguments as badly as I thought, and in fact they had left several of my arguments unaddressed. I told Baxter he could go ahead and run the piece.

If you read their response, you’ll note the crux of their argument revolves around the numbers. In reality only a small percentage of minorities live on the Mosaic Floor, and so I was making a big deal of nothing. I must confess I was surprised to learn that it was that small. My perception (and I think a lot of people’s perception) was that the percentage of minorities on the Mosaic Floor was a lot higher. I felt a bit stupid for going off about this thing half-cocked without having even bothered to check what the numbers were. (Although in my defense, I did not have easy access to the numbers and statistics that they apparently had access to.)

All that being said, they are not completely honest with their statistics. For one thing they compare the number of minorities on the Mosaic Floor with the number of minorities in NVW, thus comparing one floor with a whole dorm. But if you’ve got a sharp eye you can catch that pretty easily.

Slightly more dishonest is that they talk about the total number of minorities living on campus, and then compare that with the number of minorities on the Mosaic Floor. But “on campus housing” lumps together both upper classmen housing (the apartments) and lower classmen housing (the dormitories), where as the Mosaic Floor is part of lower classman housing. A more honest figure would take just the number of minority students living in the dormitories, and then ask what percentage of these were part of the Mosaic Floor.

And…because of Calvin’s image as White Dutch school, Calvin has trouble attracting minority students domestically, and a large percentage of the minority students, particularly the black students, are international students. And none of these are even factored into their figures, because they define minority student as an ethnic American, and put international students into another category.

So, after the article appeared in print, I e-mailed the director of the Mosaic Floor, thanking her for the response, saying I had learned a lot from it, but wanted to deeper understand the statistics. Could she tell how many minority students lived in the dormitories as opposed to the apartment? And could she give me figures on international students of color? How many of them lived in the dorms, and of that, how many lived on the Mosaic Floor.

She was very polite, but said she couldn’t answer the question and gave me the e-mails of some other people who could. For a while I was sent on the run around, which I thought was a bit frustrating because these figures on student demographics had seemed available enough when they were used to defend the college’s policies. Eventually someone in the administration respond to my e-mail saying, “I do have those figures, but I can’t give them to you without a good reason. You have to tell me why you want them.” I responded by explaining about the letter published in Chimes, and that I was curious about the figures that had been used in the responding piece. In return I got what I thought was a very short and coldly worded e-mail. “Here are the figures. I trust this will satisfy your curiosity.”

With the new figures added in I did the new math. I don’t remember what exactly it turned out to be (I’ve got it in my files somewhere at my parent’s house), but it turned out to be something like 1/4 to a 1/3 of all the minority students living in the dormitories were on the Mosaic Floor. Also I suspect, although I never figured this out, that the percentage would have been even higher for black students.

I e-mailed my figures back to the director of the Mosaic Floor, and said that based on these figures I still believe the issue was something to be concerned about. Instead of receiving a response back from the director of the Mosaic Floor, I received a long response from another administration member. I don’t remember exactly what the title of her position was exactly, advisor of multicultural affairs or something. Perhaps what was significant is that she was one of the few African American faculty at Calvin. Previously everyone I had been corresponding with, the director of the Mosaic floor, the director of student housing, etc, had all been just as white as me.

She said in the e-mail that she had learned I was bothering the Mosaic Floor Director, and that I had no idea what I was talking about. How would I know what it was like to be a minority student at a predominately white school? It’s very tough, and I had no idea what these other students were going through. Did I really think it was my place as a white student to get involved in these issues? Etc, etc etc.

I responded as best I could, saying I wasn’t trying to start anything, just bring these concerns to their attention. I never heard from either her or the Mosaic Floor director again, and so that was the end of that whole issue.

As far as feedback from other students, it was overwhelmingly positive. Granted that’s not a fair measurement, because people who hated my article would be less likely to approach me about it. But I did get the sense that I was representing a lot of people’s concerns. One African student thanked me for writing the letter. He said, in what was becoming a familiar story, that he had signed up for the Mosaic floor simply because he thought as a black student he didn’t have a choice. Then he had found the endless discussions on racism a bit patronizing, because as an African, and not an African American, he did not feel that his identity was defined by being an ethnic minority. He had ended up asking to transfer out of the Mosaic Floor.
“You need to write your own letter,” I said. “Tell the administration what you just told me.” He deferred because he felt he had caused the administration too much trouble already. Besides, he had made clear his reasons for leaving at the time, so they already knew his position.

Final thoughts
I was far from blameless in the whole affair. It was a complex issue and I tried to make it simpler than it was. I was guilty of a bit of rhetorical excess in my letter, and I shouldn’t have questioned the motives of the people behind the Mosaic floor. And I should never have allowed it to circulate like a petition. It should have just been just a private letter. But I was not impressed with the conduct of the other side either.

