Slogging through to gratitude

What does the abortion debate have to do with gratitude? They both strike at the core of what type of spirituality you practice, for one thing.

You are probably as sick of the argument as I am. It rages on with passion, hate, violence and self-righteousness on both sides, though the facts surrounding the issue haven't changed in thirty years.

It isn't just about being "pro-life" or "pro-choice" depending on one's religion. There's the disability rights angle. There's adoption. There's overpopulation and environmental crisis. It is an issue with tendrils reaching deep and wide.

I'm a person with a significant physical disability. I can easily imagine the sheer rage experienced by those who live with disabilities that are widely considered "abortable," in that many people think a child would be better off dead than living "that way." 

I'm also an adoptive parent of two children who never went home from the maternity ward. Their birth mothers did have reasonable access to abortion as a possibility in a country with universal health care, but they did not make that choice. 

I might well have some strong opinions on this issue, but I find that I am not firmly on one side or the other.

I am a woman. Yes, I think women and all people should be allowed to make their own choices. I become irritated when men dictate what women should do with their lives. I know women who were raped and then shamed for it--assumptions made about them. I have a capacity for feminist fury.

But I am not pro-choice at all cost, even so. I don't think there is a clear line between unborn and alive. 

I'm not pro-life or pro-abortion in this. It is more that I am anti-back-alley-abortion. On the surface, it's as simple as that. I don't think abortion is any great thing. Overpopulation is a serious issue, but still if we respect any life we should respect all life. 

Yet I know the results of anti-abortion laws. Throughout history and geography they do not generally result in fewer abortions but rather in more risky abortions and more deaths from infection and accident. That's my primary stand on the issue in terms of society, laws and politics.

In terms of ethics... well, it does come down to religion for me as it does for many people, except my ethics are different from those preached by that brand of Christianity that is so sure of its single, universal "truth.".

In the most recent debate I witnessed on this issue, a woman was lecturing on scripture and the "fact" that God is the only one who can choose to give life or to take life away. She said that makes abortion wrong, no matter what, and makes the pro-choice stance immoral.

This was at least a calm and rational argument. The comments were kindly but firmly put--an assumption that everyone must agree with the scriptures running through the text. The only question open to debate was the interpretation of those scriptures.

But what if you don't accept the most basic premise. How so God is the only one who can take life away? What did you eat for breakfast this morning? If it contained meat or even eggs then you clearly participated in taking life away.

And what about wheat or vegetables? I'm looking at you, vegetarians on moral grounds. How can you prove that those lives--the lives of plants--are different and that you can take away those lives so that you might live but not another kind of life? I know there are lines in those scriptures taken to mean that humans are above the rest of nature, but again I do not accept those scriptures as proof. You must find something beyond human constructs to insist that humans are above all others.

I do understand that if one's religion takes the stand that God is something outside of you, not within each living being, then the issue of abortion becomes highly divisive. However, we have to accept that not everyone shares our religion and if they don't, then it makes no sense for them to be bound by the same scriptures.

My religion mandates that I have to work every day to ensure that I take no more life than I truly need, that I am not a force for needless death and destruction. I have to be conscious about the fact that other beings have to die in order for me to eat, have shelter, stay warm, read, use the internet and so forth. I have to try to give back in kind. 

And I have to give thanks, consciously and openly.

That's the law of my religion. Very few people follow this law and if I respected only people who do or insisted that all people must abide by it, I would be made ridiculous. I accept that it isn't the law of someone else's religion.

For me God or the Gods are not entirely separate from us. They also don't force anything upon us. In the end, every decision of ethical value is fully in our hands. If we had no choice we would also have no ethical responsibility. We are not forced to have a child by some external will of God and so we are truly responsible.

By being alive we make choices, including the choice to continue living. We choose and we must accept in every moment of our lives that we have come to the situation we are in through a combination of circumstances and our choices to accept or reject those circumstances.

All possibilities may not have been open to us. The poor have fewer choices than the rich. Money equals the ability to choose what to do with that wealth after all. But in the end, even the poorest has made choices. And morality is most basically about our acceptance of that.

We choose to take life in order to eat and thus to continue to live. This choice is made easy for us because we psychologically feel that the lives of those beings we eat are not the same as our own life. It is harder when the life is an unborn child and the need is not just to slake momentary hunger but rather the need to choose one's path in life. It is harder but both take away life.

Choose well and know that there is a cost.

You do not eat without the deaths of others. Only arrogance can claim that those lives--even the lives of radishes--are less important than your own. You accept this. You eat anyway and you try to live without needlessly taking life. That is all. You have no need to judge the choices of others in this question, which is ultimately between each private person and their gods.

Race traitors and the white supremacist attack on women

I wish I could believe that the proliferation of hate-filled social media posts is all hot air and no substance. For several months before the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville I had been researching one particular facet of the Alt Right---a virulent hatred against women and most especially against white women who don't reject all non-white men.

But I didn't post my research because I promised my readers soothing virtual cups of tea, not bitter drafts brewed from the sludge of the internet.

Then after the attack that killed Heather Heyer my google searches turned up cached pages on many mainstream media outlets and blogs in which comments by white supremacists had been deleted. The deleted comments called Heather Heyer a "race traitor" and expressed gladness at her death. These were deleted and rightly so. But we should also know that they were written by someone's hand. I found a dozen but then stopped looking. I can't catalog the whole internet without a research team.

Creative Commons image by Tim Pierce

Creative Commons image by Tim Pierce

The fact is that some white supremacists consider Heather Heyer to be a race traitor. Why? Because she stood among demonstrators who opposed the KKK and neo-Nazis? Because she helped people of color and others who got the brunt of injustice in her legal work? Because she stood up for social justice? If she is considered a race traitor by those criteria, then there are a lot of us.

