Thursday, April 28, 2005

What is to be done?

As noted last post, there is a lot of discussion on the internet among Calvin alumni and students concerning Bush and his speaking at commencement ceremony.

The challenge is how to channel all this energy and discussion into some useful expression. If that is not done, any opposition against Bush will be drowned out by the usual flag waving and blind patriotism, which invariably accompanies a presidential visit.

It goes without saying that this is largely left up to this year’s graduating class, and from the looks of this website they seem to be off to a good start. But what can we as alumni do to offer support that would be of substance, rather than all talk?

I like this proposal of a written statement, but allow me to propose one step further. I propose following the old principal of “putting our money where our mouth is.” For the sake of simplicity, I’ll make my proposal first, and then defend it after.

I propose that for one year we not support Calvin financially, and instead take any money that we would have given to Calvin, and donate it to Christian groups that work for peace. And of course write a polite letter to Calvin informing them of this decision (they say posted hand written letters are more effective than e-mail).

Now actually I’m not in the habit of donating annually to Calvin, and I suspect most of you aren't either. But I’ll write them anyway and tell them that this year I will not even be considering making a donation. It’s all a matter of how phrasing. Also I did do a bit of Christmas shopping at their bookstore when I was in town last December, and I will not be doing that again this Christmas.

Whether this idea will catch anyone else’s imagination or not, I’m not sure. I could end up all alone on this, in which case it would not be the first time. But if this strikes you as a good idea, by all means post it on your own blog or website or alert a friend. You don’t need to call it “Joel Sxwagman's idea.” In fact, given my lack of credibility in some Calvin circles, maybe it’s best if you don’t mention me. You can just say this is something that has been proposed, or something that some people are doing.

My Defense
A handful of you might remember that during the Rehnquist affair I was, in private conversation, pushing for more action. In retrospect however I was wrong, and you were right. The extent of our opposition to Rehnquist, the Chimes articles, input in the panel discussion, and the ad in the Grand Rapids Press, was more than adequate given the situation.

With Bush the stakes are higher. There are now literally thousands of people dead, both American troops and Iraqi civilians, because of this man.

As mentioned in a previous post, this war is obviously part of the political divide in the country, and not everyone will see it as wrong. And if you’re not with me on this one, this post isn't the place to do the heavy lifting of trying to win you over.

But assuming that you are against the war, the remaining questions are
1). Does having Bush speak at Calvin’s Commencement imply the college’s tacit approval of the war?
And...
2). Is this worth making a fuss over?

If the world of blog is any indication, it would seem that most people are not buying Byker's explanation that Bush at Commencement is simply part of Calvin’s tradition of inviting speakers from various viewpoints. Yes, Jim Wallis will be speaking at Calvin. No, Jim Wallis will not be giving the commencement address.

I don’t want to repeat myself from previous posts any more than necessary, but there are definitely standards for the commencement speaker. Someone who is not a Christian would never be invited to speak at Commencement. They might be invited to another function, but they would not be invited to commencement.

And call me cynical, but I find it very hard to imagine someone who had opposed the war being invited to commencement. Can you imagine French President Chirac being invited to speak at Calvin’s commencement? Do you think the college would have the guts for that one? President Byker would say, “Of course we don’t all agree with President Chirac, but we as Calvin welcome a diverse range of opinions. Just last week we had some conservative author give a talk to sell his book.”
Or can you imagine Noam Chomsky? Or the above-mentioned Jim Wallis? Or any of the leading opponents of the war speaking at commencement?

Well, I could go on and on about this, but I think most of you are with me on this one.

So, is this worth making a fuss over? I think it is if we take seriously the biblical command to be peacemakers in the world. And if we look at all the dead people not just as numbers, but people each precious to God. And each one with families here on earth. If we donate money or support an institution which allows itself to be used by the war makers of this world, what does that say about our Christian commitment to peace?

If we recognize that Christian theology holds only two positions regarding war, the pacifist tradition and the just-war tradition, then shouldn't we as Christians be absolutely horrified by what has happened in Iraq? Is inviting the man who began this war to speak at commencement the appropriate Christian response? When there are so many Christian organizations that do take seriously God’s call to work for peace, why support an institution that is seduced by the power of men?

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Links and....uh, more links

Always good reading from the Japan Times.

This article in the Japan Times on the 30th anniversary of the Vietnam war and the lessons that have apparently not been learned, has nothing to do with Japan, but I really found it interesting.

And then there is this article about a Japanese film documenting the Iraq war. I haven't seen the film, but the article itself is worth reading as it shows a different view of the "Iraqi liberation" then commonly depicted in the mainstream U.S. media. To quote briefly:

When the Americans arrive in Baghdad and are met not by cheering masses but by people yelling epithets, he captures on tape a lone woman screaming at the tanks in English: "You f***ing cowards hiding behind your big machines. Go to the hospitals and see all the children you have killed."

These are issues worth thinking about, especially as the man responsible for all those dead children is going to speaking at Calvin soon.

Speaking of which, a couple more quick thoughts on Bush coming to Calvin, throwing in some things I thought of since my last post.

1. This is somewhat the logical conclusion of what I stated in my previous post, but allow me to connect the dots.
The extent of our protest against Rehnquist, such as it was, was simply to point out the reasons he was objectionable as a speaker to us. Because these charges were not widely known, simply writing Chimes articles alerting people to the controversy was enough to cause a big stir.
This year's graduating class is obviously going to have to take things one step further, because simply stating that they don't approve of Bush is almost a given for any liberal or pacifist. I don't really know what the best thing to do is, but n order to make themselves heard above the racket is going to take some boldness and creativity, and I don't envy the task they have in front of them.

2. Another big difference between this and the Rehnquist affair is that the internet is obviously much more involved this time. I mean I'm writing on the internet, on the last post I linked to all of my friends who had written something, and a quick search of the internet will indicate just about every Calvin Alumni or student with a blog is writing about Bush's visit. And my impression is most of them aren't happy, but you can do your own survey I guess.

Of particular interest perhaps are:

This forum set up as: A place to dialogue and organize for those opposed to George W. Bush commandeering Calvin's 2005 Commencement. Anyone in the Grand Rapids area should check it out.

I don't know this guy, but according to his blog, the Democrats and Liberals at Calvin are discussing their protest options. That's always good to hear.

Also for those in the GR area: Media Mouse promises to post any protest information as they get a hold of it. A good site to keep your eye on.


Here's something from the other side of the fence-Someone upset by Bush speaking at Calvin, but not for the same reasons we are: Calvin College? Have you even heard of Calvin College? It's an evangelical liberal arts college in Michigan with a graduating class of 900. Every aspect of student life at Calvin is mired in the Christian Reform-based church. Perhaps, since Bush failed with Terri Schiavo and faith-based funding, this is his way to keep the GOP in the good graces of the evangelical right. It's hardly illegal for Bush to speak at Calvin, but it certainly bears notice. We guarantee you won't see him speak at Gratz College

Wonder if he knows how those of us from Calvin feel about it?

Saturday, April 23, 2005

George W. Bush and Me

Wow, is this dejavu or what?

If you're from Grand Rapids, or if you've been following any of these fellow bloggers, I'm sure you've already noticed that President Bush is going to speak at the Calvin College Commencement Ceremony this spring.

Hmmm...A controversial commencement speaker, known for his right wing views and the head of one of the 3 branches of government. What does this remind me of?

I've been doing a bit of reminiscing on this blog lately anyway, so this seems like it is the perfect launching point for me retell the story of my involvement in the Rehnquist affair. (I know, self indulgent. Those of you who have heard this all before might just want to skip to my analysis at the end.)

My fifth and final year at Calvin, the commencement speaker for graduation was William Rehnquist, Chief for the Supreme Court.

That was also the year Bush became President, after the controversial Supreme Court ruling. I went to Washington DC to protest the inauguration, riding an overnight bus with University of Michigan students. On the bus, and at the protest itself, I heard a lot of complaining about Rehnquist, and I began to wonder if he was someone I wanted speaking at my commencement ceremony.

Returning to Calvin I went to the library and tried to see what sort of information I could find on Rehnquist. And wow…absolutely shocking what I found. A consistent record of racism and ruling against minorities.

I ambushed my friends Bork and Buma in the snack shop and began talking excitedly about how we needed to write an article in Chimes about this. Chimes was the student newspaper, and Bork and Buma were the "Perspective" co-editor.

Bork and Buma took my information to the editor, Vanderklippe, and they talked it over, and then came back with their decisions. First of all they wanted to wait on it. If they ran the article too early, there was the fear that people would just forget about it by the time commencement actually came.

Secondly they wanted someone else to write it. Although I was still writing articles regularly for Chimes, I had technically finished at Calvin in December, and the article might have more weight if it was written by someone who was currently enrolled.

Also there was the concern that since I had been writing anti-Bush and anti-Republican articles all year, people might have begun to write me off as a partisan and not take seriously what I had to say.