I wrote earlier that it was my belief at the time that the administration just wasn’t aware of these issues, and they just needed someone to bring them to their attention. In retrospect I think the administration and the Mosaic Floor was well aware that these concerns existed, which is why they reacted with such hostility when I brought them up again. I believe I had legitimate concerns, and that many of my suggestions (that the simply move the location of the floor, or that they tone down the recruiting literature so that everyone realizes the floor is optional) were rather mild. But by displaying the figures in a dishonest way they seemed more interested in shutting me up and putting me in my place then in exploring dialogue on the issue. And when I got a hold of the accurate figures, they responded by accusing me of being white. “I don’t think the fact that I’m white necessarily voids everything I have to say,” I said in the e-mail. But what else could I really say on the issue? I didn’t feel that I had the moral authority to argue with an African American woman on the issue of segregation. I made my position clear, and then just let it drop. Although I did feel that I was representing the concerns of many other minority students, if they felt strongly about it they would have to write their own letters.

I do remember thinking, however, that the following year the promotional material for the Mosaic Floor did seemed a bit more toned down, and did emphasize that the floor was optional for minority students. I’m not sure how much of that I can take credit for, and how much of that would have happened anyway, but I think it was definitely a step in the right direction.

Update March 3, 2016
Curiosity got the better of me this afternoon, and I was surfing around the Net to find out whatever became of the Mosaic Floor.

As of this writing (March 3, 2016) it has been replaced by a successor organization The Grassroots Floor.  I am so completely out of touch with the Calvin community nowadays that I have no idea what The Grassroots is or how it functions.

But it appears, based on a search of the Internet, that for some years after I wrote my initial letter, the Mosaic Floor continued to attract accusations of segregation.

Searching Google, I found an excerpt on Google Books from the 2006 book: God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation are Changing America by Naomi Schaefer Riley (on Amazon here).

I'll quote the relevant section:
After some discussion of the race issue on Christian campuses, and the question of whether to emphasize integration or emphasize the "divisive racial" issue, Riley writes:

Calvin College seems to be leaning towards the latter with its Mosaic Floor in one of the dormitories.  Senior Mariano Avila tries to explain the theory behind this relationship to me as we zip around town in his compact car with a press pass from the local paper swinging from the rear view mirror: "It's one floor in a dorm where minorities are kind of invited to live, and you get a tuition cut if you live there.  Then, once or twice a week, you have to talk about racism." He estimates that approximately a hundred people live there, a significant population on a campus with only a little more than three hundred minority students.
Avila, who has some interaction with the students on this floor through his participation in the Latino student group on campus, was so upset by what he saw as institutional segregation that he complained to the school's president.  He relates to me what he said in that meeting: "This is like Apartheid." Since the dorm is on the edge of campus, Avila says no one who doesn't live there ever goes there. "That group becomes so strong as a group that they don't need to interact with non minorities."
When I ask him how often he goes to the Mosaic Floor, Avila sighs and explains that members of a number of different ethnic groups do their cooking in the same kitchen there.  
"Bottom line, that place stinks," he says.
But the biggest problem Avila sees is with the group's meetings. "The people are kind of hostile because they're forced to talk about racism once a week. So of course they're going to think they're being attacked by the racist white man."

End quote.
A few brief comments on this:
1. Interesting that Riley just takes Avino's rough estimate on the demographics instead of contacting the college for the exact figures.  It's sloppy research.
Then again, given the run-around I got when I was trying to get a handle on the exact figures back in 2000, maybe it's understandable.
2. I agree with the concerns Avino has about geographical segregation.  I have no problems, however, with the weekly meetings on racism.  On the contrary, as I wrote in my letter, I was hoping that making these racism meetings into a class instead of a dormitory would help to spread this message further than just one floor.

Okay, onto the next article.

Apparently, The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education published an academic article on this whole thing back in 2005 entitled:

Are Black Students Segregated at Calvin College?

Unfortunately, I can't read the thing, because it's hidden behind the same firewall that all academic articles are hidden behind.  Without a subscription to JSTOR (and no private individual can afford such a subscription) it's impossible to get to.

(The issue of academic writing being inaccessible to the general public is another one of my pet issues, but that's a different rant for a different post.)

The best I could get was an excerpt from this site here.  But without reading the article, I can't even find the punchline.  Do they conclude that it is segregation, or not?

Calvin College is a small, Christian college in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It
is affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church, a Protestant denomination
founded in 1857 by Dutch settlers in western Michigan. As with most small
Christian institutions, blacks make up a very low percentage of the total
enrollments at Calvin College. The latest data shows that only 0.8 percent
of the more than 4,300 students at Calvin College are black.