We don't know how many white supremacists wrote these comments or how many support them, but those who write these things are still well accepted in Alt Right circles and my research showing widespread attacks against women and accusations against "race traitors" is overdue.

It is my sorrow that I can't be more comforting to readers. In times of sickness, sometimes the tea must be brewed with bitter herbs to fight invading parasites and disease. This is one of those times. 

The self-proclaimed Islamic State, one of the most deadly terrorist organizations ever conceived, was primarily built through social media and hateful internet posts. Many a western intelligence agent is now employed trying to uncover and combat the online spread of ISIS ideology. People are pulled into these extremist movements by years of hateful on-line posts, echoing back and forth and building rage and belief in their own superiority. 

The American Alt Right, like ISIS, grew in the haven of on-line anonymity, where despicable things could be said, agreed upon and ricocheted around with impunity. Now ISIS is one of the greatest security threats on the globe with a stated goal of fostering fear and hatred between moderate Muslims and Europeans.

White nationalists and the Alt Right in the United States now threaten safety and democracy as well. With large arsenals of military weapons, they say they'll do much more violence if their threats are not heeded. They could write the dictionary definition of terrorism.

Both groups also share a rabid hatred of women as well some vehement female supporters. 

Most people called "race traitors" by today's white supremacists are white women who had mixed-race relationships. But the labeling of Heather Heyes shows that it is primarily the stand against racism that earns that epithet. 

The largest and best-known white supremacist website Stormfront.org, which at last known count in 2015 had 300,000 registered users, makes for sickening reading. Supposedly the N-word is banned on the site because the focus is not specifically hatred against people of color or any particular group. But the site is riddled with the terms "race traitor" and "mudshark."

Creative Commons by  Pedro Ribeiro Simões 

Creative Commons by  Pedro Ribeiro Simões 

 "Would you help a race traitor if she was being beaten in front of you by her black partner?" one thread asks. The answers tell their own story.

User "Vigilante Bellator" writes: "I don't find race traitors to be white anymore. And as for non whites I really don't care what happens to them, being women or not. That woman is tainted and lost anyway, I might sound cruel but I wouldn't care."

User "CAPITOL Punisher" replies: "If it had to happen at a time when the rule of law has ceased to exist then I would shoot the kaffir (sic) and hang her by her neck in the nearest tree!"

User "Creationofadam" posts: "I wouldn't bat an eye or even bother to call the cops. They knew what they were getting into and they made the concious (sic) decision to turn their back on their race and flush millenias (sic) of evolution down the the toilet to become a race traitor."

When another on-line discussion mentioned Stormfront on an ign.com entertainment board a user called "Edgelord" logged in to defend the white supremacist cause. He alleged a "genocide" is in progress against the "white race," and used the claim of racially distinct genes to influence others, "Science shows that the races evolved independently and thus evolved different mental and physical features." He later specified what had become apparent to me on Stormfront, that the primary target of this propaganda is white women, "We don't have animosity for white men who racemix with Africans, just white women," Edgelord wrote.

On other forums the focus on women is even more evident. One discussion on the VNNForum, a site considered by some to be more extreme than Stormfront, discusses women as "the weakness of the white race." 

It begins with a post by a user tagged as "Devere" who complained that white men were not taking what is theirs: "Women are not equipped to lead, to protect the survival of their people. Men are. Women in positions of power and with independence from their men will make and have made and will continue to make White genocidal decisions... Generally, our women are the prize that goes to the victor. The non-white races are winning -- so they are taking our women. We are not even fighting back."

The posts get increasingly violent and graphic with experienced members "educating" newbies by recommending Mein Kampf and lamenting that they cannot kill people of color and white women who would have anything to do with people of color as a means of employment as Nazi guards once did in "those golden years," as well as predicting, "When will this end? When the race war starts and we ... hang every white woman that has ever screwed a non-white." Other threads discuss women in general as "sick little animals."

While this is not the public face most often seen in white supremacist marches of polished boots and uniform shirts, where smiling women often march together with a crowd of men, this is the ideological base and the on-line recruiting ground for such groups.

When public Alt Right figures ask us to be tolerant of white supremacists and to allow them to "express their views peacefully," it is worth remembering that this anti-women extremism is one (but far from the only) trait they share with terrorist groups like ISIS. If we cannot tolerate blatant hate speech by those who twist Islam to suit one fascist ideology, then we cannot tolerate the blatant hate speech of those who twist Christianity or racial identity for the same purpose.

"I'd hammer out danger,
I'd hammer out a warning,
I'd hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters,
All over this land." 

- Pete Seeger

A word about restraint in the race wars

I first heard about the death of Heather Heyer on the radio and I could tell from half a world away that it was big news, like shake-to-the-core big. The sorrow and anger I felt inside was actually mirrored in the mainstream media.

And in the first minutes before I went to turn on my computer to actually see for myself, I thought privately, "I bet she was white." Okay, not a bad guess based on her last name, but I hadn't even thought about that. I was going purely on the tone of the media reaction.

Creative Commons image by Thomas Altfather Good

Creative Commons image by Thomas Altfather Good

For a quick, self-recriminating second part of me even hoped she was white. Not because I would rather people who look like me should die, or because I thought race riots would erupt in the US if she was black.

Quite the opposite. I had a sneaking suspicion that if a white activist died, the outcry would be greater and the political and media backlash against white supremacists larger.

I wish this peaceful, intelligent, beautiful young woman hadn't died. But as much as I'd scream "Black lives matter!" if she had been black and the reaction of the mainstream media had been muted, resigned and brief, I would rather not see anymore people die from racist violence. If this is what it takes to wake up the media and established politicians, well, I would rather they woke up.