I thought all of these points were fair enough, so we decided to wait on the article for a while, and then when spring came, I gave all my notes to Bork, and he wrote this article.

The article touched off a great deal of discussion at Calvin, and some people even began to talk about dis-inviting Rehnquist. Unfortunately because of the late date on which the article ran, realistically I don't think this was ever much of a possibility. If we had known how much people would react to the article, we would obviously have run it earlier in the year, but as they say, hindsight is 20/20.

The article also upset a lot of people in the administration. Apparently Klippe received a phone call from Calvin’s President saying that the article was poorly written, untrue and completely one-sided. Later Klippe and Bork were asked to meet with the Dean of student life to discuss the sources for the article. When it was revealed that I was the one who had researched the article, the invitation was extended to me to.

And, as I said to Bork, "I can't believe the president said your article was one sided. Of course it was one sided. Everything we ever write for Chimes is one sided. We write on the editorial page."

The sources for the article were a bit sketchy, since it was all based off of stuff I got on the internet. Which was how I researched all my articles. Chimes was a student newspaper with a small readership, and we held ourselves to a low standard in terms of fact checking. (Or maybe I should just speak for myself.)

Apparently the administration was upset that the article didn't cite its sources, but nothing we wrote in Chimes cites sources. In fact, if you look at a regular professional newspaper, how many editorials do you see carefully citing their sources for every fact they bring up?

Anyway, I spent the afternoon in the library, trying to back up everything written in the article with a hard source in a book. I was very pleased not only to find out that almost all of it checked out, but that I was able to find a whole lot more information. However I was not above having a little fun with Bork when we next met. "Good news," I said. "I was able to back up this part and this part, but this part and this part are going to be difficult to defend because, to be honest, I just made those parts up."

"What?" Bork said. "That's my name on that article!"

Klippe, Bork and I went to meet the Dean of student life, but to my surprise (and somewhat disappointment) she barely even brought up the subject of the sources for the article. Perhaps in the time since the angry phone calls had been made, the administration had done some fact checking of its own, and came to the same conclusion as us: most of it backs up.

Instead she just discussed the situation with us. "You realize it is impossible for us to invite a commencement speaker that would make everyone happy," she said. "If we had invited someone like Hillary Clinton, students from the other end of the spectrum would have been upset about that."

We tried to argue that this was not a matter of right-left dynamics, but that the charges of racism that we were making against Rehnquist were something that should disgust anyone regardless of their political affiliation. We went around the block a couple times on this one, and then the Dean moved on to another question.

"OK, I'll be honest with you, had we known everything that we know now, there's a good chance Rehnquist would never have been invited to speak at commencement. But now that it has already been done, and commencement is only two weeks away, what do you expect us to do about it?"

I argued that the administration should take the moral high road, and Rehnquist should be dis-invited. Klippe cut me off and said, "No, I don't agree with that. He should be invited to speak, but not at commencement. A different forum should be set up." I said I would be fine with that as well. But I don't think any of us seriously expected Rehnquist would actually be dis-invited at such notice.

The Dean was very polite to us the whole time, and at times I even got the sense of someone who sympathized privately with our position, but was just doing her job. Since talking was not my strong point, I had been somewhat worried she would just run over us, and I had been determined not to back down on anything before I even walked into her office. In retrospect I might have been a little too aggressive. Bork and Klippe were somewhat better spoken, and Klippe especially did not have any problem in cutting me off when he thought I had gone too far.

At the end of the meeting the Dean asked, almost in an after thought sort of way, for all my sources on Rehnquist, and I handed over my notes. Walking out of her office, I commented to Klippe and Bork that in the process of spending the afternoon in the library backing up the first article, I had found enough information to write a whole new article.

"Fine," said Klippe. "But I don't want it to be another 'Rehnquist equals Racism' article. We've already covered that. I want you to take it to the next step. If Rehnquist is a racist, then what should the college do about it?" So I wrote this article.

Later during the week we were in the Chimes office, and Buma asked if there was any more information we had on Rehnquist. I said I had a bunch more, but I had been asked to write an article with a different focus, so I had left it all out. "Could we write another article with that information?" Buma asked.

"Easily," I said. "But then this week's issue of Chimes would carry two editorials by me on the same subject." There was a brief debate about whether that was a bit of overkill or not. In the end the question was put back to me. "If you guys have the space to run the article, I don't mind writing it," I said. They had the space, so I wrote this article as well.

Other events happened on campus as well. There was a panel discussion about Rehnquist, consisting mostly of professors but Bork was one of the student representatives. There was an ad taken out in the Grand Rapids Press which stated that not everyone in the college supported Rehnquist's actions, and many students and professors signed their names.

The Grand Rapids press did a couple articles on the controversy, and Bork, Buma and I got our picture on the front page. And then that Saturday, an editorial appeared in the Grand Rapids Press criticizing us.

Unfortunately the Grand Rapids Press is not archived online, so I can't link to that editorial, but take my word, it was absolutely awful.

The editorial essential ran like this:
"I've been reading about the controversy at Calvin College, and how many students don't want Rehnquist to speak because he is supposedly a racist. But in the article that ran in this paper earlier in the week, no evidence of Rehnquist being a racist was given. Therefore I can only conclude that the students object to him simply because he is conservative. I remember the days when conservatives like William H. Buckley could speak at Calvin and everyone respected their right to free speech. But now even relatively conservative colleges like Calvin are filled with liberals who are intent upon shouting down anyone who disagrees with them."

Now come on. First of all it had been made very clear, in our articles, in the panel discussion, and in the ad in the Grand Rapids Press that:
1. We objected to Rehnquist based on his racist record, not on his conservative policies.
2. We didn't object to Rehnquist speaking on campus per se, just at his speaking at commencement.

Besides which in the articles we wrote for Chimes we laid out very clearly the reasons we thought he was racist. Now granted all of those points were not repeated in the Grand Rapids Press articles upon which this writer had based his editorial, but come on. I mean god forbid the guy actually takes the time to find out what our position is before writing an editorial attacking us. Remember this wasn't a "letter to the editor", but this was one of the full-length columns. I mean, how lazy do you have to be to write columns in the Grand Rapids Press. We went through the trouble of researching our articles, and we just wrote for a student newspaper. Hire me as a columnist for the GR Press, please.

Since the editorial attacked Buma by name, Buma called up to the Grand Rapids Press and asked for space to respond. They said OK, so he and I wrote up our response. But after saying they would give us space to respond, for one reason or another the Press never actually ran our response. Maybe it was because of the line, "Those of us who wrote articles in the Calvin College newspaper actually researched our position. It would be nice if the Grand Rapids Press held its writers to the same standard."

Because this was never cleared up, the "letters to the editor" page of the Grand Rapids Press was filled with letters complaining about the liberals at Calvin who refused to allow conservatives freedom of speech. This continued for a couple months until an article appeared by a Calvin professor who wrote clearly what our position had actually been.

Bush and Rehnquist: Comparison and contrast

Having Bush speak at commencement is obviously different than Rehnquist for a variety of reasons.

For one thing, the issue of Rehnquist's racism was not widely known initially. I didn't know about it before I started researching it. The readers of the Grand Rapids Press certainly didn't know about it. The administration said repeatedly that they had not known about it when they invited him, and the dean of student life even hinted to us that Rehnquist might not even have been invited in the first place had people been aware about his record.

As with Bush, no one can claim ignorance about this one. If this turns into a headache for Calvin, the administration cannot say, "We didn't know he would be such a controversial figure." Everyone is going into this with their eyes wide open.

Secondly the argument we made against Rehnquist were that his record of racism was a matter of concern for everyone, regardless of political affiliation. Although there was obviously some confusion about this in the larger Grand Rapids community, I think our arguments were fairly well understood at Calvin. Racism is something so terrible that everyone is against it. The only debate was whether our charges against Rehnquist were accurate or not, and once we had backed up our sources, the administration didn't have much of a leg to stand on.

I'd like to say that war, like racism, is something so terribly that every reasonable person is against it. But it appears we don't live in that world yet. When the Iraq war started, polls indicated 75% of the American public was in favor of the war, and it's a fair bet some of those people were at Calvin.

Although support has somewhat waned since then, in the political climate we live in support for the war has somewhat become a matter of party loyalty. And does that mean this war becomes just another political issue which we agree to disagree on? At any rate it would be hard to make an argument against Bush which could be accepted universally across the Calvin spectrum.

If I was still a student, I could almost imagine myself talking to the dean of student life again. "We can't have a commencement speaker that would make everyone happy. You might not like Bush, but imagine if we invited Hillary Clinton. The other half of the students would be upset. You might really hate innocent civilian casualties, but some people really hate nationalized health care."

The other argument the administration is already trying to make is that inviting Bush is simply a matter of Calvin's tradition of inviting a broad variety of speakers to the campus. In other words it's a free speech issue again. This is bullshit. Bork points this out in his post here. Imagine having Noam Chomsky doing the commencement speech.