Calvin College has established what is called a "mosaic floor" in one
dormitory which is on the far end of campus. Students who apply to live on
the floor and are accepted as members of the mosaic community are required
to take a one-credit seminar where they discuss issues of race and culture. …

Back Story One

I started writing for Chimes when Baxter recruited me to write the “Crossroads” pieces. Baxter was the perspectives editor at Chimes that year, and wanted to set up a weekly point/counterpoint type weekly feature. He contacted Giessel, head of the Calvin College Republicans to write the conservative viewpoint, but there was no corresponding liberal group on Calvin’s campus at the time, so Baxter contacted me and Peter Bratt to write the liberal section (presumably just because he knew us).

Giessel was ready before Peter and I, so he published his first article, against gun control, unopposed. Bork and Buma were so upset at seeing the article that they sent in a response the next week, and they were added to the team. I was already good friends with Bork and Buma from dorm cleaning days, and I knew Peter Bratt from high school cross country, and 2nd Boer.

And that was the start of the “Cross Road” pieces. Once a week, Baxter, Giessel, and the rest of us would meet in the student lounge to decide on the topic for the week. Then, Bork, Buma, Peter and I would switch on and off depending on who was most interested in the topic and who didn’t have a lot of homework that week. Giessel, to his credit, wrote his portion every single week as a one-man job.

I’ll let the other boys speak for themselves, but the pieces I wrote for “Crossroads” were absolute crap. I was really proud of them at the time, but that’s only because I didn’t understand what real writing was.

Giessel and I would decide on a topic, and then I would spend a couple hours on the internet dragging up everything I could find on the topic. I used the internet not only to find facts and statistics, but even the actual arguments themselves were all stolen from other people’s articles. All my articles were essential works of cut and paste plagiarism. Of course the wording and phrasing were all mine, but there wasn’t an original thought in any of my articles.

Oddly, over the course of the year, I developed a lot of respect for Giessel. We must have disagreed on every issue imaginable, but he was a friendly guy, a fellow “Star Trek” fan, and we would sometimes stay in the student lounge to discuss “Star Trek” episodes long after we had agreed on the this weeks topics.

During the spring of that year, as I was walking back to my apartment in the middle of the night, I saw Giessel hard at work dismantling a campus fence with his wire cutters. I guess the fence had been interfering with his normal cycling path. Giessel had put up with it for most of the year, but had finally lost his patience and was determined to take it down. I gave him some help, and at 1 O’clock in the morning the two of us took down the fence. Brett, who saw the two of us at work, had a good laugh about it. “Two polar opposite forces on campus, engaged in the same cause at last,” Brett said.

As for the “Call to Justice” articles…I was a member of the “Social Justice Committee” at Calvin, and Chimes had traditionally allocated a weekly column to the SJC. The person who usually wrote it became too busy to continue, and so Chimes sent out an e-mail to everyone on the SJC asking if anyone would be willing to write an occasional article. I responded to the e-mail saying I was willing to write an occasional article from time to time. I ended up being the only one who responded, so for the first few weeks, the “Call to Justice” column was all on me.

I always felt uncomfortable writing these columns. “Crossroads” was a one-sided liberal opinion piece, and it was supposed to be a one-sided liberal opinion piece. I was always unsure what I was supposed to write about in “Call to Justice”. I did the first few articles, and then was able to find other people in the SJC who were willing to take over.

The following year Bork and Buma moved up the ranks to take over as the editors of the perspectives section. They were very generous about giving me space anytime I wanted to write about something, and so the following year I moved on from just the “Crossroads” and “Call to Justice” columns, and had a few editorials on various topics. Because these were topics I chose, they tended to be slightly better written, and have more of my own original ideas, then the “Crossroads” articles.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

The Previous Post

I thought it would be kind of neat to collect all the links on the web of other things I've written or done in one post. The reason I've done it primarily is to establish it as another link under the "Some Stuff I Wrote" section of my links. So it works less as a post than as a link. I mean, I realize most of you could care less about reading a post of all my links, but I like the idea of having a permanent link set up to other things I wrote on the web.

Of course, having done all this work setting up the links, I'm worried it will seem somewhat egotistical unless I come up with some sort of self-deprecating joke to laugh it off. (Insert self-deprecating joke here).

But seriously folks....

No, don't think of it as a post, but as a link. I'm just setting up a link to other things I've written, as a way to introduce myself further. And what is a personal weblog for, if not to help introduce and explain yourself?

The thing about linking to articles on the web, of course, is it is always conditional on the server still hosting them. For instance I wrote 3 articles for "Tombo Times" in Oita, which at one time were viewable from the web, but I can't seem to get access to them now, so I can't link to them.

