Friday, November 28, 2014

The Only Question Left for Ferguson

In September, Henry Kissinger responded to ISIL's beheading of an American by saying "a measured response is inappropriate." This is an insult, Kissinger told NPR, "which requires that we demonstrate that this is not an act that is free.”  He argued further that, "when an American is murdered ... there should be a response that you cannot, you would not analyze in terms of a normal response to provocation.” And the people of Ferguson, MO., would certainly agree. 

The sense of frustration and outrage that Americans feel over the beheading of one of their own by ISIL is the same frustration and outrage that the people of Ferguson feel over the shooting of Michael Brown, only in Ferguson, the brutal treatment of American citizens has been going on for far longer. Yet when Kissinger suggests we should respond with violence to the former he is applauded as a statesman, while the citizens of Ferguson, who are simply applying Kissinger's advice to the latter, are condemned as savages. The real difference between the two, however, is that the violence of one results in broken bodies that the news would never show us on television, and the other results in broken buildings that the news shows us on television all the time.

 More paradoxical is the fact that, although no one really knows what happened exactly between Michael Brown and Officer Darren Wilson, everyone knows that the American justice system is overwhelmingly racist. And as a consequence, Black Americans are harassed, brutalized, imprisoned, and even murdered by the police far more often than any other race in America today. Brown and Wilson are not therefore the cause of the problems in Ferguson, they are simply the unfortunate effect. And because they are, the riots in Ferguson are not all that different from Nat Turner's slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831.  

Even if Officer Wilson is completely innocent of any wrongdoing in the shooting of Michael Brown (which, given all of the conflicting testimony presented to the grand jury, is something that should have been determined by a jury of his peers) is it really that difficult to understand why people who are forced to endure all the indignities that institutionalized discrimination can impose, would riot? 
Suggesting there must be something wrong with people who respond to such discrimination is like saying there must be something wrong with slaves who riot against their masters. In fact, that is exactly what American physician Samuel A. Cartwright said in 1851. In his book, Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race, Cartwright explained that the black slave should be kept “in the position that we learn from the Scriptures he was intended to occupy, that is, the position of submission.” Trying to make the “negro” into anything other than "the submissive knee-bender (which the Almighty declared he should be)” resulted in the slave developing an overwhelming urge to flee the benevolent hospitality of his captors.Cartwright called this mental illness “drapetomania."

Although the riots in Ferguson can in no way be condoned or justified, of course, they can be understood. For Ferguson is simply a reminder that we do not live in a post-racial America simply because Obama was elected president. Putting "a black man in the White House" does make up for a system of "racism for profit" - otherwise known as the War on Drugs - that incarcerates untold numbers of black men in the Big House every year. Nor does it compensate for the racially disproportionate manner in which such a "war" has been continuously waged. 

In fact, to suggest there is something wrong with those who riot in reaction to such a system - a system which is obviously more interested in protecting itself from guilt than in protecting those it should presume to be innocent - is not only a failure to understand the underlying cause of the riots, it is to tacitly support the very system of racism that has always produced such riots in the first place. Indeed, there would only be something "wrong" with the people of Ferguson if they choose not to react at all.  

So the only question left to ask for Ferguson, is this: if you were politically powerless to change a system that was designed to exploit you the most, what would you do? 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Escaping the Bondage of Beliefs - The Yellow Brick Road in Our Head

Most of us never realize that our beliefs are a form of bondage. This is because our beliefs, which we rely on to define our identity, are also an invisible prison that we help to design and create. Ironically, it was from this very prison that Christ himself came to free humanity. Yet rather than spending our energies trying to escape it, we work to fortify it instead. As a result, our beliefs become our castle, with walls we build ever higher and moats we dig ever deeper, with each passing thought. This castle is built not of stones, of course, but of ideas. In fact, in the same way minerals form into rocks which may eventually become mountains, so ideas can form into beliefs and eventually become religions. The only difference is that, for many, it is much easier to move one than change the other. Unlike most prisons, however, the doors of our beliefs are all locked from the inside; and we alone hold the key. 

