Says Who??

Verstehen, through shared perspectives

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bare tree

The university academic year begins for me this week, and—not for the first time—my thoughts are heavy with the implications of the grave responsibility of educating the young. This year, though, seems to weigh heavy on my heart more than any such year in the past, with the possible exception of the years in South Africa during the end of apartheid and the first years of democracy. It could even be because of those years, and the comparisons that can be made between South Africa then, and the United States now, that my concern is great.

Of course, no comparative study would find a perfect correlation between the two countries. But there are many similarities, especially when observing the issues of race, intolerance, social injustice, disenfranchisement, rule of a power elite—I could go on, but already it become obvious that there are points to be made, as well as huge differences in the two situations. Can anything be learned from the past in another country, that would shed light on a way forward for us in the present?

My course load this semester consists of Intro to Cultural Anthropology, Social Theory, and Political Anthropology. All three courses contain a great deal of material that directly relates to August 2016 in the United States. Some of these situations, like the failed war on drugs and its ongoing, devastating aftermath, do not appear to be related to anything that occurred in South Africa. But when you look deeper at the combinations of political misinformation, low intensity violence incited deliberately by the government, and antipathy between police and the often innocent subjects of their brutality, a shared trend appears.

In fact, one can see that the troubles in both nations were not caused by failed societal structures so much as by a shared failed personal accountability for human actions. I always try to find an opportunity to explain to my students why it is true that to the extent we dehumanize others, we dehumanize ourselves. And the more often that we do that, the less human we become. At some point, it no longer matters who we hurt, or how much we hurt them. Having reached that point, nothing is sacred—we can lie to each other, cheat in personal and public relationships, and shame our religious traditions by turning them inside out and using them against each other, rather than in enjoyment of the sacredness of our existence. Some people blame this on the capitalist profit motive; I blame it on unrestrained greed grown to inhumane size, however you want to rationalize it.

Our inhumane behavior is seen in social media pages, day after day. Many posts are deliberate lies, some are propagated by people and organizations who make a great deal of money developing the ways and means of destroying political opponents, or spreading ideas in order to challenge inconvenient truths about how we should live. Our youth often do not trust our government, our news media, or our religious leaders. We have an entire generation of youth who have grown up in the midst of uncontrolled verbal and media bile, day after day. Yet many parents and teachers are still able to reflect the values of integrity and community to their children; too many others have failed.

I don’t want to be one of those who fail those precious young people. It would be safe for me to just present the information in the texts as is, and avoid controversy. Unfortunately, sociology and anthropology are not calculus. They exist to provide a learning situation whereby we may study, compare, theorize, and determine the state of our world, and consider possible ways to improve our situation and that of others. If we learn anything at all from these disciplines, it is that humans are not meant to live just for themselves. We are psychologically and mentally geared to living in community, from whence we learn our sameness as well as our beautiful uniqueness; where we learn to share, to care for others, and to be cared for. It is where we discover the meaning of our lives, as Victor Frankl explains so beautifully.

On the surface, our country is in what Durkheim would call a state of anomie; of “normlessness.” There are too many who live by disregarding the norms of human interactions, of human responsibility. The rest of us are not free of responsibility for this state of affairs. The rapidity of progress has allowed us all to enjoy an unprecedented mobility, separation from family and old friends, from the norms that defined our lives when we were young people. The sense of normlessness that has grown has produced political and religious apathy, as our values as a nation have withered into weapons for some groups to hurl at others in hatred.

It could appear that all is lost. It is not. We can, and must, regain our humanity by treating others as the precious human beings they were meant to be. We cannot separate ourselves from community, especially from communities of meaning. We can look to the examples of those around us who are good people, who live honestly and compassionately. We can seek justice for those whose lives have been broken by injustice.

…..We can demand from our government leaders the same values that we hold for ourselves, and make sure not to repeat errors in judgement on that score.

….. We can bring family life back into vogue, securing the early years of our children with the nuts and bolts of honesty, responsibility, and community.

….. We can demand improvements in our education systems so that our children learn to think, not just to memorize.

And we can treat the people we run into each and every day as though they were human beings like ourselves: imperfect, yet full of potential; sacred to their Creator and therefore sacred to ourselves. Deserving of respect—enough so as to inspire those who have none for themselves to strive for improvement.