Likewise with the two articles I wrote that were at one time published on the "Young People's Socialist League" website. They've taken down their old web-pages, and I can't link to those articles.

Likewise with a couple "letters to the editor" I wrote to a few newspapers. At one time I could view them from the web, but I guess newspapers never keep their archives on line for very long.

But thank goodness for the old college newspaper, Chimes. Everything I every wrote for them is still on line, and so I linked to it accordingly. Of course a lot of it is, in retrospect, absolute crap, but after having already posted on line the story I wrote in 9th grade, it is hard for me to embarrass myself further.
And since I've been in a bit of a reminiscing mood on this blog anyway, I thought I might use this as an excuse to launch into a few of the back stories to some of those articles. Bit self indulgent I guess, but....hey
So those will probably be appearing in the next couple days or so as I get around to writing them

Me on the Web

Crossroad Pieces
MARIJUANA LEGALIZATION Prohibition costly, violates rights ,
THE DEATH PENALTY State-sponsored murder is unjust ,
Confederate Flag Controversy Flag evokes memory of slavery ,
ABORTION ISSUE REVISITED Pro-choice is not pro-abortion ,
CENSORSHIP AND THE FCC Censorship should stay in the home ,
AFFIRMATIVE ACTION Affirmative action policies needed ,
KYOTO TREATY CONTROVERSY Saving the earth or selling the future? ,
VOUCHERS: KIDS FIRST! YES! Vouchers do not put all kids first,
Cabinet lacks credibility ,
School Vouchers don't fix problem ,
Call to Justice
IMF forces Modernization ,
Vieques done wrong by U.S. ,
Iraq battles starvation ,
Chief Justice poor choice for speaker ,
Chief Justice Rehnquist's questionable past ,
Republicans ignore Bush's past ,
Two major parties not representing voter interests ,
Calvin students debate the benefits of Mosaic floor ,
Should "Governor Death" be President? ,
Protest against SOA continues for tenth year ,
Free access to music will help ,
Jackson's public record redeems moral profile ,
Letters to the Editor
Abortion statistics explained ,
Debate desirable
Articles about or Featuring Me
Open Church appeals to the dissatisfied ,
Students join funeral procession at SOA ,
Student political organizations debate opposing party stances ,
Editorial Spoofing Me,
Abortion is a form of birth control, statistics wrong ,
Spark Article On Rehnquist Controversy
Papers I Researched
William Rehnquist's Racist Record Revealed

Media Mouse commentary
Thoughts on Nonviolence
Philadelphia Demonstration Report

Media Mouse Book Reviews
Street Fighting Days by Tariq Ali
God's Politics by Jim Wallis ,
Karl Marx: His Life and Environment,
The Insurrectionist by Jules Valles ,
History of the Paris Commune,
Louise Michel ,
Karl Marx: An Intimate Biography ,
Osugi Sakae: Anarchist in Taisho Japan ,
A People's History of the World: From the Stone Age to the New Millennium,
Fire Across the Sea: The Vietnam War and Japan ,
Revolutions of 1848: A Social History,
Marx's Das Kapital: A Biography,

Tombo Times
Natsu Mero For Dummies ,
Oita Library: The Happiest Place on Earth ,
Ajimu Winery ,
History Corner: Richard Sorge ,
History Corner: Japanese Student Movement Part 1

Non a la ZLEA (No to the FTAA) (2001) contains video footage I shot and appearence by me in round table discussion
Breaking the Bank (Part 2, 26:04 into it, I'm in the background)
Protest!: The World Bank, IMF, and WTO in Grand Rapids, Michigan (2000) actually I'm pretty in the back ground on this video. You can see the back of my head at one point, and that's about it

World Trade Week Protest ,
School Picture
Homestay Pictures (Log in required)
Non a la ZLEA Thumbnails
Recruiting Center Protest ,
Peace Presence Photo

Amazon reviews (reprints of reviews on this site with personal and blog references edited out)
Poem to Maria,
Family Tree
Nick's page of qoutes,
Philadelphia Newspaper Article

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Bush at Calvin: Final Thoughts

With just a couple days left until Bush arrives at Calvin, I thought I'd jot down some final thoughts on the whole thing. Of course I realize that I've been getting a lot of blog mileage out of this topic for someone who doesn't even attend Calvin anymore. Or, for that matter, in Grand Rapids anymore. (Or for that matter in the same state, country, continent, or hemisphere).

I also realize that I've been shamelessly using this topic as an excuse for launching into my own stories. Which brings me to this post....

During the 2000 election, I was doing my student teaching at Calvin College. Despite my request to be placed in a public school, I had gotten placed in an ultra-conservative Christian High School. Oh, the stories I could tell about this place. To say they were pro-Bush, to the last faculty member and student, would have been under-stating the case.

