Tolerating those with beliefs you (strongly) disagree with

I live among many people with beliefs I dislike—often abhor.

I live in a small town in Central Bohemia in the Czech Republic. It is almost entirely white and affluent. Recently a few Asian families have moved to town to open businesses. There are also a handful of oddball people of color—one kid at school with a mother from the Caribbean and so forth.

The opinions of most of my neighbors reflect that. They are inexperienced, fearful of people with different skin tones, and resentful of the hardworking Asian business owners (who keep their shops open hours after everyone else has closed up). They blithely “pop out to the Vietnamese” at 8:00 pm to get a snack when no one else in ten kilometers is open, but they’ll be back at the Asian-bashing the next morning… or often as not, on the way home from the store..

Beyond that, the country is not very diverse. We are among the handful of countries in the EU who have taken in the fewest refugees as a percent of population. My neighbors are always telling me about why we shouldn’t take in refugees, particularly not from Muslim countries.

This isn’t backwoods ignorance but rather pseudo-intellectual rhetoric:

“European culture is founded on Christianity and the enlightenment. Even though most of us are not really Christians anymore, that’s our cultural foundation. Muslims don’t fit in here and they will make enclaves where they enforce their culture and beliefs. They’ll also change our overall culture. They have a lot more children than we do. In the end, you know they want to force us to live under Sharia law.”

There are so many false assumptions in this common public story that I hear from every side daily, even within my own family. that it would take at least five blog posts to cover them all:

  1. No, Europe was actually Pagan. Christianity came from the same general area as a large number of the refugees.

  2. Refugees don’t erase your cultural foundation. Throughout history, nations that accepted refugees have done better economically and become more culturally enlightened. I’ve never seen a historical exception to this fact.

  3. Poor and desperate people have more children. Secure people with access to education and health care have fewer children. That’s a very basic biological fact about humans as a species. If you want to curb population growth, give people education and health care.

  4. The majority of Muslim immigrants don’t want Sharia law. Fanaticism is often a top reason they left their homelands. Even in Muslim majority countries, opinions about Islamic extremists are overwhelmingly negative.

Creative Commons image by Andy Blackledge

Creative Commons image by Andy Blackledge

The fact remains that I live next to, converse politely with and even maintain a shallow level of friendship with many people who hold a lot of bigoted, inexperienced and hateful opinions. I have little choice, since I live in a country where these are the views of the vast majority of the population. Unless I want to be a hermit, who only shops at the family owned Vietnamese store (with nice people) and who doesn’t even use social media, I have to learn to live in the vicinity of horrid opinions.

But the original question that sparked this post on befriending or respecting those with beliefs you don’t like came from these same people—just the other way around. I have been asked many times how I can have Muslim friends and express respect for Muslims, when I am not a Muslim and I clearly disagree with some common Muslim beliefs and even the very basis of that religion.

Once I had a party with a lot of international friends from the city. There were probably thirty people in my yard and living room. One of my foreigner friends from the high-energy activist culture of Prague, a Palestinian student, had brought a couple of his friends.who I didn’t know as well. At one point they approached me as a group and asked if there was some quiet place where they could pray, given that they really did pray five times a day.

The choices weren’t spectacular. The yard was full and mostly dirt at the time anyway. The house was tiny with the main room, one bedroom with too little floor space and my office area, which also included a couple of beds behind a curtain. I took them to the office, which at least had a door that could be closed.

The office not only had rumpled beds and a pile of my folded clothing but various Pagan statues and artwork scattered around. I noticed that the Muslim students seemed a bit uneasy about the arrangement, but it really was the only viable option. They quickly rallied and expressed their appreciation. I pointed out the direction of southeast, which was easy since my practice involves compass points as well. Then I left them to it.

Before that, I once accompanied a Muslim woman in Kazakhstan on a pilgrimage to a holy site in Turkestan (which is a town, not a country). My interest was journalism and personal experience. This woman narrated much of her beliefs and practice along the way, while I went through the motions as a sign of respect and as a way to broaden my own understanding.

All this, and I can still say I really don’t agree with Islam.

I know some Muslims like to point out that the word “Islam” is closely connected to the word “peace,” but let’s face it, the history of Islam has been far from peaceful. Show me a major religion without copious amounts of blood on its hands.

The Koran says some violent and intolerant things, whether about the particular battles of Mohammed’s time or about the way the world works in general. And so does the Bible and so do lots of original Pagan myths. I’m not arguing that we have to take these things literally or that I’m better than anyone else. But the fact is that there are plenty of things in the Koran that I don’t like.

There is that controversy over the “Verse of the Swords,” which can be read to mean that a Muslim should fight, hound and persecute non-believers wherever they be found or it can e read to be referring only to a specific incident when some Pagans broke a treaty with Mohammed. Mohammed sounds to me like a pretty normal leader, trying to deal with the realities of the world and getting confused about how much force should be used in defense of what he believes—hardly someone copying down directly the words dictated by the one and only true God.

Another controversy arises out of verse 4:34 of the Koran regarding relations between husbands and wives. It states that women should be obedient because God put men over women and if a wife disobeys, her husband should first advise her, then refuse to have sex and finally“strike” her if she doesn’t submit. Scholars like to argue over the many possible meanings of the word “strike” in Arabic, some insisting that the verse does not actually condone domestic violence.

