Category Archives: Philosophy, Theology, Aeasthetics, and Politics

The Liberal Arts at their finest.

Open Letter From the Militant Pacifists of America

PeaceIn light of America’s 154 mass shootings since January of this year (in which four or more people were shot), we in the Militant Pacifists of America would like to openly express our adamant distaste for violence in all its forms. As pacifists, we want peace in every aspect of life, and seeing as that is less and less likely with each passing mass shooting, we are breaking from our flagship organization, the Flaccid Pacifists of America, and are starting a new party. It’s time to take pacifism seriously, and we mean dead seriously.

Jesus once said that those who live by the sword shall die by the sword. But Jesus died by the cross, and it is our belief that dying by a sword is much better than crucifixion.

Obviously, other pacifists have made great strides in violently opposing violence. For example, we praise Bernie Sanders for being one of two senators to vote against new sanctions against Russia and Iran, and we are even more grateful for Sanders for, as implied in a recent New York Times article, providing the pacifist rhetoric for yet another gun-involved shooting implemented by an angry man. In truth, we think that Sanders does not go far enough with his militantly pacifist rhetoric. He refuses to do what all democratic socialists secretly want, which is to first make people aimlessly enraged about what the NRA calls the “gun-hating political elites” and “radical billionaires” and then arm said people with assault rifles to protect them from those elites and billionaires. By not living by the sword, Sanders is much easier to crucify.

We in the MPA advocate militant peacefulness. We want to move on from our history of chanting “Give Peace a Chance” while aligning our chakras and stuffing roses in mailboxes, and instead want to incite mob violence against people who advocate violence (excluding ourselves, of course). Early pacifism was about advancing alternatives to the military-industrial complex and critiquing state-sanctioned forms of violence like police militarization, removal of medical insurance for the victims of various shootings, and of course Sarah Palin, but now we’d like to take a page from the NRA: directionless rage.

Our official stance to advance peace, love, and solidarity among all peoples is to heavily arm those people and tell them that love is tough. We’re starting a war for peace. If people won’t give peace a chance, we’ll have to force them to. Had they lived a little longer, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Emile Arnaud would have seen that while there obviously is no just war, if we have to go to war to show how unjust it is, that’s okay too. We pacifists are tired of being crucified and stabbed by swords. We want in on the action and, of course, the millions of dollars the NRA spends during any given campaign season to keep everyone armed and angry.

Peace, love, and ammunition!


American Discourse and Islamic States

globeIn contemporary American discourse, the ways we talk about Islam and the Muslim world tend to be limited. The phrase “Middle East” has become synonymous with Islam in the American imagination. In recent years, the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” has dominated western discourse about a large and malleable region of the world, but the concept of an Islamic state has appeared in numerous other historical moments, warranting a more nuanced understanding of the phrase.

Edward Said points out that “before the sudden OPEC price rises in early 1974, ‘Islam’ as such scarcely figured either in the culture or the media. One saw and heard of Arabs and Iranians, of Pakistanis and Turks, rarely of Muslims” (36). Discussions of nationality and ethnicity were practical for American discourse. Economically and politically, American discourse began homogenizing these polities under one overarching category: Islam. Oil price changes, revolutions in Iran, protests in India, and socialism in Afghanistan in the 1970s and 1980s slipped away as Americans perceived dozens of countries as simply “The Middle East.”

The concept of the Islamic World actually has its roots in Medieval Islamic thought as the dar al-Islam, or the abode of Islam, which was a (most likely idealized) view of the Medieval world in which a Muslim could move freely throughout regions with Muslim rulers, ranging from Spain to the borders of China. The dar al-Islam was not a state, but a conceptualization of territories.

An older article in The Atlantic defined a Caliphate as “an Islamic State,” which is a historically insufficient definition.Nation-states emerged in Europe as a result of geographic borders solidified by absolutist monarchs who dictated what qualified as citizenship, namely religion, taxation policy, and loyalty to the crown. As European nations and colonies swept aside absolutism and attempted to create secular liberal republics, the concept of the state as a geographic fence with a common language and fiscal arrangement remained the same: a homogeneous block of identity.