I was doing my best to shut up and fit in. It wasn't easy, especially during an election year, but I tried really hard to control myself. During that fall Bush came to visit Grand Rapids during one of his campaign stops. My supervising teacher at the high school had obtained a bunch of tickets from the Republican Party, and he gave me four of them. "Maybe you can find some friends to go with you," he suggested.

Of course that summer Bush had spoken at the NAACP. And 4 protesters had made national headlines by interrupting his speech and chanting, "Remember Gary Graham. George Bush killed an innocent man."

So I was thinking, "I've got four tickets" and "4 people were able to make national news by shouting at Bush." Of course the NAACP has a lot more symbolic value, and gets a lot more media attention, then just a normal campaign stop in Grand Rapids, but for whatever reason that didn't occur to me at the time.

I was very tempted to go myself to the rally and try and disrupt things, but I thought it would make for an awkward next morning when I would again met the supervising teaching who had given me the tickets. I was trying to make it through the semester at this place without incident. So I got on the phone to see if any other trouble makers would be willing to go in my place.

I couldn't find four people, but I got two takers: Buma and Vito. Perhaps I should have gone myself. After all, politics is more important than student teaching. But then again, knowing me, I probably wouldn't have had the courage to speak out when the time came anyway.

Vito, whatever else anyone may say about him, is not someone who is lacking in courage. In fact he didn't even wait until Bush took the stage. He started yelling when (then) governor Engler came on stage to introduce Bush, and was dragged out by the police.

Buma was a bit more subtle. He waited till Bush began speaking, worked his way towards the front of the crowd, and then, when Bush was looking in his direction, held up a "Nader" bumper sticker. He's sure Bush saw it. The police instantly confronted him and escorted him out of the building.

Once Buma was safely outside, and there was no longer of Bush seeing a "Nader" bumper sticker, the police apparently relaxed and became a bit friendlier and were willing to engage in a philosophical debate about freedom of speech. Their position was that inside the building, Buma's right to freedom of speech didn't exist.
(Obviously Buma or Vito could tell this story a lot better, if you run into either of them.)

The Point

Because everything these days is manufactured for television, politicians don't like to be confronted by people who disagree with them. It works a whole lot better if they are only in front of enthusiastic cheering crowds. That's why you need a "ticket" to be able to attend a campaign rally. And you can't bring in any posters or bumper stickers that don't fit the theme.

(When I was in 5th grade, my class went to see Bush's father when he came on a campaign stop to Grand Rapids. As a class project we had spent a week making signs and posters. I, being rather apolitical at the time, had spent the week making a poster about wolves. I was forced to discard this at the entrance, presumably because it didn't fit the theme.)

That's why, as many people on the internet have already noted, Bush chose to speak at Calvin. It's probably one of the few colleges where he thought he could secure a supportive audience.

I don't think this trend is healthy for our democracy. Of course the Republican Party has a right to freedom of assembly, but President Bush is different than candidate Bush. President Bush should be held accountable to the people who elected him, and he shouldn't always be able to hide himself from voices of dissent.

Which is why the Calvin graduation might have a lot of potential. If there are only four people brave enough to confront Bush, perhaps it could be headline news again.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Book Reviews

Two book reviews that I wrote, Street Fighting Days by Tariq Ali and God's Politics , have just been posted here on the Media Mouse Website.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading recently, and since Media Mouse has started a book review section on their website, I thought I would start reviewing some of the books I have read. I don’t particularly enjoy writing book reviews, but I think it is a good intellectual exercise to interact with the material I'm reading. If any of you have been doing a lot of politically related reading, I’d encourage you to contact Media Mouse as well.

After writing these reviews, I have a lot more respect for friends like Phil Christman who frequently write book reviews. I thought these reviews would pretty much write themselves after I had read the book, but it is very difficult to write, in an organized fashion, all my reactions to a 300 page book. Especially since both books covered such large amounts of ground, I found it difficult to simultaneously summarize the book and write my reactions while also keeping the review short.

For instance in “Street Fighting Days”, Tariq Ali devotes a large amount of space to making the case that the Vietnam War equaled genocide. In addition to the saturation bombings of civilian targets in the North, Ali notes that the US objectives in Vietnam could only be accomplished by eliminating all pro-NLF Vietnamese. Since this comprised the vast majority of Vietnamese people, it was essentially a genocidal war. If you read his book, he makes a fairly good case for it, yet in my book review I felt like I more or less just mentioned his charge, and then left it unsubstantiated. The same with Jim Wallis’ book, in which he makes the case that Christians should not have supported the Iraq War. Wallis makes an excellent argument in his book, but these arguments were not all repeated in my review. Again, I felt like I left an argument hanging unsupported. I guess if you’re interested in either argument, you would be a whole lot better off reading the actual books instead of my reviews. (Both books I’d highly recommend, by the way.)