But that isn’t even my primary concern. I’m still stuck on the part about women being obedient and God putting men over women. I know this was written for a violent and harsh time and women did often need the protection of men. But men needed the life-giving power of women. And this is supposed to be directly inspired by God. And hopefully God—even a regular god, let alone the one and only God—surely ought to be able to see beyond the local, current context when dictating the ultimate rules for everything.

So, it isn’t a religion for me. I can’t go with both believing the Koran is literally inspired by the only true God and that we have to take the stuff about women being inferior in social context. I really don’t like these beliefs. But it is the peaceful way of life and the respect toward women shown by the Muslims I meet that makes them welcome for me.

A few years ago, I decided to read the mythology of every major religion to my children for a year. I obtained children’s versions of the important stories from Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and a wide variety of Pagan and indigenous faiths.

Some of the Jewish and Christian stories made me pause. I skipped a few of the more gruesome ones that I just couldn’t conscience reading to young children. But when I got to the Islamic stories, I couldn’t find ANY that were not deeply problematic from the perspective of modern, sheltered children. Maybe I had the wrong book, though it had an author who professed to be Muslim and it was specifically for children.

I’ll grant that Pagan stories have been sanitized over the years. We don’t have such old texts, so we will likely never know how gruesome the versions of our stories from 1,500 years ago would have been, if we could read them in the original. And again, I don’t encourage literalism in mythology.

But there is also the matter of the whole Islamic thing about how there is only one God and some intolerance toward those who believe otherwise. I do have many gods and I dislike intolerance in Islam as much as I dislike similar intolerance in my neighbors.

But here is the thing. I tolerate in society those who do not impose their beliefs on others.

Islamic extremists do impose their beliefs on others. I will always speak out against such extremists and I won’t tolerate them or welcome them to a community. The same goes for Christian fundamentalists who seek to impose their beliefs on others. The same goes for those who may call themselves Pagan or Heathen, while usurping my spiritual symbols for the purposes of intolerance and hate.

Those Muslims I do tolerate are those who have been, in my substantial experience, considerate and accepting of others. I do not claim to understand why they believe in a faith I don’t always like.

All I ask in return is that they don’t instantly judge me for the actions of white supremacists who steal Pagan symbols and defame my spiritual path.

Those people I befriend are those who are willing to have open conversations, those who come into my home and treat me, my family and my beliefs with respect and care. Again, I don’t have to like or agree with all of the beliefs of my friends, although to be friends I do hope to have conversations about such things and at least seek to understand each other’s perspective.

Europeans who fear Muslims often ask me, “How can you trust them? I read that Muslims are taught to lie to non-believers and behave nicely so that they can get into a position to either kill us or force us to convert.”

I have read the same allegations. And I know for a fact that some Christian groups teach this very thing in the US: “Work your way into their confidence. Use gifts and friendship to get close to them and then bring them to Jesus.” I haven’t personally encountered an emphasis on killing unbelievers among American Christians, but my pacifist brother was once beaten by kids in a youth group while Christian adult leaders looked on and encouraged them to “beat the devil out of him.”

So, yeah, I believe Muslim extremists probably teach something like this too. I don’t have real personal experience or evidence of it. But it stands to reason, given the similarities to other religious extremists and their preferred interpretation of the “Verse of the Sword.”

Do I believe that my Muslim friends are secretly plotting to someday stop being nice, force us to convert and kill us if we refuse? No, I just don’t believe that.

Why don’t I? I have several other friends who were raised Muslim but aren’t practicing Muslims, who are critical of the religion or just turned atheist. And I have no doubt that if Muslims across the board were taught that doctrine, many such people would have talked about it openly by now. It just is not a mainstream Muslim thing,

So, I don’t actually find it at all difficult to tolerate or befriend Muslims who probably hold beliefs that I dislike. They don’t bludgeon me with their beliefs. They are tolerant and respectful of others. Do I understand? No, not really. But I’m willing to have deep philosophical conversations with them and maybe someday I will understand.

I find it harder to tolerate and befriend racist and isolationist neighbors. I mostly do it because I have little choice. I have friendships where I have to avoid a lot of topics of conversation. Those friendships are shallow, utilitarian and mostly for the children involved.

And even so, I entirely avoid those who really go overboard with expressing racist and isolationist opinions. I don’t want that around my kids. I don’t really even want it in my own ears.

Do I fully understand them? No. I am willing to have deep philosophical conversations, if they’ll stop bludgeoning me with their caustic opinions long enough to have a deep philosophical conversation, and maybe someday I will understand.

A spring in dry country: Should we saddle our kids with the burden of saving the world?

I was fourteen when I went on my first overnight wilderness trip without an adult. And my only companion was eleven. We were unlikely best friends--an awkward, socially failed, legally blind teenage girl and an relatively normal eleven-year-old boy. But I like to think we had more fun than most.

On this particular occasion, we hiked to the top of Mount Emily on the western side of the Grande Ronde Valley in northeastern Oregon. The steep mountainside happened to extend directly from my friend Ethan's backyard 2,500 feet into the air. We did ask permission to do the overnight hike, but none of our parents believed we would go through with it... until we were gone.

Photo by Arie Farnam

Photo by Arie Farnam

We climbed the mountain and emerged  on the breathtaking ridge line topped by a dusty road around midday only to find a water jug tied to a forlorn trail marker with a note from our mothers on it. They had driven the significant distance winding around the back side of the mountain to try to find us once they realized we were serious. We joyfully guzzled the water and walked giddily through the sage brush to the massive overlook rocks and sat swinging our legs over hundreds of feet of empty space. 