Thomas Barfield calls this the American Cheese model of statehood, and uses Swiss Cheese as a metaphor for premodern regions of Central Asia such as Afghanistan (Barfield 67). Rather than a solid block, polities were porous, malleable, and not always ruled through and through by a dominant king or ideology. This is true, I think, of what most Americans call the Middle East. It is largely Islamic, but it is far from homogeneous. The relationship between citizen and state often differs from the easy system many Americans paint onto the world, trying to mark which populations are with us or against us. The U.S. and Pakistan share more in common historically, as republics formed from anti-British/anti-colonial independence movements, yet the U.S. has a better working relationship with Saudi Arabia, an oppressive regime that likes to bomb its neighbors and censor its people. (Maybe the U.S. has more in common with Saudi Arabia than I’d thought).

Likewise, the Caliphate did not function the way we often think state-religion relationships function today. The nineteenth century Egyptian reformer Muhammad ‘Abduh wrote that Muslims never experienced “something that resembled the power wielded by the Papacy of Europe, nor were they ever exposed to a Pope-like figure who could and did exert power to remove Kings and banish princes, extract taxes and decree Divine laws” (Haj 93). Writing from the 1900s, his statement was true. Caliphs were not believed to rule the way Popes and monarchs claimed to, as infallible and acting as spokespeople of God to his otherwise hapless subjects. This is not to say that Caliphal rule was always just, but suggests that religion and state in the Islamic world grew up functioning alongside one another, but never competing with one another for control.

For most of Islam’s history, the initial Caliphate “remained head of the umma [community of believers] and a symbol of Muslim unity” but “would represent the administrative and executive interests of Islam while the scholars and Sufis defined Islamic religious belief” (Lapidus 102), and even that diminished as the Caliphate moved around, ending up in the Ottoman Empire where, after World War One, it was officially abolished. Smaller caliphates appeared every so often, but the use of the phrase “Islamic state” to describe a caliphate is too simplistic, because for much of history the Caliphate represented the separation of Islamic doctrine from political administration, at least in theory.

As such, the concept of a secular state grew up differently than it did in the west, perhaps with a greater dissonance. A single glance at the United States today, which passes laws about abortion based on religiously inspired magical definitions of personhood, suggests that we have yet to actually implement the separation of church and state.

Depending upon what is convenient for media and politicians, the Middle East contains parts of Africa, the Arab world, and Central Asia. If used literally, the Muslim World should be expanded to include China, Russia, the Caucasus, Southeast Asia, the Balkans, and regions of the Western Hemisphere where African Muslims were forcibly shipped during the Atlantic slave trade. The majority of the world’s Muslims are in Indonesia, not western Asia. The Islamic World is neither unified nor homogeneous, and instead encompasses a broad spectrum of religious, philosophical, and political discourses.

When Americans talk about the Islamic world, they typically think only of the Arab world plus Iran, because, as Said points out, it became convenient for Americans to think of themselves as persecuted by a collective polity (Islam) during the 1970s and 1980s. Violent extremists exist within a unique historical context; their crimes are not justified by that history, but they should nevertheless be understood as stemming from particular origins. It is neither useful nor intelligent to homogenize one billion people. States are intrinsically porous and malleable; Americans should recognize that this applies to the U.S. as well as the rest of the world.

Barfield, Thomas. Afghanistan. Princeton University Press, 2010.

Haj, Samira. Reconfiguring Islamic Tradition. Stanford University Press, 2009.

Lapidus, Ira. A History of Islamic Societies. Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Said, Edward. Covering Islam. Random House Vintage, 1997.

Congratulations to Russia for Finally Winning the Cold War

oneway“We’re satisfied to be able to finish off the United States the first time round. Once is quite enough. What good does it do to annihilate a country twice? We’re not a bloodthirsty people.” -Nikita Khrushchev, comparing American and Soviet nuclear capability.

I’d like to extend my warmest congratulations to Mother Russia for finally winning the Cold War. Some say it’s too early to call, and that the popular majority of Americans (by 1.5 million at this point) who still think we have a leg in the race might suggest otherwise, but as it is, I think it’s safe to say that America concedes defeat. Congratulations, Russia. You win. Freedom and democracy, as it turns out, really don’t work after all. You’ve proven that much, Russia.