Speaking of which, I’ve noticed from your weblogs that a lot of you have already read “God’s Politics.” I’d be interested in your insights or counter-reviews.

I've decided to re-post both reviews on my own blog as well. They are written below.

Street-Fighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties
Posted on May 16, 2005 | Author: joel | Comments Off

There are no shortage of memoirs concerning the 1960s, but it would be hard to find one that covers more ground than Tariq Ali’s.

Because of the diverse people Ali encounters, and the many different locations he travels to, it is difficult to summarize the book. Ali begins his story growing up in Pakistan, and then later becomes involved in the emerging Pakistan student movement. The Pakistan regime’s brutal crackdown on the students causes his parents to fear for his safety, and send him off to Britain to continue his education. In Britain Ali becomes one of the leading figures in the New Left. He eventually travels to Paris, Berlin, Vietnam, Bolivia, and back to Pakistan.

Ali met Malcolm X in Oxford, and apparently spent one evening talking late into the night with him about politics and religion. He debated Harvard Don Henry Kissinger as part of the televised Oxford/Harvard Vietnam War debates. He was recruited, and worked with Bertrand Russell on a Vietnam War Crimes Tribunal. He was also sent by Russell on a mission to Bolivia to make sure the recently captured Regis Debray was still alive, and to send words of hope to Debray. He marched in Berlin with the German SDS and advised Rudi Dutschke on strategy. He appeared on TV with Daniel Cohn-Bendit and apparently advised the later on how to deal with the BBC. He apparently talked politics often with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and provided the inspiration for John Lennon’s song “Power to the People”. He talked about the Vietnam War one night with Ulrike Meinhof. The various people who pop up in this book represent a “Who’s Who” of the 1960s.

And to a certain extent this might represent the book’s greatest flaw. At one point in the book, since the BBC had banned the song “Street Fighting Man”, Ali rings up Mick Jagger to ask for the lyrics to publish in his magazine, “The Black Dwarf”. He receives a handwritten copy of the song the same day, but after photocopying it, throws the original in the wastebasket. He justifies it this way: “No one in the office thought this was sacrilegious. The cult of the individual is always, in the last resort, a substitute of collective action. Jagger sang well and he was helpful. That was all.”

And yet, by all the name dropping Ali does in his book, one gets the sense at times that he has been thoroughly seduced by the cult of celebrity. Although I suppose, if I had met all the same people, I would want to write about in my book as well.

And there are advantages to Ali’s approach. He paints a very vivid picture of Rudi Dutschke, and reading his book one gets a very good picture of the anger and despair felt by the New Left after Dutschke’s attempted assassination. Although Ali never actually meets Che Guevara, the section of the book dealing with his adventures in Bolivia and Regis Debray give a sense of the importance Che Guevara had to the period, and the shock felt at Che’s death, something that is sometimes lost with the over-commercialization of Che’s image.

Although it is hard to summarize the plot of the book, several themes can become evident. The failure of state communism is a major theme, both the failure of the USSR and China to help Vietnam, and the betrayal of May 1968 by the French Communist Party. Also the failure of liberal democracy during the Vietnam War, and the Vietnam War itself are major themes.

Although the book was originally published in 1987, the new edition contains a new 50-page introduction that helps to highlight some of the parallels to the present. “History rarely repeats itself,” Ali says in the introduction, “but it echoes.”

Many of these echoes are self evident even without the aid of the new introduction. Such as the crisis facing the anti-War left in Britain as to whether or not to support the pro-war Labour government. Tariq Ali and his friends support the anti-war candidacy of independent Richard Gott, only to be demonized by others on the left out of fear of a Tory victory.

Unfortunately the candidacy of Richard Gott ultimately ends in failure, and Tariq Ali is unable to provide an easy answer to the problem of the failure of liberal bourgeois democracy to provide an anti-war alternative. It is a problem that still faces activists today on both sides of the Atlantic.

To collect evidence for Betrand Russell’s Vietnam War Crimes tribunal, Tariq Ali travels to Cambodia and Vietnam, and he devotes a large part of the book to describing the human cost of the war. It is heart-breaking reading for any American. He describes how schools and hospitals are bombed, and the heavy civilian casualties on the Vietnamese side. Tariq Ali correctly concludes that the Vietnam War is genocide, and quotes from Jean-Paul Sartre at the War Crimes Tribunal: “The present genocide, the end result of the unequal development of societies, is total war waged to the limit by one side, without the slightest reciprocity – Indeed, genocide presents itself as the ONLY POSSIBLE REACTION to the rising of a whole people against its oppressors.” (Capitals in the original).