Or imagine the head of the American Atheists speaking at commencement, and Calvin explaining to its alumni that this is just because Calvin welcomes a variety of opinions. Or imagine Bobby Seale, founder of the black panthers, speaking at commencement.

The commencement speaker reflects the values of the college, and Calvin is lying if they try and claim otherwise. Go look at the descriptions of past commencement speakers in Spark. How often do you see the words, "Although we don't really approve of what they've done, we decided to invite them to give the commencement speech to our graduates anyway"?

So what values does Bush have that the College is attracted to? Well, obviously he's the president of the United States, and the most powerful man in the world. To have Bush speak at a college the size of Calvin is a huge honor. That doesn't mean it's right.

Jim Wallis, in his book "God's Politics" writes, "Human beings do not handle power well. Of all people, religious leaders ought to know that best. Instead, religious leaders are often among the most easily corrupted by power, especially when they get close to political power. Doug Coe, the principal leader of the annual Presidential Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., once told me that the best way to get religious leaders together was to invite them to a meeting with a powerful political leader, hence the sold-out successes of each year's prayer breakfast. He said most church leaders generally ignored Jesus's suggestion to take the humbler places at a banquet and wait until they are invited to come up higher. Instead they jostle for the best positions and places at the events where the powerful gather. It regularly amazes me how good religious folk get so excited about sharing an intimate breakfast with the president and three thousand other people."

Calvin has apparently decided to be seduced by the aura of power.

So what to do about all this? Obviously I'm not a student anymore, and the fight is left up to the new generation. Of course it is not realistic to try and get Bush uninvited. But Calvin President Byker says they want Bush to feel very welcome at Calvin. It would be a pity if Bush felt too welcome. People who start wars, who send thousands of US soldier to their deaths, and bomb civilians, should never be able to go anywhere without being reminded of what they have done. I hope there are some people at Calvin who will remind Bush.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Turning 27

So this Thursday I turned 27, which is a number that I find a little frightening.

Shoko, who’s about 8 months older than me, already turned 27 this fall, and at the time I told my friend, “Wow, I can’t believe I’m dating someone who’s 27.”

“You’re 26,” he said. “What’s the difference?”

“Because 27 officially means you are in your late 20s.” I did my best to explain. “Everyone thinks turning 25 is a big milestone, but it’s not really. 25 is only one year older than 24, and 24, 25, 26 are all in the mid-twenties. So when you turn 25, you’re only going from one mid-twenties number to another.
And 24 itself is somewhat of a transition number between early twenties and mid-twenties, so it doesn’t seem like a big deal when you hit 24. Then 25, 26 are both kind of mid-twenties. But then, wham! 27! And all of a sudden you realize you’re closer to 30 than you are to 20, closer to mid-age than to child hood.”

To which my friend replied, “Listen Joel, I’m almost 30, so shut up.”
Which I suppose will be the attitude of any older than me who is reading this. Nevertheless, it strikes me that no matter how far along we are in the age spectrum, all of us have a sense of “Oh my God, I never thought I’d actually get this old.” And so despite our relative age or youth, we all seem to find ourselves shocked at the age we’re at.

Just recently I overheard a younger Japanese friend complaining that she did not want to turn 20, and I remembered thinking the same thoughts myself at that age. I remember my freshman year at Calvin College going out with people in my dorm to celebrate someone’s 19th birthday. Having a spring birthday myself, I was always one of the younger ones in my grade, and I was still 18 at the time. But I remember one of the Sophomores saying, “You know what’s scary? On my next birthday I’m going to turn 20. Not 19, but 20.” And I realized that I myself was only a year and a half away from 20, but it seemed inconceivable that I would actually turn 20. And now 20 has come and gone a long time ago.

Although everyone knows that the laws of nature dictate they must age just like the rest of the world, I think because a large part of our identity is defined by our age, we can’t imagine growing old any more than we can imagine loosing our identity. On some level I never really believed I would turn 20, and it now seems unbelievable to be just a few years short of 30. Although I suppose I’m probably still too young to be worried about my age too much.

I’d be interested to hear if people my same age feel the same way, but recently I’ve begun to notice how many people are now younger than me. For instance, not the majority but a suprising amount of the parents of my elementary school students are younger than me. Mostly this is among the youngest students, but occasionally even as high as 4th or 5th grade. Now of course doing the math some of them must have been very young pregnancies, as young as 15 in some cases, but it still makes me feel very old when some of my fourth grade students say to me, “Oh, you’re only one year older than my mom.”

I’ve also noticed that a fair amount of people in the public spotlight, professional athletes, rock musicians, and teen idols, are all younger than me. This makes me feel very old as well.

Sometimes reading what other people my age or younger have accomplished makes me feel a bit depressed. The famous Paris Communards Raoul Rigault and Theophile Ferre were only 24 and 25 when they assumed control of security of the Paris Commune. Elisabeth Dmitrieff was only 20 when she was sent as Marx’s envoy to the Paris Commune, representing the International Workingmen’s Association. Obviously these are rather selective examples based on the books I’ve been reading the past couple weeks, but any section of history will yield similar results.

Jim Wallis, in his book “God’s Politics” records an incident in which a 23 year old American activist saved a whole crowd of Palestinians from being gun downed by the Israeli army, and I think to myself, “I’m 27, and how many lives have I saved?”

In fact, the extent of my accomplishments this far in life is pretty much, “I went to Japan.” That’s pretty much it. A bit depressing depending on who I compare myself to.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Japan Times Round Up

A speaker at one of the JET conferences once related a quote by a British anthropologist in Japan, who said that it was very interesting to see American people and Japanese people interact; one group had been brought up to believe that everyone in the world wanted to be just like them, the other group had been brought up to believe that no one in the world could possibly be like them.

This winter I was sitting on the plane next to someone who was traveling to Japan for the first time, and he was asking for advice about how to fit in. “Don’t worry,” I said. “They don’t expect you to fit in.”

We Americans tend to look at the world as if our customs and values are universal, and are surprised when we find cultures resistant to our values. Japanese people on the other hand assume that their customs and values are unique to them, and our surprised when foreigners take any interest in Japan. This Japan Times article touches on this aspect of the Japanese world view, that makes Japanese somewhat uncomfortable around foreigners who seem like they understand too much about Japanese culture.

This funny article on Koizumi’s press conferences indicates that brushing aside and sidestepping reporter’s questions is not unique to American politicians.

And then this article on the liberal sexual practices of Japanese young people seems to confirm what a lot of us JETs have often noted antidotally among ourselves.

This somewhat goes back an article I linked to previously about the “God Gap” between Japan and the US. Because of no strong religious prohibitions against sex in Japan, people seem to be a lot sexually freer than in America. Although I have to be somewhat careful when I say this, because “my America” of Grand Rapids and Calvin College might not be representative of the larger country. But there seems to be general consensus among JETs here that sexual attitudes in Japan are more relaxed than in our home countries.

What amazes me then is the view Japanese have of American culture as “anything goes” totally lacking in any morals what so ever. I try and explain that America is actually socially conservative, strong religious right, Christian nation, et cetera, but there’s a refusal to believe it. This is largely because the image portrayed in Hollywood movies is not representative of America’s larger culture, but you would think in Japan of all places they would understand the concept that movies don’t represent real life. I mean, have you seen Japanese movies?

I occasionally hear comments like, “In America everyone has abortions, but in Japan we don’t think it is a good idea.” Or, “In America everyone has sex all the time, but in Japan we are more careful.” (I’m paraphrasing slightly, but these sentiments are often expressed). I try and correct these views, but it always feels like an uphill battle.

Monday, April 18, 2005

The Rest of the Day

After having written the previous post, I felt like coming back and finishing the rest of the story. This may boarder on being self-indulgent (or I should say, more self-indulgent than this blog usually is), since this happened so long ago, and since many of you have heard me tell this story before. But, I’ve got a bit of free time at school today, and I think this is more interesting than the usual “What I did this week” crap that I usually throw up on this blog. Anyway…

After finding out our plans had been sabotaged, those of us remaining debated what to do, and ended up deciding to go and join up with some other groups.

We met up with a group that was planning on blocking an intersection. Unlike our elaborate plans, their idea was to simply walk across the cross walk when the light was green, and then sit down and refuse to stand up. We did this, but the police soon showed up.

Combined with the new group, there were maybe thirty of us now. But the police presence was overwhelming. Rows and rows of policemen, and all sorts of police cars and vans showed up. The head policeman announced, “Right, I’m giving you only one chance to get up and move by yourselves, because if we have to move you, you’re all going to spend the night in jail.” There was a brief discussion over what to do, but we all quickly agreed that the better plan was for the moment to stay out of jail so that we could continue direct actions.

We stood up and left, appeared to break into smaller groups, and then all met at another intersection a couple blocks away and repeated the same plan. The police again showed up quickly, and the same pattern repeated. We figured if we could keep the police busy and on their toes by constantly having to remove us from different intersections, it would be more productive than spending the rest of the day in jail.