I’ll admit, you fooled us with that whole “collapse of your very way of life” trick back in 1990. I can’t believe we fell for the oldest trick in the book, and didn’t even notice when, out of nowhere, you elect a former KGB agent to take over for Boris Yeltsin. Smooth move. We also didn’t think trolling could be a successful war tactic. In the end, your trolls really knew how to rig an election. I’m just glad Reagan isn’t alive to see this day. He would have been sorely disappointed.

So, Russia, what’s next? What’s your end game? Warming the oceans and melting Greenland’s ice sheets enough to get our Cold War nuclear base? Our new president will ensure that happens. Spreading misinformation? Reducing our language to double plus good and double plus ungood? We’re already limiting our words to great or nasty.

I’m sorry, Russia, but when you come for the spoils of war, you won’t find anything worth taking. By the time you reach us, we’ll have run the continent into the ground with oil spills in our largest rivers, Midwestern earthquakes from fracking, dust bowls, forest fires, and uranium mining accidents. By the end of the Cold War, we killed off 93 percent of our varieties of fruits and vegetables, and who knows how many we’ve gotten rid of since then.

Do you want our healthcare? It’ll be cut. Do you want our Space program? We’ve been defunding it for a while now. Do you want our agriculture? One blight and our corn will be gone in a few months. Dearest Russian overlords, we are now ready for your conquest, but I will not say we are ripe for the taking, because as a nation we are actually rotten to the core, entrenched in racism, misogyny, anti-intellectualism, Evangelical opposition to science, the comfortable idea that we can actually survive the catastrophe of ourselves if we just buy the necessary tools.

America’s value has depreciated so much that you won’t find anything worth conquering. Keep in mind that we’re taking you with us, in the end. Mutually Assured Destruction never looked so appealing. So congratulations, Russia. I await your rule.


After Two Years of Blogging, Your Guess is Still as Good as Mine

toastWordPress reminded me that today is my two-year blogiversary. I missed last year’s for the obvious reasons (grad school applications, Macbeth, mud wrestling, etc.). Today, though, I slide two years into the past when I was surrounded by the mess of my education: Beloved, essays on the Holocaust, a textbook on linguistics, The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, and drafts of my own poetry. The liberal arts defined my life, but lacked definition; in a confused fervor I wrote my first blog post asking simply, why get a liberal education in the first place?

Two years have gone by. I created this blog to explore the liberal arts generally, the life of a wannabe writer specifically. At varying times, it has served as an open journal, editorial, bully pulpit, and archive of my writing. I started out posting short vignettes satirizing myself as a freshman, but moved on to better creative writing, philosophy, travelogues, history, and humor. If my blog feels eclectic, it’s only because my brain is eclectic. I move rapidly from Steinbeck to colonial Egypt to writing a short story. This blog is one part journal, one part art, and one part scholarship, with three extra parts marked “miscellaneous.” I strive to make sure no two posts are alike, which may be a bad idea when blogging is supposed to be about consistency and ritual, two qualities I lack.

I’ve explored numerous moments in my life on this blog: I mourned Pete Seeger, challenged myself to write a poem every day each April, founded a photography business, announced publications, had breakfast in Ireland, lunch in Jerome, dinner in Wisconsin, went to my first big fancy writing conference, broke up with my hometown of twenty years for graduate school in Nebraska.

For the most part, though, I’ve read, and written about what I read, and read what others wrote about what I wrote about what I read. An endless reading list is the bedrock of any good liberal education.

Liberal Education

On this blog, I’ve also reached many half-baked conclusions, but one thing has remained clear post after post: a good liberal education is worthless if it stays inside the classroom. Sitting around reading and writing is no way to be a writer, if it’s all I do. I have to experiment with baking or acting, work for a charity, travel, read for a literary journal. I should traverse the gridlock of cities, the innards of bars, the vast organs of campsites. My blog may be ineffectively unconventional; the only binding theme is the continual mess of my lifelong education and my desire to be a writer. But I know blogging has made me a better writer, a more considerate reader, a more confident thinker. It’s been an eclectic two years. I hope the next two will be even more eclectic.