Parallels are highlighted in the new introduction when Tariq Ali focuses on the civilian cost of the Iraq War, citing a study that indicates the Iraqi death toll since the March 2003 invasion might be as high as 100,000. Ali continues, “When the World Health Organization claimed that the sanctions against Iraq had cost the lives of at least half a million children, the then US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, told CBS that it was a price worth paying. No doubt the debased politicians and even more debased apologists in the media think the same of the hundred thousand killed in 2003-4. Nice of them to be so generous with Iraqi lives.”

Tariq Ali, Street-Fighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties, (Verso, 2005).

This entry was posted in Book Reviews and tagged antiwar, history, left, social movements, the sixties.

God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It
Posted on May 16, 2005 | Author: joel | Comments Off

It has been said that the definition of good writing is, “What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.” If that is true, then I submit Jim Wallis’ book, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It as an example of excellent writing.

The question Wallis poses at the opening of the book is, “How did the faith of Jesus come to be known as pro-rich, pro-war, and only pro-American?” The basic thesis of the book is that true Christianity is none of these things.

Of course Wallis is not the first person to point this out. It doesn’t take a trained theologian to realize that the right has long been twisting the message of Christianity for its own benefit. As Wallis notes in his book, even non-Christians often realize the basic message of Christianity has been twisted by politicians.

But it is a pleasure to see a trained theologian systematically and thoroughly dismantle the ideological base that the religious right has been using for years. There’s not a lot of new material in this book. If you’ve been following the newspapers, you won’t read anything that will surprise you. But Wallis is able to weave all of his material into a masterful case against religious right.

As indicated by the title, however, the book is not simply a polemic against the Right. Wallis goes after the left at times as well. Wallis alleges that the Left has sabotaged itself by alienating people of faith, and in this way missed the opportunity to create a coalition with many people who would otherwise have been sympathetic to the goals of the left.

The most divisive issue in the religious wars is of course abortion. Wallis claims that the Left has helped to create the polarization of this issue by demonizing the pro-life movement as anti-feminist, instead of acknowledging that there were legitimate concerns represented.

“There are literally millions of votes at stake in this liberal miscalculation,” Wallis claims. And then later, “Republicans literally win elections on the basis of their anti-abortion position and then proceed to ignore the issue…by doing nothing to reduce the number of abortions.” Wallis claims that if the Left and the Right were to focus less on the legal battle surrounding abortions, but instead work together to reduce the need for abortion, many voters would be more comfortable voting Democratic. Admittedly Wallis is talking about bourgeois electoral politics here, as he is in most areas of the book, but the points he makes can spill over into activism and organizing as well.

A large section of the book is devoted to the Iraq War, in which Wallis convincingly makes the case that since the only two options in Christian theology are pacifism and the just war theory, Christians cannot support the Iraq War. Wallis’ arguments on this point are flawless, but unfortunately the book suffers from stylistic problems here. Wallis apparently feels that, given today’s political climate, he cannot mention Saddam’s name without taking a brief break from whatever he is talking about to remind us that he knows full well Saddam was a bad man. That should be assumed, and even if it is not mentioning it once should be sufficient. But, Wallis is apparently worried that if he even once criticizes the Iraq War without simultaneously condemning Saddam, he will be accused of being a Baathist apologist. Given the debating tactics of the Right, this might be a legitimate fear, but it is stylistically tiresome.

It is hard to imagine a Christian continuing to defend the Iraq War and the Bush administration after reading Wallis’ book. The question is, however, how many of the religious right will be able to pull themselves away from Fox news or AM radio long enough to hear out Wallis’s arguments? The tragedy of this book is that the people who need to read it the most probably won’t touch it. Wallis may well end up preaching to the choir.

Jim Wallis, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, (Harper San Francisco, 2004).

This entry was posted in Book Reviews and tagged democrats, left, religion, religious right, republicans, rightwing.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Star Wars and Me

(The alternate title for this post is, “I am a big Geek”, which is true, but we’ll leave that aside for now.)

I haven’t seen the new Star Wars movie yet. In fact it doesn't come out in Japan until July, so if any of you have seen it already, please send me your reviews.  I’m eager for news.

So, while I wait for the new Star Wars movie to come out, I thought I’d just write down a few thoughts about the prequel series in general. Obviously this is somewhat handicapped by the fact that I haven’t seen the final installment, but this these are my thoughts based on what I have seen:

I believe it was Brian Bork who once said (and I’m paraphrasing), “I don’t buy into any of this criticism of the new Star Wars series, because all reviews, either positive or negative, are all based on nostalgia.”