……Yes, this is indeed a heavy responsibility to owe to the students in my classroom. But why else would I even want to be there? The intergenerational discussions and learning that will take place give my life meaning. My students, who are also my teachers, are the joy of my life. When I meet with them again, that “heavy responsibility” will be rediscovered as a great privilege. So begins another year.




love others

My friend had joined me in the adjunct professor’s office when I finished my class, and because the day’s lesson had been on anthropology and religions, we were discussing religion. My friend is an atheist, so the discussion not only required a lot of honesty and thought from both of us, but it also became deeply rooted in my thoughts as a result. It was no surprise that when pain awakened me during the night, as it has so often done, that my friend’s final question not only returned to mind, but was interwoven with my ongoing concerns about the disruptive and heartbreaking laws and actions that have so negatively affected physicians and their patients.

It was a long night. The pain was intense and unforgiving. I thought that there is no more “alone” a person can be than when being alone and in pain. Especially if nothing can be done to alleviate the pain. In my case, it is because my body will not tolerate many medications, including pain medications. But for so many others it is because an unthinking and unfeeling state and/or federal body of lawmakers has taken their medication from them. Some lawmakers have gone so far as to falsely claim that chronic pain patients are the reason that addictions and illegal drug-induced deaths occur*. The majority of these lawmakers claim to have made their decisions in the name of Christianity, and/or morality. Thinking about all this, I again considered the final question my friend put to me:


 It is a legitimate question. Jesus was put to death, in the name of religion. The decision was made by a government official under intense pressure from religious leadership – the separation of church and state is not always clean or clear! Again, the apartheid laws of South Africa were based on religious beliefs and carried out by members of the most conservative and pious of denominations, while being upheld by churches throughout the country. Islamic followers have also left bloodshed in their wake since the Prophet died, and ISIS makes religious claims for their terrorism. And I haven’t even scratched the surface of the harm done to humanity in the name of religion. On the other hand, Christians, Muslims, and members of other faiths have spoken and fought against these evils, and lived lives that more fully represented the tenets of their faiths.

There is also the emotional and psychological harm done in the name of religion. On the first Mother’s Day after my infant son died, which happened to be the first anniversary of his birth and death, my own father announced from his pulpit that God had taken my son because I had married a divorced man. I left the church—and the Church–that day, 52 years ago, swearing never to give my heart and work to another church. It was not God I was mad at, it was the Church. I had been both beneficiary and victim of its teachings my entire life, but uneducated as I was at the time, I still was able to see organized religion as a human construction, using the power of the name of the Creator to manipulate and control entire populations to submit to the will of its’ very human membership. It took 51 years to the very day for me to finally give up that resolve, when I was confirmed into a church that not only accepted me as I was, but has a membership that loves and cares for each other and our community, living as best it can the highest commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, ….and love your neighbor as yourself.”

So today I can say from the knowledge and experience of an entire, long life lived observing, loving and hating religion–while remembering the reason for the religion–gave me, among other really great truths, this understanding shared with my friend: Can religion be evil?   No, my friend, nor can it by itself be good.   Just as its human members have the ability to choose whether they will do good or evil, so do we choose whether to use our religion and our beliefs for good or for evil. I suppose the litmus test would then be the two commandments quoted above.

Which brings me back to my lonely and painful vigil of the night. Actually, I realized I was not alone. My thoughts—my very soul—amplified my own pain alongside the hundreds and thousands of pain patients sharing my misery, who might have been sleeping relatively comfortably had they been allowed their medications. It would do me no good to go to the streets for illegal medications, but my heart broke for those who that very moment were deciding to do so–the very law intended to end illegal drug use actually making criminals out of law-abiding citizens. I also hurt for those physicians who, at that same dark hour, might be considering suicide because of a life ruined by the harassment of a law enforcement chain of events that considers them “guilty until proven innocent.”

So, in the dark with my physical and emotional pain and in the awareness of a company of fellow sufferers, I prayed for us all. And especially for those who take it upon themselves to decide to use religion and their “moral” values to make everyone live by their very low standards, no matter who it kills.

“Low standards?” you say? Yes. Low standards. Slash and burn is the low road. Restore and rebuild in the name of the Creator is a much higher road.

 hands, heart

*I can say that this is a false claim because drugs and alcohol have been used by almost every culture as far back in history as we can document. Drugs had both religious and recreational purposes., and still do in many cultures. Up until recent history, most people did not live long enough to acquire the long-term chronic pain suffered by the majority of such patients today. Today’s chronic pain patients are not the cause of the problem.



I am what one could call “an elder.” My station in life affords me the ability, or perhaps burden, to look back and assess the arc of history’s swinging pendulum. I’ve seen this play before. I didn’t like it then and I don’t like it now.