We were repeating this pattern at I think the fourth intersection when “the black bloc” came swarming by. A huge group, in the hundreds, of mostly anarchists dressed in red and black with even their faces covered in black masks. They were too big a crowd for the police to stop them, and so they swarmed freely down the streets, smashing all sorts of things along the way.

Even if I didn’t agree with all the tactics of the black bloc, after having the police frustrate all our efforts that afternoon, it was a wonderful sight to see the protesters gain the upper hand and take control of the street. We all left the intersection and joined in with the black bloc.

It’s interesting how sometimes in a big city you keep running into the same people over and over again. I recognized many of the anarchists from the YMCA, even though their faces were covered now. I also saw a delegate to the Republican Convention that I had talked to earlier in the week.

During one of the earlier demonstrations I had been involved in a march concerning the rights of the homeless. Occasionally some of the republican delegates would try and attempt dialogue with us, and this man had approached and told me he was concerned about the homeless as well, and worked with “Habitat For Humanity.” I mentioned I also occasionally volunteered for that group, and we had seemed to come to some sort of mutual respect for each other. That now seemed to be shattered when he saw me marching with the anarchists. “Young man, little girl,” he called out to me and the girlfriend. “What are you doing? Don’t do this.” I just looked away from him and pretended I didn’t hear.

We came to another intersection, and there was another stream of marchers coming down from another street and meeting up with us and swelling our ranks even more. We seemed unstoppable now. I briefly paused and put my fist in the air to salute the incoming marchers, and they returned it. It was a great feeling.

I followed the crowd, not quite sure where we were going. We went down one street that was partly under construction (all the streets always seem to be partly under construction in a big city like Philadelphia.) Many of the black bloc were taking advantage of all the props to move all sorts of construction equipment into the street and further obstruct traffic.

I stuck close to the black bloc members I knew from the YMCA. There was a police Jeep on the street, and one of my friends from the YMCA, right in front of me, picked up a cement block and threw it through the back window of the police vehicle. There was the loud sound of shattering glass and the car alarm went off. I couldn’t believe he had done it. After seeing police arrest people all week for minor infractions, I was certain he wasn’t going to get away with it.

But there was nothing the police could do about it, he was in the middle of a huge crowd and his face was hidden from view with only a small slit for his eyes in the black mask. As we past the front of the police jeep I looked inside and, instead of seeing the big intimidating police officer I expected, the occupant was a petite, African-American policewoman, who didn’t look much older than me, and had a frightened expression on her face. And then, what had previously been an admiration of bravery, quickly turned into anger at my friend for his action.

Although I didn’t approve of everything the black bloc was doing, at this point I felt like I had no choice but to keep going forward. The police were lining the streets everywhere, and the only reason the black bloc was able to move freely was because of their numbers. I was sure the police would pounce on the opportunity to arrest anyone who strayed from the big group.

To their credit though the Black Bloc was not smashing randomly, but only carefully chosen and selected targets. Symbols of capitalism, such as banks and Mc. Donald’s, were attacked and had their windows smashed in, as well symbols of police authority (as seen above).

We came to the end of one street and flooded into another. This was a major, five-lane street, with the traffic already stopped dead because of a traffic jam. There were 3 or 4 limousines caught in the jam, probably carrying delegates to the convention, although we couldn’t see inside the tinted windows. These limousines were the only vehicles that were attacked by the black bloc. The limousines had their front and back windows smashed in, paint was thrown on them, people jumped on the hood, and lots of people pressing their middle fingers up against the glass and yelled, “Fuck you, fuck you.”

There was a significant police presence blocking the next intersection, so we just turned down another street. The next road was blocked off as well, with the police closing in behind us as well, so the march flowed into a side street. The police followed behind us down this street also, and soon we found ourselves in a narrow street trapped between police lines on both sides. Although there was probably about 3 hundred of us, there were more police.

There was a fence on one side of us and some of the black bloc began climbing over this fence to escape, but then somebody noticed on the other side of the fence there was a hospital, and the general consensus seemed to be that it was inappropriate to bring the demonstration near to a hospital. A person standing near me yelled out (repeatedly), “That’s a hospital you fucking sheep, look where you are going!” About 15 or so people escaped by climbing over the fence and running through the hospital parking lot, but the rest seemed to agree that it was wrong to bring the conflict near the hospital, and stopped and came back.

I fully expected to be arrested at this point, and told the girlfriend to stay calm when the police arrested us. But to my amazement, the line of police opened up, and we were allowed to pass through. Perhaps the police also decided they didn’t want trouble near a hospital, or perhaps the plan all along had been simply to contain the march rather than arrest everyone. I became aware at this point that the police were videotaping and photographing everyone, but we were allowed to pass through.

Eventually the black bloc, being somewhat corralled by the police, emerged into the Philadelphia square area, where another large demonstration was already taking place. For a while the two groups mingled, and then the black bloc left to march down another street. I took this opportunity to leave the black bloc, and join the other demonstration.

This demonstration consisted mostly of people standing in the square and staying off the streets. (The “square area”, I’m not sure what the real name of it is, was a space in the middle of down town. The famous sculpture of the word “love” is located here. I guess maybe it should be called a park, except there was more concrete there than trees.)

At any rate, the demonstration at the square was a lot safer, and mostly consisted of people holding signs and listening to speakers. The police eventually surrounded the area, stopping new demonstrators from arriving and keeping the rest of us trapped there.

From this perspective we were able to see the police crack down on the demonstrators on the street, but were prevented from offering assistance. I’m not sure where the black bloc went. They ended up wandering off somewhere else, and the people left were people peacefully blocking intersections, like we had been doing earlier.

When the demonstrators refused to leave the intersection, the police began arresting them and dragging them away. At this point several of the demonstrators went limp, and some of the police lost control a bit and started hitting or kicking them. Because we were all trapped on the square, there was nothing we could do, but several people began chanting, “The whole world is watching.”

At the time I thought the whole world really was watching. There were television cameras everywhere, and I thought this would be broadcast all over the world just like the protests in Seattle had been that previous December. Because the local media did a good job of covering the event, it was not until I returned home to Grand Rapids that I realized what a non-story these protests had been nation wide.

If I may digress slightly: When discussing “Fahrenheit 911” with other Americans, I have several times heard people say something like, “I thought the most amazing part of the film was the footage in the beginning about the inauguration protests against Bush. I had never heard anything about that before, but based on the footage shown in the film it seemed like it was a pretty big protest.”

I was at the inauguration protests as well and, although this is not the time to go into detail about that event, the short version is that it was a lot of the same stuff as the Republican Convention. Large crowds of demonstrators, anarchists and black blocs fighting street battles with the police, lots of stuff getting smashed up, it seemed like a big deal at the time being in the middle of it. I was again surprised when I returned home to learn how little media coverage that protest had gotten.

The lessons for this I suppose are two-fold. On one hand it makes me wonder how many large demonstrations go on all the time that we have no idea about. On the other, it gives me an appreciation for how huge an event like Seattle must have been to receive the amount of media attention that it did.

Anyway, back to the story at hand: we stayed at the square for the rest of the afternoon, listening to various speakers on various topics. We didn’t really have much choice. Occasionally someone in a leadership position would say that they were currently negotiating with the police to allow everyone to leave, but it was another couple hours before we were allowed free movement again, and even then I was afraid about just venturing out by myself into the crowd of police. I waited until a large group was leaving, and then left with them.

Epilogue: The Following Day
The next day was Friday, and there were no direct actions planned as far as I knew, but simply organized marches. I showed up at the bus station in the morning for a march for woman’s rights.

While we were assembling, I was approached by someone who I’m pretty sure was a cop. I never found this out for sure, but all the right bells were going off. For one thing he was much older, probably in his early forties. He had relatively short hair, a bit longer than the crew cuts worn by the previous under-cover cops, but it looked like it was in the awkward stages between being a relatively conservative hair cut, and growing it out. Two days ago I might have given him the benefit of the doubt, but today everyone who looked like a cop, was a cop.

He said he had just arrived for the protest. That in itself seemed very silly, because this was the last day of a week of planned demonstrations. Why would he just be arriving now? And he asked me all sorts of questions about where he could go to get involved in something a little more radical, or some direct action.

He seemed to hate Bush a lot, but it almost seemed to be a little bit too much, as if he was putting it on a bit. And he was very friendly, but again, almost overly friendly. He even went as far as to treat my girlfriend and I to ice cream later in the day. “You guys want some ice cream?” he asked. “No, no, it’s on me,” he said, waving away our attempts to pay. At times I almost felt like I was hanging around with my dad (um, except for all the anti-Bush rhetoric, that is).

Fortunately for me, I didn’t know anything, so I didn’t even worry about trying to hide any information from him, but told him everything I knew, which was nothing. “I don’t think there’s any direct action planned today,” I said. “I think that’s all over yesterday. I think today we’re just doing legal marches.”