Then we headed for the campground. Ethan's eccentric artist/scientist father (the only adult we had really consulted with very much) had promised that the campground would have more water. When we arrived, we found the campground long abandoned and the hard, semi-desert rocks bone dry in the afternoon sun. A broken pipe was the only evidence that water had ever come to the surface there. We had not rationed either our original water supply or the gift dropped off by our worrying mothers nearly as much as we would have if we had known there was no water at the deserted, so-called campground. 

Now we had only a few swallows left, the afternoon was long and hot and we hadn't seen another human since we started up the trail early that morning. Quickly we scanned the outline of the mountain around us, looking for the tell-tale  dip of the horizon that could signal a water source... in theory at least. As I recall it, we spotted several dips and settled on one more or less at random. Then we set out for it, walking another forty-five minutes or so toward our selected goal. 

When we reached the place where the dusty wilderness trail we were following crossed the dip, we found to our relief and joy, a damp patch of mud and moss. We scrambled off the trail and up the shallow draw until we found a clear trickle of water that became "our spring." It was a moment of triumph, almost a coming of age for mountain kids. We had gone into the wilderness alone, encountered difficulty and found water in the semi-desert of northeastern Oregon. We had proved our survival skills and were elated and empowered. 

We camped at the spring that night under the stars. And returned home conquering heroes the next day.

But when we told adults about our water troubles and the spring we had found, someone callously mentioned that the spring would soon be dead and dried up, just like the water at the campground. There was a clear-cut logging project planned that would decimate that little draw and the mountainside around it. In this dry country, the spring, which was already no more than a seasonal seep, would almost certainly dry up.

I was shocked but still newly empowered by my experience. I grew up in an activist family and had already been to several anti-nuclear demonstrations in the 1980s as a child. So, I got out paper and pen and wrote a letter of protest to the local newspaper. In many situations that would have been the end of it. But in this case, someone wanted to prove a point. A few months later, I found myself back at the little draw on the mountain in the company of two Forest Service employees. They had invited me along to view the aftermath of the logging.

I'm not sure what they meant to prove. They said they wanted to show me that I was wrong and that the clear-cut was fine. But clear-cuts are never pretty and this one was no exception. We never could find exactly where the seasonal spring had been. The landscape of devastated branches and torn top-soil was distinctly depressing. It was late summer by then and there was no water, but there wouldn't have been any water, even without the logging. The question was more about whether it would return the next spring. 

Creative Commons image by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife

Creative Commons image by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife

I knew I had lost that round. I was a kid and they were adults. I was just one individual, and they represented a state agency. They wanted me to prove there had been a spring or else be quiet.

For the moment, I was quiet... but I learned and I remembered.

Today I'm a mother and I have my own kids to bring up. In the years, since my first activist letter to the newspaper, I have immigrated to a new country, led a national anti-war movement there, participated in a Greenpeace blockade camp that successfully stopped a foreign military installation in a traumatized country, made a anti-racist documentary film, organized and negotiated with political parties and activists of many stripes from all over the world, and written thousands of articles and letters. 

I've seen a few small successes in my time. The Greenpeace camp and the campaign that surrounded it was a highlight. But I've also seen a lot of passion and work go for naught--or so it seemed. My kids are astute--apparently more so than I was--and they ask me if writing letters and going to protests works. 

We pick up litter in our little town. I volunteer at the school to do inter-ethnic coexistence workshops in an area with a lot of racial tension. I still write letters and have sign building materials on hand. Recently I published Shanna and the Water Fairy, a children's book for earth warriors and water protectors. The book essentially takes my experience as a teenager trying to defend a vulnerable spring and gives it a better ending. It's still realistic though. It could have happened that way.

Sometimes we do win. But mostly we don't win quite so overtly. 

There are some today who argue that I shouldn't even tell my children about social justice and environmental issues, that it is unfair to fill their heads with a desire to make a difference and supposedly "save the world." In my generation it was more common for parents to teach their children these things. Today in the twenty-first century, we are supposed to be beyond all that--a savvier,  brainier generation focused on kids being "gifted" and learning rare martial arts and musical instruments at younger and younger ages.  

But there is an emptiness I feel in my children's generation, something beyond the regular angst I knew as a child. Sure, I suffered because I championed lost causes. I cried over my little spring. But it never set me back. It is only as an adult that I have ever considered whether the struggle for a better future is worth the sweat and heartache of activism. As a child, I knew that it gave me hope and that was enough.

And so I tell my kids activist stories and show them little things we can do. I shield them from graphic images of violence and despair to some extent, but I do tell them about the horrors of today in terms that a six-year-old and an eight-year-old can grasp. I live my values in the small stuff as well as the big issues and that will have to do.

"Virtue signalling" versus "This is my life"

I go pick up my six-year-old son from kindergarten and he says a big kid from another class chased him and hit him repeatedly on the playground. Then he says another kid is calling him a racial slur.

I delicately ask the teacher if there have been any issues, and she explodes at me. "I don't want to hear it! I know for a fact that if there is any conflict, then your son started it. I don't care what anyone saw or what he says. He did something first. I know that. It's the way he is. It's in his background." 