A week after the white supremacist march, I watched a televised interview with two of confederate general Stonewall Jackson's great grandsons calling for his and all confederate monuments to be dismantled. We've seen business leaders, mainstream media and Republican politicians abandon Trump and denounce white nationalism in no uncertain terms. 

A local business, a dry cleaner, in my home town of La Grande, Oregon, a small rural town where 67 percent of voters voted for Trump in the presidential election, placed a sign on their front door that reads, "If you still support Trump, your business is not welcome here." That will hit the owner in the pocketbook. It's a small, highly conservative town. 

Would that all have happened if Heather Heyer had been black? I hope so. I really really hope so. But I wouldn't bet a hundred bucks on it.

A white nationalist leader from the Charlottesville rally, Christopher Cantwell said in a Vice documentary specifically that the murder of Heather Heyer was "more than justified." He said that the event was a success partly because he believed no one on his side had killed anyone unjustly and went on to say, "The amount of restraint that our people showed out there, I think, was astounding."

I suppose, sitting with the arsenal he had just showed off to the film makers, he meant that the white supremacists have plenty of guns and if they wished, they could make the terrorist attack in Barcelona look like a picnic. That's their version of restraint.

I can't help but think of all the black journalists, lawyers and professionals I have seen face blatant racial slurs and never even twitch an eye. I can't help thinking of the African American woman calling the police officer "sir" after he had just gunned down her peacefully compliant boyfriend right in front of her and her toddler.

I can't help thinking of the many other acts of incredible restraint that black people have treated us to in recent years. Sure, there have been exceptions. But the sheer volume of restraint is staggering. 

In all the vast amounts of commentary I have read and heard since Heather Heyer was killed, I have heard many outraged, angry and hurting black activists. And not one of them asked the question I know must have occurred to many of them: would the country care this much if she was black? 

That, my friends, is restraint. 

It would not have been kind or diplomatic to say it. So they didn't. But it's there. I'm saying it because it is something we white people need to look at in ourselves and we should be asking the right questions.

As a mother and as a risk-taking, activist daughter, the image that remains with me is that of Heather Heyer's mother--her strength, her incredible grief, her unbelievable generosity in speaking out to help the world rather than retreating into the healing she no doubt needs. Her words and demeanor have been the epitome of restraint, given the loss she has suffered. 

Whatever the reason this event has taken the nation by storm, I agree with her mourning words, "By golly, if I have to give her up, we're going to make it count." 

The front lines in the war against fascism

Ten days ago I was snapping beans at the kitchen table with an old friend. It was a pleasant evening and the kids were in bed. We often talk politics at this table, bantering back and forth, bemoaning the state of the world, society and prejudice. 

But this evening, my friend turned down a different path. "I heard on the radio that there's new scientific evidence that we really are different from Africans. We didn't all come from one woman after all."

I question carefully. There is a lot of racially loaded misinformation in our local media, and while this old friend and I almost always agree on social and political issues, there is one way in which we are different. He has more time to listen to the local media and he eventually believes what is repeated enough times. 

Creative Commons image by Joanna Bourne

Creative Commons image by Joanna Bourne

This time it turns out that radio commentators had taken recent studies of the human genome that have found traces of Neanderthal DNA only in non-African human genes and extrapolated a new form of scientific racism.

The real science first appeared in the journal Nature in 2014. That was a study showing that once very long ago some humans interbred with Neanderthals. This occurred during the migration of some humans away from Africa about 60,000 years ago. The traces are now very faint, but they may have initially helped the ancestors of Europeans and East Asians to survive in colder climates at a time when shelter was scarce. Less helpful traits, such as a decline in fertility and differences in speech centers of the brain, were weeded out by natural selection and are no longer part of our DNA. 

The amount of different DNA in Europeans and Asians thanks to the interbreeding with Neanderthals is now minuscule. No, it does not make us fundamentally different from Africans. No, race is still not something genetically significant. And yes, we did all still come from some long ago ancestress in Africa. (And why exactly do some people have a problem with that?)

But of course, there are those in today's political landscape who will jump at any chance to play tug-o-war with people's minds. I researched the science and then explained it. My friend nominally accepted it and backed down from the racial separatist interpretation. Yet I still felt troubled at how pervasive the propaganda has become.

Ten days later at the dark of the moon and after the white supremacist terrorist attack in the United States, I'm more than unsettled. I am a wordsmith and I know the craft. I know about motivation, targeting and persuasion. I see all the signs here. This misinformation is being targeted specifically at communities, nations and people who are white yet not white supremacists.

It's a classic fascist tactic. 

I have studied and written about extremist groups, inter-ethnic conflict and racial violence for twenty years, starting in the ethnic cleansing of the Balkans and following similar troubles around the world. 

And when rooting out fascism it isn't the rabid hatred of the other that is the best clue. The first battle lines are amid those who could be considered part of the in-group but who are not radicalized.

Today if you follow the mainstream media, you are told that racism is wrong and mainly a thing of the past. But you are also told many negative things about people of color, whether refugees, immigrants or people in your own community. Eventually you also hear how white people should believe that they are different and they should hold themselves apart from non-whites. 

Creative Commons image by  Alper Çuğun

Creative Commons image by  Alper Çuğun

Across North America and Europe civil rights organizations have documented a rise in white supremacist and neo-Nazi activity in the past five years. Since the election of Donald Trump in the US, the membership rolls of the Klu Klux Klan have exploded with thousands of new recruits. Through social media, racist hate groups have pushed past the reactionary fringe and become a force that poses a clear danger to average citizens.