Indeed why he chose to attach himself to me and my girlfriend, despite the fact that we knew absolutely nothing, is a mystery to me. Maybe we just looked like friendly people he could attach to easily. Or, it has since occurred to me, out of all the people who were marching with the black bloc the previous day, I was one of few who had been marching with his face uncovered. Maybe we had been photographed and identified as targets. Or maybe that’s giving myself too much credit.

At any rate, since I had no information to hide from him, I had no problem with being friendly with him and we got along well. Halfway through the day he left us, presumably to try and infiltrate someone else.

Later in the day I saw my anarchist friends from the YMCA. I had been worried about them, but it appears that they had made it through yesterday’s demonstrations safely.

A Confession
If I may plead another digression: the previous month I had been at a demonstration in Windsor Canada. At one point in the demonstration, someone started handing out large “out-door” sized pieces of chalk, and we began writing messages on the ground. I wrote a message, and then someone asked to borrow my piece of chalk, and I gave it to him. He wrote something on the ground, and then hurled the rest of the chalk at the policemen standing nearby.

I glared at him angrily. Although the chalk was harmless enough, the gesture seemed to invoke violence, and I would never have given him the chalk if I had known it would have been used that way. He blushed slightly, as if he had not intended to do it, but got caught up in the excitement of the moment. “Oops, sorry,” he said to me apologetically.

During my previous brief encounters with this fellow, I had not been impressed. He seemed to me immature, and guilty of rhetorical excess. I thought he was only trying to impress others around him, and wondered if he even understood what he was saying.

Of course that’s just my first impression from a guy I met briefly, and I had no right to assume those things. Nevertheless, he was someone who rubbed me the wrong way.

Later in the day, when we had broken into small groups and left the main demonstration, I noticed that policemen were beginning to slowly close in around us. The others in the group were distracted by a discussion, and did not seem to notice. But I saw them come in and I could tell from the way their attention was focused that they were after the chalk thrower. They had been unable to grab him earlier in the day when we were in the crowd, but they were going to get him now.

I should have warned him what was going to happen, but I somewhat disliked him, and felt he sort of had it coming anyway because of what he had done, so instead of warning, I walked away from him so I wouldn’t be near him when the police made their move, and he wouldn’t have anyone nearby to grab onto for help.

The police darted in, grabbed him, and started to drag him off to the police car. The others in our group howled with rage and tried to block the path of the police so they couldn’t make off with him, but the police had the advantage of surprise, and by the time the others had realized what had happened, it was too late.

As you can imagine, I felt pretty guilty. I made a belated effort to redeem my self by trying to block the police car with the others, but we were a small number and the police moved us aside easily.

“What are the police doing?” someone asked later. “Why would they just come in and grab one of us at random like that?”

“It wasn’t random,” I said. “He had thrown a piece of chalk at the police earlier.”

“What?” someone said in disbelief. “All that for throwing a piece of chalk?”

(I later found out he was charged with assaulting a police officer, which seemed a bit excessive to me.)

Although the sins of the black bloc had greatly exceeded the sins of the chalk thrower, I did not desire their arrest and in fact was worried for their safety. Perhaps, as with before, the reasons for this were as much personal as political.

The anarchists I knew from the YMCA were people I really liked. They were suspicious of everyone, but somewhat friendly with me. They would tell me stories of their past protests, and at times we even talked about video games and movies. I never asked their age, but I got the feeling they were even younger than I was.

Although they had spent all week attending demonstrations with their faces covered, on Friday they were out walking around in broad daylight with their normal clothes on. It was a clever instance of “reverse disguise”, but I wondered if they weren’t being over-confident. After all, if the police would go to such efforts to track down someone who had thrown a piece of chalk, surely throwing a cement block threw a police car would not go unpunished.

We were in a park during the evening, and some of the anarchists started having imaginary sword fights with each other, and it struck me that they were just big kids who thought this whole thing was a game, and didn’t realize the serious consequences of their actions. After all, if throwing a piece of chalk was considered assaulting an officer, they would certainly be in a lot of trouble if they were caught, and that would ruin their game and their carefree attitude very quickly.

But I wanted them to stay happy and continue to enjoy themselves. I thought it was foolish of them to show themselves now after what they had done yesterday, and at one point even urged them to leave the demonstration. They didn’t seem to be worried about it. I left for home the next day, and as far as I knew, they were all able to return home safely as well.

In fact I would see some of them again at the protests on Bush’s inauguration day, and then again at Quebec. They still regarded me with their usual mixture of friendliness and suspicion, seeming glad to see me but being very careful how much information they shared with me. But it sounded like everyone was able to return safely.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Police and Me

My good friend Brett has an interesting post detailing his less than positive experiences with police. I had heard all these stories before, and in fact somewhat preferred them in their more detailed form in which I first heard them, but I suppose when you combine them all into one post you have to condense a little.

But the post got me thinking about some of my own experiences with the police. The best story I have comes from the protests at the Philadelphia Republican National Convention in 2000. Regular readers of this blog will perhaps note I’ve already used that week as material for two previous posts.

Near the beginning of the week I attended a workshop on non-violent civil disobedience. It was a small group, about 15 people or so, including 3 guys who stood out a bit. They looked to be in their mid to late 30s, a lot older than the rest of us. They were all 3 big guys, probably more fat than muscle, but each with the look of someone who had been muscular at one time, and then let himself go slightly as he got older. And they all had very short hair. I thought that they were cops, and that they were participating in this workshop as some sort of effort towards cop/protester dialogue.

It wasn’t until later in the week, after I had seen those three at various other workshops and demonstrations, that I learned they were not cops, but rather construction workers who were involved in the union. They looked a bit different than everyone else, but they seemed to be generally well liked and accepted, and were very funny guys, always laughing and telling jokes and making me laugh when I was with them.

The beginning of the week was all general marches and demonstrations, but towards the end of the week there were plans for civil disobedience and direct action. In order to protect against infiltration by police and to keep an element of surprise, these actions were not discussed in the big group meetings, but planned out by small groups of ten or 15 people called “affinity groups.”

My first experience at a large protest had been the anti-IMF demonstrations the previous Spring. This had also consisted of affinity groups planning direct actions. My friends and I had been rather clueless about what to do, and had simply asked around the day before. Someone told us to come to a certain intersection at 5 AM the next day, and a large group would assemble there that would then march into the restricted area, using the safety of large numbers to prevent arrests, and block the intersection to prevent IMF delegates from attending the meeting. We did this and the next day found ourselves ending up at one of the most contested points in the battle for the streets between the police and protesters. After just coming out of the middle of nowhere, we had no problem finding our way to the center of the action.

I had done the same thing, more or less, at a demonstration in Windsor, Ontario. Showed up with no connections, asked around as to where the direct actions would be taking place, and had no problem in integrating myself into the center of things.

So I figured that I would do the same thing in Philadelphia. Since the demonstrators have adopted the anarchist model of “consensus democracy” for the structure of their meetings, they tended to be long drawn out affairs. If one person has an objection, any motion cannot pass. Although I agree with this practice in theory, Washington DC and Windsor had taught me that I didn’t necessarily want to be sitting in the meeting while they hammered everything up. Just tell me what time to show up and when, thank you, and I don’t need to be in on all the planning details.

But the plan in Philadelphia was slightly different. In DC the objective had actually been to shut down the IMF meetings, and so although individual groups were organized on their own, everyone was showing up at more or less the same area with more or less the same objective (to shut the streets down).

In Philadelphia it was recognized that it was not realistic to shut down the Republican Convention, so the plan was for scattered acts of civil disobedience across the city. I began to realize that what I had done in DC would not work here in Philadelphia, and I would need to become organized into an affinity group in order to participate.

Because it was late in the week when I came to this realization, and only a couple days away from the planned action, I was viewed with suspicion by everyone I approached. I was grilled a couple times by organizers who suspected me of being a cop.

In one sense it was understandable. Here I was coming out of nowhere, with no one to vouch for me, suddenly wanting to know all the details of the planned direct action.

On the other hand, I don’t think I looked like a cop. Granted I don’t really have a clear idea of what I look like to other people, but I was only 22 at the time and I think I looked young. I was in my “long hair stage” back then. I had been in Philadelphia almost a week, and had been staying at the YMCA with only the clothes on my back. I hadn’t showered or changed clothes in close to a week during the hot summer months of August, and I’m sure I looked filthy. In addition I was with my girlfriend at the time, who really did not look like a cop. She was small, petite, soft spoken, and was dressed in a fashion that seemed to be a cross between Goth and Hippy.

Eventually I was admitted into a group that planned to block traffic at an intersection near the Republican Convention. The group’s leader explained to me that there were three levels of participation. There was the red level, the people who would almost certainly get arrested, who were planning on blocking the intersection. Then there was the yellow level, people who might get arrested, who were supposed to provide support for the people blocking the intersection. And then there was the green level, people who wouldn’t get arrested, who would offer support from the sidewalks. I volunteered for the yellow level.