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

I should have known not to bring anything up with this teacher. The other teacher swears my son is no more rambunctious than any of the other boys. She says they're all difficult. But mine is the only one not considered "white" by the standards of the country where we live.

He hides behind the shelves in the kindergarten boot room, eyes wide and mouth trembling. That night we have the discussion I've been dreading. Sex? Are you kidding? Imagine being afraid of discussing the birds and the bees!

Parents of black boys in America know this discussion though and I wonder if they dread it as much as I have. It goes like this: "I know it isn't fair, but for your own protection, you must never ever hit back. They will judge you more harshly because of the color of your skin and eyes." 

Again. this is kindergarten.

After the kids are in bed, I get online. It's work but it also involves blogging and discussing issues with people around the world. One of those issues is the ban on people from seven majority Muslim countries entering the US. And someone throws the accusation of "virtue signalling" at me because I express support for refugees who are affected by the ban. 

Initially I didn't even know what the epithet meant, I've been out of the country so long. But I looked it up and the gist of it is that I'm white so there is no way I could really be against racism and Islamophobia. I just say I am in order to "signal" how "virtuous" I am in an attempt to avoid anti-white backlash. So goes the logic of smug white commentators.

The absurdity of the past two weeks is staggering. I pride myself on being able to engage "the other side" with compassion but, dear goddess, how do you communicate across this canyon? 

If I tried to explain my day to the "virtue signalling" slinger, I might as well be speaking Urdu. 

I don't claim to know what it is like to be Black or Muslim in America. But I do have this little window into the issue of race because of the fluke of weird Czech attitudes toward ethnicity. I get enough of a window to know that I'm not experiencing the full extent of it by far.

And here's what my week is like:  

Refugees - Creative Commons image by Steve Thompson 

Refugees - Creative Commons image by Steve Thompson 

A gay lawyer friend and I helped a disabled immigrant with housing and paperwork the other night. After all, he was one of only a handful of people who stayed on a tough job with us one time. Then I go downhill skiing and I steer primarily by the sound of skis scraping on either side of me. I miss the days when I had a guide for blind skiers.

Then I come home and my good friend born in Syria who I've known for fifteen years and who ten years ago married an American and moved there is worried about whether or not she'll ever see the rest of her family again. (Oh, and her family is Christian, as are more than 20 percent of Syrians). I wish I could hug her long distance. I wish I could do anything but feel helpless.

I plan to go for a weekend to the home of the transgender friend with kids who I didn't used to know is trans. I have a short and pleasant Facebook conversation with a colleague I once went through a war zone with, who is also a Muslim and a former refugee. I'm glad to know he and his family are safe and well. Then I go out in subzero temperatures to feed animals and water overwintering plants in the urban homesteading that keeps our carbon footprint low.

When I say I am against racism, homophobia, ableism and other forms of bigotry and when I say I care about humanitarian and environmental issues, I'm only standing up for myself, my friends and my family just as you would if the storm troopers were at your door. 

Now I hear that there are protests in airports against the immigration ban for people from those seven countries which have lots of Muslims but oddly not nearly as many terrorists as the countries not banned. There are crowds of people standing on guard while Muslims pray in US airports.

I'm glad there is this outpouring of support for people who have had it rough for many years and who have generally suffered through it in silence and alone, trying to be nicer and less physical than everyone else, even while they were attacked, so that they wouldn't be labeled as "aggressive Muslims."  

I can't help but remember a trip back to the US five years ago. I was standing in an interminable security line with my kids--then no more than toddlers. I finally reached the point at which we were to enter the machines and checks and I noticed a family standing near by outside the line.

"We'll miss the flight," the woman said quietly but I heard. I am legally blind but I also made out the scarf around her head, wrapped in that way that I know usually means a Muslim. Her husband and two small children stood pressed near her, but he said nothing. All of their faces were a deep golden brown, likely with Middle Eastern or South Asian background.

I thought I understood. They had been held up and knew they didn't have time to stand in the line. Many other people would have begged to be allowed to cut in line, and with small children most would have been allowed. But they were too terrified to draw attention to themselves. 

I made a quick decision and stopped inching forward. Then I beckoned to them to join the line. The man's head jerked up and I thought he must be amazed, even though I couldn't see his expression well. The woman pushed him forward a little and the slid into the line in front of my kids. I heard a rumble behind me, coughs and someone pushed me roughly from behind. There were some coughs but nothing overt, yet.

My heart hammered in my throat. I am not a coward about most things but I have had plenty of reason to be afraid of public judgment and crowd disapproval. I whipped around, ready to defend myself and thrust my white cane, which I carry in confusing environments like airports, even though I can walk without it out to the side and demanded of the people behind me in line, "Have you got something to say?" 

The crowd stilled and I turned back around, the back of my neck and head burning as if their gaze could light me on fire. Still I felt a thrill inside. I had managed it. The Muslim family moved off quickly with only mumbled thanks. I gained no public approval or virtuous status that day. I did gain a bit more courage to act on my conscience, even when I may be publicly judged however.

This isn't "virtue signalling." This is my life. These are my people. You slander and malign them or you threaten to take away our basic rights, you ban people of another minority faith even if it isn't the exact same one as mine or you mock someone who shares a profession AND disability status with me, and you are much more likely to see my not-so-virtuous side. 

You belong on the earth

I doubt there has ever been a time in history when more people in more varied walks of life have been labeled and told they are unwanted or don't belong. 

