A time comes when silence is betrayal

What a boon that we have Martin Luther King Day.

2017 was a depressing year for many Americans who care about our public life. And New Year’s Day 2018 did not bring with it even a grain of hope that the coming year will be better in that regard.

But a mere two weeks into 2018, we get to celebrate Martin Luther King, and for a few hours to enjoy a reset on hope and vision, on high ideals and moral clarity.

I joined a crowd of a couple of thousand in front of the Cambridge Town Hall yesterday afternoon, where the temperature was 18 degrees Fahrenheit and snowflakes bounced in the wind, to hear Senator Elizabeth Warren call President Trump out for his most recent expressions of racism, and call upon the assembled group to fight the way a previous generation did in the 1960s to ensure that racial and economic justice will roll down.  Then we were all put to work to do three hours of service to help the needy in Cambridge.

Earlier, at a Martin Luther King Day breakfast in Boston, assembled politicians were asked what was their favorite King quotation.  Warren and several others responded with the theme of King’s 1967 speech at Riverside Church in New York where he publicly announced his opposition to the Vietnam War.

“A time comes when silence is betrayal.”

This week we will pass the one year mark of President Trump’s dark and angry inaugural address and of the Women’s March, which brought a coalition of many, if by no means all, together to let off steam and express our rejection of Donald Trump’s agenda. Looking back at all that, I recall that those events were quickly followed by the furore over President Trump’s attempts to cancel visas to the US for the next 90 days, and we began to see judges and journalists seizing every chance they could to hold the new president’s feet to the fire. Their admirable work has continued.

But for many of us who do not have obvious means by which to fight for the values we see eroding in the present climate, the emerging situation this time last year had an effect that I didn’t initially expect.  We found we wanted to claim the space of our own lives and give none of it to our president. People who used to be news junkies stopped watching the TV news, refused to speak the name of the president, and sidelined those who handily gravitated to the next Trump joke. We chose to lie low.

Now that a year has passed, now that we have checked in with our brother Martin, who continues to admonish us across the decades that silence is betrayal, it seems as if it is right to lie low no longer.

It is time to recognize that Pope Francis’s words in his New Year’s Eve homily are right on target – that the ordinary things we do in life, and the way we go about doing them, DO make a difference because they contribute to the establishment and protection of norms.  And the past year has told us nothing if it hasn’t told us how quickly hard-won norms unravel.

So watch this space, not because it offers new or startling insights about current American politics, but because it is a place to honor the many who are out there setting norms for a better future.


Americans want to help refugees…

At a panel discussion on the global migration crisis held last week at Washington, DC’s Newseum, many of the questions from the audience requested practical guidance on how we Americans can help with resettlement. The panelists were less than totally able to answer these questions satisfactorily, a fact that captures at some level the vague cloud that surrounds the US refugee resettlement system. Indeed, an individual who has spearheaded refugee resettlement in New Haven, Connecticut, said in a forum several weeks earlier, run by the Episcopal Church, that when he launched his program, the US State Department advised him to operate “under the radar.” The authorities, it seems, fear that Americans who hear about refugees will be more inclined to push back against their arrival rather than roll up their sleeves to help.

A first step in changing this, according to the global charity Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), is to get the word out about the actual situation of refugees and displaced people worldwide. MSF devoted the past week to informing the people of Washington, DC about the realities of global migration. Timed tickets were available free of charge for a guided tour through an outdoor exhibit on the National Mall, close to the Washington Monument, where we were helped to understand through a number of hands-on re-enactments what it is like to be a refugee or displaced person.

My guide was a nurse from Connecticut in her sixties who has worked for MSF in South Sudan, Burundi and Tanzania and Afghanistan over the past fifteen years. She told us each to select items that we would take in an emergency evacuation. The options were pictured on laminated cards that we could carry with us on the tour. At each stage along our “journey” we were forced to choose one of the items we were carrying to give up for lack of space or sell in order to pay our way on the next stage of the journey. My five items were passport, family photos, medications, baby’s bottle, and water. The item I kept the longest was my passport. A number of my fellow travelers made the same choice. I have no idea whether this was a wise choice. My sense of randomness about it probably replicates the sense of randomness that overshadows most refugees as they try to make good choices hour by hour.

