Thursday, March 30, 2006

The Sinners Guide to the Chief Debate

Since it looks like it is only a matter of time now before the NCAA finally puts us all out of our Chief Illiniwek misery, I thought I would share this piece that I wrote quite awhile ago, but never really had an audience for. It seems perfect for this blog.

For those of you outside Central Illinois, the University of Illinois has a symbol/mascot (depending on which side you are on) called Chief Illiniwek, who is a white student who dons an American Indian costume and dances during halftime at football and basketball games, to the delight/horror of those watching. In the last couple of decades, there has been a most civil, calm, and reasoned debate between sober parties about whether this is a good idea.

The Chief Illiniwek Debate, at its core, is really about which side can claim the highest moral ground. On one side, we have The Anti-Chiefers, who are trying to end racial stereotyping of Native Americans. On the other side, we have The Pro-Chiefers, who are trying to honor Native Americans. Both sides love Native Americans so dang much they are just ready to explode. As the old saying goes, you can’t swing a dead cat in this town without hitting someone who is currently honoring a Native American, or thinking about doing so very soon now, as soon as the football game comes on.

As satisfying as it is to listen to groups of people yell at each other in different languages, I think it is high time we ended this dispute, for all of our sakes. If indeed we are arguing about moral positions, there seems to me an obvious way to settle it. The vast majority of Illini believe in, if not an absolute moral standard, at least a moral standard that has passed the test of time. Everyone knows it, most of us agree with it, many of us want to put it in school classrooms, and some of us want large granite idols, er, statues of it placed in courtrooms. One or two of us even want it tattooed on other peoples’ foreheads so we can point out when and where they are failing at it.

I am talking, of course, about the 10 Commandments. Jews, Christians, Muslims, and even godless communists and university professors agree with most of them. All we have to do to finally put this to rest is figure out who is sinning the most, as determined by the 10 commandments as applied to the moral arguments of each side. After all, as Mark Knoplfer once sang about 2 men claiming to be Jesus: One of them must be wrong, as must one side in this debate.

Since 10 can produce a tie number, which would be completely unacceptable to any true American, I am also going to use the Golden Rule as an 11th commandment/tie-breaker. I hope this doesn’t undercut the arguments for any non-Christians out there. It just seems that “Do onto others as you would have them do onto you” is too good a tool to leave lying on the floor when there is so much moral work to be done.

So without further ado, let’s simply count how many sins each side racks up. One point per sin, and may the best moral position win:

  1. I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other Gods before me. While we can’t make sweeping generalizations about which side has a stronger faith in God, I’m pretty confident no one’s faith in God depends in any way on the Chief, or vice-versa. If so, I’d like to meet this person, as they probably have a lot of other interesting and surprising views as well. In any case, I don’t think this commandant applies. No sins for either side.

  2. Do not make idols. Clearly Anti-Chiefers are sin-free on this one, but I’m not so sure about Pro-Chiefers. The true believers are on some thin ice here when they claim the Chief symbolizes all that is good, that we should pay homage to and respect the Chief. Given a lot of the rhetoric one hears, and watching the faithful remove their hats and bow during the ceremony, the difference between worshipping a dancing man dressed in feathers and a Golden Calf on wheels is merely one of degree. I have to give Pro-Chiefers at least ½ a sin on this one, Anti-Chiefers escaping without any.

  3. Do not take the Lord’s name in vain. It is likely that true believers on both sides are rather liberal in their use of the Lord’s name in a non-positive way when referring to the other side of the debate. However, there is nothing in either side’s moral arguments that requires vain name taking, so we’ll let both sides off the hook on this one.

  4. Remember the Sabbath. The Anti-Chiefers seem to again be in the clear on this one. They may be Sabbath-breakers, but not because they are anti-Chief. However, regardless of whether Saturday or Sunday is your holy day, The Chief’s performances do occur on the Sabbath, and supporting the Chief performing on the Sabbath is a clear violation since it requires people to work on that day. Opponents: 0 sins. Supporters: 1 Sin, unless you believe the Chief’s performance are OK on the Sabbath because they are a religious ceremony, in which case, you score a sin for Commandment 1. Either way, it is one full sin for Pro-Chiefers.

  5. Honor your mother and father. Both sides likely do a fine job here, since being an Anti or Pro Chiefer often depends on how you were raised. 0 sins for both sides.