And right now, although incidents like the one in Charlottesville pose the most obvious danger, the front lines are a lot closer to home than you might think. In far too many cases, the front lines of this conflict run right across your kitchen table, your bar counter or your social media feed. 

You may feel that I'm being overly dramatic. But consider the other recent fascist uprising and its devastating effects. I mean the one in Syria. 

The Islamic State has all the hallmarks of fascism. It may seem odd to compare a brown-skinned Muslim group to neo-Nazis but they are close ideological cousins. They just happen to have a different home-group as their central focus.

ISIS stands for an authoritarian, supremacist ideology rooted in fascist tactics and social media was crucial to its rise. ISIS has also made it clear in public statements, organized attacks and internal documents that while they feel they are superior to non-Muslims, the brunt of their violence and hatred is directed at Muslims who do not fully accept their twisted version of that faith. In ISIS territory, Christians, Jews and even Pagans are allowed to live, if with curtailed rights. But Muslims who do not adhere exactly and pledge their allegiance to ISIS are executed and make up the majority of mass graves uncovered in places ISIS has retreated from.

Statements and documents uncovered by western intelligence agencies indicate orders by top ISIS leaders to fuel European fear and hatred of moderate Muslims. That has been the open goal of recent Islamic terror attacks in Europe. Far from championing the Muslim cause, ISIS would like Europeans and Americans to do their work for them, isolating Muslims in their communities and denying entry to Muslim refugees fleeing ISIS terror. 

It should come as no surprise that the same tactics are used by white supremacists and neo-Nazis. They often call themselves "race realists" and claim that they are not primarily motivated by hatred of others but simply want to further the interests and ensure the survival of their own people, which they conceive of as the white race, minus those who are nominally white but deemed undesirable and ostensibly genetically different, such as Jews. 

And just as ISIS was built with social media and on the backs of moderate Muslims, white supremacists are focusing much of their energy on misinformation directed at average white people and hatred of "race traitors."

White supremacist groups are now in the stage in which they use social media and misinformation to grow their power. They set average white people against African Americans, against Muslim refugees and against all immigrants of color. And yes, they'll do the reverse too, whenever they get the chance. They draw harsh lines and attack white people who stand against them viciously. And they will very likely manufacture reasons for people of color to hate average white people as well, to ensure that we don't stand together.

Those--like that friend at my kitchen table--who don't want to be racist but also don't want to be bothered with the struggle against racism are key pawns in this game. Fascism has always fed on the discomfort people naturally feel for conflict and poisonous rhetoric. Most of the great atrocities of the world were not committed because of great hatred, but because of apathy and avoidance by large masses of people.

Those radio programs twisting science and claiming that Europeans are genetically distinct from other races and thus must be protected are not a random, weird-science occurence. This is the front line of fascism's war on us. Don't let racist pseudoscience go unanswered. 

Why is the queen always evil?

"We have princesses and a king and a dragon," one seven-year-old girl gushes.

I'm sitting with my daughter and her friends, playing with marionettes and our home puppet stage.

"I'll be the queen," I suggest. 

"No, the queen is too mean," my daughter says, pushing a knight into my hands. "You be a knight." 

It was unconscious. The kids hadn't yet decided on a plot line or a premise for their fairy tale, but one given is apparently that the queen is always evil.

Public domain image from the  LBJ Library

Public domain image from the  LBJ Library

The printable flashcards I use with my ESL students make a similar assumption. In the fantasy set, there is a king, a princess, a prince and a knight who are all nice-looking protagonists. Then among the antagonists there is a green monster, a sadistic wizard and an evil queen with a dripping, red-stained dagger.

I have started noticing this trend and searching for positive "queen" stories and symbols. There is of course the age-old British obsession with their queen, who is considered a benevolent figure. But there are few others in the modern world. Very rarely does a Disney movie feature even a neutral queen.

And when I come to think of it, a large part of the attraction of the British queen is that she is a symbol of wealth and celebrity but has very little power in the world. 

Consider what our popular culture conceives of as a good king--the qualities that make a king truly admirable in the modern imagination. You don't have to look only at kings to see this. Anyone who is in a king-like position (with a measure of absolute power in a certain area), whether it is a lord of a domain in a fantasy novel or a Star Trek captain, fulfills the "king" archetype.

In modern culture today, a king should be strong and able to protect his people, first and foremost. He should make hard and even harsh decisions bravely and only for the true common good of his people. He should be a warrior, willing to go first into battle. If he is ever called upon to sacrifice one of his people to save the others, he must insist that he will be the sacrifice. How many plot-lines use this device? 

Women are never portrayed in this way. They can sacrifice themselves for the people, sure. But they cannot hold such power at the same time. If a woman holds massive power over an area or a people, she is always portrayed negatively in modern western culture. 

Creative Commons image by Tim Green

Creative Commons image by Tim Green

I just tried googling "queens in popular culture." Google didn't even initially want me to put the query and tried to insist on "drag queens in popular culture." Then when I finally typed out the whole query, the first result was titled literally, "Evil Queens in Pop Culture." No result on the first page of Google results has positive messages about queens.

There are "drag queens" and "evil queens." There are "welfare queens," "queen bees," "drama queens," and "ice queens." But there is no role model, no symbol, no archetype in the great common subconscious of a strong, honorable queen, such as we have for the strong, honorable male leader.

Wildly popular female heroines do exist in popular culture, of course. and there are positive examples. But they are universally young and rebellious. There are Katniss, Tris and a host of recent plucky Disney heroines. Even Hermione Granger gets harsh judgement from my teenage English students when they write about the Harry Potter series, because she is not rebellious enough! 