On our tour, we found ourselves in an inflated raft, squeezed closely so that twenty of us could just fit as we sat on the raised edges. Such a boat, we were told, would carry as many as sixty people from Libya or Turkey to Europe. Then we were shown a rudimentary refugee camp, including a latrine, the method by which people wash their hands after using the latrine in a place of water scarcity, and packets of dry peanut butter that can be easily distributed to nourish large numbers on the brink of starvation. In the next tent, a kind of clinic run by MSF, we saw how measles vaccines are kept cold without electricity and we viewed an efficient new malaria test instrument that can be administered to thousands in a single day. We learned the importance of cell phones – essential items for maintaining communication between scattered family members.

I learned that one of the main preoccupations of communities receiving refugees is how to ensure that refugee camps not become permanent dwelling places, in the way that the Palestinian camps have in Southern Lebanon and on the West Bank. Lebanon has not allowed official “camps” for Syrian refugees, so the 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon (now comprising one fifth of Lebanon’s population) are informally camped out in the Bekaa Valley, or renting patches of land closer to cities. The positive aspect of this approach is that the refugees become more integrated in the local economy, and Lebanese as well as refugees gain from the UN aid for the building of infrastructure. But 40 per cent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon live in temporary accommodation including garages, shacks and informal camps. They have little protection against the cold.

Deborah Amos of National Public Radio, who has recently taken up US refugee resettlement as her new “beat,” spoke at the Newseum of the dilemmas facing reporters who are getting the refugee story out. It is hard to find new things to say about a story that seems much the same from day to day. The goal is to humanize the situation, not get caught up in statistics. “You want to tell small stories rather than big stories.” You can focus on the tragedy, or you can focus on resilience. You can focus on the welcome offered from various countries, but you also describe countries that move from feeling welcoming to feeling threatened.

Most refugees are skilled people, middle class people, who expect to find places where they can charge their cell phones and use ATM cards. Instead of malnutrition, the diseases seen among refugees coming into Europe are chronic diseases, such as heart conditions. Today’s refugees prefer not to stay in camps: conflicts today are lasting longer than they used to, so refugees know they are not well advised to assume that they will get home soon.

And yet refugees resist becoming assimilated in their place of arrival, surely a sign that they have not given up the possibility of getting home one day. A matter for huge concern is that half of global refugees are children and two thirds of those children are not being educated, a situation that bodes ill for the future, and yet  Syrian refugees in Turkey resist sending their children to Turkish schools. They want their children to be taught in Arabic, not in Turkish. Initially some Arabic language schools for Syrians in Turkey were financed by the Arabic speaking diaspora, but over time these groups have run out of money.  One theory about why there was a surge in refugees from Turkey into Europe in fall 2015 is that the closure of these schools caused Syrian families to decide that Europe was the only place they would be willing to have their children educated.

A Dream Realized

The opening of Washington, D.C.’s new Museum of African American History and Culture on Saturday, September 24, occurring as it did in the same week as police shootings of black men in Tulsa and Charlotte, captured perfectly the mixture of grief and dignified struggle that has defined the African American story.

The juxtaposition was obvious to all.  We carried it inside us as we shared in the realization of a long-held dream to see the African American story honored in a central spot in our nation’s capital. President Obama underlined that the museum would not cure the racial ills of the United States. But, he said, the museum’s exhibits “can help us talk to each other, and more importantly listen to each other, and most importantly see each other.”

The new museum, with its distinctive architecture described by the New York Times as an “inverted ziggurat,” stands close to the familiar obelisk of the Washington Monument, within view of the site of Martin Luther King’s 1963 “I have a dream” speech and of the statue of Abraham Lincoln that provided King his setting,

The day of the museum inauguration was a day when we thought a lot about dreams. Many who spoke that day referenced the poem of Langston Hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

Like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore–

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over–

Like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Hughes spoke for African Americans in the twentieth century. In recent years a new swath of African American writers have eloquently confronted us with the continuing deferral of African Americans’ dignity in American society: Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow), Edward Baptist, (The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism), Ta-Nehisi Coates (Between the World and Me), Bryan Stevenson (Just Mercy), Isabel Wilkerson (The Warmth of Other Suns). Black Lives Matter has gotten the word out about the kind of acts that have been rife ever since the ending of slavery but that have been treated with denial and callousness.