Looking back on it, it is hard for me to remember why I was so worried about getting arrested. I believed sometimes in protest it was necessary for people to get arrested, and if anyone was in a position where they could afford to get arrested, it was me. I was a student, so I didn’t have a serious job I needed to worry about. And what’s more it was summer break. The idea of spending a night or two in jail wasn’t particularly appealing, but on the other hand it could hardly have been much worse than sleeping on the hard gym floors at the YMCA.

Earlier in the week however I had run into someone I recognized from the IMF protest in DC. At one point, when the police had run into the crowd to grab people, I had managed to get away but he had been caught. I asked him what had happened. He related to me how, even though the police didn’t have anything to charge him with, being arrested had turned out to be a major hassle.

Like me he was not from the DC area, so having to constantly return to the Washington DC to clear the issue in courts proved to be a strain both on his time and money. “The police use the judicial system as the penal system,” he explained to me. “Because they can’t find anything to charge you with, they punish you by making you appear at court again and again, even if you don’t live in the area.”
And I thought to myself, “boy, I need that like I need a kick in the balls.” It had been project enough getting out here in the first place (close to 24 hours on the bus), and the last thing I wanted to do was to make that trip repeatedly. Plus I was starting student teaching in September, and it would be a major inconvenience if all that wasn’t cleared up by the time I started.

So I opted for yellow. There were about 25 of us in all, ten reds, ten yellows, and about 5 greens. Included in the reds were the 3 union workers I had met earlier in the week.

We did a couple practices in an abandoned building somewhere. The plan was that us yellows would meet at the station. Then we would march down to the intersection. The reds would drive to the intersection in a van. Once the van was in the intersection, us yellows would jump out and block all the traffic. This would allow the red people to stop the van in the intersection, jump out and use their equipment to lock themselves down around the van, making it very hard for police to remove them, and effectively shutting down the intersection for a long time. During this time we yellows would make sure they kept getting water, and give them any other support they needed.

The practicing was a little bit silly, but it helped give everyone a feel for positioning. I practiced blocking imaginary traffic while others jumped out of an imaginary van. The 3 union fellows, although laughing and joking as always, also expressed concern that because of their big size they might become targets of the police. At one point Harry, the biggest of the three, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “If they start hitting me, you’ll help me won’t you?” I told him I would do my best.

The day of the direct action I was very nervous. There were police everywhere, and there were many reports that they were arresting anyone who looked like a protester. We were instructed never to go anywhere alone, and always stay in large groups.

We weren’t supposed to meet at the station until 12, and I didn’t know where else to go until then. With my week old clothes and long hair, I looked like a protester and didn’t dare just wander the streets by myself. As always, we were kicked out of the YMCA at an early hour. My girlfriend and I spent some time at a large warehouse that was one of the headquarters of the demonstration, and where a lot of people were inside making puppets for the demonstration. We left at one point to get some food, and when we came back the police had the building surrounded and were arresting everyone inside. We didn’t stay long after we saw all the police cars and heard from someone else what was happening.

We went into a bar to kill a couple hours, but even the bar had police in it. Eventually we started heading for the bus station where we were supposed to meet up with the other yellows.

Because even the bus station was being watched by the police, we were supposed to arrive separately, pretend we were there alone, and then wait until everyone was present and assemble together. I’m not sure how many people I fooled, but I did my best to keep my head in my newspaper and make only occasional glances at the others in my group that I spotted around the bus station.

When everyone was there, we came together, but someone had bad news. “The van was stopped,” he said. “The police arrested everyone inside. Somehow they knew.”

It turns out the 3 union construction workers, who I initially thought were cops, really were cops. I suppose that punch line has been obvious all along since I introduced this as a story about police.

It was a shock to all of us when we found out, but at the same time it had sort of been obvious all along. I mean, could these 3 guys have looked any more like cops? Because they seemed so well liked and accepted by everyone else, I had just assumed that everyone else had known something I didn’t, and that these guys probably had a long history of social activism, and had people that could vouch for them, and that’s why no one thought they were cops. In fact I had convinced myself so much of this that it really did come as a big shock to learn that they had been cops all along.

The other people in the van were arrested and charged with conspiracy to obstruct traffic. The story, and the resulting court case, was not quite national news, but it was followed both by the local media in Philadelphia, and independent media concerned with issues of freedom of assembly and police abuse of power.

Since the incident received a fair amount of attention, and since I was one of only about 25 people involved, I used to scan the articles on the internet looking for some reference to myself. Something like, “Also present was a tall, squirrelly looking, unkempt and unwashed Dutchman, with a small petite girlfriend who looked like a cross between a Goth or a hippy.” I never found anything.

Five years later, there seem to be a lot of articles on the web that reference the incident as part of a larger case against police over-reaching, but few articles that deal with the incident in detail. I did, however, manage to find four articles (here, here, here and here).

(You’ll notice, if you read these articles, there are some small discrepancies between their account and mine. Most accounts talk about 4 undercover police officers instead of 3. I only remember 3, but it was 5 years ago and I could be remembering wrong. Or the other one could have been in a different place at the times I was there.
Also, a couple of the articles mention a bizarre detail about the protesters wearing adult diapers to avoid bathroom breaks during the lock down of the intersection. I don’t remember this, but as a yellow perhaps this was just a detail among the reds that I wasn’t privy to. Still, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. I mean, how long did they think they would be there before the police cleared them away? Couldn’t they just hold it for a couple hours?)

My personal take on it: blocking traffic is a well-established form of non-violent civil disobedience, and was used often during the civil rights movement. Now one can argue about whether we had the same moral authority to use that tactic as the civil rights protesters (I’m sure we didn’t), or if we had any moral ground at all (depending on what your political affiliation is), but I don’t think anyone can argue with a straight face that it is a form of violence. It is certainly a form of non-violent protest, and in that regard the fact that the police department found it necessarily to use 3 under-cover police officers to infiltrate a non-violent group of 25 people that planned to block traffic: well, it just seems a bit excessive to me.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Not Drinking and Me Part 2

I should perhaps clarify that my main objection to drinking isn’t so much the odd beer here and there, but feeling pressured into doing it when I don’t want to. However in an effort to be consistent, I’m going to try and eliminate all drinking. After all, it wouldn’t look very good if I made a big fuss about not drinking at the school parties, and then was caught buying a beer at the local convenience store.

Actually, left on my own I’m really not much of a drinker. There are a few stories of indiscretion and excess with my name attached to them, but that’s the exception, not the rule. School drinking parties aside, it’s rare if I drink twice in a month.

I don’t really like to drink. Don’t like the taste of it all that much. After the mandatory youthful experimentation, I decided that I don’t like being drunk. And I really don’t like the morning after. So giving up drinking entirely is not something that is very difficult for me. In fact one might wonder, school drinking parties aside, why someone like me would even drink above given my above preferences. So I thought I’d enumerate all the situations in which I’m most likely to have a drink.

1. Without a doubt the most common is when I’ve made the mistake of drinking too much coffee late at night (which, by the way, drinking coffee is next on my list of things I’m going to cut out). It’s 3 AM, I’m wide awake, lying in my futon, staring at the ceiling, and promising myself this is the last time I’m going to drink coffee ever. Then I decide to go to the convenience store and buy a couple beers (or more likely a bottle of wine) in the hopes that it will counter-balance the caffeine.
It seems to work. Maybe it’s just the placebo effect. Or maybe in the hour it takes me to get up, get dressed, drive down to the convenience store, buy the wine, drive back and drink it, I would have fallen asleep eventually anyway.

2. This is going to identify me as a major geek but…
In the above example, I often find myself drinking alcohol at 3 or 4 in the morning waiting to get sleepy. Since I don’t have a TV, I’m frequently reading during this time while I’m munching on potato chips and drinking. And I’ve found that whatever I’m reading seems a lot more interesting after a couple drinks.
After a while, on nights when I didn’t feel like going out and doing anything, staying home with a book and a couple of beers sounded really appealing. Like I said, I guess this identifies me as a major geek. Most people associate drinking with going out and partying and picking up girls, not reading history books.

3. Another time I might want to have a drink is when I’m out with friends and I want something to slowly sip throughout the evening. Usually I order juice or tea at the bar, but then I down it really quickly, and I’m left holding an empty glass and feeling a bit awkward.
A beer doesn’t go down quite as easily, at least not for me. I couldn’t gulp a beer down quickly if I wanted to. So one beer will last me a good twenty minutes or so.
This works particularly well when I’m talking to girls. Usually if I’m talking to a girl I get nervous and drink whatever is in my hand very quickly. And then when there is a pause in the conversation, I look awkwardly into my empty glass.
On the other hand with a beer, I always have something nearby to take a sip of. So the pauses in the conversation seem to occur not because I’ve run out of things to say, but because I’ve just decided to take a little break to drink my beverage.

4. And speaking of talking to girls, another time I would be tempted to drink beer is to try and gain some “liquid courage.” I don’t do this often because it tends to backfire on me.