I know many people are hurting deeply right now for reasons of life and death, separation from family and elimination of basic freedom. It can feel like other groups who have merely been mocked, degraded or threatened are not in the same boat and that they do not understand the gravity of the situation. 

Creative Commons image by Matt Drobnik

Creative Commons image by Matt Drobnik

We don't all understand every part. We don't all know what it is to stand in one another's shoes. But we do have more in common than we have misunderstandings. 

Your experiences are real and you are not alone. 

And yet it has become unfashionable to have a group identity. We love individuals and we don't like being pigeon-holed. We may be part of one culture, ethnicity, faith, group or class but we are rarely "typical"  of that label and we simultaneously belong to others.

Our media culture idolizes the person who refuses to associate with a group. We have also become educated enough to know that each identity is unique.

I love non-conformity as much as the next person, but too much exceptionalism has its costs. Now when so many of us are truly threatened, we spend precious energy arguing among ourselves and debating who has a greater right to outrage.  We disagree about trivial things or the specific solutions to our problems and thus we don't address immediate threats together. 

At least that's how it has gone down in the past.

Right now there are many groups forming and fluctuating. Membership in both the KKK and the ACLU have skyrocketed. Lines are being drawn and often they are based on an ideology or a particular identity. I personally support the ACLU and other organizations like Greenpeace, the NAACP and Doctors Without Borders. But the point isn't exactly which groups I want to support (as long as it isn't a racist, terrorist or otherwise harmful group)..

We also need broader places where all those who have common interests can belong. 

It isn't so much the strength in numbers that I want. We need a sense of common cause and solidarity. True belonging comes not from the accident of your birth, culture or label, but rather from your choices, values and convictions.

It is time to set down the most basic tenants of what we belong to, the lines which we won't cross and which enclose all of us. This must be at once broad enough for all and clear enough to mean something.

Here are some ideas of where we belong:: 

  • We are open to all races, religions, ability types, sexual orientations, nationalities, ages and appearances.
  • We recognize the right of people to express their identity and culture, to have a voice in public and a connection to their land and people.
  • We know that power entails responsibility.
  • We speak up when we or others are prejudicially attacked or stereotyped.
  • We are concerned about ecological issues and we respect the earth which we depend on for our lives.
  • We take whatever action is feasible and effective in our personal situations to protect the earth, water, air, other species and one another.
  • We recognize that facts exist and can be documented, while context can consist of many facts.
  • We believe that people have a right to true information and that money and incorporation should not accord greater rights to any individual or group. 
  • We insist that the resources of the earth are held in common and must not be exploited for the profit of a few.
  • We believe each person has the right to freedom that does not harm or restrict others.
  • We strive to be kind and welcoming toward newcomers and to work out differences respectfully.
creative Commons image by Matt Drobnik

creative Commons image by Matt Drobnik

There will necessarily be some who haven't explored all of these issues in-depth. But we should be able to agree on the basic values of inclusion and protection of that which sustains our lives.

Still there will be some who choose to reject these values. I have been part of many ecological or earth-based groups and some of them do not hold the same values of openness toward people of different paths and backgrounds that I demand. On the other hand, there are also many groups that are concerned with social justice but don't take the immediate crisis of climate change seriously.

:Environmental concern and the love of diversity are deal breakers for me--two things I simply cannot do without.

Don't get me wrong. Groups can specialize. Not every parenting group must be focused on environmental issues as well as parenting. But I can't feel truly loyal to a group that openly expresses their disregard for environmental concerns, anymore than I can feel welcome in a group with borderline racist statements, no matter how good they are on something else. These are life and death issues that can't be compromised. 

I have no problem with the fact that Facebook groups connected to Black Lives Matter are unlikely to be regularly posting about climate change. Many groups accept these values but focus on one particular need.

I don't demand that environmental groups spend time and attention on anti-racism stuff. However, I could not very well put my loyalty in a multicultural group that irrelevantly professed disdain for tree-huggers and climate scientists, anymore than I can feel comfortable in an earth-centered group that occasionally throws up closet racist posts.

This isn't to say that I will only join groups that agree with all of my opinions. Far from it.

I have an abundance of opinions. I still love Star Trek after all these years, my favorite pizza involves lots of really hot peppers and seared garlic, I think J. K. Rowling is a damned good writer but the seventh book had some issues, And I think dish rags should be changed about every three days.

Those are opinions. And I don't expect members of a group I'm in to agree with them. And that extends to more relevant opinions too. I have my views on economic systems, health care and electoral processes. But these are things we can work out. What level of gun regulation we should have is debatable. I can and have had informative discussions with people who disagree on things like that. 

Therein lies the distinction perhaps. I don't think there is room to casually debate whether or not we'll believe in science and facts or whether we will accept all people of every religion and color. Those who agree on these things need a place to belong where we can learn from the rest of our differences without being constantly bogged down by an inability to agree on ground rules.

That is why I have founded a group called Belonging on the Earth. It is small and not diverse enough as of yet. I hope you will join and find it a welcoming community. Currently the group is starting on Facebook. You can join it here. I am the administrator for now and I can ensure that it is a safe and respectful place. This is a group for those who agree on fundamental values but may not agree on many other things. As the group grows other administrators will be added who can help to foster the openness of the group.

Not everyone is into Facebook and eventually there will be other ways to belong to this community. If you can't join the Facebook group, I encourage yo to join my hearth-side email circles below and keep in touch through the comments on this webpage.