The opening of the museum was not so much an explosion as a jubilant acknowledgment that the African American story is and always was central to the American story. The ongoing struggles make that affirmation more meaningful, give it an edge, remind us that the battle for the world we aspire to is never won, is fought daily.

And somehow or other, I, and, I believe, many, many of us, felt drawn in last Saturday, knowing we were all part of this story. The story sends out a shaft of light that pierces our ongoing protections and defenses, that brings us alive, that teaches us what it means to love and engage.

Attending a concert of spirituals at Washington’s National Cathedral earlier in the week that was held in honor of the museum opening, I sat down beside a young black man and we introduced ourselves. “My name is Efram,” he said. “Pronounced like A-frame,” he added. I said my name was Margaret. The concert began, and I saw that Efram was looking up each of the songs on his i-phone so that he could follow the words. “Nobody knows the trouble I see,” “Take my hand, precious Lord,” “Swing low, sweet chariot, comin’ for to carry me home” – songs of resistance, of acknowledgement of deep emotions trampled, of separation of mothers and children, of exodus, of pleas for deliverance. When the audience was welcomed to join in, Efram shared his i-phone with me. It turned out that he had been born in Ethiopia. None of these songs was familiar to him, but he wanted to know them.  Leaning in towards each other, we sang the three verses of James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift every voice and sing, Till earth and heaven ring, Ring with the harmonies of Liberty,” reaching our heads higher for the crescendos as if we had been doing this together for all of time.

Calais Jungle

Switzerland, July 22

Yesterday, while attending a forum on European migration issues, I learned that in the town of Calais on France’s northwest coast, a growing shanty-town known as Calais Jungle populated by migrants and asylum seekers, now has a population of 7,300 and is likely to reach 10,000 by September. This deteriorating situation in Calais, not widely known in the U.S., cries out for attention, if only to allow those of us living at a distance to sense the shocking and heart-rending tensions and contradictions still surrounding Europe’s refugee/migrant crisis.

Calais, best known to the Anglophone world as the entry point into continental Europe via the Channel Tunnel, is a gathering place for refugees and migrants who have set their hopes on getting to the UK. Camps of this kind have been forming in Calais since the early 1990s. They have been set up on unoccupied land, using tents and other temporary shelter, moving to new locations when the French authorities close them. Last year this particular camp grew significantly. By April 2015, it had acquired, for the first time, showers, toilets and electricity. Charities have been providing one meal a day.

Because the UK is not party to the Schengen agreement for free movement of people in Europe, the UK is not legally required to allow entry to these people. Nor are they likely to get asylum in the UK as refugees, since they have already been living in France for some time, and therefore can no longer make a case that they are unsafe. But these people do not want to give up on the dream of getting to Britain, where many already have family members, and where they believe their chances of getting jobs are better than in France. The current population includes over six hundred children not accompanied by an adult, many of whom are waiting to be reunited with family members in the UK.

Frequently inhabitants attempt to board trucks or trains entering the Tunnel. One man recently walked almost the entire 31 miles of the tunnel, with freight trains rushing past him inches away, only to be arrested shortly before his arrival on the British side, and forced to return to France.  Just one month ago the port of Calais was forced to close for a time when migrants took to the streets, erecting barriers in the road in order to slow down vehicles heading for the tunnel so that they could board them. Police dispersed the migrants with tear gas.

The alternative to going to the UK for these people is to request asylum in France, but these migrants regard that step as giving up on better possibilities in the UK.