Why a liberal education? Your guess is as good as mine, and I mean that. If you’re engaged in the liberal arts, especially outside of academia, let me know in the comments what you study or write or create, and why.


Blood, Devastation, Death, War, and Horror: A Brief History of the United States

Civil WarThe current state of American History in public schools reminds me of this old Monty Python sketch:

“Hello, good evening, and welcome to another edition of Blood, Devastation, Death, War, and Horror,” a host begins. “And later on we’ll be talking to a man who does gardening” (Season 3, Episode 4, aired Nov. 9, 1972). Students in American History classes, much like Monty Python’s audience, expect one thing (blood and horror, American history), and get something else entirely.

Last year, Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson accused AP U.S History standards of painting America in such a negative light that students “would be ready to join ISIS” upon completing the course. Mr. Carson’s statement may have been a bit exaggerated; despite the fact that students who completed AP U.S. History courses did not rise from their chairs, move to Iraq, and become serial rapists who behead children, the standards for teaching an Advanced Placement U.S. History course changed to paint a less brutal portrait this nation’s history, and by extension emphasize American Exceptionalism.

Historians and history nerds, myself included, lamented these changes, but not because they revise history. Historiography is in a constant state of revision as new evidence and perspectives surface, and as our contemporary understanding of ourselves changes the way we see the past. But most historical revisionism is inclusive, while the College Board’s revisions are painfully exclusive.

History is the process of unburying the dead and interrogating the bodies about how they lived. The deeper we dig, the more we compress time and space, and the closer we find history’s ghosts among ourselves. Perhaps we start to see these ghosts wandering among us. Perhaps we even start to notice that the dead are clawing out of their graves demanding that we listen. The changes made to the AP U.S. History standards are an attempt to rebury and silence the dead, ultimately a vain but nonetheless disheartening act.

For those unfamiliar with the term, American Exceptionalism is the current ruling monarch in a long succession of myths intended to make the U.S. look better than it actually is, and thereby justify any of its actions at home and abroad. Its predecessor myths include Manifest Destiny, the notion that white American pioneers had the exclusive right, as sanctioned either by God or superiority of heritage, to claim and tame all land in the American West, despite the indigenous populations already living there. Another popular myth is America’s Predestination, which asserts that the United States was not only an inevitability, but a holy fate of history, a part of God’s plan, even.

All historians worth their salt know that nothing in history is inevitable. Such an explanation removes human agency, and therefore human responsibility, from our lives. American Exceptionalism feeds upon its predecessor myths; if America is supposed to be, so too are the consequences of its actions, and by that logic, the U.S. can do no harm.

But the truth is that America has done, and continues to do, harm. If America is part of God’s plan, then chattel slavery and Native American genocide are also part of God’s plan. If America really is exceptional, does that mean Arizona only became exceptional in 1912? Did the Southwest miraculously become unique only after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848? Were Japanese Americans suddenly not exceptional between the years of 1942 and 1945? Did the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 limit the potential exceptionalism of Chinese immigrants? Was U.S. involvement in the ousting of democratically elected leaders in Guatemala, Iran, and Chile an exceptional act? What about the House Un-American Activities Committee? What about the fact that the Southern Colonies went into the American Revolution fully aware that British judges were already passing sentences threatening the institution of slavery, and that a declaration of independence was the only way to preserve their plantations? Is the prison-industrial complex a truly exceptional institution worth upholding because it is a by-product of the United States?

American Exceptionalism is a downright lie. No textbook would dare claim Germany is exceptional because of its history, nor that Russia or Great Britain or India are exceptional, predestined countries. I do not intend to suggest that America is an intrinsic evil, either. The United States is guilty of a plethora of injustices, just like Germany, Russia, Great Britain, and India. Like those countries, who gave us Bach, Tolstoy, Monty Python, and Bollywood cinema, the United States has let bloom flowers of its own: our greatest export remains our jazz, blues, hip-hop, rock ‘n roll, rap, and bluegrass. But nothing makes us exempt from our crimes.