You belong on the earth. Your experiences are real and you are not alone.

No longer a foreigner: identity, loyalty and collective responsibility

My husband takes the kids home, while I stop by city hall to register. I've lived in this country for eighteen years, but I've been on the special list for foreign residents.

No longer.

The sky is gently overcast and the air is so cold it makes my teeth ache if I open my mouth too wide. I walk the back way home, through the trees, along the backs of houses where people keep chickens and ducks in little snowbound coups. It is dusk by the time I reach the hill above our house and all the lights of the town glow golden against electric blue snow. 

It's idyllic: small, gabled Central European houses set along crooked streets with muted lamps. The snow is just deep enough to blanket everything cleanly and the birches creak in the cold. A fast train to Prague whistles by on the tracks at my back, flashing warm light from its windows.. 

It all reminds me of the reasons why I came here in the first place--the simple beauty, the values of frugality and modest comfort, the public transportation, the ancient hills that echo Celto-slavic folk tales and medieval history. I have almost come to take these blessings for granted.

And sure, this place has it's warts--rigid social rules, an impersonal and often harsh norm for interactions and the very mono-culture that allows for such a uniformly pretty view.  But it isn't just familiar to me now. It has become inseparable from who i am.

As of this week, I am no longer a foreigner in the place where I have lived for eighteen years. I've become fluent in the language and culture of the Czech Republic. I have built a family and a house here. I've held various jobs and participated in public life as a moderately well-known anti-war activist for a few years. 

It takes awhile to really become part of another country, It isn't as simple as planting a flag and declaring it yours. But whether or not officialdom recognizes it there comes a time, after many years when a foreigner is no longer a foreigner.

Identity

It's an odd feeling not to be a foreigner anymore. Since I left my home at age sixteen, my identity was that of a foreigner and an American abroad.  Like a traditional marriage, I was caught up in it for better and for worse, in sickness and in health. 

In the course of my travels, I was detained by both Ukrainian and Belarussian soldiers because of how my passport played in international politics, I survived a targeted attack by an anti-American mob, I saw others beaten because they were mistakenly believed to be Americans, I was harangued and insulted over misguided US military policies, and I withstood endless assumptions and false preconceptions. I was also given refuge by American soldiers in a war zone and was occasionally let through a barrier when my equals and peers were not, because I was an American and they were not. 

So, I already know that passports and national acceptance come with strings attached. A year ago, I was asked to swear loyalty to the United States on behalf of my adopted children as they received their US citizenship. That started me thinking about what national identity means these days.

The United States is not a classical nation state. We have no one culture. Not even one language much anymore. If you know only that a stranger is an American, you actually know almost nothing about them. They could be anything from an Islamic fundamentalist living in Chicago to a second-generation Hippie living in Prague and everything and anything beyond those options.

By contrast, the country that has adopted me is fairly homogeneous. Almost everyone speaks Czech, including  naturalized citizens who have to take a pretty tough test. Everyone is steeped in a similar culture and the only way a foreigner can become a citizen is by putting down firm roots in the country for many years. Thus a Czech passport implies a lot about one's identity. 

Loyalty

But what about that loyalty bit? In the United States, we are often chastised as anti-American or disloyal if we criticize our president or military engagements.  In the Czech Republic, no one tends to yell "anti-Czech" at people who disagree on politics and we are never the ones to start wars, so that isn't really an issue. But still a newly minted citizen must swear "loyalty" to the country in addition to swearing to abide by its laws and constitution.

I have never felt disloyal to the United States, although I have protested the policies of several administrations and every military adventure since 1990.

The thing is that to me loyalty isn't exclusive. Loyalty means that I will stand up for my home country. I will speak up when it is in danger, even if that danger comes from a corrupt or inept leader. I will work to make it stronger. And I won't aid those who would harm my country. I have no problem pledging this loyalty to my home country. And I have no problem pledging it to my adopted country either. 

When I graduated from college in linguistics I was asked to apply for a job at the CIA or the DIA (the Defense Intelligence Agency). I didn't really consider it, not only because I had my heart set on journalism, but more importantly because my research and acquaintances in the intelligence field told me that within these organizations loyalty means a willingness to harm or deceive others in order to advance one's own country.  It means unquestioning allignment, even when temporary policies may be unethical. It also entails a belief that the lives of fellow citizens are of greater value than the lives of foreigners.

I am loyal in that I want the best for my country.  I will take the time to go be politically active and strive for the betterment of my country. I hope Peru does well too, but I'm not loyal to Peru, just because I don't live there and I am not personally invested in that country. I wish them no ill though. 

So, this is the thing. When I pledge loyalty to my adopted country, I mean this. I will stand with you. I tie my fate to the fortunes of this nation. I will sacrifice my time and energy for this country. I will not remain silent when this country is in danger from within or from the outside. I will be active, not passive and my heart is with this country. 

People ask what a person who has two countries does if those countries ever go to war. I certainly hope they never will and see no indication that they might. But if it were to happen, I very much doubt that war would be in the interests of either. If one were the aggressor that regime would be as harmful to the aggressing country as it would to the victim. If neither was the aggressor then it would be a harmful folly for both. By being against such a war and doing all one could to prevent it, one would still be true to the spirit of loyalty. To throw one's country into a war, that would seem the height of disloyalty to me, even if you wrap yourself in a flag while you do it.