Left wing groups, including Jeremy Corbyn, embattled head of the British Labour Party, have been lobbying the British government to let in a good number of the migrants.  British who want to demonstrate their compassion for the Calais situation have mobilized an aid convoy for the refugees, but French authorities have blocked its departure from Dover, the port town on the British side of the Tunnel. This policy arises from French recognition that anything they do to improve the lot of the inhabitants of the camp is likely to encourage more people to come.

France seems unable to find a means effectively to disperse these people, even though conditions in the camp are unsanitary and crowded. In February of this year, a court in Lille allowed the Calais police to evict 1,000 migrants from the camp. But since the February evictions, the numbers have grown even greater. The authorities have brought 125 shipping containers into the shanty-town as a form of temporary housing for 1500 people. Permanent buildings are not possible because of the sandy soil.

The news site infowars.com reported in January 2016 that the French Army is making contingency plans for the “reappropriation of national territory,” in case these groups acquire weapons and become more hostile to authorities.

The situation presents the French authorities with a terrible dilemma.  Let’s fervently hope they can find a way out of this before the law of the jungle has its way.



Brexit forces us to find a new way of engaging with the world

Those who have suffered in the economic downturn are making their voices heard. The populism behind Brexit resonates with the supporters of Trump in the US. Both political movements draw energy from a large swath of people who rightly expect better from a system that has been giving them less and less to count on over several decades and, in the past eight years, have seen the bottom drop out of their hopes for a decent life for themselves and their children.

The UK shows us that the possibility that Donald Trump’s view of the world, a view catering to this sense of anger and loss, could prevail in the US in November is real.

Concerns about immigration have played into this vote, in the same way they create facile  support for Trump. Refugees and migrants are easy scapegoats when fear and loss feed a frenzied political atmosphere.

The economic repercussions of Brexit will be huge but at this point are not easily measured. Right now, all of us UK citizens are feeling its psychological implications.

It is a sad day for the great project of Europe. My generation, the children of those who fought in the Second World War, have grown up with pride in the way that Europe ventured into the unknown with a new economic and constitutional arrangement that harnessed countries previously at war in a common effort to create a better future. Even with its abject difficulties and poor management of a series of crises, Europe has, for my lifetime, given us optimism about how the tragedy of war could be turned to good effect.

It is a sad day for Britain’s image in the world. In the past century Britain has drastically diminished as a world power. It’s connection with Europe – albeit always a somewhat dodgy matter – seemed an obvious way to keep its hand in.

It is a sad day for the UK, which is going to have much less reason to stick together after this. Scotland will have more reason to secede, since Scots largely supported remaining in the EU. Northern Ireland, which has relied on free movement of people and goods across its border with the Republic of Ireland to assuage the sentiments of its Irish nationalist population, will be looking at the new situation ith concern. Could Brexit do what over a century of complex political negotiation and terrorist activity never managed to do – to hasten a united Ireland?

But I suspect the biggest affront we are going to feel over coming months and years as a result of this vote is to our deeper belief that joint institutions, however frustrating and inept, are worth the effort in the interests of making our life on this planet a common project. It will be tempting to be more cynical about other international institutions, and to be less supportive of efforts at joint action.

Let’s hope this moment can introduce some healthy soul searching about the kind of world we want going forward and how much effort we will put in to make it happen.


Polarization and Moral Emptiness: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Last night I watched the TV news on two different stations. The first ended the newscast by showing, one by one, photos of each of the 49 people killed in Orlando early Sunday morning. Most were in their twenties, each of them bright, strong individuals with a lot of future in their faces. My own tears blurred the picture. Then I watched the second TV news bulletin. It ended in exactly the same way as the first, and I cried all over again.

Before Orlando, I had prepared my next blog, whose opening paragraph read as follows, “I reject the rote use of the word ‘extremism’ that we are seeing these days. Adoption of this word as a summary description of all that confounds us suggests that a single enemy stalks us, conflating several different concerns, melding them into a less-than-meaningful label and helping to raise the fear factor. It suggests that if we once put extremism in check, we’ll get back to that better world we seem to have left behind.”