  6. Do not murder. Let’s hope neither side gets to collect this sin on this issue. Anti-Chiefers might claim that the overwhelmingly white participants in this tradition are beneficiaries of the systematic historical murder of Native Americans, and therefore should be more sensitive to the opinions of Native Americans. The thought here is that even if you didn’t kill someone to take their jewelry, but bought the jewelry at a steep discount knowing how it was acquired, you are nonetheless implicated in the immorality of the act. However, I don’t think this is what God was getting at for this particular commandment, so we’ll leave it at 0 sins for both sides.

  7. Do not commit adultery. I can’t see how this applies, unless some people see the dance as erotic and leading to this type of immoral behavior. I’ve not heard that complaint before, so it looks like Pro-Chiefers are clear on this one. I’ve also never seen any sort of fornication going on during protests, so it looks like Anti-Chiefers are safe on this one as well. 0 sins around.

  8. Do not steal. One could argue that Anti-Chiefers are trying to steal the University of Illinois tradition of the Chief. However, stealing is about wanting to have something of someone else’s, and not about wanting someone to stop doing something. I’d have to give Anti-Chiefers a clean bill on this, given that definition. However, Pro-Chiefers have to admit that the Chief tradition was clearly lifted from Native American culture, and that Native Americans in general want it back. I guess you could argue that it isn’t stealing if you parade it around and are unashamed of your actions. Or perhaps another tact is to argue that you got permission from one a distant relative to move into the house, so now the house is yours. Or you could argue that since your ancestors killed off everyone on the farm, and it is now empty, your moving in is not really stealing. All these seem to be rather slippery slopes to me. 1 full sin for Pro-Chiefers.

  9. Do not bear false witness. The rhetoric level on both sides is fairly deafening on this one. But does anyone tell outright lies? For brevity, let’s just consider the battle cries of both sides.
    Anti-Chief: “Racial Stereotypes Dehumanize”. This is a fairly uncontroversial statement. The Chief is obviously a racial stereotype – supporters say as much when they say he represents all that is good about Native Americans. But, are not positive stereotypes a good thing? I personally don’t think so. I doubt that people jump out of bed ready to greet each day because others believe they are good dancers due to their skin tone, or smart because of the shape of their eyes. I have to conclude that the Anti-Chiefers are being truthful: 0 sins.
    Pro-Chief: “The Chief is an Honorable Tradition”. Generally, honor requires that those who are being honored actually feel honor, instead of embarrassment or anger. Native Americans clearly don’t like white people dressing up like their forefathers so that other white people can get worked up at sporting events. Sure, it’s hard to understand why that might be the case, but that’s the way it is. It may want to be honorable, just as I would like to be handsome and charming, but that doesn’t make it so. However, because of intent, we’ll only give ½ a sin to Pro-Chiefers, for not really wanting to bear false witness, but doing so anyway.

  10. Do not covet your neighbor’s house, wife, slave, ox, donkey, or anything else. Presumably, this commandment only applies to things, not necessarily actions. In this case, Anti-Chiefers covet an end to the tradition, and Pro-Chiefers covet its continuation. Call it 0 or 1 for each side, as they are pretty much the same. Let’s say 0 for both sides, since it looks like Pro-Chiefers could use a break from sinning at this point.

  11. Do onto others as you would have them do onto you. It doesn’t look like we’ll need this as a tie breaker after all, but let’s continue anyway, for the sake of completeness. Anti-Chiefers are trying to see the world from the eyes of Native Americans, who are pretty upset about the whole situation. They seem to be treating Native Americans in the way they want to be treated. So, clearly the Anti-Chiefers are not just passively living up to this rule, but actively trying to live it out. Pro-Chiefers, however, seem like they just can’t keep their hands out of the cookie jar of sin. Supporting an action that is designed for someone’s benefit, but instead makes him or her angry, seems to me the opposite of what this rule is going after. Or, we could look at it in the opposite direction: Suppose Native Americans took all our houses by force, forced us to live in concentration camps, and forbid us to practice our religion. I guess in this hypothetical situation Pro-Chiefers would really enjoy it if a Native American dressed up like Jesus for ritualistic hunting trips and did a dance to honor us, and then ignored us when we said that Jesus is sacred to us, and should not be trivialized in this way. However, I don’t think that any reasonable person would actually believe this, so it ends up counting as yet another sin for supporters.

Well, there we have it. The surprising result seems to be: 4 sins for Pro-Chiefers, 0 sins for Anti-Chiefers. I’m not really sure which sport sinning most compares with, so I’m not sure how to interpret the score. If this were soccer or hockey, it would be a blowout. If it were baseball, just a solid win. If it were football, it would have been a really boring game.