One only needs to look at the wildly popular Game of Thrones to see how young, strong but relatively powerless heroines compare to older, powerful queens in the popular imagination. Young girls can have their flaws, but they are essentially sympathetic as long as they don't have much power. They can even be ruthless and not be seen as evil. 

But a queen with power is immediately the object of hatred and disgust. 

And I have to wonder why.

Does this hatred of queens stem from some deep historical wound? Or are powerful, good queens just generally unknown in history? There have been a few but mostly their names are much less known than the female rebels. How many more people have heard of Joan of Arc than have heard of Boudicca? Not many westerners beyond history buffs know the names Eleanor of Aquitaine, Hatshepsut, Empress Theodora or Empress Wu Zetian.

Those who did study Maria Theresa of Austria, Elizabeth I of England and Catherine II of Russia in mandatory school textbooks found them described as cold, harsh and cruel for decisions that were no more harsh or calculated than those of similarly positioned kings. 

But at least the British for a very long time did have a popular, kindly concept of the queen and the phrase "God save the queen" was often said with all sincerity. So, I am not certain that history can be blamed entirely for our modern antipathy toward queens. 

Is it a backlash then against the feminism of the late 20th century? Is there an instinctual fear among men and women alike that female power will result in tyranny? 

Surely, this ubiquitous undertone of negativity about women with political and military power hurt Hillary Clinton as a presidential candidate. And at the same time she contributed to that stereotype by being cold, out of touch and--I'll try to be diplomatic here--strategic. 

Creative Commons image by  Carole Raddato

Creative Commons image by  Carole Raddato

But I have to wonder if the reason why the women who have come anywhere close to power in recent decades have been so cold and ruthless is that it requires harsh calculation for a woman to reach that pinnacle of power in today's world. Among activists and rebels, there are certainly plenty of positive figures who are warm and capable of leadership, but they never seem to rise high in power if they are female 

Maybe that's all it is. It has been a long time since we have seen a good and honorable queen-like figure, because the patriarchal system screens out women with those qualities from political power. 

After imbibing a lot of popular culture myself, I find that I cannot even conceive of a strong, powerful and protective queen figure without doubts about cold and ruthless women creeping in.

Take a moment, if you will, to imagine a female queen or general who must protect her people and tackle complex ethical issues. What qualities would such a leader embody? Could the same qualities that make a good king--honor, protection, ethics, the setting of clear boundaries and guarding of borders and self-sacrifice--transfer directly across?. 

Would these same qualities make an ideal queen whom the popular imagination could embrace? I have thought on it for a long time, trying to come up with the plot for a fantasy novel in which a queen possesses these same qualities. And it just doesn't quite work. Such a queen would inevitably be seen as too cold.

Where Captain Archer of Star Trek Enterprise can make questionably ethical decisions to save humanity and still be admired, a queen would be judged as "evil." Captain Janeway of Star Trek Voyager, the series' one admirable attempt to switch the gender roles, lets an alien who stole the lungs of one of her crew members keep them to save the alien's life. And still she is perceived of as cold and sexless. Captain Archer employs torture and kills massively in his quest to save Earth, and he never loses the viewer's sympathy or his cult of sexual attraction. 

After skimming through many modern and historical stories, my search finally led me to the ancient Celtic concept of a Brig, a great lady. The time is so remote and there are no written documents from the ancient Celtic culture, so we cannot be entirely sure of details. But we do know that a Brig was a judge, a woman of great power. 

The term appears in the name of the goddess Brigid/Bride and Saint Brigid. This is a figure of vast importance to Celtic cultures and very likely originated with an ancient woman or women of power. And through this legend it is possible to grasp at the qualities that might just make an ideal, good queen in the popular imagination.

The Goddess Brigid was traditionally the lady of the hearth, ruling fire and the great hall. She is anything but cold. She is a mother of the community, an authority but also a refuge. 

She was also the keeper of the well and a powerful healer of body and soul. She is connected with inspiration and creativity as well as protection. While much of her legend appears very feminine and homey, there are the ancient stories of Brigid as a warrior queen. In these legends she does not ride forth often. But she does go into battle to put injustices right, to fight for the dispossessed and the downtrodden, for innocent outcasts and for ill-treated orphans. 

I am beginning now to get a picture of a good queen, one a Disney movie or a popular fantasy series could embrace. She must be keeper of the hall and castle, much as the king is. But her power will be in the creation of abundance more than in the destruction of enemies. She is creative and she integrates inner and outer worlds. 

Beyond that she is a healer and a giver of solace, and not only for her own people. She is generous without exhaustion for she can always create more plenty through her wise policies. Rather than holding iron borders to protect her people, she protects through the forging of alliances and the invitation of wanderers to add their talents to her realm. Still she can defend boundaries when there is true need.

She is maker, artist, poet, healer and mother of the people. But she is also the judge, who weighs both logic and compassion, ethics and organic fairness. Her boundaries are strong, but made of reason and prudence rather than of iron or stone. And like the  mythical good king, she is protective, although she is rarely roused to battle. When she sees injustice and no one but her to cut it down, she will go. 

As for self-sacrifice... The male commanders of today's popular culture are always insisting that they will go into battle first or lead the impossible mission to save humanity. Their supporters try to dissuade them, telling them that they are needed to lead the people and that their death would be too great a blow to the cause. By all logic, another should go. But the male hero's answer is always that he will not order another to attempt a suicide mission.

What is the ideal queen's version of this? I know that surely this ideal queen would go hungry rather than see her people starve. She would fight for justice. But I do not see her abandoning her post for some mission that will eventually bring her great glory if she somehow wins through.

She would stake her power, her position, her livelihood on being right in a gamble to save her people. But she would not leave the hard work to others while she went off to win acclaim. She would risk her own safety but she would most likely not bet on a risky mission in which one solitary individual has to save the world through an insanely risky act. 