If you have ever seen movies like The Exorcist, Poltergeist, or Paranormal Activity, you know how an evil demon can possess a person or even a home. In either situation, the more someone tries to evict the interloping spirit, the more violently the spirit will fight to remain. Our beliefs work much in the same way, especially the destructive ones. And of all the beliefs we hold perhaps the most powerful, and certainly the most resilient, deal with God and religion. So powerful are these beliefs, in fact, that, much like a home built on an ancient Indian burial ground, we can come to be inhabited and even fully controlled by them. This possession can then come to determine both the way we judge and value others and how we interpret our ideas and everything we experience. 

The hardest beliefs to escape by far have always been the ones that promise the greatest freedoms. Religion is just one example of the powerful forms of bondage that such beliefs can create, and Christianity is a single castle in the kingdom of that captivity. From handing out Bibles to blowing up buildings, God and religion are not only the most powerful beliefs humanity has ever designed for itself, they are beliefs humanity has demonstrated its willingness to both give and take life en masse to defend. 

Our beliefs define us not only as individuals but as a society, which is why they can come to be considered even more important than we are. And which ones we hold can determine our freedom or our enslavement, and how we choose to live this life and leave it. Yet despite the tremendous role they play in every aspect of our lives, our beliefs are not necessarily our friends. Indeed, despite what most people think, our beliefs tend to control us much more than we control them. The only way to change this is by trying to understand how this happens, and why. Only then can our mind learn to prefer the effort and insecurity that comes from freedom to the power and stability it enjoys from being the servant to a belief. 

As human beings we are prone to form many kinds of addictions, but the things we are addicted to the most by far are our beliefs. Our beliefs are not only the most powerful drug imaginable, physiologically speaking, they are also the last thing people ever suspect they are addicted to. In a way, beliefs are like the water we swim in and we are the fish. And while we are quick to notice anyone who swims against the stream, we are often oblivious to the current of conformity that carries us along with the tide. And because that tide is so often used against us, we can end up becoming victims to the very beliefs we depend on to protect us.

Rest assured that our beliefs want nothing more than to serve and please the God who cobbled them together from the clay of our own conscious thought - us. Like a virus, beliefs need a host to survive. And because they live in the veritable Eden we’ve created for them inside of our own head, the last thing they want is to be thrown out for not doing as they were told. To keep our ideas pure, therefore, we often forbid ourselves, or more importantly our ideas, from eating of certain trees of knowledge. We do this by not reading certain books, or listening to certain speakers, or even asking certain questions. Some of this self-censoring we do deliberately, but some of it we do subconsciously, out of the habits of our conditioning. 

Often times, our beliefs work by looking out at the sea of information around us, and selecting and interpreting that information in ways that prove we are right and others are wrong. Our beliefs, in other words, determine how our mind metabolizes information into ideas by filtering out impurities that suggest our beliefs could be mistaken. It doesn’t matter whether being “right” in a particular instance is ultimately good for us or not. Our beliefs just want to be agreeable and to ensure we get our instant reward for confirming them, regardless of the long term consequences. That “instant reward” comes in a flood of hormones to our brain, like adrenaline and dopamine. 

For providing us with this rush of hormones, we in turn repay the favor to our beliefs by consciously seeking out new information - from sources like books and speakers - to make our rush, and our beliefs, even stronger. We do this, in part, by befriending people who agree with us, and using the filter of their beliefs to reinforce our own. The hormones released in our brain during this process can make us feel good, dominant, and even invincible. And over time, that “high” can lead us to become virtually addicted to what we believe.

This feedback-loop is not simply the result of our beliefs snowballing in our mind, however, but a physical network of synaptic connections in our brain that we ride around and around, like a carousel. Those synapses, which permit neurons in our brain to pass electrical or chemical signals to each other, allow us to string together ideas like lights around a Christmas tree. As our beliefs begin stringing together different ideas in our mind, our synapses start creating new neurological connections in our brain. And the more we travel along the byways of those beliefs, the stronger and more pronounced the networks in our brain become. Eventually, these neurological connections become the yellow brick road that we follow, again and again, into the bondage of our beliefs.

Religion is a disease masquerading as it’s own cure.