That’s true for me as much as it is true for anyone. I was part of the generation that grew up with Star Wars, and so I was exposed to the movies before I had developed my faculties for critical evaluation. I often wonder what my reaction to Star Wars would have been if I had seen it for the first time as an adult. But as a five-year-old boy I was thrilled with the light saber battles and space ship battles. The new series cannot possibly impress me as much as the old series did at five years old, and so it is bound to disappoint.

On the other hand, I’m willing to forgive a lot simply because it is Star Wars. When I saw the Star Wars title flash across the screen, and heard the music playing, and saw R2-D2 and C3-PO on the screen, I had all sorts of flashbacks to my childhood. In the days before VCRs, it used to be quite an event whenever Star Wars was on TV. Everyone would talk about it all day at school. “Did you hear Star Wars is going to be on TV tonight?” I would be so excited. My mom would make pop-corn, and I’d get to stay up late, and the next day everyone would talk about it all day at school.

I remember collecting Star Wars figures, and the Jabba the Hutt figure I wanted so badly when I was in kindergarten, and playing Star Wars at school with the other kids, and listening to Star Wars tapes on long car trips, C3-PO and RD-2D making guest appearances on Sesame Street, and the moment when I found out that “light-sabers” and “life-savers” were two different words, and that the candy my grandmother handed out had no connection to the Star Wars movies.

I’m rambling a little bit, but I suspect most people my age have similar memories. So no matter how bad the new Star Wars movies are, I can’t help but get a bit of a chill down my spine when I see Yoda or C3-P0 on the screen again.

I know that the statements, “The new Star Wars movies were bound to disappoint me,” and “The new Star Wars movies were bound to delight me” are inherently contradictory statements, but isn't it true that we have complex, contradictory relationships with anything that we truly love?

Anyway, moving on...

It’s not hard to pinpoint where “The Phantom Menace” went wrong. I’d hardly be the first person to point an accusing finger at Jar-Jar Binks. Jar-Jar Binks wouldn't have been so bad, except that from the moment he appeared on the screen he dominanted the whole movie. If he would have just been given a little less screen time, I would have been a lot more forgiving of the Jar-Jar Binks disaster.

The other big flaw with “The Phantom Menace” was the action sequences, in that there was lots of action, but none of it was any good.

In order for a good action sequence to work, I think the director has to make you actually believe that the characters are in some sort of danger. Otherwise you’re just watching people jump and swing around the screen, which is about how I felt watching “The Phantom Menace.”

The Attack of the Clones” did “The Phantom Menace” one better in both respects. The action sequences were more exciting, and Jar-Jar Brinks was given less screen time. From the reviews I've read of “The Return of the Sith” it sounds like Jar-Jar brinks has even less screen time, and the action sequences are even more impressive.

So I’ll turn my attention to the story instead. Now again, this analysis is handicapped by the fact that I haven’t seen the final chapter, and I’d be interested in the feedback of anyone who has seen it, but without having even seen the 3rd chapter, here is what I think the basic problem is:

There’s too much ground to cover in the 3rd chapter.

The conclusion of the Clone Wars, the birth of the twins, the collapse of the Republic, the transformation of Vader, the deformity of the emperor, and how the twins came to be in their respective adoptive homes, all has to be explained in the 3rd chapter. I’m sure they do a good job of wrapping up all the loose ends, but if I had been in charge of making the Star Wars prequels, I wouldn’t have left everything till the last chapter.

I mean, think about it, pretty much nothing of much importance happens in the first two prequels. Those movies could pretty much be erased completely, because it sounds like any event of any importance has all been left to the 3rd chapter. I think I would have introduced the Clone Wars in the first movie, had Darth Vader turn in the second movie, and have the third movie be about the fall of the Republic and hiding the twins. It seems to me you could tell the story a lot better that way if it was more spread out.

A couple more things that stick in my chaw a bit: The impression that I got from watching the original trilogy (and like many people of my generation, I watched it to the point of memorization), is that Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker were both adults when they met. Obi-Wan tells Luke, “Your father was already an excellent fighter pilot when I met him.” I know Lucas tries to get around this by having young Anakin be a child prodigy at race cars, and accidentally piloting an X-wing fighter into victory, but it seems a bit contrived to me.

Also, the impression I always had from the original trilogy was Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan had a mentor-tutor relationship. The fact that Obi-Wan had been raising Anakin from a little boy changes the relationship somewhat. I guess it still works, but if I had been in charge, I would have had Anakin be full grown when he meets Obi-Wan. I think that would be a lot cooler because…I don’t know, I just think that would have been cooler. It would have been a relationship between two full-grown adults, and it would have had all the complexities as such. Now, when Darth Vader strikes down Obi-Wan in the original Star Wars, it almost seems like patricide.

So, to sum up, if I was in charge of making the prequel movies, and if we could start all over again: introduce Anakin Skywalker as an adult, spread out the important events more, and less screen time for Jar-Jar Binks.