She would use diplomacy, wit and the strength of nature for protection and justice. She would risk more than her life to save her people. She would, unlike most male heroes, sacrifice even the memory of her name and her deeds. She would do what must be done, even if it meant that her name and her very existence would be forgotten by future generations.  Such would be my ideal queen.

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Arie Farnam

Arie Farnam is a war correspondent turned peace organizer, a tree-hugging herbalist, a legally blind bike rider, the off-road mama of two awesome kids, an idealist with a practical streak and author of the Kyrennei Series. She grew up outside La Grande, Oregon and now lives in a small town near Prague in the Czech Republic.

Her War: The day the dream died

What goes through the mind of a parent in the moment when they find out that their child's difficulties are not "a phase" or something she'll grow out of? What are the thoughts of the captain of a tiny vessel with a crew of four struck by a hurricane? 

This mother sat in a park outside City Hall to hear the verdict of the specialist over the phone. The child, who she called Chickadee in moments of tenderness because she came one spring eight years ago to save the mother's grieving and broken heart, was with her. The mother made Chickadee sit on a bench a little distance away and gave her a tablet with games to play--a rare treat to keep her occupied during the call with the psychologist.

Creative Commons image by Paul Stainthorp

Creative Commons image by Paul Stainthorp

She was too young to overhear her own fate.

"I disagree with the findings of the previous report on her intelligence." Those were nearly the first words spoken over the cell phone.

The mother's heart leapt with momentary hope. She held her breath, waiting to hear that the child who had brought such joy and then so much chaos and conflict, was troubled, learning disabled, hyperactive BUT exceptionally bright. How many times do you hear such stories. She would fight for such a child, fight with every last reserve and--by all that is holy--they two would win. 

The next words hit her like a sucker punch. "In some areas she has average intelligence, but in many areas she is far below average. She may have the symptoms, but to be diagnosed with dyslexia, there has to be a certain minimum intelligence."

The mother kept notes, scratching at a notebook, frantically trying to record the specialized terminology, even though she would receive a written report. It felt like the only thing to do. She knew most of the terms. She had done piles of research already. She was one of those parents, the kind that take a threat to a child as a call to arms. She would document, read, discuss, advocate anything into submission.

"Very low scores in visual/spacial skills. Very low auditory processing, and short term memory is far below normal. That goes along with the attention disorder," the psychologist is not dry on purpose. She is hurrying between meetings, giving this mother as much information as she can in a short space. Her interjections are friendly, checking to see that the mother is following and not drowning in the information.

She says she is fine. She has the notes down, and she understands the terms from her research. 

But she is drowning. She doesn't know it yet, but she is drowning as sure as the captain of the tiny swamped vessel at sea--gulping in mouthfuls of brine and salt spray.

"She is very immature, half her chronological age. If she was four or five and she behaved this way it would be fine. She is very impulsive. She will need constant attention, careful monitoring at every moment."

The mother looks up and sure enough the child is not on the bench where she was supposed to wait. She gets up, turning around in the dappled sunlight of the park. The light and shadows blur before her eyes. She feels sick.

"She will have great difficulty copying from a blackboard. She cannot understand auditory instructions or information of any significant length. She will not understand lectures or audio books. She will always have difficulty reading. Yes, she should be tested for dyslexia anyway, but she may not have the intelligence for that diagnosis." 

The mother wonders if she herself will fall to the ground, but she doesn't. She walks by instinct. She knows where the child's impulses will take her. She has spent eight years connected symbiotically to this child. She knows her better than anyone else. She notices the path the child's distractable brain would grasp at and she goes down it. She finds the child on the steps by the rushing traffic. 

Safe. For now. No one picked her up this time.

"I recommend a psychiatrist, special education services, testing for reading disabilities. There may be medication for ADHD. You may be able to apply for educational accommodations.. The one positive thing is that she has some episodic memory. Sometimes I see individuals who can't remember much of anything. She can remember those things she experiences, but she will not understand anything abstract."

The call ends politely with tasks assigned to both sides and assurances of further contact. The mother takes the child's hand and they hurry from the park with promises of ice cream. 

That very afternoon, the school holds a ceremony, graduating the first graders as "readers." A local children's author visits and places wide turquoise ribbons over the children's heads. The children sing and the parents clap. Chickadee does not perform a poem alone, but a friend helps. They have developed hand motions to go along with it. 

Then the results of a standardized test are put up on the screen in the classroom. Reading and comprehension scores. The class is one gentle curve--some a bit below average but more than half well established as strong readers. Only one is the far outlier, far behind the others. 

She's a pretty girl with striking eyes. She stands in the middle of the class with their proud reading ribbons. But she cannot read much. She may never get beyond that stuttering, gasping pace. 

Only the mother knows which child the outlier is, silent in the crowd of parents. Most are quietly relieved. It is not their child left behind. Some are vocally disappointed, their children below the average line. They promise extra rigor at home. They are troubled and motivated to work harder. No one wants to think about the outlier. 

What goes through this mother's mind?

Grief.

I looked forward to showing her the wonders of facts, history and geography. She has no interest and cannot grasp even the beginnings. I dreamed that we would do art projects together. She grabs the supplies and smears them in a random mess, shouting, “Look! Isn’t it great? Clap for me!”

The dreams are gone. The chipper, inspirational quotes about overcoming disability are lies told to absolve the rest of the world of the need to feel compassion.

Despair.

I love to read stories to my children. She doesn’t want stories. She doesn’t understand and has no interest in anything with depth. I can’t read to my son because she is screaming and destroying the house. My son isn’t disabled and yet his bedtime stories are curtailed.