Collective Responsibility

My last issue with this quietly momentous change is that of collective responsibility, even guilt by association and the assumptions of others..

Once before 9/11, I landed in Pakistan on a flight to Bangladesh. I sat next to a young Pakistani man whose body hummed with tension. I got him talking but I was savvy enough to say "I'm coming from Prague" and let him assume I was Czech, rather than wave around my American passport. It wasn't ten minutes before the young Pakistani was telling me all the reasons he hated Americans--all of them having to do with what various American politicians had done or ordered our military to do. None of his reasons were actually reasons to hate Americans. There was nothing about loose American values, bad movies or un-Islamic dress codes.

It was far from the only time I encountered the idea of collective responsibility or guilt for the actions of political and military leaders. For a good part of the twenty years I've spent abroad in all, I have seen my fellow Americans wearing Canadian stickers on their backpacks to avoid trouble.

So, now that I have adopted a new country and still claim loyalty to the first, it is likely that I will at times be held to blame for the missteps of both nations. And believe me, the Czech Republic may be small but we still have ways of making ourselves unpopular internationally. For starters, the Czech Republic is known as one of the most racist countries in Europe. It is also known for having a lot of hackers and some dangerous I.P. addresses. As a Czech, 

I have never lied about being an American, except in two cases when I really thought my life might be in danger. Part of loyalty to me is that if we let our leaders go so far astray that it causes this kind of flak, then generally we ought to take it, try to explain and then try to redress things our leaders did that really were against our values. So, I'll take the collective responsibility of my adopted country as well. This is why it is an identity I don't take lightly.

I won't lie about my Czech identity. Instead I'll try to make it an identity to be proud of, just as I do with my American identity.

The 2017 List: 13 things to bring into the new year

With some truly depressing 2017 lists out there, I want to add a couple that might actually come in handy... or at least crack a smile.

Here is the Rebel With a Pen list of what to take with you when leaping into 2017:

  1. Chocolate
  2. A solar panel
  3. A manual for communicating with racists
  4. A Canadian passport or at least least a maple leaf bumper sticker
  5. Your entire library of books
  6. Wool socks
  7. A couple of 1960s protest albums
  8. Food stockpiles
  9. A bomb shelter
  10. Your family and near neighbors
  11. A first aid kit with extra bandages
  12. Your ability to laugh in the face of disaster
  13. Your generosity of spirit when it comes to people you might feel like judging

And with some of the bizarre wish lists out there, I figured that my brand of fantasy wouldn't seem far fetched at all. Here's my wish list for 2017:

  1. I wish Donald Trump would get on TV, laugh really loud and say, "Just kidding!" And then go back to his moocher lifestyle and leave us in peace.
  2. I wish everyone in the media would suddenly realize they should actually listen to scientists. Then science and climate discussions would be at the top of the news cycle all year long.
  3. I wish oil executives would realize the Indians own that land in North Dakota and that squeezing every last drop of oil out of the sand in Texas is not going to prolong their gluttonous lifestyle for very long anyway so they might as well start thinking about long-term survival.
  4. I wish my kids would wake up January 1 and realize that bickering defeats fun.
  5. I wish the next president would declare a new New Deal consisting of building solar panels to go on every roof and a light-rail system serving the entire country.
  6. I wish all the teenage ISIS fighters would get a deep hankering to go live with their mothers and watch TV until they're forty. 
  7. I wish all bombs, missiles and munitions as well as all guns not in a safe under lock and key would mysteriously disappear on January 1.
  8. I wish someone brilliant would invent a way for writers and artists to make a living at their craft.
  9. I wish Microsoft would go bankrupt and have to sell off all of its parts to independent programmers who want to make an honest living.
  10. I wish our society would begin taxing the use of natural resources instead of the labor of the working poor and the funds would be put toward educational opportunity, urban greenspaces, rural public transit and subsidies for high quality cottage industries. 
  11. I wish a benign virus would evolve and spread among humans which deactivates the part of the brain that categorizes according to skin color, speech pattern and the appearance of a person's eyes.

With those sweet and optimistic thoughts in mind, I wish you a very happy (and peaceful) new year!

Surviving the new reality

Rain drums on the roof as I write. I am on enforced rest. Doctor's orders. I could cry for joy over the rest, except that the eye surgeon has forbidden me to express intense emotions. 

But you get the idea. I don't feel sick but I'm supposed to stay inside, keep warm, not work much and be at peace. I know, I wish I could spread it around a little too.

The only downside of this is a feeling of vulnerability that comes with the isolation.  I hesitate to venture out much, even on-line. I am a bit breakable and the world has suddenly become doubly harsh.

Creative Commons image by Sepp Schimmer

Creative Commons image by Sepp Schimmer

I saw a post from an old work colleague about attacks against people of color in the US. I wrote in a quick reply of support and bittersweet humor. And instead of solidarity, my old office-mate lashed out at me, labeling me an "sheltered white expat." 

I instantly had the urge to fight back. I'm not one who takes things lying down or turns the other cheek. Sure, I'm white and I know better than many white people what privileges and protections that entails. I am highly aware when I meet police officers that I am wearing the backpack of white privilege--then and many other times. I also know that when any country is in the grip of fear that there is an understandable anger toward emigres--those who left, no matter how good their reasons. 