Unfortunately, this is not good news at all for those who want both the 10 commandments AND Chief Illiniwek in schools. It looks like we need pretty much one or the other, or we’ll confuse the children. I think staying with the 10 commandments is a good choice here. Heck, we might want to roll out a big marble statue of it at football games, and cheer for it instead of the Chief, to get back into God’s good graces. In fact, I believe there is one available right now in Alabama, where marble statues are known to cause morality.

Lastly, it is surprising that the final score was so lopsided, given how sure both sides are of their moral rectitude. Perhaps another lesson for us all is that feeling strongly about something does not necessarily translate into it being right. That is, unless you are an Anti-Chiefer, apparently.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

It is the Constitution

We took the family to Washington DC last week for spring break. Our kids are at good ages (11, 8, 7) for DC - strong enough to trudge from museum to monument to government building, but not old enough to be too surly about it.

I really enjoyed seeing the actual copies of the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights in the National Archives. Unlike the movie National Treasure, where Nicholas Cage steals what looks like a gift shop copy, the actual text on the paper is so faded it is almost impossible to read.

I can’t help but make the connection between those faded original documents and our fading values as a people. Americans, especially the self-proclaimed patriotic ones, seem to have little use these days for the rights this country was founded on.

How did we get into a state where people can be locked up forever without legal rights, we torture people we unilaterally deem evil enough, we invade countries that do not threaten us, and we allow the president to brazenly break the law by wiretapping without warrants? These documents don’t actually mean anything unless we hold ourselves accountable to them.

It also reminded me of this poem, which I have always disliked:

It is the soldier, not the reporter,
Who has given us freedom of the press.
It is the soldier, not the poet,
Who has given us freedom of speech.
It is the soldier, not the campus organizer,
Who has given us the freedom to demonstrate.

Um, sorry, no, this is just false. It is the Constitution and the Bill of Rights that give us that freedom, not a bunch of guys with guns. Soldiers throughout human history have been far more often on the side the oppressor than the oppressed.

The truth is that oppression is almost always enforced with some kind of violence, whereas attaining freedom often does not require an army (see India, American Civil Rights, and South Africa for recent examples). Countries don’t attain freedom just because soldiers march through them (see Iraq), but because reporters reveal the truth, poets inspire people to great deeds, organizers create mass demonstrations, and most importantly, leaders create constitutions that guarantee basic human rights.

And in the end, if no one cares about the meaning of those founding documents, freedom will fade just as easily as the ink in which they are written.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Bubble President

Would the world be a better place if W spent less time time talking to hand-picked people who agree with him (left), and instead spent time with people directly affected by his policies (right)?

I think so. In fact, I think if officials had to personally acknowledge every person killed in wars they are responsible for, they'd reflect a little more on what they are about to do.

U.S. President George W. Bush greets supporters after speaking about the U.S. military involvement in Iraq while at the Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre at the George Washington University in Washington, March 13, 2006. REUTERS/Larry Downing
Relatives mourn near the bodies of children, reportedly killed in a U.S. raid, as they arrive in a hospital in Tikrit, 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, March 15,2006. Eleven people, most of them women and children were killed when a house was bombed during a U.S. raid north of Baghdad early Wednesday, police and relatives said. The U.S. military acknowledged four deaths in the raid that they said netted an insurgent suspect in the rural Isahaqi area, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of the capital. (AP Photo/Bassim Daham)

Monday, March 13, 2006

Why Can't Democrats Be More Like George Clooney?

I enjoyed George Clooney's Oscar acceptance speech, where he essentially said he's proud to be out of touch if it means standing up to social injustice. He used his 60 seconds of attention to "speak truth to power" yet remained classy and understated in doing so.

He just wrote up the following defense of liberalism, and I now officially admire the man. He obviously values making the world a better place more than protecting his celebrity and fame, a choice that very few people make.

And why does it take an actor to defend liberalism like this? Where are the Democrats, for crying out loud?

George Clooney:

I am a liberal. And I make no apologies for it. Hell, I'm proud of it.

Too many people run away from the label. They whisper it like you'd whisper "I'm a Nazi." Like it's dirty word. But turn away from saying "I'm a liberal" and it's like you're turning away from saying that blacks should be allowed to sit in the front of the bus, that women should be able to vote and get paid the same as a man, that McCarthy was wrong, that Vietnam was a mistake. And that Saddam Hussein had no ties to al-Qaeda and had nothing to do with 9/11.

This is an incredibly polarized time (wonder how that happened?). But I find that, more and more, people are trying to find things we can agree on. And, for me, one of the things we absolutely need to agree on is the idea that we're all allowed to question authority. We have to agree that it's not unpatriotic to hold our leaders accountable and to speak out.