Aching boredom.

Endless days of baby talk and the toddler in a child’s body that changes far too slowly if at all. Teaching the same simple things over and over day after day for years and years and years--knowing it is futile and that very little you do will ever make any difference.

Heavy exhaustion.

Serving and supporting her incessant, second-by-second needs means both parents are in deteriorating health and the second child, who is six, is mostly on his own. He has to be better than other kids, take care of himself, do with far less attention and grow up fast.

Utter isolation.

I’m supposed to be positive and “inspirational” as a parent of a child with this kind of disability. I will only be judged. No one has any interest in the reality.

I will never be one of those parents with older kids who can get back to their own life. I will never have time for myself again.

Fear.

“Dysmaturity” will mean she will never grow up but she isn’t disabled enough to be recognized as developmentally disabled and so protected as an adult. Extreme impulsivity will make her very vulnerable and a target for every scammer and abuser. She will be in debt. She may well be homeless unless she lives with me. She has no mental ability to plan even the most simple steps. She will never be able to plan how to prepare for school or get transportation to a job or cook a meal with more than one step.

The chaos of our daily life is not “a phase.” It is the way it will always be. It is unbearable and it will never stop.

Terror.

I know the fashionable thinking in the circles of disability rights is that disabilities, particularly neurological disabilities, should not be considered negative. They just exist, neither good nor bad. In a better world, we would all be "normal,"despite our differences.

Chickadee is a girl. She is not bad. She is not to be pitied. It is not her fault or a shameful thing.

But this is a disability. She cannot do all things. Without the blocks and missed neuro-pathways, she would have many more choices in her life. She may well have plenty of joy, if she is well sheltered by a family that designs an insular world to fit her needs. But let's face it, she will not have the choices others have.

Let us be honest about this. When a parent learns that a child has such curtailed choices a dream dies.

Don't become what you resist

As a journalist in the war-torn Balkans, one of my closest relationships was with a "fixer." That's an all-around term for driver, interpreter, cultural consultant and impromptu investigator. 

My fixer was a 50-something Albanian taxi-driver with mild manners and a pleasant grandfatherly face. We went through plenty of scrapes together, walking in single file to avoid landmines, driving fast down sniper-seeded roads, crossing the front-lines from one warring camp to another.

My fixer's sympathies could have been with the Albanian rebels and against the Macedonian home guard they were fighting at the time. He agreed that Albanians faced discrimination.

But he refused to take a side and felt that the rebels' violent radicalism would only harm his people. He could speak fluent Macedonian and often passed as Macedonian to keep us safe when we encountered pro-government patrols.

I recall how we once narrowly made it across the front, only to find that the first rebel sentry was a boy from my fixer's old neighborhood. Joy at meeting a good neighbor kid wrestled in his tone and expression with shock that someone he knew well had taken up violence. 

But after only six months of war with a few hundred dead on both sides, I sat in a baklava shop with the old man and he told me that he was now ready to support the rebels. Too much hurt had been done. He was depressed, having been pushed beyond some limit that allowed him to contemplate acting in a way he once saw as wrong.

Three years later, I too had been pushed, though not that far. My journalism job had evaporated with most others of my  generation. I was on the streets of Prague holding a hand-drawn sign to protest the invasion of Iraq.

By my side, was another man in the process of being pushed--an Iraqi refugee who had helped our international peace group on several occasions. His younger brother had been shot and killed by American soldiers in Iraq a few days earlier and I was one of the first people he called, an honor I wasn't sure I deserved.

These are the memories that come back to me when I watch clashes in American streets, neighborhoods universities and town hall meetings today.

Two lines of demonstrators facing off, spitting curse words at each other, fists clenched. One group has t-shirts with the name of Trump emblazoned on them and stars and stripes across their shoulders. The other group has a motley array of colorful clothing and scarves over their mouths. 

One of the Trump supporters gets particularly excited, yelling insults and inching ahead of his fellows. Faster than thought, a silver snake lashes out from the rank of colorful protesters and blood wells from a lash on the man's head. He cuts off a howl of pain and curls in on himself retreating back behind the lines.

The cell phone camera follows and his friends cry out for an ambulance. The buzz of anger is at fever pitch. In the camp of the Trump supporters there is injured solidarity and iron conviction. 

How many times have I seen this animosity play out? in different cultures and contexts, in different languages, and yet it's all the same. Hate on both sides.

I'm not a saint myself. I can hate if pushed far enough. I can feel it surge up inside me. And then I force myself to stop and to ask who is really doing the pushing. Those I am pushed against, are they really the ones I should hate?

In the days after the election I caught the brunt of just such hate. A friend from my days as a journalist covering inter-ethnic conflict in Eastern Europe turned on me on social media, ripping me for being "white" and declaring "You have been told your voice is not welcome here! Do not speak to me." 

We were both devastated by the election of Donald Trump. My friend had been pushed hard and long. I saw that and I didn't strike back. But the pushers of hate won anyway because the divide between us is still there.

I can't blame others because I have been there. As a child with a somewhat visible disability, I was heavily ostracized in public schools. Most of my friends had to pretend not to be my friends in school to avoid the same physical and verbal abuse that I endured. 

I remember one day in seventh grade with painful clarity. I had found a place where I could withdraw into myself during the lunch period. I would huddle on the steps of a stage set up in the cafeteria and draw with my treasured set of colored pencils. It may seem pitiful to describe, but to me it was solace and a delightful respite from the rest of the day. 

I sat there most days, ignoring the saliva, random kicks and insults hurled my way by other kids who had been ingrained with the idea that what is different or outside the herd is both disgusting and threatening. But on this particular day, my drawing was interrupted abruptly when someone came flying down the steps above me and landed on top of me, scattering and breaking my expensive colored pencils. 