On the other hand, I'm also a person with a significant physical disability. I'm up against the wall in this too. My children are not white and they are newly naturalized citizens. Will we ever be able to go back to visit my home and family again? That is not an idle question in these post-election days. We are also in a country (the Czech Republic) that Donald Trump has pledged to put a military base in. We are isolated for the moment, but far from off the hook. 

Still, I bit my lip and said none of that. I know well the furious emotions raging in my colleague's post. I replied only to express more simple and direct support for her. I told her I am an ally and I understand her words. She and another friend continued to express anger and rejection toward me. There was no reconciliation. 

I am worried.

I'm saddened to lose a connection to someone I enjoy simply due to these terrible times. But I am even more worried by what this negative interaction among allies means for our people--the people of our country, citizens and non-citizens, all cultures and all backgrounds. We're stuck in this together, after all. 

My home county in Oregon reportedly voted 67 percent for Trump. There are people I call friends who did and likely even a few only moderately distant relatives. And if I cannot meet a friend who agrees with me in support and solidarity, if we are so divided that I am the enemy even when I am not across the political divide, how... oh gods, how will we live with those who really do hate and choose a hateful leader? 

Let's take a moment to forget that Trump even exists. 

Sigh. Now doesn't that feel better? 

But wait a minute. There's a problem. We've made Trump disappear but we haven't made the many people who vehemently support him disappear. Sure, we can say they are a minority, as few as 20 percent of the nation and not even most of the voters. But they are enough and we have to live with them, Trump or no Trump.

I have always felt this because of where I grew up, far from the cosmopolitan and high-thinking coasts. I love visiting Portland, Seattle, New York or Francisco for precisely this reason. Our bubble of acceptance and freedom feels so good. 

But we forget that this is not all of the nation at our peril. We ignore rage at our peril. We belittle politically incorrect antagonism at our peril. We've seen that now.

I know it is hard to think about surviving the next four years. But we will... most of us at least. And here is how I propose to do it:

Creative Commons image by Peter Roome

Creative Commons image by Peter Roome

  • If there is a registry for Muslims, get on it. I'll be a Muslim on paper.  If we're all on the list, the list will have no teeth.
  • Talk to Trump supporters. Really talk and listen. Listen to what motivates them, what they are upset about. Share your thoughts with respect and without contempt.  They are people and most people are susceptible to change, even if slow change.
  • Promote facts, everywhere, over and over again. The media will not help, so we have to do it. Talk about facts, post them, remember them, make lists. Don't let up about climate change.
  • Explain white privilege, primarily if you're white. Explain it again and again and again until you're sick of it and then explain it to more people. There is no way we're as sick of explaining it as Black, Hispanic and Native American people are.
  • Talk to the person no one is talking to at a gathering. Invite the disabled colleague or classmate to whatever. Connect. 
  • Make your circle bigger. Whatever it is you can give easily, put it in. Got a neighbor with younger kids who could use some of your nicer used clothes? Got extra veggies from the garden? Got wood or materials or whatever? Buy less, trade more, reuse more. Gain your security from community.
  • Take care of your own basic needs with as little resources as possible. Reduce plastics and fossil fuels in whatever ways you can. And remember you'll do more and better if you're rested, healthy and fed. Don't wait to be taken care of. Stand strong, think ahead, link arms.

My hope is with you. 

A thousand years of fishing

Pale, autumn sunlight sifts through the morning mist, a thread of weak yellow in the grayish brown landscape..

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

My hands are nearly frozen, gripping the side of a jolting wagon and a child between my knees. And this is just the beginning.

But there are thermoses of hot water for tea and bottles of rum for grog and if anyone will be warm it will be me. My task is usually tending the small cookfire on the dike.

It's the annual fish harvest in South Bohemia and we're on our way to the ponds, bundled up for several hours of frigid work. There is no snow yet and only a mild layer of frost but everything is wet and will get wetter. The land here used to be a marsh after all.

Each year we are pressed into service by my husband's family on the last weekend in October to help fish out the ponds that hold the winter's supply of carp and pike. It's a tradition a thousand years old. The men dress in hip-high rubber boots and old farm jackets and wade out into the muck of the partly drained ponds with giant nets spread between them. Then at the grandfather's signal, they form a line and heard the fish in to the center. 

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

I am always struck by the odd beauty of this ritual. It is all about mud, cold and hard, dirty work. But the fact that the techniques used hundreds of years ago are still the most effective makes it magical. And the realization that the five-hundred-year-old network of fishponds and water channels has made humans an integral part of the ecology of this land make it beautiful. 

When the fish are drawn into a wriggling, silver-flashing mass in the center of their circle, the fishermen lift them with scoop nets, while others sort them into huge drums of water--one for the smallest immature fish, one for those that will be left to grow another year and one for the full-sized fish, which will be kept in clear water for a month to ensure that they don't smell like mud. Then they'll be served for holiday dinners.

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

Dozens of people come to the fish harvest, many to work for a free fish, many just to watch from the dike. I hand out grog and tea. This used to be my mother-in-law's job and I was only her helper. This is the first year since she passed on. 

My children run wild in the pack of local children, splashing through the shallow black water and spattering themselves with that peculiar stinking black mud of the South Bohemian bogs that is nearly impossible to wash out of clothes and off of skin. But such family traditions are worth more than a set of clothes. 

I warm my reddened hands by the fire and watch as the sun emerges from behind the heavy clouds, briefly setting the autumn trees around the pond ablaze with color.