Now I ask myself if the thoughts that I recorded in my notebook last Friday stand up to our post-Orlando world. They don’t address the tragedy itself.  But they do address the rhythm and intensity of our times, in which Orlando is the latest in a series of shocking events.

Terrorists will applaud any discourse or behavior that raises the fear level. As people’s obsession with that mysterious conglomerate of problems we are calling “extremism” mounts, their fear mounts in parallel. This creates black and white, dualist thinking and plays into the hands of those who want us to be reduced by our fears.

Two features of life right now invite the use of the word “extremism.”

First, the security sector has chosen to use the phrase “countering violent extremism” (CVE) to replace “counter-terrorism.” The phrase captures the fact that some current terrorist projects have the capacity to mobilize larger numbers than in the past, because they go beyond declaring any particular political goal, and base their appeal on a set of ideas that they attribute to the Koran. Their expression of an extremist Islam makes it easy to draw alienated young Muslims to their cause.

In its second use “extremism” gets applied to polarized and populist politics. In times of relative stasis and satisfaction, the political center is larger than its extreme wings. But the times we live in are different, and they will continue to be different. We are engulfed in an acceleration of change, where assumptions about the past that used to make life fairly predictable are falling away. The most basic of these, at least in the West, has been that if you work hard you can count on having a job and a life of increasing material satisfaction. That assumption carried with it not only job security, but meaning

Polarized politics look extreme, but casting political issues in a strongly-tuned-up fashion is an understandable response to a real problem. The “enemy” is the failure of imagination on the part of all in leadership to search for and find solutions to difficult problems; the “enemy” is the inclination to ratchet up business as usual in hopes that intensification of old methods will bring new answers; the “enemy” is a soul-lessness, a “moral emptiness,” to use the phrase of one of our pundits, New York Times columnist David Brooks, that leaves many good people paralyzed on the sidelines.

We’ve seen this problem before. The Irish poet Yeats described the mood of Europe in the wake of the First World War,

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

…The best lack all conviction

While the worst are filled with passionate intensity.

If Yeats is correct, that in times such as ours, the reliable center lacks passion and conviction, how do we go about changing that? What can we of the center do to ensure that the best will have convictions and passions in testing times?

Here is David Brooks’ answer to that question (New York Times, June 7, 2016):

“The larger culture itself needs to be revived in four distinct ways: We need to be more communal in an age that’s overly individualistic; we need to be more morally minded in an age that’s overly utilitarian; we need to be more spiritually literate in an age that’s overly materialistic; and we need to be more emotionally intelligent in an age that is overly cognitive.”

“Moral emptiness” may be related to rapid change, but it is also a product of our twentieth century struggle for values, where, in the West, freedom of choice, as long as it does not hurt another, became king. Freedom is an important moral requirement, but as a core principle it fails on its own to capture the deeper, values-based behaviors that promote human wholeness and maturity. The “extremism” discussion highlights the vacuum of moral content we are presenting to the next generation.


Let’s be more extreme in our passion for engaging those different from us, for justice and equality….

Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in defense of justice is no virtue.
– Marcus Tullius Cicero

Clearly, extremism is not the enemy, in spite of what many are inclined to say right now.

The real enemy is the lukewarm determination to address the dilemmas that fall disproportionately on the poor, on the lower middle class who see their situation deteriorating, on the disempowered, on the displaced, and on the dark skinned people of the world. The benumbed response of the privileged to the urgency of a number of shared problems redounds to the disfavor of us all in a world where so little can be masked or hidden.

For too long the West’s quest for the ideal life has been framed around notions of personal gain and independence.   Now we can see that passion for a fairer, juster, and more loving world, accepting of those who are different from us, is an essential part of the truly liberated self. In the new world that is emerging, we will not grow into fully realized human beings without connectedness, compassion and justice. Recognition of these truths is growing. How can we encourage more people to embrace them?

For starters, let’s take a few minutes to recognize the values that have gotten us this far, and use the particular time we live in to understand them afresh.

Equality before the law. Religious toleration. Liberty of conscience. The consent of the governed as a requirement for legitimate government. Freedom of speech. Freedom from fear. Freedom from want.