I had ignored it. I had let the insults roll off my shoulders. All year I had kept my head down. And then I snapped. I was a tough kid, brought up with hard physical work and most days outdoors in the mountains. I grabbed the skinny town kid by the collar and hit him and hit him and hit him. 

It was the first and the last time I ever did such a thing and I pummeled his bent back, until a teacher hauled me away. The kid, a quiet, physically weak nerd, was bruised on his back. He had been seized by several bullies and thrown down the steps onto me. 

I don't know the boy's name. What I know is that we should have been friends. We were natural allies, set against one another by those who push hate. 

In the wider world today, I see this happening all the time. One group of the defrauded and abused is thrown against another group of the oppressed and beaten. And it is hard to stop and think. Very hard. You've been ignoring it and letting it roll off your shoulders for decades, not just one day. 

It is very hard to stop.

But what if I had been paying better attention in seventh grade? What if I had stopped to find out what happened and offered friendship instead of retaliation?

What if supporters of Bernie Sanders listened to Trump-voting coal miners the way Bernie did at one town hall that ended with both sides agreeing that single-payer health care is in their common interest? What if white women who desperately wanted a female president took the time to see how similar their needs are to women and even men of color? 

No matter which examples I give, someone is likely to feel put upon. Both sides have a choice but the biggest opportunity for resisting bullies lies with the one who is about to strike back, the one who currently feels most wronged. If you feel pushed around, silenced and beaten down, then it is likely that you are currently the one with the greatest chance to reach out a hand in friendship to someone who has been pushed on top of you by a bully. 

Resist the burning desire to strike back. Yes, resist. Stop and make sure you are not striking a potential ally--someone who is not winning in today's system, even if they appear better off then you. 

The bullies are pushing us around and as much as we talk about resistance, we are still striking at each other as often as we strike at the bullies.

First, we must know what is our core need, that which goes beyond politics. We need a way to live and relieve suffering. Second, we must avoid becoming like the bullies at all cost.

Interconnection: A child's encounter with new life


My normally hyperactive, constant-motion child sits for hours by the box on the back veranda--cuddling, cooing, coaxing. 

Once in a long while, I predict a parenting moment correctly. I decided to take on the responsibility of a litter of kittens during my kids' middle childhood. And it took planning. 

Creative Commons image by Sergey Ivanov

Creative Commons image by Sergey Ivanov

Some might ask why i would plan to contribute to the overpopulation of small furry creatures. My first reason is that I always felt a measure of guilt that I had my first beloved cat spayed fourteen years ago, before she had a chance to have even one kitten.

I watched her pine and grieve over other kittens. She almost adopted a kitten who came to live at our neighbor's house. He followed her around a bit, but didn't stay attached to her.

All this was made extra poignant by the fact that I was struggling with unexplained infertility at the time and it eventually led to adoption. Some small part of me wondered if my inability to have children wasn't a kind of karmic retribution, even though I know all the theories claiming that spaying is the kindest thing we can do for our pets. 

I will get my cat spayed and I already have more prospective adoptive homes lined up than I have  kittens to fill them. But I feel a sense of relief having gone through with it.

My second reason has to do with my children, who I finally did find at the end of my own long road. Having a litter of kittens at home was one of my great childhood dreams (which went unfulfilled along with the shiny black dress shoes I coveted).  Beyond that, I believe that watching birth and the bonding between a mother and her young is a fundamental part of education that is often missed by human children today. 

If I could persuade my ducks or hens to exercise their parenting instincts I would have baby chicks as well. But the only easily observable mother around turns out to be our new cat, a flighty year-old adolescent herself. She was abandoned as a kitten and we adopted her after my first cat died. 

We waited to allow her a litter of kittens before being spayed--for her sake and for the education of our next human generation. 

The kids watched her grow heavy with a drooping belly. They wondered as her behavior changed, while she searched for security and struggled with the pain of birth. They ran to me at least twenty times, calling out that the kittens were being born. And each time it was a false alarm.

Finally one afternoon, my six-year-old son came to me with round, solemn eyes. "The kittens are there," he said. "They are already born."

Creative Commons image by SuPeRnOvA of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by SuPeRnOvA of Flickr.com

I hurried to look and sure enough the cat, who in retrospect I realized had been strangely quiet that day, lay with four tiny vaguely rat-shaped bundles attached to the tits on her underside. 

Still it was my older child who was most overwhelmed. Though she usually has great difficulty controlling her impulses, she took to heart admonitions against picking up the newborns and sat occasionally stroking their backs with one tentative finger for as long as we would let her in the evening. 

Getting her to sleep that night was as difficult as it has ever been on the eve of a major holiday. She lay in bed wriggling with delight and anticipation, believing the tiny beings in the cat's basket would be running and romping with her the very next day.

Kittens do grow quickly, but not instantly. In fact, their timing is well calibrated to teach small humans--who can conceive of about a week but no more--the rudiments of patience. 

The children observed the chewed off remnants of umbilical cords on the kitten's bellies. Now they watch as the kittens totter about and open their eyes. They learned amazing amounts from this, so much more than they absorb from school or books. 

And the thought that so many children today never get to closely observe this process of new life gives me pause. No wonder we are so disconnected from life and our interdependence with the natural world. This seems to me to be such a fundamental building block--as crucial as reading or addition. 

The simple awe-inspiring beauty of kittens is nigh unto to universal. An acquaintance passing by on a bike ride thanked me profusely after my children showed her the kittens. I was momentarily perplexed, but she explained that seeing them was just what she had needed.

The calming and centering effect on children for whom every day at school is a struggle is clear. I do hope this time I have done right by all.