Just like Germany, which must confront the Holocaust; Russia, which must confront the gulags; Great Britain, which confront colonialism; and India, which must confront the one million people who died in its partition with Pakistan, the United States does not have the right to run away from its past, because no matter how far we run, the past will always catch up.

Unburying and interrogating the dead does not allow for discrimination. We must listen to every ghost of our past. As a historian, I believe the dead always have something to tell us, forever on the tips of their tongues. Shutting our ears will only make them shout louder at us.


Portrait of Baking as a Creation Story (with recipe)

Fresh Bread

In the beginning was the recipe, and the recipe was with the baker, and the recipe was the baker. And the bowl was an empty void, and the ingredients were separated.

The baker filled the bowl with water, and he took the yeast and sugar and spiraled them into the water to rest and grow; and the baker told the yeast to go forth and be fruitful, and the wet ingredients rejoiced. Then the baker took the egg and salt and found a place for them in the universe of the bowl, and mixed them into the yeast, and the wet ingredients rejoiced.

The baker took flour, one cup at a time, and put it in the bowl with the wet ingredients. And the wet ingredients rejoiced alongside the dry ingredients, until they became blended into one, forever and always. And the baker said, “Let there be dough,” and there was dough. And the ingredients went absolutely bonkers with rejoicing. The baker took shortening and melted it, and mixed it into the universe with more flour, and the dough became gooier and stringy with gluten. And the baker knew that it was good.

The baker set the dough aside and prepared a baking sheet. And when the dough had rested and awoke from its pleasant dreaming, the baker floured his hands, held the dough in them, and carved it into two, then into four. And the baker molded the four corners of the dough into loaves, and the dough rejoiced at its multiplication and fruitfulness.

The baker put the loaves in an oven and burned them with fire and brimstone, at 375 degrees Fahrenheit. And the loaves became crusty and golden and smelled rich and goodly, until the baker knew that they were just right. And the baker was careful not to let them get too crispy, for burned bread is the devil’s toothbrush.

And the baker served the bread with butter and jam and peanut butter and jelly and hazelnut spreads, and the taste buds pulled muscles rejoicing.

And the baker took the recipe and proclaimed it thusly:

½ oz. Salt
1 oz. Sugar
1 ½ oz. Shortening (melted)
1 oz. Yeast
1 lb. 12 oz. All Purpose Flour
1 ½ cups Water
2 Eggs

Stir yeast and sugar into water; let yeast activate for 3-5 minutes.
Add salt and eggs; mix.
Add flour one cup at a time, mixing well between each cup.
Add shortening before the last of the flour.
Let dough rest for 10 minutes.
Mold into loaves or rolls, place on baking sheet with parchment paper, and let proof until doubled in size.
Bake at 375 degrees F, until golden brown.
Rejoice excessively in the kitchen until the neighbors tell you to be quiet.


Questions About Charleston


The recent terrorist attack in Charleston, South Carolina, has warranted a variety of unsurprising responses. Among the various issues commentators are discussing (guns, flags, mental health, racism) is a debate about the language to use when discussing the attack. The terms “lone wolf” and “individual shooter” are popular to describe the attacker. It is rarer, however, to hear the phrase terrorist applied to Dylann Roof.

Roof walked into a historically black church, announced that he intended to kill black people, and murdered nine black civilians. He did not seem to target specific individuals but massacred a group of people. The location he chose was of historical and religious significance, and it has become apparent that he actively engaged white supremacist ideologies. Every fact of this case screams that Roof is a terrorist. My use of this term is not new or unique, and depending on what company you are in it may not be very radical.

But I’m reminded of another terrorist attack. Two brothers killed twelve people in Paris this past January. The contexts in both cases differ. The Paris attack targeted a newspaper for its conscious decision to portray the Prophet Muhammad; the French have a long history of politically oppressing Muslims abroad and domestically, which does not excuse the shooters but serves as a broader explanation for their motive. In contrast, the terrorist in Charleston targeted the historically oppressed population in the U.S., rather than the other way around. In the United States, racism has a painful history that I believe most Americans, namely white Americans, have yet to fully comprehend.