Thinking about them can be embarrassing, because we recognize immediately how much more needs to be done to achieve them. If we have allowed ourselves to sink into a mindset where these great truths have become pat phrases echoing something we used to hear about in high school, we have some things to attend to.

Perhaps the angst that is in the air right now arises in part because, in the years leading up to the turn of the new century, some of us deluded ourselves into believing we had arrived in the task of creating a better world. Maybe the collapse of communism in 1989 took away the West’s sense of urgency, or released a kind of hubris, best exemplified by Francis Fukuyama’s announcement of “The end of history,” which dubbed liberal democracy the “winner.”

Embracing values is not the same thing as snapping your fingers and seeing the world become different. Embracing values is the first step in a way of life devoted to the realization of these values in the lives of individuals. We stand on the shoulders of a host of people who moved that struggle forward.

In this time when moderation is held up as the antidote to polarized politics, let’s be sure we are immoderate in protecting the values that undergird respect and compassion for those who are not our immediate kin. This is the minimum life asks of us.

What do I mean by “the Emerging Present”?

We are living in a world where “transition” is a failed descriptor. We can’t imagine a point of stasis down the road.

At the same time, we are bombarded with paradoxes and contradictions.

Genetics explain phenomena that only two decades ago were a mystery, while other repercussions of technology have created imminent climate catastrophe. Our knowledge of the brain develops exponentially, while dramatic increases in autism diagnoses remind us of how much we have yet to understand. Brutal beheadings are depicted to the world in a split-second. Electrification makes much more possible in the villages of India, while pollution hangs like a permanent pall over cities. Cheap oil prices suggest potential for economic expansion, yet instead they undermine confidence in the market. Social media have proven valuable in fomenting revolution, but at the end of the day are more successful at criticizing than at offering constructive paths forward. Religion takes on a fundamentalist character in some places, while churches in Europe close and one of the foremost writers on spirituality in the US brings out a book on creating your own religion. Democratization of authority brings many more people into the conversation, but threatens to paralyze leaders when we really need them.

In Europe, the failure to find a united response to the refugee surge, Russia’s incursions into Ukraine, Greece’s bankruptcy, Italy and Spain’s faltering economies, and the UK’s referendum on EU membership raise questions about the European project, which stood out as one of the outstanding achievements of the late twentieth century.

In the US, events of the past 18 months have produced greater awareness about the shocking plight of blacks in prisons and about “frontier” police tactics, but Syrian refugees are characterized as a potential threat rather than a group that needs help and support.   “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” is a forgotten aspiration.

Facebook, registering one’s “friends” in the hundreds and possibly thousands, has proven not to improve the sense of disconnectedness of the lonely. Burgeoning numbers who work alone are instead finding community in shared office spaces and intentional common living arrangements. Indeed, the sharing economy raises hopes that the cold-hearted aspects of capitalism are being undermined. At the same time a self-help ethos is replacing service as a core philosophy.

This is a time when fear finds many entry points. We see it in the rise of extreme politics. But fear is often an unnoticed emotion that lies behind subtle behaviors – blocking out aspects of life we don’t understand, turning us towards people more like ourselves, shutting down creativity, urging us to pull in and become self-obsessed. Even those with the highest of apparent motives can adopt too narrow a focus, falling back on old patterns of thought, putting more time, money and effort into outdated endeavors.

I am proposing that the principle of “now” or “awareness” or “capturing the present moment,” clearly relevant to our personal inner lives, and widely expressed in popular literature on mindfulness and meditation, surely has something to teach us about our stance towards the world right now.

What does living in the present mean for those of us trying to do constructive things in the world?

Feeling this emerging world with my whole being seems to be part of the task. Awareness free of judgment, we are told, is the greatest agent for change. Instead of giving fear the upper hand, this is a time to love all the crooked, ugly, dysfunctional and glorious pieces of the planet right now. Of course we must act, but let’s act from a place of humility and listening. And let’s challenge the temptation to place limits on others in order to feel better about ourselves. It is good to be remembering that in uncertain times, encouraging those working alongside us might be our number one priority.