It’s only August, and only midterm elections, but already the advertisements have been repeated so often for so long that I can lip sync with them. At least the primaries held some interest, with more candidates to listen to and select from. Now we are down to a predictable routine: “He doesn’t do” this or that job, to which the answer is always “HE LIES!” It was a lot more interesting when I was teaching, and we had debates based on research of actual records, and mock elections. Grades were given based on points won while sticking to the facts, and class discussions were even more heated than the TV versions. No wonder I’m bored with it now.

Every two years since my return from South Africa, I am reminded of a conversation with one of my dear friends as we sat up through the night awaiting the results of the presidential election of 1992. I am always impressed with how very politically informed about the world people in other countries are, compared to Americans, and this day was no exception. “You know,” she began wistfully, “I wish so very much that when our national elections are held democratically we could be as civilized about the results as Americans are.”

“How so?” I was intrigued. Aileen, more intelligent than most people I knew, was bound to have a profound insight on this subject. “Because, even though this election is a fierce battle between your political parties, once the election is over you all will settle down, accept the winner, and once again pull together for the good of the country. Because you love your democracy so much, and you really believe in it. And that is why it works.”

And I believed her. Because her words corroborated my experience, up to that time. Sure, I had lived through the whole Watergate saga, as well as Contra-Gate. But we survived all that, didn’t we? I was never more proud to be an American than I was that night, seeing my country, and democracy, through the eyes of this remarkable Afrikaans woman.

Then, early 1996, I was home again. Or at least I thought that was where I had come. Eyes wide with astonishment, mouth agape, day after day I watched my elected representatives behaving like maladjusted toddlers not just in public, but on national TV.   I had never seen such infantile behavior by political leadership, including the entire seven years I spent in Africa. In Africa, political disagreements were life threatening more often than not; in America they sounded life threatening even though they were far from such extreme issues. In 1996, I witnessed for the first time the failure of my fellow Americans to graciously accept the working of the democratic process. Rather than accept, they hated it so much, in fact, that the losing party seemed to wish the leadership of the winning party dead. From the noise, it sounded like nothing else would satisfy them.

By 2000, I was already comparing the good ol’ USA to apartheid South Africa. It was getting more like the old RSA every day, to my understanding. People no longer identified themselves by ethnicity, vocation or religion. They “became” a Republican, or a Democrat, so that in much the same way as we used to say “I’m a plumber,” or “I’m Baptist,” what had begun as a personal option had become an entire identity.

What I found so alarming about this was that in South Africa I lived in the middle of a revolution, where people died, sometimes as innocent bystanders, but always because of a political identity. The anger I felt and witnessed here was just as deep, just as mindless, as what I saw in South Africa – despite the absence of war and terrorism. Then, in September of 2001, we had terrorism. For all too brief a time, we were Americans, together, again. Then we had the Patriot Act, and the War, and Homeland Security. It was the latter, despite all the protected rights that we lost permanently with the Patriot Act, that spelled out “South Africa” for me in huge letters.

Of all the names they could have given that agency, they picked Homeland Security. The name of the most abusive agency in South Africa, the agency that could do whatever it wished to any person, and justify it under the name of Homeland Security. Forget your rights, if Homeland Security considered you any kind of threat to South Africa. Now I live, again, in a country where I say the same thing about an agency with the same name and mission.

In apartheid South Africa, the poor were disenfranchised and abused by the wealthy. And so, it seems, they will be in America. Politics in South Africa were corrupt. People hated other people for being different, and it was enough to kill them for. The wealthy, to protect themselves, lived in walled compounds with security guards – actually prisoners in their own homes.   I often longed for the freedom of a small town neighborhood in America, where I could take a walk by myself late in the evening, or sleep with my windows open. Now, locking my door here in America is such a habit that I keep locking myself out when I go to get the mail.

Finally, in South Africa the architects of apartheid (pronounced, appropriately, “apart – hate”) based their political stand on their religious belief that the Bible clearly stated that the races should not intermarry. Like many such interpretations, even if true, it is hardly enough to merit committing murder. Especially if you are able to ignore virtually dozens of other “thou shalt nots” without turning a hair. They also subscribed to the belief that they were the chosen people of God, who had given them South Africa for their own, and their political wealth and power to prove His point. Take the race issues out of the question and look at the scene in socioeconomic colors, and the parallels with America today become really depressing.

In the end, South Africa also learned that you can’t legislate morality.   America has forgotten that truth.

I am certain that in every generation there are the elders, looking back with saddened eyes and faces, mourning the country that they once knew. Today, I am one of those. The pendulum of history has swung too far since the craziness of the 60s, and a swing back to the opposite point again is inevitable. I just hope to live to see it hesitate, for a little while, in the balance of moderation.