I’m not sure why that is. I think it may be because I’m a naturally introverted person anyway, so my natural state is not to talk to other people. Talking to other people (unless they’re good friends) requires an effort and concentration on my part. And so if alcohol dulls my senses slightly, I find myself being less sociable.

But every once and a while, when I’m in the right mood and am feeling outgoing and have a lot of energy, a beer or two really seems to do a lot to boost my confidence. Maybe it’s the placebo effect, I don’t know.

In this respect I liken beer somewhat to drinking coffee. Sometimes when I’m really feeling tired in the morning, a couple cups of coffee will do wonders for me. But sometimes it doesn’t help at all. In fact I’ll feel worse because now I’m tired and I’ve got this black sludge swishing around in my empty stomach. But when I walk into the office in the morning and see the coffee pot brewing, I tend to only think of the times it has made me feel better.

Drinking can be the same way. In spite of the fact that more often then not it makes me less sociable, if the night isn’t going well, I sometimes only remember the few times it seemed to perk me up.

Often though, even if a few drinks do help me make it through the night, I tend to regard it as cheating. If there’s something I’m nervous about doing, such as going out on the dance floor, or singing karaoke, or talking to the girl next to me, and then I do it, it’s a victory of sorts. But if alcohol was involved, it somewhat cheapens the victory.

Not Drinking and Me

I was doing some hiking recently, and my mind began to wander as it often does when I’m hiking alone. I don’t remember what the train of thought was that led me to this topic, but I began to think about some of my youthful experimentation with illegal substances.

Or to be more precise, I tried marijuana a few times when I was 18 years old. Which, in and of itself, is not such a big deal. I fancied myself quite the rebel at the time, but I now realize, especially as I have ventured into the “post-Calvin” world, that trying marijuana a few times around that age is pretty much par for the course.

So what sticks out in my mind is not so much the action itself, but my intellectual weakness. I mean, here I was doing something really stupid, intaking a substance which I knew was harmful to my body, and I was so proud of myself.

There was no peer pressure, at least not in the “after-school special” sense of the word. I did not have a joint shoved in my face, and hear someone say, “come on man, everybody’s doing it.” In fact on the contrary, I had a reputation for innocence in high school, which many of my friends seemed eager to preserve. They would often encourage me not to do what they were doing.

But there was a sense in which I felt that many of the people I admired most in high school, the cool people and the popular people and the people I felt like I wanted to be like, were using marijuana.

After years of after school specials, public service commercials, and lectures from teachers and youth leaders, I felt like I had been lied to. Perhaps I had been a little too trusting to begin with, but I had fully believed that the marijuana users would all turn out to be the burned out losers they were portrayed to be in the anti-drug commercials. It was a surprise to find out that some of the most popular, and the most charismatic students were using marijuana. I thought that if I started using the drug, some of those traits might rub off on me.

But after having tried marijuana for the stupidest of reasons, it is amazing how proud of myself I became. I thought using the drug proved that I was not bound by conventional rules. That it identified me as one of a select few who were willing to take risks and do things forbidden. I compared myself to all the adults I knew, teachers, church leaders, parents and relatives, and thought that they all lived such boring lives. But I would be different. When I was old and gray I would have these moments of youthful rebellion to look back on with pride.

But from my perspective now, what I then saw as a strength of character only comes through as a profound weakness. How much better it would have been if I had been confident enough in my identity of self that I didn’t need to feel like I needed to intake a certain substance to feel like I fit in. If I had strong convictions that I would do what was right, and accept whatever social fall out there might be, then that would really have been something I could look back on with pride.

The thing that worries me is I’m not sure I’ve changed all that much since I was 18. So I resolved never that I should never again do something that I thought was wrong simply because other people around me were doing it, or because I needed to fit in.

And then I thought about drinking in Japan.

Again, much like the handful of times I tried marijuana, the issue with drinking in Japan for me isn’t so much that it is something I do in excess, as it is the principle underlying.

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, Japan is a drinking culture. And although I often prefer not to drink, when out with Japanese friends, and especially at work related parties, I’ll drink as much as I feel is required by politeness with the justification of trying to respect the rules of another culture. I was also well aware that identify myself as a non-drinker might result in less social invitations from my Japanese colleagues.

But I started to see clearly that this was just another character weakness. I would be a much better person if I had the strength to say I just didn’t want to drink, and accepted whatever the fallout from this decision was.

The problem though, is it is one thing to start out saying that you are not going to drink. It is another thing to start out drinking at the parties, and then decide to reverse course halfway through.

This was made even more difficult by the fact that I had somehow gotten a reputation as a big drinker at my school. I’m not sure how this happened because, as I said above, I only drank what I felt was required out of politeness. I suspect it has to do with the fact that I have also acquired a well-deserved reputation as a big eater, and perhaps without anyone paying too much attention to how much I was drinking, it was assumed I was consuming alcohol in proportion to the amount of food.

At any rate, to suddenly declare I was no longer drinking would require a lot of explanation, and I wasn’t sure my Japanese was up to it, and even if it was I doubted Japanese people would be able to understand, since Japan is a drinking culture, and drinking alcohol is never thought of as something bad.

So at the end of the year party, I simply claimed I was feeling a bit sick. But I couldn’t use that excuse every time, and besides lying about it in order to avoid confrontation did not prove strength of character.

So, at the beginning of the year party, I said I was no longer going to drink alcohol anymore for religious reasons. This was a relatively easy lie to get away with, because, thanks to the presence of Mormon missionaries in Japan, many Japanese people already believe that all Christians aren’t supposed to drink alcohol. Of course I’m still lying, but I was willing to live with that.

I still had to explain why I had drank at the previous parties, so I said I had lapsed a bit in my faith, but I had experienced a renewal lately, and was now trying to be more true to my religion.

At the welcome party, the seating arrangements had me seated at a table of almost all women. I’d be happy about this under any circumstances, but it was an added bonus that I knew these women were unlikely to pressure me to drink. It was usually the old men who insisted on drinking.

Once the party got going a little, and people started mingling with other tables, I got a little bit of flack for not drinking, but it wasn’t too bad.

I didn’t really get in trouble until the new teachers were up on stage introducing themselves. One of the new teachers had been sitting at our table, and when it was her turn to introduce herself she said, “I’m sorry, I can’t do a good introduction because I’m a little drunk. Almost no one was drinking at our table, so I and Mr. Kato had to finish off all of the beer by ourselves.” And at this point there was a stir through the crowd, and I heard my name mentioned several times in the whispers. “What? Why isn’t Joel drinking tonight?”

Under pressure to explain myself in as few words as possible so we could return to the ceremony, I simply said, “Uh, I prefer tea tonight,” and held up a glass of tea to demonstrate. That seemed to briefly satisfy everyone, and we went on with the introductions.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Japan Times

I’ve been linking to so many stories from the Japan Times, one of these days I should really just establish a permanent link there. In the meantime, here is an interesting article on the “God Gap” between Japan and the West. I’ve mentioned this before, but Japan’s lack of religion makes it really hard for me to explain to Japanese friends certain aspects of American culture, like the Religious Right, or the battle over “under God” in the constitution, or many of the other religious wars we have in the US. This article only skims the surface of the issue, but it is a good introduction.

To switch from the high brow to the low brow: photographs of women pretending to be dead, and the ever-growing problem of teenage prostitution in Japan. The bizarre thing about this growing social problem, as you will note from the article, is the motivation is not economic desperation but rather the desire to buy brand name hand bags and accessories.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Links and Stuff

As I mentioned in a previous post, one of the things I miss most about being away from the US is the opportunity for involvement in social issues. Every once and a while I’ll get the urge to try and seek something out in Japan.

I was thinking that since I’m very close to a major city now (Nagoya), perhaps I could find some sort of opportunity. I spent an afternoon searching the internet to that effect, with no great success. I suppose in Japan, as in the US, it is hard to get involved locally by using the internet. It’s probably much better to make use of the connections you already have.

I did find a number of links to sites that deal with progressive politics in Japan. None of them offer an real opportunities for involvement locally, but for what it was worth I thought I would just add them to my list of links in case anyone else was interested in exploring them (you can find them on the bottom of the links on the left hand side of this page.)

You may notice that I’ve decided to include the party of bourgeois capitalism with Democrats Abroad in Japan. I should probably take a moment to defend this.

My freshman year at Calvin College I joined the Young Democrats club. The club wasn’t very well organized, and didn’t have very strong leadership, but I enjoyed being in it because it gave me a sense of participation. During the months before the 1996 election, we did simple things like distributing literature, and encouraging people to vote in predominately Democratic (read Black) neighborhoods.

That same year I applied for membership in the Socialist Party. I met with a representative from the Socialist Party, and he inquired as to what political activities I was currently involved in. When I mentioned the young Democrats, he was slightly upset and said that the Democratic Party was a party of capitalism, and it was unacceptable for Socialist Party members to engage in activities that helped the Democratic Party.