But both cases are terrorist attacks. The ideology the shooters in Paris carried with them did not come out of a void, but was inherited from other people and organizations. Similarly, the racism Roof harbors does not come out of a void. He also inherited it from the long-standing and violent presence of the KKK in the United States; he inherited it from a Confederacy of states who intended to maintain an economy on race-based slavery; he inherited it from five centuries of colonialism that built empires upon the backs of Africans in forced diaspora and cultural genocide; he inherited it from systemic racism that continues to lurch through American society in covert ways, in language and collective denial. Dylann Roof is in no way a lone wolf. He is the amalgamation of American racial hatred that is still alive and well. He is part of a system that produced him, and while he must be held accountable, so too must the society that created him. His intent was not only to murder individuals, but to assault the black community as a whole. What he did was an act of terrorism, and just because he’s not a Muslim does not mean we should refrain from using that term.

One thing that bothers me is how solidarity has become trendy, and by extension fleeting. Again, returning to the Charlie Hebdo attack, it became trendy to say Je Suis Charlie; it became trendy to oppose censorship, and then for a while it became trendy to critique Charlie Hebdo for its decision to deliberately mock Muslims (along with nearly every other religious group), but both instances ignored critical historical contexts (French imperialism, orientalism, the rise of anti-immigration and neo-fascist parties in Europe). But for months afterward, artists all around the world were expected to take a stand about Charlie Hebdo, to stand with those who died for their right to freedom of expression.

Fair enough, and I believe some good came out of that solidarity movement. I got involved in the fervor as well. I was angry, scared, confused. I wanted to write about it. Certainly it is unacceptable that a gun should be used as art criticism. The problem is that, in the wake of the solidarity movement, the violence did not end. The violence continued, but in other parts of the world. Boko Haram massacred students attending college in Garissa; the Taliban targeted people for trying to learn; a white man killed nine black churchgoers. Freedom of expression may not be at stake in each attack, but freedom always is. If we are to say we defend people’s rights all around the world, why do we only do so when it is popular to do so? Solidarity through twitter and social media, sometimes called clicktivism, may be useful in spreading information and awareness, but it must never be confused with actual activism.

We’ve collectively moved on from the Charlie Hebdo attack. We’ve drawn our cartoons praising artists and criticizing barbarism. Now we no longer feel compelled to write, to draw, to sing, even though the terrorism continues. And with a few crucial exceptions, Dylann Roof and the Kouachi brothers committed the exact same crime. The only real difference I can see is that Roof now has the privilege of people trying to take the blame away from him by pinning the issue on guns or psychology or upbringing. Perhaps even worse, he alone must bear responsibility while everybody else who is a part of his ideology, the entirety of the United States, its history of trauma and its ongoing racism, can walk away blameless.

So what can I do? I can educate myself and change the way I approach this attack. I can suggest that we address this for what it is, a terrorist attack rooted in systemic issues, and I can attempt to draw attention to those systemic issues. I can explore and identify the historical contexts, I can write poems of solidarity and short stories that tackle racism in U.S. society at all levels. I can write with candor or try to use metaphor. But will it do any good? I’m tired of seeing solidarity become a fleeting trend. I’m tired of seeing white people taking selfies at predominantly black protests against racial profiling among police officers, #LoveMeI’mALiberal.  I’m tired of my communities looking at French victims as more worthy of their outrage than African victims in Garissa or African-American victims in Charleston. But I don’t know what more I can do. All I know is that it is not enough.

Today is Sunday. Today sermons are pouring out like the sun. Maybe, with a little grace, we as a group will move. We are, after all, a giant group and not a chessboard of scattered individuals. Our movements are shaped by those of others; our propulsion is dependent upon that of others. If Roof is not the sole root of the problem, I cannot be the sole root of the solution. We are a collective in crisis. I praise the artistic momentum in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack, but I lament how quickly that momentum diminished. Perhaps, this Sunday morning, I can only meditate over a very tiny sermon from a great American teacher.

“The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.” -Martin Luther King Jr.