That's one of the things that drew me to making a film about Murrow. When you hear Murrow say, "We mustn't confuse dissent with disloyalty" and "We can't defend freedom at home by deserting it at home," it's like he's commenting on today's headlines.

The fear of been criticized can be paralyzing. Just look at the way so many Democrats caved in the run up to the war. In 2003, a lot of us were saying, where is the link between Saddam and bin Laden? What does Iraq have to do with 9/11? We knew it was bullshit. Which is why it drives me crazy to hear all these Democrats saying, "We were misled." It makes me want to shout, "Fuck you, you weren't misled. You were afraid of being called unpatriotic."

Bottom line: it's not merely our right to question our government, it's our duty. Whatever the consequences. We can't demand freedom of speech then turn around and say, But please don't say bad things about us. You gotta be a grown up and take your hits.

I am a liberal. Fire away.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Dan Schreiber, Levite Schmuck

I was reading “Shalom: The Bible’s Word for Salvation, Justice and Peace” by Perry Yoder the other night, resonating with its message that God is on the side of the poor and the oppressed. God’s shalom justice is concerned with making the world as it should be, and has nothing to do with retributive violence. I am, like, so down with that, man. If only everyone did their part to bring about such justice, we’d have a totally groovy world.

But the phone rings, and I’m jerked out of my reverie. I’m becoming a cranky old man who doesn’t like answering the phone anymore, because it is invariably some unknown person wanting something from me. Sure enough, it’s a solicitation call. Yuck. Amnesty International. Didn’t I just give them money at the end of last year? They want $50 for a campaign against torture by US interrogators. I’m pretty sure I gave them money already. At least I intended to. Did I follow through? No, I answer, I don’t have $50 for this. How about $25 they ask? No, I say, annoyed, I don’t have $25. Just leave me alone.

I hang up. Now, what was I doing? Oh yea, reading my Shalom book.


Did I just lie to Amnesty International that I don’t have $50? To support anti-torture advocacy? While reading about justice making, and thinking that if only everyone did their part, we’d have shalom justice in the world? I have $50. In fact, one of the ways I console myself about being so comfortably well-off is that I can give money to worthy causes. What kind of hypocritical schmuck am I?

Luckily enough, there is a parable that will tell me exactly what kind of schmuck I am. Luke 10:4, the Good Samaritan. Let’s see, I didn’t beat or rob anyone, nor am I a priest. Yes, here it is: I am the heartless Levite, who passes to the other side of the road so he doesn’t have to see a guy who’s naked and bleeding and suffering. That’s me. The Levite Schmuck. Hooray for me.

In all seriousness, when I checked the actual text, I was quite horrified by the description of the thieves stripping a man, beating him, and leaving him for dead. It isn't horror that evil people do this kind of thing, but that it is such an accurate description of what we are doing to our so-called enemy combatants. Some of them may be evil terrorists bent on our destruction, but a number of them are apparently just people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, or had enemies that wanted them out of the way. That is exactly what is so insidious about our locking them up without trial and torturing them – they have no chance to tell their stories or defend themselves. Not only is it against all principles of a free democracy to do so, but it is exactly how Jesus says not to treat others.

If we apply the good Samaritan story to our present circumstances, then who is who? Who strips, beats and leaves people for dead? We do. Which Christian leaders fail to say or do anything when confronted with this knowledge? Ours do. Who walks to the other side of the road and ignores injustice so they can feel safer? We do.

Who has the courage in these dark days to see “The Other” as fully human and worthy of basic human decency? Who believes enough in Jesus’ message of radical love of our enemies, even to those who might not extend it to us? Amnesty International apparently does.

Well, I don’t want to be the Levite Schmuck, that’s for sure. So, within a few minutes of hanging up on Amnesty, I went to their website and made a $50 donation. I may not be able to be a Full-On Good Samaritan, but at least I can write a check to support those who are. It is quite literally the least I can do. It may mean I only move from being a Levite Schmuck to the regular Privileged Middle-Class Comfortable kind, but at least it is movement in the right direction.

Anyone who wants to join me in this middle-class comfort zone can also make a donation to Amnesty here.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Juan Cole on last week's violence

From Juan Cole:

Someone should explain to me why last week's events are an argument for keeping US troops in Iraq. What did they do? Did we hear about any US military units guarding Sunni mosques as they were being attacked by Shiite mobs?

This is a great point. If we are in Iraq to provide security so that it doesn’t descend into civil war and chaos, isn't a descent into civil war and chaos the time to act?

We can’t have it both ways. We can’t pretend that we are there to nobly protect freedom, but not step in when violence gets out of hand. If we are going to police Iraq into a Democracy, then at a minimum we need to stand between mobs and victims.