I was reluctant to give up my participation in the Young Democrats because it gave me a sense of being involved locally, with my feet on the ground, working and talking with real people. The Socialist Party, on the other hand, offered no opportunities for local involvement. I tried briefly to make this case. I said there wasn’t a strong Socialist presence in Grand Rapids, and in the absence of a Socialist alternative, might it not be better to work for the Democratic party than to let the Republicans win? He wouldn’t give in on this point though, and made it clear to me that my admittance into the Socialist Party would be conditional on my leaving the Young Democrats. So I dropped out of the Calvin College Young Democrats. The organization dissolved the following year anyway, due to lack of interest.

During the 2000 election of course was Ralph Nader. The Socialist Party refused to endorse Ralph Nader because he was a reformist capitalist, and not a true Socialist. They ran their own candidates instead, but they did acknowledge in their newsletter that some Socialist party members might choose on an individual basis to support the candidacy of Ralph Nader.

During the summer of 2000 I went to the protest the Republican National Convention. As I was marching in a demonstration, I overheard some of the conversation behind me, and recognized that the person behind me was David McReynolds. David McReynolds was the Socialist candidate for president that year. Because of his leadership in both the Socialist party, and The War Resisters League, he is well known within certain radical circles.

I had actually corresponded with him over e-mail. Or sort of. I had participated in discussions on the Socialist Party e-mail list serve, and David McReynolds had twice responded to some of my posts, addressing me by my first name as if I was an old friend of his, and praising what I had wrote. I was very impressed with his friendly attitude, and thought maybe I should introduce myself to him in person now that he was right behind me. But then I remembered the Ralph Nader pens that were on my backpack and my shirt, and I thought maybe it wouldn’t be such a good idea.

On that same march I was approached by someone from the Sparticist League. I don’t know too much about that organization, but I believe it is modeled after Rosa Luxembourg’s group in Germany of the same name. Anyway, he was trying to recruit people to join the group, and was handing out literature about that explained the Sparticist position and attacked Ralph Nader as a reformist capitalist. At that point he noticed the Ralph Nader pen on my shirt, and challenged me on it.

“Are you a socialist?” he asked.

“Of course,” I answered.

“Don’t you realize that supporting Ralph Nader is a contradiction with your socialist beliefs?”

I tried to explain that I felt that the candidacy of Ralph Nader had an opportunity to force issues such as 3rd world exploitation, and issues of global capitalism, into the mainstream, and a strong show of support for Ralph Nader could be more valuable than splitting the left’s vote over all the other various socialist candidates.

He maintained that a socialist could never in good conscience vote for a bourgeois candidate. At which point I said “But doesn’t Marxist theory call for occasional strategic alliances with the Bourgeois?”

He replied that I was misinterpreting that theory. “For instance if the Nazis or the Fascists were in power, then we would ally ourselves with whatever liberal bourgeois factions wanted to overthrow Fascism. But that theory does not extend to supporting capitalist candidates during an election.”

During this time a man slightly older than the two of us, probably in his mid 30s, wearing badges identifying himself as a member of the International Socialist Organization, had been listening into our conversation. I was unsure whose side he was going to take. I had a feeling he was on my side, perhaps because I thought I was the one with the better argument. (I always tend to be biased towards my own arguments).

In fact he did take my side. I would find out later that the ISO had officially endorsed Nader’s candidacy during the 2000 election. When I began to run out of things to say, the ISO man jumped in to pick up the argument. “I think what he said was absolutely right,” he said indicating me. “At times we do need to enter into an alliance with bourgeois movements as a way of advancing the issues we care about. We shouldn’t gloss over Nader’s faults, but we should support him, being realistic about his short comings, as a way to force these issues into the mainstream debate.”

The two of them continued the discussion for sometime while I became reduced to the role of an observer. In fact I sort of became the audience that each man was addressing his arguments to and hoping to convert. We stayed in one spot while the rest of the demonstration marched past us. At one point, residents of China town were protesting plans to build a stadium in the midst of their home. They chanted, “No stadium in China town,” and passed the megaphone to whoever was nearby.

When they went past us they handed the megaphone to me, and I did my best to yell out in a clear voice, “No stadium in China town.” Next they gave the megaphone to the Spartacist, who refused to say the chant. The ISO representative jumped on this. “You see? He wouldn’t say it because it’s not radical enough for him. There’s nothing wrong with the message of ‘No Stadium in China Town’. It’s a perfectly good message, but it wasn’t radical enough for him, so he wouldn’t say it.”

In the end all three of us parted with no one having been convinced, but I thought it was an interesting discussion.

It was around this same time that I found I agreed more with the theories of Bakunin then with Marx, and began to self-identify as an Anarchist. And anarchists aren’t supposed to vote at all, and certainly aren’t supposed to vote for Democrats.

So here’s my defense:

I think we need to be realistic about voting, and realistic about its limitations. The bourgeois will never allow themselves to be simply voted out of power, and the revolution will not be achieved at the ballot box. Also we need to be very careful, as Emma Goldman warned, that we do not accept voting as a substitute for civic involvement, and do not accept the illusion that voting gives us more power than it actually does.

All that being said, I think we need to be realistic that the revolution will not come in the near future. And in the meantime we are faced with choice of becoming increasingly irrelevant, or taking the opportunity to participate in politics to the extent available. Although capitalism will never be voted out of power, many other important issues are on the ballot box. Civil rights, reproductive rights, rights for Gays and Lesbians, and minimal restrains on capitalisms excesses are all decided at the ballot box. Or at least can be influenced by election outcomes, with constant pressure from activism being essential. But to disregard the elections completely is to sacrifice many of these issues, and often societies most vulnerable who are affected by their outcome.

Also on the ballot often are civil liberties. There can be no question that civil liberties has dramatically decreased under the current Republican administration, and this effects activism and organization.
The revolution of the Paris Commune was greatly aided by the relaxation of the liberal empire in the years preceding, which allowed radicals to organize and recruit openly.

What happened in the 2000 election has convinced me that there is some value in supporting the lesser of two evil capitalist parties in away to advance some of the issues I care about. Of course the Democrats are currently spineless cowards who are constantly giving into the Republicans, but I believe the way to strengthen the Democrats is to become more involved in the Democratic Party, and work to give it a backbone.

But that’s just my two cents of course. I welcome anyone who wants to challenge me on this.

The Daily Show

Always brilliant, but if you haven't seen it yet be sure to check out Papal Talking Points. Satire at its best.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Me and My Look Alike

Those of you who grew up on cable re-runs, like I did, might remember the episode of “Get Smart” where Chinese agents are kidnapping blonde girls all over the country. When Maxwell Smart finally confronts them, it turns out they were actually looking for one specific blonde girl but, as the Chinese agent confesses, “We can’t tell you Americans apart.”

I think one reason I remember that stupid throwaway joke so many years later is that it caused me to think a bit. “Hey, that’s plausible. We have trouble telling Chinese people apart. Maybe they have trouble telling us apart.” And then of course the next thought was, “No, that’s ridiculous. They actually do all look the same. They all have the same color hair and the same color eyes. We Americans look very different from each other.”

Well, as anyone who has spent time in Asia can tell testify, the joke actually does go the other way. It seems to a lot of Japanese people all white people must look like each other. Over the time I’ve been hear I’ve been told I look exactly like just about any white celebrity you can think of. Off the top of my head I remember being compared to David Beckham, Kahn (goal keeper for Germany), John Kerry, Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, the Beatles, and Harry Potter (on days when I wear my glasses to school). Obviously I don’t look like any of these people. (Well, you all know what I look like. I trust I don’t have to belabor this point.)

And it’s not just me obviously. Every Westerner in Japan is constantly being compared to celebrities. My favorite example was when I was showing pictures from home, and the Board of Education was convinced that my former roommate Rob looked just like Saddam Hussein. Three years of living with the guy and I never realized it.

Now that Monika is gone, there’s a new ALT in the town. And many of the Japanese people are having trouble telling us apart. Just today one of my Japanese co-workers mentioned how he saw me yesterday at the Board of Education. “I wasn’t at the Board of Education yesterday,” I replied. “Was it the other ALT maybe?” Turns out it was.

It’s not the first time I’ve been mistaken for another foreigner in Japan. It seldom happens by people who know me well, but it happens. In this case though my co-workers are strongly convinced that I and this other ALT look exactly alike, and there’s no way any one would be able to tell us apart. It doesn’t help that our names are similar as well. His name is “John”, which to the Japanese ear sounds the same as “Joel”.

“They look alike, they have the same name, and they’re both from America,” said the vice-principal. “How are we supposed to tell them apart?”

Like anyone else, I don’t have a clear idea of how I appear to other people, so I’m not sure how much we look alike or don’t look alike. We are both roughly the same height, have similar builds, and have the same color hair. But for the moment at least our hairstyles are widely different. He has a very short crew cut. I, to be honest, have perhaps gone a bit too long since my last haircut, which was in October. The hair is a bit shaggy now, and can easily cover my eyes when it’s not pushed aside. If nothing else, I would think this would be more than enough for the careful observer to be able to tell us apart. But apparently not.